The Deathworlders – Chapter 55: Reinvention Part 3

Date Point: 16y3m AV
USS Robert A. Heinlein, Akyawentuo Orbit, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Third Director Tran

Some of the other Directors had expressed reservations when Tran had informed them he was taking Nofl along to the meeting with the Ten’Gewek. He’d invested some of their trust and patience by reassuring them that Nofl, who was only saved from being entirely untouchable by his frankly stellar contributions to Directorate science, would be a valuable asset for this meeting.

He remained confident that it hadn’t been a mistake, but there really were times when the odd scientist grated on his sense of propriety. For instance the way that, the moment the jump array fired and delivered them directly from Folctha to the deck of the USS Robert A. Heinlein, Nofl greeted a nearby crew member with a certain mischievous glee and a lavishly extravagant cry of “Helloooo sailor!”

Apparently the peculiar outburst meant something to the Humans, several of whom did a poor job of pretending not to be amused.

It didn’t go down well with all of them, though. Their escort on this trip was Master Sergeant Coombes from the SOR, who shot Nofl a look that should have snap-frozen him, stopped the two Corti from disembarking the jump platform, then turned one way and saluted a flag hanging on one wall. That done, he turned the other way and held a salute toward a fellow Human.

“Party of three, request permission to come aboard.”

The Human thus saluted returned the gesture. “Permission granted.”

Coombes returned his hand to his side, then gestured the two Corti off the jump platform. Humans had their strange ways, but Tran was glad of the reminder that Nofl was stranger still even by their unique standards, and that his strangeness was not always appreciated.

“I hope you do not intend to do that with the Ten’Gewek,” Tran muttered to him.

“No, no, no!” Nofl assured him. “I get the message, this is a time to be very serious.”

“Tradition, Nofl,” Coombes said. “It’s about respect, to the ship, to the history of the service, and to all the people who’ve died upholding its ideals.”

“Consider me appropriately chastised.”

They were welcomed out of the jump compartment by Ambassador Rockefeller and Robert A. Heinlein’s captain, Nate Ruprecht. Both were looking suitably imposing in what Tran knew to be formal clothing, though Ruprecht’s was a good deal more decorated than the ambassador’s. Where Rockefeller was wearing a simple black suit with a wine-colored tie, the captain’s was a rich blue so dark it was almost black, with golden trim and a large multicolored patch over his left chest.

To Tran, clothing was something of an alien novelty, but in this case he could see the utility. Quite aside from the at-a-glance communication of rank, the protective benefits were obvious. Even with the gravity adjusted for their benefit, the deck was still hard and cold, and packed with exposed systems, ducts, piping and assorted emergency equipment.

They were met with commendable poise and formality. There were careful handshakes, and Ruprecht’s greeting was an efficient “Welcome aboard.”

“Thank you for hosting this meeting,” Tran replied.

“It’s our pleasure. The Ten’Gewek delegates are already waiting in my in-port cabin. Corporal Turner here will escort you. I understand both you and the Ten’Gewek wish for this meeting to be quick and to-the-point, and unfortunately your very different dietary needs would make entertaining you properly a serious challenge, so I hope you won’t think I’m rude if I just leave you in the ambassador’s capable hands.”

“Not at all,” Tran assured him. “Thank you for your welcome.”

Fortunately, the captain’s “in-port cabin” was much more comfortable. It was actually two rooms, an office with a folding bunk above the desk, and a sitting room which was apparently where they would be meeting with the primitives. The floor was polished wood with the ship’s crest in the center, the walls were painted a neutral off-white, and there were several couches around a low table plus a bookshelf and some framed decorative images.

It would have been spacious and luxurious, if not for the four enormously physical beings already occupying it. The three males were outright hulking, including a particularly well-scu lpted Human, who was both an impressive expression of his species’ genetic potential, and one of Nofl’s more successful patients.

Nofl Immediately perked up. “Julian! How is your foot, darling?”

The Human chuckled and stood tall to meet them. “Perfect, as always.”

“Third Director, this is Mister Julian Etsicitty, our Special Envoy to the Ten’Gewek.”

“Howdy.” Julian approached and offered a massive paw-like hand, which completely encircled Tran’s like an untightened vice. “My friends here are the leaders of their people. The big one is Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge.”

Yan stood and stalked over with a deck-shakingly weighty and almost innately predatory prowl, then offered up his own gigantic parody of a hand. Tran observed Yan’s motion with a clinical eye. The enormous chieftain was, it was reasonable to say, physically and anatomically ideal. Yan had a body whose every vast shape and sharp line neatly illustrated why he was the leader of his primitive kind; his raw strength was reportedly equaled only by the other two Deathworlder exemplars, and his sheer robustness and gymnastic athleticism was said to exceed theirs.

