The Deathworlders – Chapter 54: Here Be Dragons Part 3

Date Point: 16y2m1w5d AV
Camp Tebbutt Biodrone Internment Facility, Yukon-Koyukuk, Alaska, USA, Earth

Ava Ríos

“You ever rode a helicopter before, Ava?”

Ava jumped, and looked away from the window. She’d been enjoying the view. It was her first trip to Alaska, and the thing that struck her as she’d watched the landscape rolling by below them was that the grass and foliage down there was a different shade of green to what she’d seen before. Not palm-leaf and lawn green like she remembered from San Diego, nor the damp, rich green of England, nor the slightly blue-shifted green of Cimbrean native foliage.

The green below was cold, faded and slightly yellow but wherever the sunlight managed to push between the clouds, it glowed. And the mountains were just primal. She’d totally lost herself in it.

She was one of a handful of journalists en route to the biodrone camp. Zane Reid’s vitriolic video had been met with surprising transparency by the Sartori administration, who’d simply acknowledged its existence and invited any news agency that wanted to send a reporter and make their own conclusions.

Thank goodness but the BBC hadn’t sent Sean Harvey. God willing, she’d never see him ever again. Instead they’d sent a bubbly package of human warmth by the name of Francesca Cadman, who’d brought with her a plastic shopping bag full of snacks which she shared generously.

“Uh… No,” Ava replied. “I rode in a US Air Force Osprey once, in Egypt.”

“Ooh! What was that like?”

“Uh… Well, there was a wounded man in there with us. We’d been shot at…” Ava smiled apologetically. “And I kinda crashed and slept the whole way back.”

“…Oh. Wow.”

“Yeah. I prefer what I do now.”

“You were shot at?”

“I was shot,” Ava recalled, remembering the moment a bullet had shoved her hard in the back while she ran for her life. “I was wearing body armor but, uh… I don’t recommend it.”

“I didn’t know you did embedded reporting!” Francesca looked both impressed and unnerved.

Ava shrugged. “It wound up being classified anyway.” Which was true: the Hierarchy’s existence had been declassified years ago, but Operation EMPTY BELL was still top secret. “I can’t really talk about the details. Non-disclosure.”


They rode in silence for a while, until Francesca offered her a bag of chips. “…Did he make it?”


“The wounded man. Was he okay?”

Ava smiled. Derek was looking after Hannah for her while she was gone, and putting out feelers to see if there were any more veterans or whoever who might be interested in doing a Laid Bare. Retiring from fieldwork to a desk suited him well, and meant she didn’t have to worry about him.

“He made it,” she said aloud.

One of the helicopter’s other occupants, a fidgety blond man from an up-and-coming news site called Timepiece called over from the other side’s window. “Hey, I think we’re coming up on it!”

Sure enough, the pilot called over his shoulder just a few seconds later. Once upon a time they would all have been wearing hearing protection and talking to each other through microphones, but forcefield tech had made soundproofing a helicopter’s cabin pretty much effortless. The rotors were little more than a distant bassy hum felt through the seat of the pants rather than a deafening wall of sound.

“Landing in three minutes, ladies and gents. Please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in the upright and locked position…”

Ava smiled at the joke. Their flight wasn’t exactly the height of luxury, she was in a bucket seat with a four-point harness on rather than some comfortable commercial thing. Still, she made sure nothing was loose around her and then grabbed her camera to record the landing.

Around her, the other three turned on their GoPros and Francesca gave her a curious look as she produced a camera drone from her bag. “…You like to do things the old-fashioned way, don’t you?”

“It’s part of my brand.” Ava gave her a shrug. She’d heard that comment before, and she knew better than to say that she felt her way was more authentic. Anyone could just wander around with a camera drone and a body-cam and a head-cam and then pick out some decent shots and clips from among the hours of footage back in the comfort of their office.

She also knew better than to mention all the awards on her shelf. There was an art to photojournalism, and it sprang from the art of photography. She controlled the framing, the color balance, the depth of field, shutter speed… She could do things with her camera that turned the news into life. Bare facts became poetry when attached to the right image.

But, she wasn’t in the business to make enemies of her colleagues, so she shrugged her whole personal philosophy off as an amusing luddite’s foible and jumped down out of the helo as the doors opened.

