The Deathworlders – Chapter 62: Tooth and Claw Part 3

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

Ukusevi, Librarian and Keeper of the Long Chant

For the first time in living memory, the library was in uproar.

Libraries were silent, not just out of reverence for the knowledge they protected, but out of fear that the Punishers might detect them if their inhabitants moved or spoke too loudly. The Long Chant was the loudest thing the Penitents ever dared to utter, and even that was only ever a little louder than an ordinary conversation.

For now, however, Ukusevi was whispering it fretfully to herself as bedlam boiled all around her.

The Long Chant was… it was lore. It was the truth. It was history. It couldn’t be wrong.

…Could it?

Garr-avf had called the Punishers “Hunters” instead. He’d known them as something different, as… well, as a mere foe. A mortal and hated foe, to be sure, but just an enemy. Not an instrument of divine will. Not judgement incarnate.

None of the possibilities opened by that attitude were pleasant ones.

Possibility number one: That these “Gao” were another, subtler kind of Punisher, sent to test the Penitents. Everything Garaaf had spoken had been a lie, or a distortion of the truth calculated to present Ukusevi and her people with an opportunity to step backwards, to fall back into the wicked ways of the past.

Possibility number two: That there was a war in heaven, and the Almighty had no control over His angels. That the Almighty, in short, was not almighty.

Or… and perhaps worst of all… Possibility number three: That the beings that Ukusevi had known as Punishers her whole life were nothing of the sort, and that her people, rather than paying the price for some past crime, were simply the victims of cruel, blind misfortune. That the Almighty was either blind or indifferent to their suffering…

…Or else didn’t exist at all.

And so she whispered the Chant feverishly to herself, searching fearfully, desperately through all the syllables she had so diligently learned in her childhood and repeated so fervently throughout her adult life. The clear space around her was strewn with books as she hunted for the question that had always scratched away at the back of her mind.

What exactly had her ancestors done?

That was the great mystery, of course. What exactly was the crime the Penitent had inherited the punishment for? For all any of them knew, they were still perpetuating it, somehow. The Punishers had certainly never uttered a word on the subject, they simply demanded fear and hard work, and slew as they pleased. No-one and nothing had ever communicated to the Penitents exactly what they should change. It had been an article of faith for so long that it fell to them to identify and repair the fault in their souls by themselves.

Garr-avf was the first voice from a third faction that anyone had ever heard. And rather than deliver a message of what exactly it was that the Almighty wanted of His faithful, Garr-avf had instead delivered confusion, and diplomatic caution.

She briefly entertained possibility number four: that the Punishers had instead been sent by an adversary of some kind, and it was the Gao who were the Almighty’s angels of vengeance, sent to correct matters. But then.. Why so late? Why more than four hundred years?

Or was that just the second possibility seen in a different way? A war in heaven? Limits on divine omnipotence? Or could it not be a different angle on the first possibility, with the Gao as agents of this adversary?

The Long Chant contained no answers. None of the books did, either. All they helped her find were more questions, until her stomach boiled with anxiety.

She became aware that somebody was trying to get her attention. One of the children.

Children were raised in the libraries. Ukusevi certainly had been. It was the only way for them to grow at all safe and strong from the poisons and slavering jawed teeth that waited on the surface.

It was only after having a litter of children of their own and becoming an adult that the Penitents took on their Punishment on the surface. Until then, they tended the books, kept the place clean, learned to read, learned some of the Long Chant while the Librarians kept an eye on them and selected the ones who showed promise and good memories for training.

That had been the system for four hundred years, and it had, so Ukusevi thought, worked.

Now, her whole world was so disordered that even something as simple a child trying to respectfully get her attention took her several stupid seconds to process.

“…Sorry. Yes?”

“They… they want the Librarian’s insight, Keeper…” the child informed her. Teeisyo, Ukusevi remembered. The little one’s name was Teeisyo. A boy, which meant that in a few years, after he’d fathered some children, he’d be off to the surface to work hard and die young.

…That thought crystallized something in her mind.

She thanked him with a tilt of her head, respectfully closed and stacked her books—Teeisyo hastened to collect them and return them to their proper place—took up the journal that Garr-avf had given her, and joined the bickering dozens gathered in the middle of her library.

Everyone was inside, for a change. For many of the adults, it was a chance to care for themselves: to cleanse the sores and wounds on their skin, to sleep properly, to eat enough. But everyone had an opinion about the Gao and what their coming meant. The hubbub died as she joined them.

“You’ve been thinking hard, Keeper,” one of the older women, Kuesevari, said. “We’ve missed your voice.”

Ukusevi nodded wearily. Thinking was exhausting work, and the weight of it was settling on her now that she’d landed on something resembling a conclusion.

