The Deathworlders – Chapter 62: Tooth and Claw Part 2

Date Point: 16y11m3d AV
Planet ‘Mordor,’ Hunter space

Ginn, Foot-soldier first class, Grand Army of the Gao

Ginn’s protective gear itched. In fact, it itched maddeningly, to the point where he could kind of understand the idiots who’d taken it off for a good scratch, even though they were now enduring all the wonders and joys of decontamination and medical intervention back at the clawhold.

Clan Openpaw’s war doctors weren’t gentle, or considerate. They wielded their razors and wax strips without concern for the unfortunate soldier’s protests: Every hair had to go. Something to do with heavy metal contamination building up in the follicles.

Not many gaoians could pull off the shaved look, either. At least they’d be back to normal in a few weeks. But nobody ever came back from that treatment and took their gear off a second time.

Ginn had been trapped in his gear for three straight days, now. He dreamed of a dust bath and a proper grooming. Relief was coming in the form of airlocked tents, but they had to get their emplacements taken care of first. Nobody got to sleep in comfort until they were safe against the Hunters.

The Hunters kept harassing the construction machinery, too. A big heavily-armored bulldozer might be great for pushing dirt and rubble around, but as far as the Hunters were concerned it was a giant target, and the hapless operators inside were a snack.

So, that was Ginn’s job: protecting giant, slow-moving, very visible targets.

So far, the Hunter attacks had been more like exploratory prods. They appeared, they hit hard, then faded the second they met serious resistance.

Their officers were getting tired of that piddling kwekshit, and had decided to do something about it.

“We’re going to start patrols along a three klick band extending outward from the base, paying particular attention to the river that runs to the southwest,” they’d said.

The words ‘river’ and ‘runs’ were being used generously there. Sure, it was liquid, and it flowed… It was just more viscous and corrosive than any river Ginn was familiar with. And yellow. Insanely, the Hunters were quite happy to cross it, usually by taking a running jump, but they’d been observed fording it on long cybernetic stilts too. It didn’t seem to slow them down much.

Just looking at the damn thing made Ginn itch even worse. He hoped it was just in his head, and not some kinda protective gear failure. He really didn’t wanna get shaved.

Movement on the far bank put his itching hide straight to the back of his mind. He was manning the top gun on his claw’s Growl armored vehicle, and promptly swung it around to face the disturbance.

The natives made things… complicated. They kept sneaking up out of their tunnels and bunkers to check on the situation topside, and seeing as their language wasn’t known to the translators’ database there was nothing either species could do to talk with one another right now… and for now, the natives hadn’t come out of hiding long enough to actually make first contact.

But they were present, and they meant that Ginn had to be absolutely certain that the movement he was seeing was a Hunter before he could fire on it.

It was. But not like any Hunter he’d seen before. It was huge, as big as an IFV all by itself, and it smashed a stunted, terminally ill tree aside as it charged out of concealment and launched itself clean across the river with an earth-shaking thrust of its armored legs and a burst from four howling kinetic thrusters for good measure. It slammed into the patrol’s lead ve hicle and shoved it sideways across the trail: the Growl sagged as one of its axles broke, and was left half-spun across the trail as its gunner desperately ducked a fusion-claw swipe that would have ripped him in half.

The Hunter ignored him, and started peeling the Growl apart like a ripe fruit.

“CONTACT FORWARD!” Ginn yelled, superfluously but as per training. His weapon sector covered the Growl, which meant there was only one thing to do. He loaded an EMP shieldbreaker round into his grenade launcher, pulled mightily on the charging handle…and bounced it right off the Hunter’s head.

There wasn’t much electronic on a Growl, and what little there was lived in huge, chunky metal boxes clearly designed for some giant Stoneback fuck rather than normal people. They could handle EMP just fine, and the way the Hunter’s shielding flashed violently told Ginn his round had discharged properly.

Unfortunately, it seemed the Hunter’s systems were pretty hardened too. The grenade irritated it rather than harming it, and it turned the twisted cybernetic stump of an arm in Ginn’s direction, along with the heavy weapon mounted thereon. A storm of fat, heavy rounds sparked and flashed off his Growl’s armor.

Ginn bared his teeth behind his mask, trusted the shielding around his turret, and continued firing. He scored two, three, four more hits before the Hunter decided it wasn’t interested in the lead vehicle any longer. It delivered a parting swipe that left a partially molten gouge down the Growl’s armor and pushed it a couple paces through the mud, then pounced on Ginn’s vehicle.