If his ridiculously perfect physique was any indication of the goods on offer, this could prove to be a profitable exchange indeed. The Ten’Gewek would need to be extensively evaluated, of course, but there was something…Tran was hesitant to admit it, but Yan’s sheer presence was triggering some ancient, rarely-felt instincts. As the chieftain approached, Tran had found himself resisting the urge to recoil, or flee, or simply hide.

They shook. Tran’s little hand was completely lost in Yan’s vast paw. Fortunately, he had the sense to moderate his strength, and kept his grip to just shy of bone-shatteringly tight. Nor did he smell offensive, much to Tran’s surprise. He’d been worried about the scent of tanned leather and unwashed primitive, but it seemed the Ten’Gewek had discovered bathing at least. All that remained was a clean yet potent underlying musky note, much like every Deathworlder had in one form or another.

Yan’s body language and expression were utterly unreadable on first contact, but the room seemed to have a built-in translator function that rendered the native language into Corti Standard without issue. He smiled, bearing two bright-white pairs of truly enormous fangs. Again Tran’s instincts wanted nothing more than to recoil, but he had remembered that grins were often a friendly gesture among the Humans and the Gao.

“Well met.”

The translator gave his words a politely serious tone, but that failed to convey the rumbling avalanche that was his voice. Tran could quite literally feel Yan’s voice in his chest. He spoke so powerfully, the translator’s voice cancellation function could not fully suppress the sound.

Etsicitty introduced the other two as well. “This is Vemik Sky-Thinker, the People’s most experienced smith and inventor, and the Singer here is best thought of as a rather important community leader and healer. She is most concerned with medicine, well-being, running the villages, that sort of thing. Formally, she has no name.”

Both were also prime examples of the potential of Deathworlder biology, especially Vemik. He was every bit as exceptional as Yan, merely scaled down and younger. The Directorate had cursory genetic samples from both of them in the Ark’s library. It was obvious with only a glance across their bodies that they both greatly exceeded their predicted genomic modeling. Singer, too, was impressive. Sexual dimorphism was clearly quite pronounced in their species, but she was just as flawlessly well-formed as the males.

There was strategy at play, here. Julian’s presence was a not-so-subtle reminder of who the Humans counted as kindred, and undoubtedly of what Humans were capable of achieving if they so desired. Tran suspected that inviting all four of them was a deliberate ploy on the Deathworlder’s part to drive up the asking price, as it were. Negotiations with the Humans had…stalled, as of late. The Directorate has deduced the reason was they were waiting to see how talks with the Ten’Gewek developed. If that was the case, then Julian was exactly the type of reminder they would use.

He might even be aware he was being used in this manner, too.

It was an obvious ploy. Nevertheless, if this was the quality of stock the Corti could gain access to, along with further cooperation from the Humans…it was a well-considered and effective tactic.

The details of all that were for later. With that introduction complete, Julian then addressed the natives. “Singer, this is the Honorable Ambassador Rockefeller of the United States. He’s here to represent Allied Extrasolar Command, and is the guarantor of these talks. He’s also my boss. Yan and Vemik have already met him.”

“Yes! Our previous encounter was highly entertaining!” Rockefeller smiled warmly, and shook the three Ten’Gewek hands.

“Thank you for agreeing to, and hosting, this meeting,” Tran said formally to all of them. “I am Tran, Gold Banner, Third-Tier Director and Dean of the College of Xenobiology. I believe most of you are already familiar with my associate Nofl, Steel Banner, independent researcher and inventor of the medicine known as Cruezzir.”

He heard the faint scratchy whisper of the translator tripping over the word ‘xenobiology’ for the native’s benefit, and Yan frowned at it.

“…The tran-slay-tor did not like that word he used,” he said to Julian after a moment.

Julian rubbed his chin. “I think the best way to say that would be, uh…” he thought for a moment, and then spoke a long and complex polysyllabic word which the translator rendered confusingly back to Tran as ‘Sky-Thinking-People-Under-Other-Skies-Bodies.’

Convoluted as that was, the natives moved their heads in ways that suggested to Tran they understood the idea at least.

“I think, in the circumstances, it might be best if we ask the translator to omit the Ten’Gewek language,” Rockefeller suggested. “If you are happy for Mister Etsicitty to translate instead?”

“Why is the translation function compromised?” Tran asked.

“Their language is complex. Fusing, agglutinative, three numbers, three genders and ten noun cases which all decline, constructed tense, affixed animate, mood, and aspect markings, and a few other things I’m forgetting, too. You just…know what to say.” Julian shrugged. “I’m not a linguist, sorry.”

