The Deathworlders – Chapter 57: Cat and Mouse – Worlds in the Dark Part 2

Date Point: 16y6m AV
Bryant Park, Manhattan, New York, USA, Earth

Julian Etsicitty

“There you are!”

The show was over and apart from some nearby sirens at one point it had been pretty uneventful. Vemik was still up the tree, showing off for a group of kids who had turned up once the cameras were gone, and the Singer was talking with some bead-wearing crystal-healing hippy type women who’d seemingly appeared out of nowhere…

Julian had done some shirtless tree-monkeying himself, and there would definitely be some B-roll footage of that in the news cycle. As much as he hated to admit it, there was a certain utility to him attracting attention to the cause, so if that meant monkey fun in the trees and jumping around like a flea, then well…he’d do that, and he’d have enjoyed himself anyway.

Still. He’d wondered where Hoeff wandered off to. Now the smaller man was back, and Julian had a sneaky suspicion he’d got in some trouble. He was wearing a different shirt and jacket for a start, and his hair wasn’t as clean-cut as it had been. Little details, but they told a story.

“…You change your clothes?”

“It’s a hot day.”

Julian quirked an eyebrow. “Riight. That’s totally the reason.”

“…Had to run a few blocks down. There was a shooting.”

“Shit! Is everyone okay?”

Hoeff shook his head sadly. “Cops are dealing with it. Just the Big Apple, I guess.”

…Hoeff was lying, or at least keeping his own counsel. Julian had become really good at reading people over the years, and Hoeff wasn’t exactly a closed book in the first place.

Now wasn’t the time or the place to drag the truth outta him, though goddammit he would one way or another, when the time was right. So Julian let his skeptical expression do the talking for him and changed subject. “Alright, well… I think I’m about done with being in the public eye for one day. I wanna get back to Anna and everyone.”

“Can’t blame you. Ride’ll be ready in a few minutes, they just gotta disperse the crowd.”

The USSS guys sure did have a solemn, grim look to them. It might’ve been hard to spot past their usual professional poker faces, but Julian could tell. Something had gone wrong.

…Well, okay. Julian decided to wrap things up. He went back to the reporter and had a few last words. Then he spent some time with the friendly crowd, did some autographs and selfies with the adults, talked shop for a bit with a couple of big like-minded fellas, and even indulged in some playful flexing for the kids. They had the best questions too, and would do things like point at his foot (“See!? It’s real!”) or make guilelessly adorable observations (“You’re way bigger than my dad and he’s super fat!”) while their parents looked on, embarrassed. Singer and Vemik had a big crowd of fans too, which of course was the point of all this. Many selfies were taken, Singer and Vemik “autographed” many things.

Then they got to playing with the more adventurous folk. Honestly, the whole thing was pretty fun! He hadn’t expected that, but just the opportunity to ape about with Vemik and generally carouse was always welcome. That it was in New York City of all things, in a small park built over a vault with literally millions of books in it…well, Vemik thought that was neat as heck.

Eventually, his security detail finished whatever big secret thing it was they were doing, and were ready (and definitely eager) to go. Julian went to fetch his shirt, pulled it back on, said his goodbyes to the crowd and yelled up at Vemik to do the same, much to the disappointment of the kids he’d brought up in the trees with him. That last part was probably not so much fun for their adventurous parents down below, who were definitely worrying their heads off even if they were smiling and all that. Julian understood that better, now.

Vemik gave the kids an exciting ride back to ground level, they all said their last goodbyes and… well, thus ended the trip. They bustled back into the suburban and headed out.

There were a couple of police vans parked half a block south of the park, and a bunch of dudes in black clothing with black-green-and-blue bandanas were being loaded into them straight off the back of a U-Haul truck, firmly handcuffed despite moving like they were drunk.

“…Some’a the protestors got too rowdy or something?”

“Somethin’ like that,” Hoeff grunted.

“Hoeff, buddy…” Julian shot his friend a look. Hoeff’s reply was a sorry, sad sort of facial half-shrug, just the faintest tilt of his head and a shifty quirk of his eyebrow. The message was clear: ‘I can’t talk about it; I’m sorry.’

Well…Julian knew what that meant. He sighed internally, and did his very best to put on his usual jockular attitude for his most favoritest cavemonkey.