Springtime in Alaska. She’d expected the wind to be cold enough to sting her cheeks, but its actual texture was just pleasantly cool. It smelled of mountaintop snow, living trees, and, and…


It had been a long time since she’d last had a flashback, but the aroma that reached her nostrils was right out of Cairo and from the mining camp at Marsa Alam. Somewhere nearby, somebody was cooking Aish Baladi. She glanced in that direction, and—

–Suspicious glances in Cairo, the blank disinterest of the biodrones at Marsa Alam. Among them all, a smiling face with a mustache, wearing superiority like aftershave and bottomless age like a comfortable coat–


Francesca’s voice snapped her out of it. She started slightly and became aware that she was gripping the helicopter’s doorframe so hard that her knuckles had gone white and her fingers were hurting. She was stopping Francesca from alighting, and the other woman was giving her a concerned, confused look.

“…Sorry.” Ava stepped away and got a grip on the here-and-now with an effort of will and some deep breaths. It had been so long since her last incident that she’d almost forgotten how intense they could be. Just for a moment, she really wished her dog was there. Hannah would have snapped her out of it before it really began…

The moment passed, and she looked back toward the man whose face has jolted her so violently into the past.

Six’s host. He still had the same ur bane mustache and shiny bald head, but the expression was different: he no longer had that sense of yawning agelessness about him, and his eyes were tired and haunted rather than sharp and mocking. But she’d never forget that face, ever.

Automatically, she took his picture. He blinked, then turned and called something through the doorway behind him. After a moment, a second man stepped out of a door and squinted at her.

Of course. This was where the biodrones came. She should have expected this. Six’s other host would be here too… and both men clearly recognized her. She took another picture without really thinking.

She was pulled away and distracted by a welcome from the camp’s CO and a safety briefing that boiled down to ‘do what the guards tell you to do.’ With those formalities out of the way, they were freed to investigate the camp, talk to the internees, the personnel, inspect the facilities… They had the run of the place. Total freedom, total transparency.

Ava took a deep breath, straightened her back and went to meet two of the most important men in her life for the first time.

Date Point: 16y2m2w AV
US Embassy, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Julian Etsicitty

“Julian! Good of you to drop by! I see my secret elves have done their magic…”

Julian managed a nervous smile and sat down when Ambassador Chris Rockefeller gestured invitingly toward a seat. He was the US Ambassador to Folctha first and foremost, but the umbrella of his duties also covered New Botany, Abeltown, Nouveau Acadia, and the Ten’Gewek… the latter of which made him Julian’s boss.

He was impossible to dislike. Charming, easy, relaxed, jocular… Julian had never put much thought into what ambassadors in general were like, but some unconscious part of his brain had prejudiced itself toward thinking they’d be universally stuffy, formal and straight-laced.

He was glad to be wrong.

“…You and Al were in a conspiracy, huh?”

Rockefeller had mastered the disarming, twinkling smile that only men in the glow of healthy advancing age had access to. “Of course! We can’t have a caveman slurping bisque with the Governor-General, you know. You look very dapper!”

Well, that was a new one. Julian cleared his throat. “…I should point out, I’ve never been to a formal dinner, uh… ever.”

“That’s why you’re going to receive some etiquette lessons.”

“Learn how to use the right cutlery, that kinda thing?”

Rockefeller waved a hand like he was shooing a fly, dismissively. “Cutlery’s easy. Just start from the outside and work your way in.” He flashed that smile again, then sat back and folded his hands comfortably across his belly. “So. How are we doing with setting up that meeting between the Corti and the Ten’Gewek?”

Julian nodded, feeling a little more on solid ground now that he was just reporting what had happened. “It… got a little sidetracked. The Ten’Gewek have had a marauding Brown One to deal with.”

“That’s the T-rex-bear thing, yes?”

“And cheetah.” People always seemed to forget that part. “Damn thing can run at sixty miles an hour. Well… that we’ve seen so far, anyway.”

The ambassador looked impressed. “…Is everything okay?”

“It killed one of the Given-Men. They’re trying to figure out how to put it down without losing too many people. But I did tell Yan about the Corti.”

“And what was his answer?”

“He’ll hear them out, but he wants the Corti to come to him. It’s, uh…well, they’re entering rut, to put it bluntly. It’s very important for the tribes, they have boys at trial, new Dancers, Rites of Womanhood too…”

“And a cheetah-bear-T-rex monster to kill. Hmm…” Rockefeller jotted a note down. “…He won’t budge? They have to go to him?”