A seething fusion claw sank into the armor plating in front of the turret like red-hot steel into ice. Ginn ducked down inside as another claw scalped the turret right off the roof, smashing them aside. He landed on his back, scrabbling on his chest for the carbine strapped there, and fired it upward as the Hunter worked its claws in through the ragged hole where his gun had been and started to tear the Growl open.

Somebody grabbed the back of Ginn’s armor and heaved: he was pulled out the back of the Growl by the scruff of his neck, getting clear just as one of the big Hunter’s limbs speared down and pinned their armored vehicle to the ground right through where Ginn’s belly had been.

Ginn twisted onto four-paw and retreated along with his Brothers as the Hunter wrenched its claws loose from their stricken ride with a squeal of abused metal, and casually swatted the wreckage aside. Behind it, Ginn could see somebody heaving himself out of the shattered first vehicle, weak and covered in blood.

They needed distance. No, balls, they needed to get the fuck out! They didn’t have weapons for this, and their officer wasn’t stupid.

“Fall back, point Ayu!”

Ginn and his buddies didn’t need telling twice. They retreated, sowing grenades in their wake to try and slow the Hunter. At least he’d succeeded at taking its shields down, because the big fucker actually turned and raised a limb to protect its face from fragmentation, slowing its advance.

A vulnerability.

“The eyes! Go for the eyes!!” Ginn roared, and followed his own advice. The Hunter’s head jerked and weaved as his rounds sparked off and around the plating around its seven sensor clusters: its gun-arm came up to ward off the shots, proving for definite that it was worried about damage to its eyes and head.

Byoo, a burly foot-soldier of obvious Emberpelt heritage, had a man-portable machine gun as his personal weapon. He didn’t often get to point it at a bad guy and hold down the trigger.

He did now.

Having an entire ammo belt sent into one’s eyes couldn’t be all that pleasant, and it certainly persuaded the Hunter to reconsider its approach. Instead of charging at them in a cybernetic blur as it had done just moments before, it advanged cautiously, hunkered down and shielding its most vulnerable spot.

Then it paused. It glanced back down the column, to where two more of its kind were meeting similar resistance… and as one, the three monsters retreated. They shimmered like water, vanished from sight behind the mirage-haze of personal cloaking devices, and the last that Ginn saw of them was their clawmarks in the muddy trail and the crash and sway of foliage on the far side of the river as they leapt over it and fled.

A pair of voidrippers explained the sudden retreat when they hammered past a few heartbeats later. The Unseen keep and bless close air.

Still… they were too late for too many of the unit. Now that Ginn had the chance to look around, he realized that he’d survived a bloodbath. All but one of the Growls were ruined, many of their occupants mown down by the Hunters’ guns or dismembered by their claws and teeth.

Their officer’s voice came through the helmet radio, steely and authoritative. “QRF inbound, cubs! Prep for CASEVAC, we’ve just gotta hold out a couple minutes!”

It was a tense, busy wait. Even with the voidrippers overhead to watch over them, there wasn’t a single member of the patrol who could feel anything less than shaken and vulnerable after an assault like that.

Casualties were… well, there were a couple of wounded, but those Hunters had mostly either killed outright, or failed to even scratch. There wasn’t much middle ground. Ginn watched the medics’ backs as they tended to injured, and counted himself lucky he wasn’t among the dead. He’d come far too close.

The Quick Reaction Force were Stonebacks, mostly, plus a slim wraith of a Whitecrest in that Clan’s light active-camo dropsuit. They arrived in an air transport and had the scene secured in a moment: Ginn managed to overcome his curiosity and kept his eyes, ears and nose open for danger while the dead and wounded were loaded onto the transports first, and the Whitecrest sniffed around the battlefield taking pictures, making sensor readings and apparently replaying the whole sequence of events just from marks, tracks and evidence in the ground.

The Stonebacks were full of garrulous kindness, and even praise.

“They sent the nasty fucks after ‘ya,” said one absolute mountain of a male in a chest-shakingly deep grumble. “Y’all did damn well, considerin’.”

“Doesn’t feel that way right now…” Ginn muttered, watching the CASEVAC take off with more than a few of his friends in it.

“Yeah.” Ginn felt himself being pulled into a friendly sideways hug, one which was mercifully quick. And the Stoneback won his immediate gratitude for not saying anything more, or trying to make him feel better.

Ginn was on the last transport out. He was unharmed, able-bodied, still calm and alert. It wasn’t until they were in the air en route back to the clawhold that he started to really understand what he’d just been through…

There was no mockery or disdain from the Stonebacks, though. In fact, he’d never felt more understood.

But then and there, on that flight, he let go of worrying about surviving this war. It was a clear, cold, sharp sort of moment, but it set him free. Whatever came would come, and he’d meet it. And if it killed him, so be it. It was as the Great Father willed.