“Well, hey! I’m glad you took care of it. I wouldn’t trust anyone else for the job.”

Some of Hoeff’s usual attitude returned. “Aww! You flatterer! I’ll have you know I’m taken!”

Julian grinned, and pulled Hoeff across the seat and into a crushing bearhug. “Ah, don’t worry little fella, I’ll be gentle…”

“Hnnngh, bro! While I’m flattered you wanna boldly shove ‘yer fuckin’ baseball bat where no man has shoved before…”

“Never?” Julian tightened his hug into more of a friendly smash. “Uh-huh. You’re an ex Navy SEAL, I find that hard to believe…”

“Hrrrf! …Buddy, a man’s gotta breathe–!” Julian relented a bit and Hoeff gasped for air. “…Christ, huge fuckin’ weirdo. Anyway. You’re too late, I belong to Claire. No dice, dude.”

“So?” Vemik trilled quietly. “We don’t let that stop us!”

“Diff’rent rules for diff’rent folks, my friend.”

“Also, Claire would have his balls,” Julian added, and let Hoeff escape his grasp.

“God, I swear the combat arms weirdness is rubbing off on you, Playboy…”

The rest of the drive was mostly uneventful, until they reached their destination. NYC’s jump array was under Grand Central, deeper than any of the metro lines. They’d gone on a subway ride the night before to explore the night life—no way in hell would he let the cavemonkeys come to NYC without seeing Times Square all lit up—and they had been perhaps Vemik’s most absolute favorite part of the entire trip.

The subway, not the lights. He’d enjoyed the lights well enough, but he’d loved the trains. He’d groaned audibly when told he wouldn’t get to ride again, but there were limits to Julian’s patience; just getting him through the turnstiles was a diplomatic (and frankly, physical) challenge even worse than dealing with the sheep-heiress back on Cimbrean.

It was probably for the best. A train carriage containing Julian, Vemik and the Singer didn’t have a lot of room left over for anyone else.

The Array terminus was a wheel shape, with no fewer than five arrays around the central hub, all powered by a fusion reactor in the sub-basement. It managed a jump every five minutes for destinations elsewhere on Earth, and off-world jumps every half an hour.

Considering how heavily the Folctha array hammered away nowadays, and all the other big arrays on Earth, there were probably all sorts of crazy intricate treaties and international standards and specialty industry going on behind the scenes to keep everything running synchronized and without conflict.

Thanks to jump arrays, though, long-haul airlines were going the way of the old ocean liners. Arrays were quicker, more convenient, carbon-neutral and safer. There had not (yet) been a single array accident anywhere, ever. Not even mishaps with the ultra-sharp stasis field edge, thanks to well-planned safety measures. Between the railings, forcefields and emergency shutdown, Julian doubted whether somebody could get themselves cut in half by a jump array even if they were trying to… and if one failed, all that happened was it didn’t jump. It wouldn’t come tumbling out of the sky, or have to land on its belly.

Still. They were expensive to install, drew huge power, and demanded good connections. No wonder they mostly only served major cities. Nobody was going to hop through a wormhole to get to the other side of town for the foreseeable future.

As always, though, Vemik wanted to stop and take in the sight of the concourse. Julian could see him wanting to climb up and get a closer look at the schedule boards.

Hoeff stopped him by grabbing his tail. “Sorry buddy, it’s time for us to go. The array fires in a few minutes.”

That was a weird gesture with Ten’Gewek. With loved ones and close friends it was perfectly friendly, and usually presaged a tussle or some other form of monkeyplay. With respected elders, it was a form of gentle correction. In Hoeff’s case with Vemik, it could very well mean both. Right then it seemed to mean the latter, since Vemik flicked his ears and nodded agreeably.


They had some kind of VIP fast track pass to skip past the people waiting in line, most of whom weren’t going to Folctha anyway. The last step before boarding the jump platform was a biofilter field—Julian didn’t think he’d ever quite get used to the way they left his teeth feeling unnaturally squeaky-clean—then a minute or two of standing around awkwardly in the middle of the platform as the attendants cleared it out and made sure everything was safe, then…


Considering that the Array was matching momentum with the surface of an alien world several hundred parsecs away, the utterly tiny jolt Julian felt through his feet was a damn miracle.