“He’ll budge a little. I told him if the Corti visit the planet itself they’ll get what they’re after anyway, so he agreed to meet them on a ship in orbit on the condition that it has to be one of ours, or Gaoian.”

“Sensible. I assume you counselled him in that direction?”

“A little. They’re… extremely perceptive. It’s a big part of why we took the two big guys to Earth after all. I’m pretty sure Vemik’s figured out all the basics of machines by now. Yan’s no different, he’s just more focused on protecting his people. Once he wrapped his head around the idea of, uh, ‘body-words’ inside his people that the Corti want, he figured out the rest well enough on his own.”

Rockefeller tilted his head. “Body-words?”

“That’s about as good as I can get for ‘genetic information’ in their language.”

That got a laugh. “Right. That makes sense… Still, good work. The Corti might be on our side of the chamber at the Dominion Council these days, but that doesn’t mean they won’t exploit the crap out of the Ten’Gewek if they get the chance.”

Julian accepted the praise with a smile and a nod. “Thanks.”

Rockefeller grinned at him. “Nervous about that dinner?”

“Yeah,” Julian admitted. “I mean… what am I expected to do exactly?”

“Show up looking clean and handsome—you’ve got that part covered already—give an honest answer to any questions that come your way and just… don’t make an ass of yourself, basically. It’s not difficult, I promise.”

Somehow, Julian believed him. “Sounds simple enough…” he admitted.

“It really is. I’m pretty sure you can make it through one evening without cussing, punching somebody or getting naked.” That twinkling grin put in another appearance. “Which is about ninety-five percent of it.”

Julian laughed. “That other five percent will get you… What if I forget names?”

“You’ll be fine,” Rockefeller assured him. “These people are human too. Most of ‘em.”

“There’ll be ET guests?”

“No, just some lawyers.” Rockefeller chuckled at his own joke. “And your lovely partner, of course, who I gather is a Gaoian for legal purposes.”

“Dual species. It’s one of those round peg square hole situations.”

“Well, she and your indisputably human other partner are invited too. And I gather you’re fostering some young men as well. Can they behave themselves?”

Julian smiled faintly. “Honestly? Tristan and Ramsey might be better guests than me.”

“Did they pick out your clothing as well?”

“Uh… yes.”

Rockefeller laughed. “Really? Interesting… It’s good if they can come. A few of my colleagues back on Earth who’ve never met you wonder about you. Your history, your unique family circumstances, your, ah, rather uninhibited modelling career… All of it rubs some of them the wrong way. It goes against the grain of what they think a special envoy should be.”

“Even to a stone-age tribal species? Actually, no, that’s… I dunno where they’re at now, actually. We’re well out of the Stone Age and coming up on I guess early Roman in just a few years.”

“Even so.”

“Well… maybe that’s a good talking point?” Julian considered and tried to avoid his usual backtracking style of thinking. “You said so yourself, they need someone they can relate to, and that sorta means a guy who can heft a Werne and all that.”

“And on our side, we need a man who can clean up well and be a model of civilization. Don’t forget about what the humans in this equation need to relate to.” Rockefeller sniffed. “Bringing along a well-adjusted pair of young men might be just the right kind of impression. And a little charming precocity might just distract from the dirt under your fingernails, so to speak.”

“I can see that,” Julian conceded. “And I scrubbed up, too!”

“The metaphorical dirt under your fingernails.”

“I kinda doubt that’s ever going away.”

“So long as it’s kept to an authentic minimum. You’re not expected to be perfect, my boy. Just… civilized.” Rockefeller flashed his smile again.

“I can do that.”

“Of course you can! You’re too ‘Minnesota nice’ to do otherwise! Anyhow,” Rockefeller unscrewed the cap of his fountain pen and flourished his signature across a card from the stack to his right. “Your formal invitation. For all five of you.”

Julian held the little card in his paw and turned it over as Rockefeller re-capped the pen and set it aside. “Uh…well, that’s pretty amazing cursive you’ve got.” He didn’t really know what else to say.

“Script, and the secret is in the pen. You would traditionally respond by mailing back a card but you’re right here, so…”

“So… I’m pleased to accept?”

“Excellent! This isn’t hard, I promise you. The trick to any situation like this is to keep your counsel to yourself, compliment people’s wit, and don’t tell any stories that don’t end in comedy. They can be raunchy too, just elevate your language a little. Twisty allusion is your friend, here. And if those stories give you a little harmless embarrassment, even better! Think of it like making friends at church.”