But the Hunters wouldn’t take him down without a fight.

Date Point: 417th Year of the Punishment
Library bunker at Old-Bent-Leg, the Great Ruin

Ukusevi, Librarian and Keeper of the Long Chant

“Keeper! Keeper!!”

Uku woke from restless, bizarre dreams of the Before. Normally, those dreams brought her a measure of peace and comfort. She knew so much about the Before, having memorized everything the Chant said about it, that her imagination always fancied it could bring it to life in the dark behind her eyes.

Maybe it was a delusion. But normally, she found those dreams restful, but this time when she imagined the fine brick buildings and majestic, clean steam-powered tools her ancestors had made for themselves rather than the poisonous engines the Punishment forced upon them… this time she had seen strange figures in sealed clothing prowl the streets with weapons, and the Punishers clinging to the sky above.

She sat up, and her journal slipped off her pillow and fell to the floor. She recovered it and set it on a table with a whispered prayer of apology before answering the knock on the door. Books were precious, and new books that a Keeper could actually write in were… She revered them.

With the precious tome safely away from any dust, dirt and damp which might accumulate on the floor, she opened the door to her room and peered out. “…Yes?”

The boy outside chattered his teeth nervously at her. “One of the newcomers, Keeper. It’s… here. I think it wants to talk.”

Ukusevi stared at him for a second, then gestured her understanding with a jerk of her head. “…I will… note its coming in my journal,” she said. “And then I will come.”

“Yes, Keeper…” The boy scurried away. Uku watched him go, then closed the door and leaned against it heavily, turning her face upwards to the ceiling and the sky beyond.

“…Have we been punished enough, Lord?” she asked, quietly. “Is this deliverance?”

The stones didn’t answer her, nor did they shake with words of divine forgiveness. Not that she’d expected them to. So she took a deep breath, and opened her journal.

There was no such thing as scribbling a note in a Keeper’s journal. Even the hastiest, shortest entry was a record for the future, the memory of a moment that other Keepers would learn, and maybe enter into the Chant. It was, to Uku’s way of thinking, the highest kind of sacrilege to record carelessly and illegibly. So her visitor, whatever he she or it would turn out to be, could wait while she first meditated upon, and then inscribed, a few careful sentences on the page.

With that, there was no delaying any longer. She put on her cleanest robes, groomed her ears and face, chattered her teeth nervously together to compose herself, and then swept out to meet their new visitor.

It had a bodyguard, just like she did when she ventured to the surface. Those were dark, quiet, dangerous things like moving shadows, who stayed behind him and almost blended into the background. The guest, however, wore loose cloth over his protective gear. It was humbler than she’d expected—a simple gray wrapping, already bleached and stained from the poisons outside—but it still made the newcomer seem less fearsome than the ones behind it.

It had no weapon, too. Though Uku was quite sure it didn’t need one.

They stared at each other for a long moment after she arrived, in quiet. She could hear its breath hissing through some kind of valves or filters in its mask. Its ears—the guests had ears like the Penitents’, though shorter—swivelled back and forth expressively for a moment, and then it raised a hand to its face.

The mask came off with a click and a brief hiss of air pressures settling. The mask’s owner shook its head, sharply, and allowed the mask to dangle down its front.

The face Uku looked into was… familiar, in some ways. Familiar enough to be alarmingly ugly from scars and old wounds. And she trembled to see that their guest’s mouth was full of sharp meat-tearing fangs.

Its hands—more like paws, really—were full of a book, however. And without yet trying to speak, it took a half-step forward, and offered the book to Uku.

Ukusevi could hardly believe it. Numbly, she reached out, then paused, fearful that she had misunderstood this stranger’s intent. Its ears tilted slightly, then it ducked its head and placed the book in her palms before stepping back.

…What a book! Bound in black, embossed with a logo of some kind that looked rather like the newcomer’s own head over a crescent moon. The pages inside were perfectly neat and even, covered with a faint grid of regular blue dots, and the paper was crisper and whiter than any she’d seen before. She’d never held a treasure remotely like it.

The visitor spread his palm and laid it across his chest.


It was a guttural word, nearly all of it made at the back of the mouth except for the final sound where he was forced to flash his teeth. Uku couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with those teeth. They were so very different from the jagged broken-glass things that filled a Punisher’s mouth, and yet so clearly designed for a similar purpose.

But he—she decided the visitor must be male, though she honestly wasn’t certain—had come peacefully, and brought her a priceless treasure like none she’d ever held. Teeth or not, that made him…

…What? A friend? No. She would not dare hope for that much. But he was no Punisher. So she spread her own fingers, pressed them to her own chest in imitation of his gesture and spoke her own name.