As it turned out though, Julian and his Ten’Gewek friends weren’t gonna part ways just yet, as one of Hoeff’s ill-defined “colleagues” from the security services explained:

“Sorry fellas, it’ll be a bit before we can send you on to Akyawentuo.”


“Maintenance work on the array. Apparently they gotta take up the deck and swap out the spacers.”

“How long?”

“Not sure, but at least overnight. Sorry.”

Singer hooted sadly, but Julian could fix that. “Aww, it’s okay. You can stay at my house! And maybe you two can explore a bit if you want, go visit the art store–”

Vemik perked up immediately. “Burg?!”

“…Yes,” Julian chuckled. “We can burg. I can make them at home too.”

“And deprive them of the famous Folctha Best Brioche?” Hoeff asked. “You fucking monster.”

Julian felt the need to defend himself. “Well, I mean…I make a pretty mean burger.”

“You don’t make Best Brioche.”

“I bet mine’s better!”

“Mhmm. I think we burg twice,” the Singer suggested. “At Best Brioche, and Jooyun’s hut. We see which is stronger! For science.”

“I like this kind of science!” Vemik declared, earning the trilling Ten’Gewek version of a giggle from the Singer.

Julian rolled his eyes, amused. “Okay. But the four of us are gonna gym tomorrow morning to pay for it all…”

“Well, maybe not.” The security fella chimed in again and turned toward Hoeff, “You’ve got a meeting. Old friend of yours from rural Virginia came a’visiting, apparently.”

Hoeff almost didn’t show it, but he was clearly surprised. He paused ever so slightly before acknowledging the information. “Oh? That’s unlike him.”

“He said as much. Here.” The security fella handed Hoeff a note. “The details.”

Hoeff read it, then nodded. “…Alright. I’d, uh… better go put on some nicer clothes.”

“Must be a special old friend,” Julian commented.

Hoeff, once again, was back in a non-talkative mood. “Yeah,” he grunted and that was that. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

And then he was gone. He wasn’t hurrying, Julian noticed, but he was doing that thing where he didn’t waste a second of his time. Moving with a purpose, as they called it.


“Well… okay then. Wanna come meet Anna, Vemik?”

Vemik stopped scratching his head and hooted even more enthusiastically than at the idea of burgers. “Yes!”

The Singer knuckled him affectionately in the chest. “Be gentle,” she reminded him.

“I will!”

Julian grinned, and allowed the security guy to lead them outside to the waiting car. Honestly, he was getting kinda sick of being driven around in black SUVs, but whatever. He was nearly home. Something was clearly up with Hoeff, but there was no getting in there unless he was invited, so… may as well just go home, cuddle Allison and Xiù, hold his daughter, have some burgers, and just go back to being himself.

All in all, that sounded like a pretty good way to spend the rest of his day.

Date Point: 16y6m AV
Grand Commune of Females, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean


Yulna had bared her throat to Daar, when she made him the Great Father. Technically, his authority applied even on the island, at the very heart of the Clan of Females… But Daar liked to pretend that it didn’t. There were some areas, he felt, where what he called the ‘nat’ral’ laws between Male and Female won out over mere crowns and power.

Which was why, even though he had the perfect right to enter uninvited, he never ever set foot in the Mother-Supreme’s private rooms. And why, when Yulna requested to speak with Naydra in private, he simply duck-nodded and went off to enjoy the island and very probably sire another cub or two. He had a waiting list. A long waiting list.

Naydra wasn’t remotely jealous. The Females on that waiting list were a pleasant and enjoyable duty to him, but she was his love.

Besides. She had more important matters on her mind.

Yulna was… Tough. She’d always been tough. Even being abducted by a Corti xenobiologist and having one of the eyes plucked from her skull had ultimately just made her tougher. She’d certainly been tough enough to make a hard decision in wartime, and she was tough enough now that even though her body reeked of tumors and pain, she still stood tall and refused to take up a cane like her predecessor had.

Then again, she was still a lot younger than Giymuy had been. And a lot more proud. Her reply to pain was to stare it down like the stern old Mother she was.

And she absolutely refused to let Naydra make the tea.

“You know who the most popular candidate to replace me will be,” she said. She’d adopted Champion Gyotin’s tea ceremony. Naydra had of course practiced and mastered it because it was increasingly becoming the done thing, but she still didn’t quite understand the why of it. But this was Yulna’s office, in her private chambers, and making the tea her way was her prerogative.