Julian thought about the last time he’d gone to church. There’d been a lot of life between then and the present day.

“…I should probably go to church more, huh?”

“Do you believe?”

Julian shifted uncomfortably. “That’s a big question. I dunno if I can give a good enough answer on short notice.”

“None of us really can. The question is if the church you choose can help you answer it.”

“How do you figure that out?”

“You don’t. I attend with friends when they ask. In these circles it’s the polite thing to do. Good way to open the mind and meet people, too.”

“So basically…I need to network.”

“Yes. With people that have a keen sense of tradition. For you that might be…tricky, so again, we’re back to charming. You see why I wanted you at this dinner, now.”

Julian began to realize he was caught in a much larger game than he expected. “…Yes.”

“Good.” Rockefeller leaned forward and rested his hands lightly on the desk in front of him. His jovial, approachable expression shifted a little and became more sombre.

“Julian. Let me get down to business, now that I’ve shaped the problem for you. I am an Ambassador of the United States, Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary. That means I can make decisions of national policy within my portfolio without consulting the President first. That is a terrible responsibility. I need people who can help me share that burden. In particular, I have a long-term strategic and moral quandary in the Ten’Gewek. It is in our best interests to see them flower, both for their sake and…well, for our own souls. I need a man who can directly command their respect, because I certainly cannot. And I need you to understand the Great Game, because that is the only way we can advance their interests in a way we can both profit from. It’s not enough to toss boulders and skin animals, I need a man who can also charm people that normally fear and frankly loathe men like you.”

The soft veneer fell away, and Julian found himself transfixed by the piercing gaze of an enormously shrewd man who played the highest-stakes game in the galaxy for a living. “Can you do it?”

Julian felt himself nodding reflexively: not good enough. He paused, thought about it, and then nodded more firmly.

“Tell me what I have to do.”

Date Point: 16y2m2w AV
Hunter command ship, Kwmbwrw space

The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas

Stasis was saving the Hunters. Energy, after all, was plentiful but most of it was in forms that nothing organic could digest. Not even the Swarm of Swarms could eat stars.

But the Hunters could feed on them, after a fashion. Their ships basked in stellar output, thereby gathering as much power as they could ever need, and spent that power on keeping non-critical Eaters in stasis when they weren’t on a hunt. By doing so, the logistical demands of the Swarm had been much reduced… and the Eaters weren’t complaining either. They got to go straight from hunt to hunt, without any boring interludes in between. It kept them out of the way, stopped them from interfering.

It also allowed them to plan their hunts with much more care. The stakes were higher, but so was the potential return on investment. Without Eater impatience goading them forward, the Builders could gather information and construct simple, elegant and razor-sharp courses of action at their leisure.

Things were assuming a more perfect configuration. Builders were the natural leaders. The Eaters became much more fearsome weapons when their ferocity was properly directed.

Properly directing them required data. Data was best acquired through contact with the Prey, and especially by low-cost probing at anomalies.

For instance: the Prey’s new mobile herd-ship had been stalked for some time now by a small team of dedicated Builders in an exceptionally low-profile scout. The ship was well-known to the Hunters: It had been one of the early contact points with Humans. A lone female had stalked them through their own halls and decks, turning Hunters into hunted. The swarmship’s Alpha had grievously wounded her at the cost of its own life, but the ship had sent data back to the Swarm that had proven most educational and inspired the development of subsequent highly effective anti-Human tactics.

Now, intriguingly, it had been joined by another familiar ship: the one that the Swarm had destroyed over Gao. The first Human ship ever to fall to a Hunter assault was, apparently, back in the fray.

Humans, it seemed, did not accept defeat. They had recovered the burning, gutted hulk and repaired it. Perhaps also upgraded it?

The Alpha-of-Alphas intended to resolve that question.

There were other questions to resolve as well, and this seemed like a juicy opportunity. Chief among them was the performance of the new replicator ships. Being forced to redesign those from first principles had been agonizing, infuriating. The dataform responsible for deleting all that valuable information would suffer terribly.

Still, it had not been able to delete knowledge, memories and experience. The Builders had remembered, rebuilt and reinvented. If anything, they had ultimately improved on the prior design.

All that remained was to test it.

And testing such as this, for a Builder, was just as salivatory as fresh Prey to the Eaters.