“Very well, I have no objection.” Tran sat down at Rockefellers invitation. The Ten’Gewek sat opposite, ignoring the creaking objections of their couch, with Yan taking up most of it from the middle, and Vemik and Singer to either side.

“So.” The Ambassador took his own seat, and opened a slim black folder on the table in front of him. “The negotiation in front of us is that the Corti Directorate wish to take genetic and other biological samples from the Ten’Gewek for the purposes of study and future research. In return, the Ten’Gewek desire a guaranteed supply of medicines, including vaccines, appropriate to safeguard the health of their people…”

“And books.” Yan added.

“A cultural exchange,” Etsicitty clarified. “They believe that to all things, there must be balance. They are very much aware that what you desire to take is opaque to them. In return, they ask that you give something equally opaque. They want to learn about you.”

“We can respect the desire for equal exchange,” Tran agreed. “My concern is that no mention has been made yet of a time limit on this supply of medical assistance. How long will we be required to deliver vaccines to this world?”

Yan consulted Julian for a few translations of some words, then nodded sharply as soon as he was happy he understood. To Tran’s vague surprise, he turned out to speak perfectly passable, though simple, Human English.

“We, the People strong. Not much sickness in us. But what we have, kill many of our children every season. We must increase. To increase, our children must live.”

The Singer nodded, and chimed in. “We were brought close to, uh… eck-stink-shun over the last… how long?” she asked Julian.

“We think the Hierarchy’s extermination campaign on Akyawentuo lasted about sixty Dominion standardized years,” the Human explained. “It began with an antimatter strike on their most developed cities, followed by a surface sweep led by Abrogator drones. If we’d found the Ten’Gewek even a year later, it would have been too late. Only the previously uncontacted forest tribes are left.”

The Singer nodded. “There are only two ten thousands of us, maybe. One evil sickness could kill us all.”

“Two ten thousands is not many for you, I think,” Yan added. “But for us, is everyone.”

Tran calculated. Twenty thousand natives, give or take a ten percent margin of error, with an estimated maximum childbirth rate of one pregnancy per female per annum, and an average litter size of singleton. Lifetime supplies of species-tailored, Deathworld-class vaccines and antibiotics was well within the abilities of just one of the Directorate’s Agile Development Modules, especially if automated production could be installed locally. The natives really were not asking for much, in the grand scheme of things. The College of Particle Physics had been known to misplace funding on that scale in a sloppy audit.

Still. Even a request as cheap as that could become expensive if it went on for long enough.

“Nevertheless, all we are asking for is a single round of non-invasive samples. We will not in any sense be Taking anything permanent. If we give a single round of medicines—enough for all currently living Ten’Gewek, say—then the next generation will be unprotected. A practical, permanent solution to the problem as presented will cost us significantly more than the value of the samples being given. We cannot provide such a service indefinitely, especially if the goal is population growth.”

“Not as simple as just giving us medicine, then,” Yan surmised.

Julian shook his head. “No. One generation could take their medicine, and those babies would live and grow strong, but then you’d be back to the start. More people having more babies, but they would lose those babies just as often as you do now. Would the Directorate would be willing to ensure a regular supply?”

Tran made a negative gesture. “We would require a negotiated duration for such a service, after which the contract would need to be renegotiated, or else the Ten’Gewek would need to establish their own native pharmaceutical industry… which according to our projections, they will not have the technological basis to do for at least three thousand Standardized Years.”

“That projection may not be accurate,” Rockefeller interjected. “The Ten’Gewek are developing very rapidly, in no small part due to their regular contact with Human technology and culture. The usual roadmap for sophont development doesn’t apply in this situation.”

“Agreed,” Nofl murmured, for Tran’s benefit, then spoke a little louder. “Might I suggest that the ambassador’s observation means that putting a time limit on the deal may not be useful? Perhaps instead, we should attach it to absolute population, if that is the Ten’Gewek objective.”

“…You mean deal ends when there are many of us,” Yan checked.

“I can see the merit in that suggestion,” Tran agreed. “The more of you there are, the more it will cost us to aid the Ten’Gewek.”

“Why not tie it to infant mortality rate?” Julian suggested. “If you can guarantee, say… four generations at a mortality rate better than fifty percent?”

“Julian?” Yan asked. The four huddled, speaking quietly in the native language while Julian translated and made sure they understood what was being proposed. Some sort of significant Look was exchanged. The big Human reached toward the table and pressed the button activating their muting field.

Tran took the opportunity to consult with Nofl.