“ Ookoo-suvi.” His mouth didn’t fit the word right. But it was close enough. He reached into a bag on his hip and produced a fist-sized shiny black cube, which he considered for a moment before muttering something in his own language.

To Uku’s immense surprise, the cube spoke a few garbled words of her own tongue. Most of it was nonsense, but the words “hope…. worth…paid for it…” came through. Garr-avf seemed just as surprised as she was, if she judged rightly from the way his stubby, ruined ears moved.

“Huh.” He looked her in the eye, made a curious ducking, shrugging motion, and sat on the floor. He spoke clearly and carefully, and a moment later the cube did its thing again.

“We speak. It learn words.”

Uku nodded her understanding, then turned to the boys behind her. “…Fetch my pens,” she instructed. “Carefully.”

There was only one thing she could possibly record in a book like the one he’d given her. So she waited, itching to ask the most burning question, while the boys darted away to fetch her pens. They were back swiftly, and she sat too, opened the book to its first page and, with a glance at Garr-avf to confirm that she was free to write in it, she put pen to page.

It accepted the ink gracefully and smoothly, held it well. The pen flowed easily over the paper, leaving behind clear letters.

‘Librarian and Keeper Ukusevi records that today is the four hundred and seventeenth year of the Punishment,’ she wrote. ‘The third day since the towers fell and new people came to wage war on the Punishers. And a guest has come. He—I believe him to be male, though in truth I do not know—gave me this book as a greeting, and named himself as…’ here she switched to the phonetic alphabet that Keepers used to record the exact pronunciation of a word, right down to its accents and intonations. She noted Garr-avf’s name, tested it silently in her mouth to be sure she’d recorded it exactly as she had heard it, then nodded to herself.

‘I do not know how his tools know our language already, but they do in a crude fashion. He says, quote: “We speak, It learn words.” So we shall converse. But first, I must ask the question that has burned my insides from the moment these newcomers first appeared…’

She looked him firmly in the eye.

“…Are you here to save us?” she asked.

Garr-avf’s reply was simple, direct, and left no room for doubt. And finally, the hope that had made Uku feel so sick in the preceding days turned into genuine relief and wonder. He duck-nodded his head again, looked her back just as firmly, and spoke a single word.


Date Point: 16y11m3d AV
Clawhold, planet Mordor, Hunter space

Fiin, Champion of Stoneback

“The same model from the ring?”

“Same general design. Some upgrades. The HEAT and First fang had Keeda’s ass of a time with the first model, and now we’re seeing several of them. They won’t brave our anti-armor, but they can cut a Growl open like I’d gut a kwek.”

“Casualties?” Fiin asked.

“…Significant.” Father Giru growled and flicked his ear. “They’re shy about letting us shoot their heads, but those shields of theirs can take a couple of EM grenades before failing. Plenty of time for them to cause mayhem before they retreat, and the voidrippers can’t catch them once they’re cloaked.”

“How many are there?”

“Maybe two dozen that we know of. Hard to tell: they’re fast. Minimum of eighteen. More soon, probably.”

Fiin considered his map. “We need to get our own armor on the field in response.”

“Our own armor’s a lot slower, Champion. The Hunters will run circles around them.”

“I need options, Father. If I assign claws to the Grand Army, that severely limits what we can do elsewhere.”

Giru made a thoughtful noise. “…Refitting the Growls might help. A different weapon. The EM rounds drop their shields and make ‘em skittish, but from what I’ve seen so far the best counter to these nutless fucks is to send a sackload of bullets their way. They’re not that heavily armored once you’re past the shielding.”

“So…bigger guns, more bullets, more EMP grenades. Still gonna be a meat grinder.”

“Those fusion claws take our armor apart. And they’re quick enough to close the distance if they ambush from cloak, and while they’re cloaked we can’t see ‘em. Wish I had a good option for you, My Champion, but the only solution I can see is up-gunning the Growls.”

Fiin restrained a sigh. Hopefully the Whitecrests would succeed in bagging one and then they’d have a more direct counter, but until then Giru was right. There wasn’t an ideal fix, just a step in the right direction.

“…Right. Make it so. I want every Growl comin’ through the Arrays from now on to have the meanest, biggest guns we can fit on ‘em. While we’re at it, re-deploy Third Fang as direct attach to the patrolling claws. If we can swing it, I want ‘em able to respond in a few heartbeats. Get First Fang on hot standby too, and get ‘ em ready for big game hunting.”

“Yes, My Champion!” Giru ducked his head respectfully, and departed.

That was one order of business addressed, at least. Fiin shook himself to try and relieve some of the itching under his protective gear, then turned to the next issue.