<Meat to the maw.>

Date Point: 16y2m2w AV
Diplomatic Starship Rich Plains, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses

Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight

Knight’s favourite space on the Rich Plains was the arboretum. It ran around the ship’s equator, a feat only made possible by the enormous vessel’s lack of conventional engines, and afforded a pleasantly open space. It was big enough to comfortably accommodate a number of the now sadly absent Guvnuragnaguvendrugun, so from a human’s comparatively tiny perspective it was almost like walking under open skies. Nobody could possibly feel claustrophobic in such a space.

His favourite part of the arboretum, however, was the human contribution to it. The spot had been made available years ago in response to some obscure Dominion regulation, but never filled for several reasons. The fact that humanity had officially snubbed the Dominion for several years was perhaps the bigger one, but in a close second place was the natural hazard that Earth life presented. The wrong pollen or spores could have proven deadly.

Knight was rather proud to have had his solution to that latter problem implemented: He’d suggested an aquarium, on the grounds that anything coming from Earth would need careful isolation behind an airtight seal anyway, so why not show off the aquatic side of a deathworld ecosystem?

Anybody who claimed that he’d chosen an ecosystem that supported some of the most colourfully dangerous kinds of Earthlings out of a sense of pure mischief was just being deeply uncharitable, of course.

He especially liked the lionfish.

The result, now that it was properly implemented, was a soothing walk among tall stands of kelp, decorated with vibrant sea anemones, glittering fish and of course the glowing hues of coral grown with the latest reef conservation and regeneration techniques. It was, in his opinion, the most beautiful part of the whole deck… and to judge from how many of the ship’s crew and the assorted visiting alien dignitaries who passed through came to see it for themselves, he wasn’t alone in that opinion. He’d even seen the Kwmbwrw Grandmatriarch Henenwgwyr pay it a visit, albeit while steadfastly pretending to be on her way to somewhere else.

It was such a shame that Kwmbwrw prejudice remained upsettingly impenetrable. After so many years and so many demonstrations of good intent, humanity simply hadn’t won them over.

Knight wasn’t inclined to worry about it. He wasn’t about to waste his time trying to impress the Grandmatriarchs, not when devastating the Hunter population, saving the Gao, defending a Domain homeworld and all the rest had failed to work.

He focused his attention on more receptive audiences, like the Rauwryhr and Chehnash, whose representatives on the station he was currently taking a stroll through the aquarium with, for the purposes of an unofficial sort of discussion.

The Chehnash were interesting. Their history of internecine warfare was just as long, storied and intense as humanity’s, and they had unarguably been the most militarily savvy of the Dominion’s associate species prior to the arrival of the Gao and Homo sapiens. Their problem, strategically speaking, was a lack of coordination and mass. That was an internal political problem, nothing they could fix by following human strategic advice, though they’d shown great interest in Knight’s proposed defence symposium.

As for the Rauwryhr…

It pained him to admit it, but the herbivorous species just didn’t have a properly predatory mindset. The point of war was to test an opponent’s will, and enforce will upon them. Doing that required finding the enemy’s weakness and exploiting it as ruthlessly as one’s own sense of civility would allow.

For the herbivores, war seemed to be…more a show of strength. It was a display ritual. In the fructivorous Rauwryhr’s case, their natural cultural unit was a tightly knit large family group, which had historically done little more than skirmish harmlessly with each other to establish territories among the huge low-gravity forests of their homeworld. They hadn’t seriously gone to war in generations, though being naturally good gliders and quite capable of flying on their home planet, they apparently made pretty good fighter pilots.

Too bad their bodies just couldn’t handle serious acceleration. Their reflexes were up to snuff, but the kind of G-forces a well-conditioned human or Gaoian pilot could endure would literally crush a Rauwryhr’s ribs.

“Still…” he mused as they paused to watch a white-tipped shark meander lazily by under the floor. “That’s a surmountable problem, I’m sure. Small craft aren’t really my field of expertise, but as I understand it it’s kinetic energy that wins fights. With the right training and equipment…”

Something caught his eye and he ambled toward the huge floor-to-ceiling reinforced crystal window. It looked like a structural weak point, but in fact that window was thicker and sturdier than most of the rest of the hull. He smiled to himself at the sight of HMS Caledonia drifting up the escort formation. She was a few kilometers away, and only visible thanks to her running lights, but it did his heart good to see her back in service.