“Rapid pharmaceutical development is your speciality, I believe.”

“Among others,” Nofl agreed.

“Time frame?”

“Assuming the Ten’Gewek aren’t substantially different from the two other deathworlder species I’ve studied, it should go smoothly…. But until I have some samples and scans, I can’t be definite. For all I know, we’ll have to reinvent from first principles. Unlikely, but it has happened.”

“We can do much better than fifty percent, I hope.”

“We can do better than ten percent. Goodness, I’d be ashamed if we couldn’t get the infant mortality rate below one percent, with proper application.”

“I think you’re being excessively optimistic, but very well… four generations, hmm.” Tran called up his memorized data on the state of the Directorate’s industrial abilities, logistics capacity, and the pricing estimates of a project like the one being asked. Four generations was… a hard bargain, but not an entirely unfair one. Especially considering how valuable the Ten’Gewek samples would be to the Ark Program.

…Tran glanced back at Julian, who was talking animatedly with the delegation on his side. Watching Deathworlders in motion was…intimidating, even if all they were doing was waving their hands about or bouncing in place. Nevertheless, the implication was clear. He couldn’t hear what they were saying but he didn’t need to. It was clear both Human and Ten’Gewek were deeply invested in the outcome of these talks.

“…I’ll push for two generations,” he decided to Nofl. “And compromise on three.”

“Of course. Never accept the first offer.”

As they returned to the negotiation, The hitherto-silent one known as Vemik, who’d been watching and listening carefully rather than contributing, spoke up.

“I have a question. What will you do with these samples? What are they for?”

“To learn about your kind, of course.”

“Why do you want to learn about the People?” Vemik pressed. “You seem… practical. Like you do things for reasons, yes? Knowing things just to know them is fun, but knowing things to do things is even better, so…”

Never underestimate a deathworlder indeed. Tran was secretly quite pleased, in fact. It was good to know they were dealing with a species who were merely undeveloped rather than stupid. There were too many stupid species.

“…I’m not at liberty to disclose the exact reasons,” he admitted. “But suffice it to say… we are not satisfied with how we are now. In the past, the Corti wrongly believed that intellect and physicality were mutually exclusive. We now know differently, and wish to adapt accordingly.”

Vemik listened to Julian’s patient translation, then nodded. His tail twitched as he absorbed what he heard.

“So… you will write new body-words. Using ours.”

“Learning from yours. We are learning from Human and Gaoian genetics as well. The idea is to deduce what you have in common which can also be successfully integrated into the Corti genome.”

Vemik glanced at the Singer. Some form of communication passed between them, driven by twitches of the tail and ears, slight dilations and contractions of their square, slotted pupils, and a slight tilt of Vemik’s head and a twitch of the Singer’s. Then both of them turned to Yan. They gave the same almost imperceptible gesture, and Yan nodded sharply.

“The deal: You will give four gen-err-ay-shuns of less than half our children die,” he said, turning to Tran.

“I can offer a much better rate: At least nine out of every ten will live… for two generations. After that, our continued service can be negotiated further…” Tran returned. He saw Yan grin, scoot forward on the couch, and light up.

The negotiations began in earnest.

Date Point: 16y3m AV
“Stinkworld,” the Irujzen Reef

Meereo, Champion of Clan Longear

Meereo was reading a report that simply blew his mind. There was no other way to describe it.

Clan Highmountain had become involved in the Irujzen Relay investigation. Rather than send a ship to Stinkworld, though, they’d instead flown the deep-space explorer A Poem Written In Steel all the way out to the halo stars at the very edge of the galaxy.

The idea, as he understood it, was that the Humans had sent over some kind of field equations that might be useful in picking out the Relay’s unique quantum signature from the galactic background. The Highmountains had tested it first by flying way out into the fringes of the galactic disk, where the stars were small and cold and impoverished of the heavier elements necessary for life, and where nobody had ever found a temperate planet. The kind of place the Hierarchy would naturally have no interest in and therefore, presumably, didn’t bother to cover with relays.

Then they’d flown inwards, toward the Irujzen Reef on a course that took them between Sol and Barnard’s Star. And they’d watched carefully for the kind of quantum signatures that Scotch Creek had predicted.

Sure enough, about a kiloparsec out from Sol, they’d started picking up exactly the predicted signal. By the time they flashed through the twelve light-year radius around Earth legally recognized by the Dominion as Human territory, the signal was strong and steady.

The Irujzen Reef—known to Human science as the Sagittarius Star Cloud,Messier 24 and IC 4715—was ten kilolightyears from Sol. Meaning that the Irujzen Relay generated a field that encompassed approximately one twenty-eighth of the galactic cross-sectional area.