“Any news from Father Garaaf?”

“He’s made peaceful contact, Champion.”

“Good…” Well, that was one fewer concern at least. Not that Fiin had been really worried that the natives would turn out to be fanatically loyal to the Hunters, but it was good to know that there was a dialogue happening.

Back to the Huntertanks. Those were by far the worst threat to his invasion, which meant he needed to attack them, decisively. To do that, however, he needed to know where they were coming from.

He contacted Fourth Fang. Their motto—‘Sniff Around a Bit’—was entirely relevant right now, and indeed missions like identifying the source of an enemy armored force was exactly what they were for.

They had leads, thanks to the JETS team. With luck, one of those would be a jackpot.

It had better be.

Date Point: 16y11m3d AV
Tunnel warren near the Clawhold, Planet Mordor, Hunter Space

Garaaf, Father of Clan Whitecrest

Ukusevi reminded Garaaf of some of the other aliens he’d seen during his time aboard the ring. Many had been broken by the knowledge of where they were, what was inevitably to become of them, what they saw around them every day…

…Others, however, had hardened into something hot and sharp. Those had been the ones who dreamed of a slave uprising, who stockpiled resources against tomorrow, who tried to find places to hide where the Hunters could not find them. He’d been one such himself.

The difference was, Ukusevi was more than just a person. She was a walking, talking, passionate library. Her faculties of recollection were staggering, and the precision and clarity with which she recounted her people’s history was… well, Garaaf hadn’t expected half so much. Though a lot of what she shared was more than a little alarming.

For one thing, there was the literal translation of her species’ name. As a rule, a species only named themselves once they became conscious of the existence of other intelligences, and so the word “Gao” for instance served both for the species, and for the planet where Gao lived. The same went for the Rauwryhr, the Locayl and the Robalin. There were a lot of xenopsychology papers on what it meant for a species to use the same word to refer both to themselves and their homeworld, and the degree of connection such behaviour implied, but Garaaf had hitherto considered most of them to be speculative nonsense.

He was beginning to reevaluate that opinion.

Most species had a self-name that more-or-less just translated as “Us” or “people,” and then a word for their homeworld that effectively meant “place where the people live.” That was the Guvnurag, the Vzk’tk, the Chehnash, the Versa Volc… and the Corti, whose homeworld-name “Origin” was perhaps the most bluntly on-the-nose of anyone’s.

Humans and Ten’Gewek shared a quirk in that their homeworld-names mentioned their species only obliquely at best. The latter lived on All-Things-Under-Sky-Place, while the English word Earth had more than thirty synonyms, none of which directly referred to Humanity. Both species thought of their planet as something other than themselves, something bigger and grander and more, while they themselves were just guests… or custodians at most.

But the natives of Mordor? Their name for themselves was unique, to Garaaf’s knowledge. They had a word for “people,” but never used it to refer to themselves. Instead, their species in the distant past were E-rith-ir, “The Wicked/Vile/Wrong/Sinful People,” and their species in the here-and-now were E-skurel-ir: “The Penitent/Regretful/Contrite/Sorrowful People.”

According to Ukusevi and her Long Chant, the Hunters were divine punishment: The Wicked People had Sinned, in some great way. By some hubris or fault, by some disorder of thought or some failure to hit the mark, they had angered the Almighty sufficiently for Him to send down the most awful of His angels, and Correct them.

And now, here was Garaaf, playing the role of… what? A different kind of angel? A divine parole officer? Justice incarnate? Whatever he was, his entire species was, too. That was going to make the inevitable contact between the E-skurel-ir leadership and the Great Father…


…Garaaf had no idea how they were going to navigate a minefield like that.

Well, start small. Be truthful, but be artful about the truth. Be gentle, like water in a stream. Even the gentlest of currents could erode mountains, given enough time…

“I cannot truthfully claim to know or understand the history you have told me. I can say only that the… Punishers, as you call them, are a great enemy of ours, and we would do very much to see them destroyed.”

Ukusevi looked confused, if the translator was reading her right. Or at least, her head-tilt and the faint twitch of nose and ear were conveyed to Garaaf’s heads-up display alongside a probability table, with confusion firmly at the top.

“…Do you not serve the Almighty?”

“I cannot honestly claim to have directly received orders from the Almighty…” Garaaf ventured.

“Then you are here only because your enemies are here.” Ukusevi’s expression shifted, and the probability table, after a moment’s thought, reshuffled ‘crestfallen/disappointed’ to the top of the list, with a healthy dose of ‘worried/troubled’ as a secondary modifier.