If only her former XO was so easily mended. On a good day, his daughter was almost herself. On bad days…

He sighed and reluctantly put his anxieties aside. Doing so felt like mentally neglecting her, but Ellen had made it very clear on her good days that she needed her space and he needed to do more with his life than care for her. She had the very best in care, she had as much independence as possible…

“Anyway. I’m sure we can find somebody suitable to give a presentation on what we’ve learned about zero-G small craft combat,” he said, half-turning to be more welcoming to his alien counterparts. “If we can help your people find a—”

Caledonia went dark. Running lights off, shields to zero luminosity. For a moment he saw puffs of white gas where she’d been, a sure sign that she’d ejected dragon’s teeth.

“…Gentlemen, I think we may want to—” he began.

There was a brilliant, dazzling flash from somewhere further up the formation, maybe a hundred kilometers or more ahead of the Rich Plains. It was followed only an instant later by the rising mournful warble that was the ship’s emergency alarm.

Knight’s personal protection agent appeared as though from nowhere. His name was Spencer, a teak-hard man in his mid-forties, weatherbeaten and as tough as steel cable, and formerly of the SRR.


“Lead on!” Knight didn’t need any prompting. He bent his back and trotted smartly toward the core of the ship, guided rather than pushed by the firm hand between his shoulder blades.

Nobody else was moving with even a fraction as much intent. A lot of the life forms in the arboretum were simply standing around looking confused at the alarm.

Knight couldn’t just let them stand there. “Move, you bloody idiots!” he snapped at a trio of particularly dopy diplomats who were threatening to blunder into his path. “We’re under attack!”

That woke them up, and he didn’t much care if it was because of his words or because they’d been snapped at by a deathworlder. Either way the trio got moving, though with rather more panic than purpose.

And of course, panic could spread at a rate that made wildfire look pedestrian. In moments, the whole deck was an almost slapstick scene of unprepared civilians completely forgetting which way anything important was and running around desperately to no great effect. It wasn’t the concentrated crush Knight had sometimes seen among humans of a panicking crowd stampeding toward a fire escape, no. These were panicked chickens flailing around desperately in circles.

No time to help them. He and his protection agent plunged through a sturdy double door into the core of the ship, where the situation was not much better. Everything was clearly signposted, but those signposts were very obviously going unread.

“Don’t these people ever have emergency drills?” Knight growled as they turned a sharp bend down toward the human ambassador’s quarters, where his personal jump array was waiting.

“No,” Spencer grunted, then snapped at a milling herd at the bottom of the ramp. “Make a hole!”

They scattered like startled gazelle.

“Bloody hellfire,” Knight muttered. Things were damn well going to change on that score, if he got the chance.

“Yeah, that about sums it up…” Spencer bustled them both into Knight’s ambassadorial quarters, yanked open the closet containing the emergency Jump Array, and slapped the evacuate button. The Array thrummed as it booted up, and in mere seconds it was ready to jump a lone occupant to safety. “In you go sir, your friends should be waiting on the other side.”

Knight stepped into the booth and sat down in the chair, careful to keep his toes well back from the yellow line on the floor. “Good—” he began.


Jarringly, he found himself sitting on the receiving platform at HMS Sharman, several hundred light years from where he’d been. Already, SOR technicians were darting forward to help him to his feet. He looked back over his shoulder as they helped him off the platform.

“…luck,” he finished.

Date Point: 16y2m2w AV
HMS Caledonia, Rich Plains escort fleet, Kwmbwrw Great Houses

Petty Officer Sachi Patel

“What the hell?! The whole picket just broke formation!”

Patel yanked her flash hood down painfully across her face. The mild discomfort of putting on the garment was temporary: without it, losing her face to a sudden blast of superheated air would be permanent. “So show them how it’s done!” she retorted, grabbing her gloves. “Ignore that shit and do your job!”


Chief Williams got his own gloves on and buckled himself into his console seat. “…Pat, bridge wants thirty for remote ward.”

Patel scanned her board, calculating furiously and balancing numbers in her head as she finished tugging on her second glove. “…Can do! Twenty from STEPUP, ten from NEGRAV.”

“Twenty STEPUP, ten NEGRAV,” Williams echoed. “Do it.”

“Aye aye!”

“TEMPSIT condition five.” Scott called from his station. They all sang out an echo of his words, confirming what he’d said while, behind the bulkhead to Patel’s left, one of the coolant pumps kicked up a gear to take up the slack of what promised to soon be a hell of a thermal load.