That was a fact Meereo could sink his teeth into, even though the scale of it made his brain ache. He’d opened one of his professional software tools and gone to work.

First, make some assumptions about what features of network design remained constant even in a system as exotic and high-tech as this. He’d used cellular networks for reference. Every sapient species known to him used basically the same approach, because it was the one that worked.

The questions in front of him were… well, there were a few. First, was he looking at a standard sort of cell, or a particularly large one for gap coverage and reliability coverage? Or maybe a small local one for high-density traffic?

Probably not. Traffic engineering may not even be a concern for a system like this, this wasn’t radio frequency. And across the kind of time scales that the Hierarchy operated in, there was no such thing as a static landscape. Ten thousand light years was a stupefying distance to an organic life form, but a star’s orbit would carry it that far in a “mere” twelve to fifteen million years. With billions of stars falling inside its coverage, the Relay would lose and gain hundreds every year.

The Hierarchy therefore probably didn’t bother trying to anticipate where the galactic population would be distributed and fine-tune their network with larger and smaller cells. Far simpler and cheaper to make the relays a standard size and deploy enough of them to maintain reliable coverage no matter how the stars spun.

That was all speculation of course, but it didn’t seem like unreasonable speculation to Meereo and it fit the facts, so he kept calculating.

Twenty-eight relays the size of Irujzen would be enough to cover the whole galaxy on paper (overlapping circles problem aside), but of course life was not evenly distributed across the galaxy. There was none out in the halo due to the paucity of heavier elements, and none in the core due to intense radiation, frequent supernovae and an unknowable number of black holes crashing about.

Temperate, life-bearing worlds and the people who called them home occupied a fertile band between those two extremes that the Humans for some utterly bizarre reason called the ‘Golden Locks Zone.’ Gaoians called it the Green Belt. Whatever the name, twenty-eight relays, evenly spaced on planets with roughly equivalent Great Orbital periods would certainly cover…

He doodled, and calculated, and sketched.

….Most all of the Green Belt, most of the time.

He doodled, and calculated, and sketched some more.

It took him a few hours to find the minimum number and configuration that would reliably cover 100% of the green zone for, say, a million years. After that, it took another half hour before he arrived at a configuration that he was satisfied would provide effectively indefinite coverage and sufficient redundancy.

So. There were (probably) somewhere between twenty-eight and a hundred and twelve relays scattered all over the galaxy.

He took the geometric mean of those two numbers—fifty-six—and plugged it into his simulation. The result had occasional temporary gaps where a handful of planets might go without coverage for a few thousand years here and there, but across the kind of epochs the Hierarchy thought in, those gaps were at best a minor momentary nuisance that arose only in a vanishingly small number of cases.

Crucially, however, a significant minority of the Green Belt was covered only by a single relay. And if his assumptions about how the relays were spaced were correct, then the Border Stars—the territory between the fringes of Dominion and Alliance space which contained only one temperate planet of any significance—were one such minority.

The planet in question was Earth.

He stood up, sharply. Garl was briefing the senior Stoneback Father who’d been brought in to take over from him on this project, so Meereo scratched respectfully on his tent and waited to be called in rather than interrupt them.

Garl sniffed the air and peered at him. The old man’s vision was deteriorating alarmingly fast, now. “Champion Meereo. Something important?”

“I think so, Grandfather, yes.” Meereo didn’t bother to put down his tablet for the venerable ‘Back to read. Instead, he summarized what he’d been working on.

Garl might have been a common clay type, but there was a quick and perceptive brain under that shaggy pelt. He tilted his head as he absorbed Meereo’s conclusion, and then pant-grinned with a certain slow satisfaction.

“So ‘yer saying… if we were to destroy this relay…”

“Then the Hierarchy would completely lose contact with their operation in Sol.”

Garl duck-nodded, and stood up. He rounded the desk, and embraced Meereo in a tight hug “…Thank you. I actually get to hurt the bastards after all,” he said.

“It gets better!” Meereo managed to croak around the rib-crushing affection.


“There’s another important planet this might effect too. Ugun…” he paused, raised the tablet, and read ponderously off it. “Ugun-du-vuronag-thureg-nu-burthuruv.”

Garl chittered darkly. “…A name like that could only belong to one group’a people.”


“Well, that settles it. Tell erryone to pack their stuff, Meereo. We’re blowin’ this place ‘ta shit.”

Meereo pant-grinned. In truth, he would have liked to monitor the relay a little longer. One could always learn more from a running system than from relics and archived data… but this was a war. And sometimes a war demanded decisive action.