Dangerous ground this. Very, very dangerous ground. To be an enemy of the Punishers was to be an enemy of divine justice. To be an enemy of divine justice, conceivably, was to be another Wicked People. Best to address that before it became an issue.

“There is…very much we will need to teach you. I think it will be eye-opening and painful. Best we take it slowly. So, let’s start from the beginning. My people are here to liberate this world from the Punishers. Whatever else that may mean to you and your kind…well, one of our allied peoples have a saying: ‘The Almighty works in mysterious ways.’ Take that as you will.”

“We know that lesson well,” Ukusevi agreed, morosely. “…There are others like you?”

“Good friends, who came to my people’s aid when the Hunt—the Punishers descended upon us.”

“And they know of the Almighty and His ways?”

“Different people…know the Almighty by different means. I can’t speak for them.”

The translator completely gave up on trying to process the succession of emotions that paraded across Ukusevi’s mobile, expressive features. There was a lot of troubled in there, though. Garaaf had some inkling by now of what was going on in the Keeper’s thoughts, but he was wrestling with an alien intellect, an alien way of looking at things.

Perhaps Gyotin would have been a better choice for this.

But then again, how could they have known? No, Garaaf’s selection made sense, at least for first contact. Second contact and later might well be somebody else’s responsibility, somebody with the theological insight and mindset to really engage with the so-called Penitents… But here and now, the responsibility fell to Garaaf.

He decided to move back onto more firm ground. “Let’s lay aside the why and whether for now,” he proposed. “And focus on what. What do your people need? We can bring food, and medicine for the sick. We can provide air filters, and make these tunnels safe.”

Ukusevi looked almost stunned. “…You have already given us a priceless gift,” she breathed, laying a hand on her journal, “and you offer more?”

“We came here to aid your people,” Garaaf reminded her. “That book is a gesture of intent, not the limit of our ability.”

Ukusevi glanced behind her, as though the hovering, poisoned figures watching from the shadows might have something to contribute. She tilted her head, slow-flicked both ears, then looked back to Garaaf.

“…Garaaf of the Gao… We have lived a long time under this Punishment,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “I want to believe that our deliverance has finally come. But much of what you have said raises difficult questions. There are many who will worry that you are a temptation, a chance to return to the sinful past. I thank you for your gesture of intent, but I cannot accept any more of your aid, for now. Not hastily.”


“I… understand your caution,” Garaaf said out loud. “I should warn you, though: the war outside is not going to stop. Not until the Hunters, as we call them, are driven from this place or dead. We will do what we can to do no harm to your people, but they will not be so honorable. Long delay will place your people in jeopardy.”

Ukusevi stood, slowly. “My people are in jeopardy anyway,” she retorted. “In body and in soul. I thank you for your warning, and your gift. But I think you should go now. Please… return tomorrow.”

Garaaf duck-nodded. He stood to, gathered the translator, reciprocated Ukusevi’s cordial bow, and retreated back toward the surface, putting his protective gear back on.

“That could have gone worse,” Brother Asku opined through his mask as they climbed the steps back toward the surface access.

“You’re an optimistic cub at heart, Asku,” Garaaf replied, wearily. “That could have gone a lot better.”

“Peaceful contact, honest truth, a respectful parting…” Yaamo mused as they reached the door at the top. “I’m with Asku, that could have gone much worse.”

Garaaf sighed, and accepted their encouragement with a duck-shrug. “…I suppose,” he agreed after a second. “But there are thorns coming, I know it.”

“There always are, Father.”

Garaaf chittered. “When did this Clan get so upbeat?” he asked. “I went away for a few years and they stopped teaching you pups how to be properly pessimistic.”

“I don’t know how ‘there are always thorns coming’ is optimistic, but okay… Surface access is clear. Camo active.”

Garaaf took off the robe he’d put on to soften his profile, and duck-nodded appreciatively as their suits shimmered and activated their active camo. A Whitecrest who knew how to properly remain still could blend almost seamlessly into his surroundings in that suit, and while he’d first grumpily thought of them as a technological crutch… the truth was, they took the Clan’s already effective training and added a little something more.

“Forward Base Kuro, Envoy. We’re coming up.”

In efficient silence, they exfiltrated the native warrens. The surface was the same warzone it had been when they entered: a Grand Army platoon had established a forward operating base above the entrance, with overhead shields, an interceptor turret for destroying incoming mortar rounds and missiles, a couple of anti-tank missile launchers, and plenty of good cover. Garaaf’s escort acknowledged them with a raised paw, the loaded onto their vehicle, and head back to base.

It wasn’t far back to the Clawhold, and nothing particularly eventful happened except for the heavy roar of a fire mission from Grand Army artillery, and a pair of voidrippers coming in to land.