Despite her warning to Dye, Patel glanced up at the tactical board overhead. It was out of the way, there only for them to anticipate what the bridge and CIC might ask of them next. They didn’t really need to know what was going on outside the ship, they’d have their time full just balancing the power and heat loads.

Still, in the quiet moment before the first blow landed, she had time to see for herself what they were up against.

Seven ships. Big acceleration-to-mass ratio, meaning chunky power cores and strong engines. They were thousands of kilometers out, coming in from the fleet’s nominal “down.” In principle, the Dominion pickets should have closed ranks and made them fly into a blizzard of high-velocity projectiles, but instead the fleet was recoiling and spreading out. Great for creating a crossfire and minimizing each ship’s exposure to danger, but absolutely bloody useless for defending the vulnerable Rich Plains.

Only Caledonia and the Rauwryhr heavy picket Fearless had held their position in the formation, and the latter was on the wrong side of the Rich Plains. Dye’s frustrated outburst had been entirely justified. If they got swarmed and torn to pieces, Patel swore she’d be coming back specifically to haunt the panicky ET wankers who couldn’t follow a simple plan.

“Need eleven more for the shields.”

William’s level voice pulled her attention away from the screen. “Eleven, aye… eight more from NEGRAV?”

“And the rest from INERTCOMP.”

“Hope they like a rough ride on the bridge…”

Non-Essential Gravity was almost tapped. Inertial Compensation could give another few megajoules before things really started to get bumpy, and she’d already brought one of the step-up reactors online. It had a lot more to give, but an extra reactor meant extra waste heat, and getting rid of that heat was the opposite of easy. Bad idea to build up a thermal debt too early in the engagement.

They were going to build up a big enough one anyway. Remote warding meant extending Caledonia’s shields around the vulnerable Rich Plains and protecting it literally as though they were taking the hits themselves. While Cally’s shields had been upgraded and were now on par with a San Diego-class cruiser’s, taking the brunt of seven ships’ worth of incoming fire was…

Patel was just glad the capacitor was at 100%. They had a deep reserve to work with… and they were going to need it.

The lead attacking ship’s icon on the tactical board pulsed, and an instant later the first rounds battered against the shield. Patel grinned savagely as she watched their newest toy go to work: Backlash shielding.

The principle was simple: Shields worked by converting incoming kinetic energy to photons, and then radiating those photons. Traditionally, Dominion shields just got rid of that energy as a bright flash across the infrared, visible and ultraviolet. The logic there was fairly sound: it was easily the fastest and most efficient way to dump the energy. But the shields could just as happily radiate in gamma, or X-ray. And, with the right constructive interference, they could also radiate in a coherent laser pulse rather than an omnidirectional flash.

The result turned incoming firepower back upon its originator. The attacking Hunter’s volley was immediately answered by a barrage of gamma laser pulses and it veered aside, taking evasive action to escape the powerful strobing energies.

The tactic wasn’t free—Caledonia incurred some expense in that the shield systems needed to be aggressively cooled—but it was totally worth it.

The Hunters tried two more close passes, targeting first Cally then the Rich Plains. Both times, they were stung by the backlash system for their trouble and retreated hastily before their own firepower could truly harm them.

Maybe they could see just how hard Cally was working, because they pressed the advantage a third time despite the ravaging gamma radiation. Both the step-up reactors were now online, and the coolant pump on the other side of the bulkhead was producing a powerful thundering howl that Patel could feel in her bones. Even through her hearing protection, it was terrifyingly loud.

“Fuck me, can’t these bastards take a hint?” Williams groaned as they struck a fourth time and came around for a fifth pass even though they’d left one of their number tumbling and disintegrating as the backlash finally broke through and slagged the hull.

“TEMPSIT condition two!” Patel called, managing to announce it loud and clear even through gritted teeth. Condition One was when things started melting and catching fire. Sweat was pickling her face inside her flash hood.

Williams gestured to acknowledge he’d heard her and made the call. “Bridge, reactor. TEMPSIT condition two, taking Backlash offline.”

Taylor had more bad news for them. “Yellow line!”

Capacitor reserves were now below thirty percent. They were burning through megawatts of stored energy trying to keep the core systems refrigerated and hold up the remote ward and run their own vital systems and weapons… All Patel could do was watch their reserves dwindle toward the red line.

And then, suddenly, they weren’t.

“We’re receiving power transfer!” Dye reported.