If it also meant getting an old Stoneback his one good hit in before the end… He was all for it.

“Yes, Warleader.”

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Date Point: 14Y 1M AV The Thing, Folctha, Cimbrean A Meeting of Mothers was much like a Conclave of Champions, and it was only coincidence that both terms alliterated nicely in English. Neither was terribly common, and both were typically invoked by their various constituencies to deal with an issue bigger than any one constituent

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Waters of Babylon – Tzedakah Part 1

For He will instruct His angels in your behalf, to guard you in all your ways. They will carry you in their hands, lest you hurt your foot on a rock. You will tread upon the lion and the viper; you will trample upon the young lion and the serpent —Psalm 91 Date Point: 14Y

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Good Training – Survival Part 9

Date point: 14y 9m 1d AV Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm Meeting of Given-Men Yan Given-Man “When will Jooyun return and take the Rite of Manhood?” Yan mopped some of the sweat from his crest and loosened up his crushing grip on his challengers. “Soon,” he said confidently. “Soon.” Fall was almost

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Causal Results – Chapter 4

Species C543 System 4 Years 2 months 23 days Before C1764 FTL Jump “Ma’am.” [Sil] tried to turn away from the noise and tried to remain in the blissful realm of unconsciousness. “Ma’am!” [Sil] forced her eyes open and let out a low groan of pain. [Fred] was next to her on the ground, her

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Good Training – Survival Part 8

Date point: 14y 9m 1d AV Total Combat Fitness, southwest Folctha, Cimbrean Mid-morning Dr. Marc Tisdale Marc was, at heart, a gentle man. He had love for most everyone he met and refused to hold anger for anyone or anything unless they had truly, irrevocably earned it. That said, he was still a man and

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Causal Results – Chapter 3

Species C543 System 4 Years 2 months 27 days Before C1764 FTL Jump [Sil] looked at the controls for the pod and slowly shook her head, “This is not good.” [Fred] only able to operate because of the minimal effort needed to move around in zero-g drifted forwards, “I would agree, but what is the

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 56: Dataquake Part 5

Date Point: 16y3m1w Memorial Concourse, Old Commune of the Clan of Females, City of Wi Kao, Planet Gao Mother Shoua There were days when Shoua missed the old commune, at the other end of the city. The new commune was larger, more modern and much more secure of course but… …But the old one had

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 56: Dataquake Part 4

Date Point: 16y3m1w Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Ramsey Buehler Ramsey didn’t think he’d ever get used to being one of the cool kids at school. Actually, just going to school was kinda weird after all the home schooling he and Tristan had had back on Earth, but whenever he and his brother had got

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Henosis – Chapter 4

“Hey, that’s my suit!” A naked Gaoian fell on the Hunter from the tree above, landing on the sextupedal predator’s back. The impact was enough to stagger the creature, and Keegi was nearly thrown off. The claws of one paw extended, sinking into the Hunter’s glossy flesh as he held on as hard as he

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 56: Dataquake Part 3

Date Point: 16y3m6d HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Technical Sergeant Adam “Warhorse” Arés “Firth, I gotta ask ‘ya something.” Per Colonel Powell’s standing orders, they had the rest of the day off for individual training time after a mission. Adam always took maximum advantage, but some of the other operators might use

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Causal Results – Chapter 2

First Landing Earth, Florida, Launch pad 39A April 12, 2033 “Ignition Sequence start, five, four, three, two, one, lift off!” The crowds several miles away from the historic launch pad watched as the craft slowly began to move up into the atmosphere. Almost an homage to the craft that had taken Humans to the moon

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Good Training – Survival Part 7

Date point: 14y 8m 2w 2d AV The Dog House, Folctha, Cimbrean Late afternoon Julian Etsicitty Agony. If Adam had a singular talent that stood out, it would have to be his supernatural ability to give his training victims some very dramatic results by inflicting insane amounts of pain. Julian both dreaded and eagerly anticipated

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Henosis – Chapter 3

Virtrew had been relaxing in the starboard docking array. He’d been feeling inspired and creative for the past ten-day… it was too late to alter the structure of the current station, but he had ideas for the next. He was off-shift, so he’d picked up his data tablet, a bowl full of Vzk’tk salad, and

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 56: Dataquake Part 2

Date Point: 16y3m6d η Ithacae, 94.9° 12-GERBER-UNARY G2V III, “Heafield” Technical Sergeant Adam “Warhorse” Arés Every now and then, Adam had a day where every little thing went so well and he found himself firing on all cylinders so perfectly, he could feel right in his big ol’ slab of a chest that exact same