So Naydra sat politely as the Mother-Supreme rinsed and then heated the tea cups with hot water, and carefully prepared the leaves in the pot. And she answered politely when Yulna spoke.

“I can guess. I… have reservations, though. Doesn’t it feel like concentrating too much power and trust in one place?”

Yulna chittered as she wiped a cup dry. “All the power is already concentrated in one place,” she pointed out. “You’re probably the best antidote we have… should we need one. Nobody else can influence him quite like you. He loves you very much, Naydra.”

“Yes. But I love him very much too.”

“Would you allow him to do something awful? Do you tell him when you think he’s going wrong?”

Naydra’s ears pricked up indignantly. “Of course!”

“Oh good. You really do love him then.” Yulna gave her a sly look and placed the last dry cup in a row.

“I mean, I take your point, but…”

Naydra tailed off. The fact was, she honestly didn’t know what the but was, and the look Yulna gave her as she poured the water into the teapot with her ears slightly askance said more than a prepared speech would have. Yulna was good at puncturing objections with nothing more than a look.

“None who are called to Duty are ever quite prepared for it, my dear. He managed and so will you.”

“So have you.”

“Giymuy threw me in a deep pool without any swimming lessons, true enough…” Yulna sighed. “I always imagined I wouldn’t do what she did, and I’d spend my later years grooming a successor so that we could have a smooth transition when my time came. But no, here I am and here we are… Do you know, I still don’t know why she picked me? She barely knew me!”

“Perhaps she knew you better than you think.”

“Probably. The old girl had a mind that makes me feel small.” Yulna sighed and carefully finished tidying up her implements as she waited for the sand to finish its journey from one glass bulb to the other. “You’re a more natural choice, as far as I can tell. Influential, especially with the Males who really matter, and very popular indeed with the Females. The young Sisters idolize you.”

“For what?” Naydra asked. “For the abuse I went through during the war or for being naive enough to fall in love with my rescuer?”

“Both and more. It takes strength to go through what you did, and a blessing to still be naive afterwards.” Yulna duck-shrugged and her ears moved to a wry angle. “What am I to do? They want you. I daresay if I named another successor she’d still lose to you, and what’s a Mother-Supreme to do in that situation? Do I have any choice but to trust my Sisters and Daughters?”

“I suppose not…” Naydra admitted.

“No. But I can undermine your authority, plant seeds of doubt…” Yulna nodded to herself as the sand finished running, and took the lid off the teapot to hook out the basket full of leaves within. She set it aside in a shallow bowl. “Should I sabotage you? Why? Is the Clan so badly wrong? I don’t think they are.”

“…You don’t have to step down yet. I’m sure Nofl—”

Yulna set the teapot down sharply. “No Corti touches me ever again,” she said, sharply. “And the fact that you let him mess with your genome is the one thing that’s giving me pause, here.”

“He’s trustworthy.”

“Is he? He might be!” Yulna sniffed. “But he’s just a fancy flamboyant scalpel in somebody else’s hand, my dear. Nofl may be the most wonderful being alive for all I know, but the Directorate…”

“I didn’t do this because I’m overly fond of Nofl,” Naydra retorted. “I did it because we are poised on the brink of destruction, Yulna. Have you seen the statistics? The Great Dying has already begun. Our population dropped for the first time ever outside famine or war. For now it’s just a blip. In a few years…”

Yulna poured the tea. “And am I the right person to see us through it?”

…Well, damn. She had her skewered.


“Exactly. So, Nofl might be truly wonderful. He might get these damn tumors out of me like a darling and at least I’ll live to speak kindly of one Corti. But I must let go, Naydra. For our people and for what they’re about to endure, I must. I can’t just step down, because so long as I’m still alive, I’ll sabotage you just by drawing breath.”

“Yulna, you sound… You’re effectively talking about suicide. I don’t want that.”

“No, I’m talking about letting the serendipity of nature take its course.” Yulna handed over the teacup, and Naydra took it from her without really being conscious of doing so. “I have some time left, yet. Time enough.”

“Still…” Naydra fidgeted.