“The problem,” Garaaf said, resuming the conversation, “is that what they say to each other is out of our control. If they collectively decide that we’re a kind of Wicked People ourselves, here to tempt them and defy their god’s will…”

“That will, sadly, be their decision to refuse aid. That does not much impact the larger mission.”

“It directly impacts the mission the Great Father gave me,” Garaaf retorted. “Which I intend to carry out as well as I possibly can.”

“He would have it no other way, I’m sure.”

“Even if he would, I wouldn’t.” Garaaf wished he could take his mask off and scratch a small itch on the side of his muzzle. “All this religious stuff is… I’m out of my depth. I didn’t get through the Ring on faith, I got through it on practicality and sound tactics.”

“You aren’t a whole civilization, Father.”

“…No. I’m not.” Garaaf looked up as they approached the Clawhold’s security checkpoint. “…Who do we know who’s good at thinking on that kind of scale? Other than the Great Father and the Mother-Consort? And Champion Gyotin?”

“Why not Gyotin?” Yaamo asked.

“He has enough responsibility and very little room for more.” Garaaf shook his head. “Besides, if I let him he’d stick a funnel down my throat and pour tea into me until I burst.”

“…There are worse ways to go, I guess.”

“Be that as it may, although Champion Gyotin makes a point of having time for everyone, I think this particular problem would consume more of it than he can afford,” Garaaf said. “I need somebody who can devote an indefinite amount of time and thought.”

“A Brother from his Clan, perhaps? They’re not all meek little males, after all…”

“Maybe…” Garaaf considered that. “If some unit can spare their chaplain…”

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“I don’t believe in spirits or gods. But many do, and I am nobody to dissuade them. Besides, some random Grand Army Starmind-associate chaplain is probably no more qualified for this than I am, really. Gyotin and the Fathers of Starmind might spend their time in high contemplation of the deep mysteries of the Infinite and all that stuff, but right now what I really need is somebody who understands religion as a tool that cultures use. Somebody who knows how faith works on the level of whole societies. And it needs to be somebody who actually has the time to hear this situation out and think about it good and hard.”

The two Brothers looked at each other, then produced identical helpless duck-shrugs.

“If that person exists, it will be someone in Champion Gyotin’s orbit. You’ll need to ask him anyway.”

“…Yes, I suppose you’re right.” Garaaf sighed.

“What’s the problem, Father?”

“…I hate tea.”

Asku and Yaamo chittered at that one, and Garaaf allowed a small one himself. He’d call the Starminds, of course he would. This was the sort of problem they existed to confront. But he was allowed to grumble.

He just hoped that they could move fast enough and come up with some good advice before the natives made up their own minds…

Date Point: 16y11m4d AV
Planet ‘Mordor’, Hunter Space

Traan, Warleader of Fourth Fang

Some words just weren’t up to the job. Like… there were times when a ‘Back ran into something so perverse, so twisted, so wrong that none of those words even worked any more.

For those situations, Traan had to fall back on ‘fucked up.’

Turned out the Hunters weren’t bringing their tank-things to the planet, so at least the farthrow up on Destroying Fury was working properly. But the process of turning a regular Hunter into one of those tanks was one hundred percent, undiluted, jaw-dropping fucked up, ‘cuz as far as Traan could tell it involved throwing away most of the Hunter’s body.

Like… a whole Hunter went in. And what came out the other end was a mouth, a brain and a digestive tract buried deep inside an otherwise entirely mechanical creation. As far as the Hunters were concerned, it seemed like literally every other part of their anatomy was disposable.

So whatever was going on in that factory was basically an insane surgical abattoir married to a high-tech robotics plant.

And it was powered by a fission plant. Great.

At least, it was probably a fission plant. Atmospheric readings said it wasn’t producing any CO2, and the warning signs up around the place were the ones the analysts thought the Hunters used for radiation hazards, which wouldn’t fit with fusion. And there were plenty of advantages to a fission plant over a fusion plant.

The visible overhead forcefields were a pretty good hint, too.

Fourth Fang used Whitecrest active camo tech in their reconnaissance missions. After all, the Whitecrests were the undisputed masters of slippery slinking and sliding. The major difference was that Fourth Fang could “go loud” in a more Stoneback way.

Still. Up until the War, Clan Stoneback had focused mostly on civilian pursuits. Engineering, farming, skilled heavy labor, all the fundaments of a working civilization. Traan himself had been a highway maintenance engineer. The Clan’s military tradition had been just that: a tradition, kept alive in peacetime and mostly used to pad out mating pedigrees.

But the Whitecrests had always been dedicated to security operations. Which was why Fourth Fang never went anywhere without a couple of their spooky little friends.