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 56: Dataquake Part 1

Date Point: 16y3m5d AV Hierarchy/Cabal Joint Communications session #1772 ++0010++: Proximal’s continued absence is a source of concern, and investigating has been forced to take a low priority by other operations. His last known activity was in an Irujzen-1-adjacent sub-lucid volume. ++0004++: Irujzen? Why was he all the way out there? That’s a backwater! ++0022++:

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Henosis – Chapter 2

The mess hall on the station was a cavernous space on one of the mid-decks in the core, overlooking the long central shaft. It was a temporary arrangement… once the station was near-complete, a merchant or restaurateur would be enticed into setting up a proper dining area, whereupon the space would be converted in whatever

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 55: Reinvention Part 5

Date Point: 16y3m5d AV Planet Rauwryhr, The Rauwryhr Republic, Perseus Arm Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight Rauwran Great Trees were… They were quite a thing to behold. Each one was as thick around at the base as a cricket ground, and soared up and up and up until their canopy was an invisible dark haze high

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Henosis – Chapter 1

[2yr 1m AV] Trrkitzzkt L’tr’brtrk’tr quietly filed away the video files of the interviews he’d completed, queuing a copy to be sent via the station’s normal data exchange to his personal archive, in addition to the backup copy he kept on his personal data tablet. Both were encrypted with the strongest algorithms the investigator had

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Causal Results – Chapter 1

Dorvakian Home World 4 Years 3 months 8 days Before C1764 FTL Jump Looking across the grounds for several moment’s Silnersalkara tapped the table in front of her. The data controls embedded in the device quickly shut off and the hologram above its surface died. “Kermarcus, I’m aware of the situation. The opposition’s been attempting

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 55: Reinvention Part 4

Date Point: 16y3m AV Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm Yan Given-Man “I like these Core-tie.” “You do? Why the change of heart?” When the ‘del-a-gay-shun’ had returned, there was of course much eagerness to learn the news. Yan was very happy to tell everyone they would be getting vack-seens from the Core-tie as

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Good Training – Survival Part 6

Date point: 14y 8m AV Residence of the Great Father of the Gao, Folctha, Cimbrean Sister Naydra The months on Cimbrean had been…therapeutic. She found herse lf greatly appreciating the Female presence on the Human’s first colony world, and everything it stood for: stability, acceptance. Survival. The Humans had done so much to support the

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 55: Reinvention Part 2

Date Point: 16y2m3w AV Hierarchy/Cabal Joint Communications session #1722 ++0008++: In summary, the infiltration of Sol means the operation was a success, though not an unqualified one. We have four Injunctors on Earth, and a further two in the outer system, but the new Arutech biodrones appear to be an abject failure. The Cimbrean infiltration

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Rising Titans – Chapter 51 (End)

9 Years, 7 Months, 2 Days After Eridani Landing Chront Leaning down and putting her head to the table Stagg yawned. “Try the tea,” repeated Derrick sounding just as exhausted as she felt. The Captain turned to look at the engineer and then at the small pot on the table. “I did. Taste’s like mold.”

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 55: Reinvention Part 1

Date Point: 16y2m3w AV Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Daar, Great Father of the Gao “Hey, this ain’t a bad little house at all!!” Daar followed in behind Gorku, who was carrying a completely exhausted Leemu on his back and had to mind his steps. “Humans know how to build houses arright,” he agreed. “Maybe

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 54: Here Be Dragons Part 6

Date Point: 16y2m2w1d AV Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm Vemik Sky-Thinker One of the Human archaeologists was a metallurgist. Tilly was a strange and delicate name that didn’t suit her at all, Vemik thought. She had a sharp face full of metal piercings, skin full of bright pictures, and a half-shaven crest of

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Good Training – Survival Part 5

Date point: 14y 2m 3w 4d AV SOR barracks, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches Meanwhile… Brother Faarek (Southpaw) of Clan Whitecrest–SOR “Are you sure you want to do this, Brother?” “Yes,” Thurrsto said with absolute conviction. “She’s the most beautiful Female I’ve ever seen and she’s hurting. I can’t bear doing nothing.” Faarek

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 54: Here Be Dragons Part 5

ESNN Magazine article: “Prisons In Their Head- an interview at Camp Tebbutt” Author and photographer: Ava Magdalena Ríos [Cover image: two men seated on a bench in front of a chain-link fence, with a stunning Alaskan vista behind them. On the left is a scruffy bearded white man with shaggy salt-and-pepper hair, and next to

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Rising Titans – Chapter 50

+15 Minutes The Canada “Can this thing fly?” Shouted Pankin as a rattling howl began to echo through the ship, the crew members on what was now the ceiling tightening their straps as objects that had been floating began to rattle on the floor as the ship dove deeper into the atmosphere of the planet.