“…It’s thanks to the Corti that I’m dying now, you know. All those experiments all those years ago. That was when they were beginning to realize we weren’t just another regular, disposable first-contact species like all the rest. They’ve known what we were for years, Naydra. All of this pantomime about discovery and such is just that. Controlled information release.” Yulna sat down and sipped her tea. “Now: Think how much damage it would do to our strategic agreements with them if I said that in public. Think how much it would hurt the Gao if I denounced the Directorate over… this.”

She gestured to herself. “I’ve known this was coming for a long time. Since long before I was Mother-Supreme. I learned my fate on the day we returned to Gao and took Sister Shoo into our care. When the Openpaws showed me what they found, and told me the most they could do was slow it, I knew this was coming. And I have kept utterly silent about it. Not even Giymuy and her clever eyes and ears knew.”

Naydra knew her ears had gone flat. She keened softly, not knowing what else to say. Yulna gave her a sympathetic look and put a paw on top of hers.

“You, I’m quite sure, will live even longer than Giymuy. And perhaps you’ll even be a better Mother-Supreme. I feel small next to you too, you know. But you’re still rather naive, my Daughter. You’re still willing to pretend that a pleasant scalpel makes up for the mad gleam in the surgeon’s eye.”

She chittered. “Or maybe I’m just bitter and prejudiced. I have a good reason to be, don’t I? But I still say you’re naive and a bit of a dreamer, though you’re less so than most. The Mother-Supreme cannot be either of those things, not even a little bit.”

“Then…I suppose I have much to learn.”

“Well, that’s good! You only stop learning when you die!” Yulna gave her a warm look, then nodded at the tea. “Drink.”

Naydra did so. It was, she had to admit, excellent. That was probably the point, first and foremost: to get a perfect cup of tea. Gyotin himself had composed the paradoxical sentiment ‘not everything spiritual has to be spiritual.’

Despite what they’d discussed, her ‘lessons’ or whatever she was to receive from Yulna, would have to wait. The Mother-Supreme had plenty of business to attend to, not to mention a visit from an Openpaw physician that Naydra knew was too perfectly timed to be coincidence.

She wandered the Grand Commune and thought about what she’d learned, what it meant…

…And promptly forgot to think at all when she wandered into the flower garden.

It had always been a beautiful place. Several species of delicate mountain and tundra flowers native to Gao had been brought over to save them, and were thriving thanks to the attention and affection of the gardeners and their drones. Naydra had visited it many times, and every time the scents had made her close her eyes and bask in the aromatic symphony around her.

With her newly improved eyes firmly open, however…

There… There were no words. Only feeling. And so she did just that, re-acquainted herself with the bounty of Gao, and knew: No Gaoian could be kept from this, It belonged to them all.

Resolve settled into her belly and lit a fire there. Yulna was right, of course… but in one important regard, perhaps she was also wrong. The Corti were who they were, and the Gao would have to be very foolish to forget… But did the past have to steal the future? Were gifts like the riot of pinks and purples around her to be scorned just because they grew from a poisonous tree?

Could one safely bargain with a devil? But the Corti weren’t devils, of course. They were just flawed people, and the Unseen knew the Gao had their own faults too.

…Or was life nothing but a series of devil’s bargains, with an inevitable price at the end?

Something to ponder…but not just now. Right now, she wanted to wander, and see.

When she eventually caught up with Daar, he was over at the obstacle course about to make a run of it, much to the studious interest of a number of young, fiercely fit Females. He stretched out on all fours, shook out his once-again short pelt, crouched, and—

Speed, poise, unmatched poetry in motion. Power, and not simply of body.

She watched for a bit, and decided to leave them to their fun. Innocence and play was important after all. There was no point in souring the mood by bearing bad news.

“I think I shall retire to our apartments,” she told her current aide, a fiery young Sister with clear Longear heritage, and who had a sharp nose for trouble. “Please inform the Great Father when it seems convenient.”

She needed the time to herself to ponder things, and more importantly she didn’t want to disrupt Daar’s connection with the young Sisters. He loved the Females. All of them. That bond was just as important to nourish as the deeper, more personal love she shared with her big, soppy-hearted Bumpkin. Vulnerability and love, intertwined and inescapable. It was the oldest story there was.

He didn’t return until much later in the evening, just as she had expected.