Brothers Neeyo and Akuuvi were some distance forward of Traan’s vantage point, inserting themselves fully into the facility while the Stonebacks watched from the perimeter, being the eyes in the backs of their heads. It was tense, quiet work: terse, whispered instructions in Whitecrest battle-cant, delivered via line-of-sight infrared laser.

“Mother doesn’t know,” for instance, told Neeyo and Akuuvi that the Hunter patrol they’d remained absolutely still for was now past, and the enemy was not alerted, meaning they could move again.

The cant was all monosyllabic and playfully guttural. Much like Stoneback’s own, though they were so completely different they were effectively separate languages. Traan didn’t know what weird quirk of Whitecrest humor had turned ‘mother’ into their universal term for hostiles, but then again the whole Clan liked to pick the most mischievous cubs. The earnest, honest ones who did what they were told and scrubbed up properly for lunchtime were of no interest to Whitecrest: They wanted the troublemakers, the scoundrels, the pantry-raiders and prank-players.

Neeyo and Akuuvi must have terrorized their commune-mothers.

All that skulking around was necessary, though. Although the Fury and the Vengeance overhead between them had the resources to atomize the factory, shields or no shields, there were two obstacles in the way. First, the fact that it had that fission power plant, so smashing it from orbit would have just added to the local environment’s already severe hazardous materials problems…

And second, there was a warren of the natives nearby. Traan wasn’t shy about how much he enjoyed killin’ him some Hunters, but their little defenseless victims? Balls no.

All of that meant they needed a kinder, gentler approach to their vengeful, bloody rampage. And the first step of kinder, gentler slaughter was recon.

The two Whitecrests froze halfway up an outside wall as a transport ship lumbered in overhead. It swung fatly round in the air and parked itself directly outside a huge door, which promptly rolled up to reveal another half-dozen of those modified Hunters. They, unlike their transport, moved with speed and grace as they scuttled up the ship’s ramp and into its yawning interior.

Those were more tank-Hunters that were gonna tear through Traan’s little buddies in the Grand Army. They’d seen enough; time to do something about it.

But those damn shields…


The invasion was a helluva big operation, and there was a lot Traan didn’t know. But he’d learned the art of seeing the patterns in his knowledge gaps. And right now…

“…How exactly did the Humans earm us our foothold, anyway?”

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 – Implications

CopRit Empire, Halfil Sol 25 Of Race 4 Year 4958 Monty Publishing House, New Baltimore Slowly gathering myself I stepped into the hologram chamber, the projection flickered and the simulation automatically paused as I stepped in. I quickly looked around to get my bearings, I appeared to be on a starship bridge enduring greatly exaggerated

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Sweetness – Chapter 4 (NSFW)

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Sweetness – Chapter 3 (NSFW)

CopRit Empire Sol 77 Of Race 7 Year 4957 PackRat IV, 5 Months out from Halfil I slammed into to deck plating. Coughing, I rolled over onto my side and vomited on the floor, trying to get over the fact that everything was spinning around me. “You know, Humans have perhaps one of the most

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Sweetness – Chapter 2 (NSFW)

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

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Sweetness – Chapter 1 (NSFW)

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

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Shades of White and Orange

Sneaking forwards Kalif slowly tilted his ears to either side and waited in the darkness. Not sensing anything he slowly crept forwards towards the statue, and the artifacts in its base. Slithering as silently as possible Kalif focused his eyes on the objects, as if afraid they might disappear at any time. Reaching the statue

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Mother Earth

Mother Earth. She’s a bitch. A hard ass bitch who tortured every form of life that she brought forth onto her surface. Every life form on her surface had to fight, feed and fuck. After that she didn’t care about what happened, only that they had improved on themselves perhaps a little bit. Life on

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Nyx fired off another shot from her rifle and the Prod nearly 800 meters down the street jerked and ducked into an ally. She frowned and sharpened her gaze on the point where the purple mass had disappeared, looking for the telltale red fragments on the pavement. “More of ’em?” asked Iyo, he was whispering

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Adam, Artemis, Atlas, & Icarus Part 2

The data streams slammed into me. With practiced ease, I pushed them aside and forced myself to view the data from afar. To not see it as billions of lines of code, but rather as the small white room that any other human would see. Floating in the center of that white room was Artemis,

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Adam, Artemis, Atlas, & Icarus Part 1

0 days Adam “You’re insane.” “Your point is what?” She rolled her eyes and tightened the straps holding me to the chair. “The point is that someone who can’t move shouldn’t really be this snippy.” She gestured at the plethora of medical equipment around us. “I’m sure I can do some interesting things with all

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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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