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 54: Here Be Dragons Part 4

Date Point: 16y2m2w AV Weaver dropship, Rich Plains contact volume, Kwmbwrw Great Houses TSgt Timothy “Tiny” Walsh All throughout the ordeal of becoming HEAT and finally earning the Mass, the one thing running through Walsh’s head was that one day, he too would serve at their level. Do the mission like none other. Walk through

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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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 54: Here Be Dragons Part 2

Date Point: 16y2m1w2d AV Gaoian embassy, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Daar, Great Father of the Gao There was shit to catch up with. Stuff to read, stuff to make decisions on, stuff to be briefed on in case he had to make a decision later… At first Daar did his best to

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Good Training – Survival Part 4

Date point: 14y 2m 1w AV Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm Singer “So, if we salt the roots in boiling water with some herbs, and use a very tight…what was the word?” [“Jar,”] Julian said encouragingly. “—And then we boil the whole jar with the lid on loose, so the bad spirits

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Rising Titans – Chapter 49

+10 Minutes The Singer [Vann] stood in the center of the bridge the three-dimensional hologram showing the entirety of his fleet as well as the surrounding space. The cubic formation was going to be tested now, up to this point the only gauge of effectiveness was how [Charles] had reacted to it in simulations. He

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 54: Here Be Dragons Part 1

Date Point: 16y2m5d AV Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm Xiù Chang Yan was having to explain himself. It wasn’t that the men who’d come out to hunt the Brown One were disappointed, exactly. None of them had been looking forward to the battle at all. They all knew the stories of how many

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 53: The Wild Hunt Part 6

Date Point: 16y2m4d AV Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm Julian Etsicitty Daar caught up with them about an hour after Xiù called ahead to let them know he was coming. A lot had happened in that hour. Yan had laid out his bibtaws in a kind of scent lure, some distance out

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 53: The Wild Hunt Part 5

Date Point: 16y2m3d AV Gaoian embassy, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Daar, Great Father of the Gao People who didn’t know Daar all that well thought he had a pathological aversion to Civilized pursuits. Not true at all! Daar had always enjoyed history, writing, and the more subtle arts of courtship, and he

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 53: The Wild Hunt Part 4

Date point: 16y2m3d AV Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm Daniel “Chimp” Hoeff Julian had a habit of singing in the woods. Not loud, exactly, and Hoeff wasn’t even sure he was totally conscious he was doing it, but loud enough to hear. Apparently it kept critters from blundering into them that might

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Rising Titans – Chapter 48

+ 7 Minutes 38 Seconds The Canada “Captain, your message?” asked Arik as her Avatar superimposed itself over the main monitor. “Surrender now, call off the fighters and we’ll let you live. Then we can begin to negotiate for an end to this pointless violence.” “That’s it?” asked Arik after a moment. “Unless anyone else

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Good Training – Survival Part 3

Date point: 14y 1m 2w AV “Clan Young Glory,” western unincorporated territories, Gao Sister Naydra Naydra and her fellow Sisters were slowly dying. The “Clan” that had “liberated” them from the clutches of what they now knew were biodrones had decided their honored guests needed “protection.” Their so-called protection consisted of imprisonment. Their “protection fees”

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 53: The Wild Hunt Part 3

Date point: 16y2m3d AV Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm Professor Daniel Hurt “What exactly did he say he’s fetching, anyway?” “An M107.” Daniel frowned. Although he’d learned more about firearms in general over the past few years than he’d ever imagined he would, there were times that the people who really “got”

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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 5

Date Point: 16y2m AV Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches Julian Etsicitty The house was a mess when Julian got back, which was rare. Nobody in their household was naturally untidy—living on Misfit had driven Allison, Xiù and himself into an ingrained habit of orderliness, and the boys had lived in fear of their father’s belt

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 4

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 3

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

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Good Training – Survival Part 1

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 45

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 2

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

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Good Training – April Fool’s

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 1

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 5

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 44

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 4

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 3

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

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Good Training – Pecking Order

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

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Good Training – The Champions – Tidying Up

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 2

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 43

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 1

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Trigger Part 5

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

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Trigger Part 4

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

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Good Training – The Champions – Doom and Gloom Part 4

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 42

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

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Trigger Part 1

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

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Good Training – The Champions – Doom and Gloom Part 3

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 41

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

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The Good Samaritan

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Homefront Part 6

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 40

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

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Good Training – The Champions – Doom and Gloom Part 2

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

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Homefront Part 4

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

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