“Well, you certainly smell like you had fun…”

She enjoyed teasing him entirely too much, but it was a good way to break the moment. He did at least have enough tact to chitter with some embarrassment. “Well, I weren’t gonna say no to a paw of adventurous young Sisters…”

“You are the most predictable ‘Back ever, bumpkin.”

“I know. An’ I bet ya’ needed the free time, anyway…”

“I did. I needed to think.”

He curled up around her, squeezed his powerful legs ever so softly around her waist, and groomed her fur gently with his claws. Sometimes, when she really needed him to be, he could be supremely tender with his affection. She sighed, and leaned into him.

They shared a long moment together, saying nothing and simply enjoying each other’s scent and warmth.

It didn’t last. Eventually he nuzzled in the top of her headfur exactly like he always did before he had to get moving.

“The last Array to Gao fires not too long from now, Naydi…an’ we really need ‘ta not be on Cimbrean tonight.”

She really would rather stay put, if possible. “Why the rush?”

Daar shook his mane out and sighed. “Duty, an’ secrets. Sarry.”

“They must be serious secrets if they dictate which planet you need to be on.”


That said everything she needed to know. She slithered upright and shook herself. “Okay. But if you haven’t seen the flower garden yet, I definitely need to show you when we come back.”

Daar flopped himself over and sprang to all fours. “Deal. Lessgo.”

As she walked alongside him and as their entourage fell in around him, Naydra calculated furiously. The list of things that would cause Daar to need to be elsewhere was pretty tiny. It must be big politics, something where he needed plausible deniability.

As they rode the elevator down into the basement, a suspicion settled in her belly though it did not, she was surprised to notice, shock her. Maybe it was her conversation with Yulna from earlier, maybe it was a truth she’d figured out a long time ago…

…But she was pretty sure they were going home so Daar would have an alibi.

Date Point: 16y6m AV
The Pinkwood Michelin star restaurant, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

“Hello, Daniel.”

“Hello, Marcus. Never thought I’d see you again.”

The two men shook hands, and then embraced in a fond hug.

“You’ve grown into a hell of a fireplug, I see.”

“Yup. Needs of the job, and fuckin’ demanding friends. And hell, I won’t say I don’t enjoy it.”

Marcus pulled back and gave Daniel an appraising look. “I hope this hasn’t slowed you down.”

Daniel shrugged. “Pretty much the exact opposite of that, actually. Everything’s better now. Only downside is I’m even more ravenous than I ever was before.”

“That’s a little frightening,” Marcus chuckled. “I’ve already ordered for us.” They walked over to the waiting table, which had a substantial spread laid out.

Daniel nodded approvingly. “You remembered! And you bought me a fancy-ass steak, too.”

“I’ve never spared you courtesy, Daniel. How are things?”

“Not too bad. Family’s doing all right, friends are okay. You?”

“Oh, I was never one for a family. Doesn’t suit someone like me, I’m afraid.”

“Too bad.” Daniel bit into his steak and savored it for a moment. “You’d make a good dad.”

“So I am told. You have a partner now, I hear?”

“Yeah. She’s… nice. Never thought I’d fall for a girl like her, or that she’d ever dig a guy like me. Whole lotta dirt under my fingernails, y’know?”

“Of a very different sort than the kind under hers.”

“I woulda thought that’d go without saying.”

“It must be nice. A different world.”

“Yeah. I’m digging this a lot better than my usual one-night flings.”

They ate in silence for several minutes, comfortable in each other’s company.

“Daniel, I have a job offer for you.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I’m not in the market for work, Marcus.”

Marcus sighed. “People like you and I, we don’t get to leave this particular job market, Daniel.”

“I beg to differ. I’m sure there are others who would love the employment.”

“Nobody as good as you, my friend. And this particular job needs a very skilled hand.”

“I’m not interested.”

“Arthur asked after you, Daniel. Personally.”

Daniel paused, and put his cutlery down. He contemplated his bourbon for a long moment.

“Did he, now?”

“Yes. Reluctantly, it must be said. He knows you’re enjoying your retirement.”


Marcus gave him a sympathetic look. “Yeah.”

“I presume all the usual terms and conditions apply?”

“All the worst ones, yeah.”


“Here.” Marcus slid a small envelope across the table. “Your advance payment, and accommodations. Further details will be made available to you once you’re checked in.”