Patel spared a moment to flick her eyes upward to the board. The Fearless had come around in the formation, braving the Hunters to beam a tight stream of energy into Cally’s WiTChES system. A little bit of power draw to the engines suggested that Cally’s helm officer was boosting them forward in the formation to place themselves in front of the newcomers.

It was enough to stabilize them, just. Not enough to rebuild a reserve, but enough for the reserves to hold steady and keep the shields up. Still, with the Backlash system offline and the thermometer crawling downwards only reluctantly, they were just a few good volleys from being overwhelmed and the Hunters knew it.

The Gaoians denied them their kill.

Clan One-Fang crashed the party like an avalanche. Patel wasn’t sure where they’d come from, but one moment Cally had been alone and fending off six attacking ships, and the next moment there was a three-way pincer strike streaking in over, below and around the Rich Plains’ bulk to catch the enemy in a vicious crossfire. The Rending Ember, the Blazing Fang and the Howling Sun, three of the Gao’s fastest and most powerful ships, smashed directly into the Hunter formation from all sides and flashed through it, leaving two of the Hunters as expanding clouds of shattered metal in their wake.

They were accompanied by the US Navy’s spaceborne pride and joy, the USS San Diego. A ship specifically designed to do what Cally had been doing for the last several minutes. Her remote ward was angled to cover Cally, the Rich Plains and their brave Rauwryhr helper, and it took the pressure off completely. The reactor team took the chance to vent heat as quickly as possible. From the outside, Caledonia would have looked like an opaque glowing cherry-red pill.

“TEMPSIT three!”

Up on the board, the Hunters tried to escape and ran straight into a new and terrifyingly fast contact that tore through them like a bowling ball through wet paper: Daar’s flagship, the Destroying Fury. Patel was still blinking at it when a voice spoke in her ear.

“Reactor, CIC. CAPSIT?”

With shaking hands, she keyed her headset. “CIC, Reactor. CAPCHAIN linked, we’re stable. TEMPSIT three, dropping. Green line in one mike.”

“Copy green line in one… It’s over. We won.”

Patel sagged back in her seat and shut her eyes, just for a second. She’d never felt anything quite as sweet as the relief and triumph that washed over and through her whole body and made her skin tingle. It was like she’d just shrugged off an invisible weight she’d been carrying for more than two years.

Now all she had to do was wait. Wait, bring the ship’s power systems back into balance, and watch the tactical screen when she had spare moments.

The fight didn’t take long. The Gaoians had an entire fleet at this point on permanent standby, and when they arrived it was with mass. They used Cally and San Diego as an anvil, and became a clawed, vengeful hammer that shattered the Hunters with a single decisive blow. Fighters boiled out of their wormholes by the dozen and scoured the battlefield clean.

From Patel’s perspective, the details didn’t matter. She’d done it. She’d weathered a battle, kept her cool and done her job. Everything she’d promised herself and the counsellor she’d do.

And Caledonia herself had come through it like a phoenix, renewed by the heat and fury of it all. She’d been taxed hard, but absolutely nothing had gone wrong.

It felt like an exorcism, a baptism and a rebirth all at once.

As the rampant scream of the coolant pump finally whined down to a steady thrum, Patel pressed her hand to the wall and felt the warmth through her glove.

“…Good girl, Cally,” she said, and smiled. “Attagirl.”

Previous Chapter

Sweetness – Love and Kiing (NSFW)

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

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Next Chapter

Sweetness – Love and Kiing (NSFW)

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

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Sweetness – Chapter 4 (NSFW)

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Sweetness – Chapter 3 (NSFW)

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Sweetness – Chapter 2 (NSFW)

CopRit Empire, Halfil Sol 78 of Race 3 Year 4958 Athletic Complex, New Baltimore I jumped to the side, dodging the attack. I felt the breeze as the weapon passed my abdomen; it missed me by only a few millimeters. Twirling to the side, I brought my foot up. Reacting with amazing speed, my opponent

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Sweetness – Chapter 1 (NSFW)

CopRit Empire, Halfil Sol 78 Of Race 3 Year 4958 Divsion 3 Police Station, New Baltimore “What?” The officer frowned and pushed the circular data tablet across the table to me. On it was an image of the woman I had met at the bar last night. She had green skin, of a shade that

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Shades of White and Orange

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Mother Earth

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Adam, Artemis, Atlas, & Icarus Part 2

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Adam, Artemis, Atlas, & Icarus Part 1

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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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