Daniel tucked it away for later reading. His hand only paused as he withdrew it from his pocket.

“…Guess you’re right. We don’t really get to retire, do we?”

“Daniel, my friend…there’s some kinds of work that’ll never go out of style. Most people aren’t suited to do it. Those of us who are…“

Daniel sighed, and picked up his steak knife. “Go to interesting places, meet interesting people…” he said.

They left the sentence unfinished.

Date Point: 16y6m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Captain Anthony “Abbott” Costello

Leadership was a challenging proposition, regardless if it came naturally for a man or not. Leading utterly irreplaceable men was even worse. Correcting the behavior of a well-meaning, young-at-heart, peerless hulk of a warrior who, like everyone, had made mistakes in his life, and was now paying for a particularly egregious fuckup in a particularly painful way? And who lately had an unconscious habit of intimidating the ever-lovin’ fuck out of everyone he met, even if he didn’t mean to? Or even necessarily realized he was doing it?

Well, that was why they paid Costello the “big bucks.” That joke had never once been funny.

Technical Sergeant Arés was an interesting challenge. He was, aside from Burgess, about the most intelligent lad on the team, and in this group that was genuinely saying something. He had Costello beat on the raw scores by a fairly intimidating margin, even if he wasn’t an intellectually curious type of man. Arés was a blue-collar genius at heart and nobody really matched him.

That meant that at certain things—observation and intuition, for example—he was pretty much the best there was, certainly the best Costello had ever met. But on others—self-awareness, in this case—he sometimes fell a bit comically short. Mostly it was a harmless personality quirk of his, and one of the things that made him an endearing, hard-to-hate Lad, but right now…

The giant man was hovering around the outside of the party, trying and utterly failing to hide his sulky, self-loathing slump.

Costello understood and even sympathized. It was hard to be overtaken, and must be doubly so in this case. Burgess was a genuinely modest person, and level-headed enough to be content with only being the second or third strongest man in history. He was a natural member of the pack: happy to keep up with his friends, perfectly willing to outshine them, equally happy to be outshone by them.

Arés, on the other hand, was the single most intensely competitive and determined man Costello or anyone he knew had ever met, or even read about. He was a natural alpha male personality and an effortless pack-leader, and he wasn’t used to failure, either. At anything. He’d been some form of a prodigy since his teens, and his failure to promote along with his buddy represented one of the few real setbacks he’d ever endured.

He wasn’t handling it very well. In fact, he was handling it like a spoiled teenager.

Well… almost. The difference was that, where a teenager would have found somebody else to blame and whined about how it wasn’t fair, Arés knew good and well that it was fair—generously merciful, in fact—and had therefore lapsed into sullen self-directed anger.

Letting him tear himself apart over his own shortcomings wasn’t an option. Nor was letting him sour the mood of the party.

Costello had discussed the long-term management problem at length with Senior Master Sergeant Firth. They hadn’t really come up with much of a solution, and in fact about the only effective tack they’d arrived at involved getting Firth up to and perhaps one day beyond Arés’ level. That was as caveman as it came, and normally he’d prefer another option…but what else could they do? Punishment in the traditional sense would ruin their relationship. In any ordinary military unit, the officer corps held all the cards. Any man was replaceable, if it came to that. Nobody, not the lowliest grunt nor the highest general, was such a precious asset they couldn’t be swapped out for a better man.

But among the Lads, that wasn’t true. They were the best there was. Or, at least, the only ones capable of the task at hand. Costello had to be friends with his men, in a detached sort of way. Firth did too, maybe even more so.

Which, in the end, was the only way forward. Tough love, friend-to-friend.

Lubricated, in this case, by joining him at the edge of the party and handing him a beer bottle. “‘Horse, you look like shit. Something wrong?”

Adam stirred out of his grumbly fugue to look at Costello. “…Eh. Not really. Just, I dunno.”

…Yup. Blue-collar genius, paired with the enlightened introspection of a brick.

“How’s the family?”

That was a subject always guaranteed to perk the big guy up. He beamed happily and swigged his beer. “Goin’ good! We’re workin’ on another baby. Gonna give Diego a little sister, maybe!”

“Ah! Well, I imagine you’re enjoying the work…”

“It’s a tough job, sir. Someone’s gotta do it.”

Costello chuckled, and offered his bottle for a kind of impromptu toast. Glass clinked against glass and they drank.

“…I was kinda makin’ plans on what I’d do with a master sergeant’s pay,” Arés confessed. “I think we’re gonna have a biiiig family, an’ our place just isn’t good for that now. I need someplace with plenty’a bedrooms an’ where they can run around.”

“Never count your chickens before they hatch, big guy. Tech to master is a very hard promotion to make. Colonel Miller tells me this last selection was the tightest he’s seen ever.”

“Yeah…sorta found that one out the hard way.” Arés sipped his beer. “…I do that a lot.”

“Well…let me offer you a little tough love, big guy. Burgess promoted because he was ready for it. Your flash of anger a while back, well. That’s unbecoming of a senior NCO. You know that.”


“Firth is almost guaranteed he’ll never be promoted to chief as a result of his own indiscretion, too. That’s a tough thing for someone of his rank. There’s still hope, even for him, but realistically he’ll probably not recover from his mistake. You, though…”

Arés sighed, but it wasn’t the moochy, self-hating sigh Costello had seen him give a few times already. This one was more relieved.

“…I think that’s what I was worried about, yeah.”

“I won’t lie. It’ll be quite some time. I can’t justify putting you in for a STEP package, not after all that. So you’d better figure out how to make that big family work as you are now… but it’ll happen. Eventually, and if you can prove you’re ready.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“I know you will. In other news…how goes Project: Build Even Scarier Monsters?”

Arés chuckled. “Is that what we’re calling it now?”

“Why not? I’m supposedly the boss and I say it is. So…status?”

“Firth is growing like a mutant weed, as fast as I ever did. Daar isn’t quite as ridiculous but he’s not slowed down, either. And the other day…he beat me on the leg press. And bicep curls, too.”

“Wait, really?”


“…Damn.” Well, that was probably the source of it. There’s always someone bigger and badder, and Arés had finally found him. Even if he’d had to build that monster himself.

“I mean, I’m glad for him…” Arés added belatedly. “But I sorta bet he’s actually got me beat on everything now, or will soon.” There was obviously a war going on in his head between his pride as a trainer and his relentlessly competitive soul. “… I mean, I’ll make it hard for him, though. And who knows? Maybe I just needed the competition, and pretty soon I’ll beating him again!”

“That’s the spirit!” Costello encouraged him. “Anyway, you’re here in this corner commiserating with me, when you should be over there with your best friend, embarrassing him with stories from training or whatever.”

“Eh,” he said dismissively, and looked down at his feet. “You’ve heard those all a million times.”

“Of course we have. That isn’t the point. It’s tradition, ‘Horse. This is his night. Don’t make him feel bad. Go be happy for him.”

Arés objected, “I am happy for him!”

“I know. Make sure he knows it, and that we all know it. He’s been doing the same for you since Basic, after all.”

“…I’ve been bein’ a jerk, huh?”

“Not intentionally, but yeah.” Costello clapped him on the shoulder. “We all have bad days. Go turn it into a good one, yeah? And we could all stand to be a bit more mindful of ourselves, y’know?”

“Yeah…” ‘Horse nodded and finished his beer. “…Thanks.”

With that, the giant Protector thumped his way over towards his best friend with his trademark ground-shaking unintentional swagger. They talked for a bit, maybe a bit awkwardly… and then the usual energy reasserted itself.

Costello grinned as a great big bro-hug dispelled the mood. It was as if the party’s atmosphere suddenly lightened, and he could breathe a little more easily.

He was about to head outside to see how Firth’s infernally perfect brisket was doing when his watch buzzed, drawing his attention to a new message. He read it, sighed, and tapped Akiyama on the shoulder instead.

“Give my apologies, would you? Work.”

Akiyama nodded. “We needed, sir?”

“No, just me. You all have fun.”

“Will do.”

Duty done, Costello slipped out of the party and took a cab back up to the base. That was the hazard of his position: work never quite went away. He wouldn’t change it for the world, and a nine-to-five would have felt like a slow death sentence by suffocation to him, but it would have been nice to have a whole party go by without something coming up.

Still. For the APA, he’d make all the time in the world.

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 2 (NSFW)

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Sweetness – Chapter 1 (NSFW)

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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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