“I imagine I know the question you want me to answer, but ask it,” she invited, finding a table to perch herself on.

One of the young men, Defeesk, looked around at this fellows, then took the initiative.

“…We’re worried,” he said. “The Punishment is… it’s meant to be a holy thing. Right? But we all know what this Garr-avf said, and…”

“And you’re wondering how anything holy can be fought,” Uku finished for him. “You’re worried if it means that these Gao are wicked ones themselves, or a temptation or test. Or worse, you’re worried sick by other nagging ideas that won’t go away that you can’t help but worry are blasphemy.”

Bobbing heads told her that they were all singing the same chord.

“…Here and now,” she said carefully, “nothing is blasphemy. Nothing is true. Not even the Chant.”

There were a few shocked gasps, which she raised a paw to intercept. “I know. I’ve been agonizing over this myself. But I think we have come to a moment where we must question everything. We are just mortal after all, and we are Punished. We know ourselves to be flawed… Maybe we have been misinterpreting things. We must at least consider that. Maybe that is what the coming of the Gao means: that we are still wrong, and we must correct ourselves again.”

She considered the book in her hands, then waved it at them. “…Garr-avf gave me this,” she said. “A blank book, to record history in. Not a single word on any of its pages. No history, no parable, no advice. And I think… I think sometimes, a blank page can say much. The Gao have come, and the first thing they gave us is a blank page to write our future on.”

She looked around at the whole library, then stood up again. Suddenly, she was no longer exhausted.

“Look at what we built! Look at what we protect so fervently!! Look at this very library!!!” Ukusevi swept her arm around to indicate all that they had protected from the Punishers for so long. “…If we truly believe we are being punished by the Almighty, then why do we cling to the past so? If the past was wicked, and vile, then is preserving it not wickedness?”

Shocked silence. She gathered her robes and took a deep breath. “…It’s time we stopped… lying to ourselves,” she said, more quietly. “We know what is right, and what is evil. Ask yourself, in your belly, does it feel evil to wish to preserve ourselves through our knowledge and our history? Does it feel wrong to hide from the… things above us? To wish for a life without fear? To long for something more than a childhood spent cowering and an adulthood spent dying?”

She asked that last question while looking toward Teeisyo. The boy noticed, glanced around uncomfortably, and moved closer to his mother for comfort.

Ukusevi sighed heavily. “…The Long Chant says only that we sinned,” she said. “It doesn’t say what our sin was. And search as we might, no Librarian has ever found something so terrible in our past that this seems like a fair reply!” she gestured around her, and above toward the surface. “Maybe that’s blasphemy, but… is there anybody here who will look me in the eye and tell me they haven’t doubted? Those of you who’ve held your children in your arms, will you claim that they deserve to be punished when we don’t even know what they’re to be punished for?”

She looked around. A few met her gaze. Some looked away. A few were coldly, silently furious with her. One or two muttered among themselves at the back, nodding their agreement.

But, there was no taking back what she’d just said At long last, a lifetime of doubts had been set free, and as Librarian and Keeper she was duty-bound to record her own words. Everything she’d just spoken, for better or worse, would become part of the Long Chant.

That being so, there was no reason to take back her words. She kept her head up, rather than lower her gaze and thereby rescind her challenge to the congregation. “…For all we know, the test the Almighty has given us is to reject the Gao… or the test might be to embrace them,” she said. “I don’t know. I don’t. All I have is my belly, and it screams at me that these Gao are…”

She hesitated, realizing that she didn’t know what the next word was. So, lamely, she cleared her throat and settled for ending the sentence on an inadequate “…something good.”

Now, the library was utterly quiet. Her faltering confession resonated softly among the books, and faded.

“Choose for yourselves,” she said, once it was gone. “Go and suffer, if you feel that is what the Almighty demands. Stay, if you hope as I do. May those in the right be uplifted, and those in the wrong be shown mercy. I do not know which I am…”

And on that timid, unsatisfying note, she ran out of composure. She hugged her new book to her belly and fled to her private room, a luxury that only Keepers were afforded. The ghost of an unspoken, unresolved ‘but’ hung in the air behind her.

The silence was louder than mere uproar could ever be.

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

Ferd Given-Man

“Looks like we get to repeat our last trick, Superchunk. We’re already on our way. C’mon, up you go, gotta get suited up!”

Sky-People waged big war. Big, and fast, and too much of everything for Ferd to wrap his tail around. And it was tiring. The People had been Given strong and blink-quick muscles by the gods, and that meant they had tough bodies that could do much more than any of the sky-peoples. Ferd himself was gods-blessed with huge strength and good, stone-hard shape even next to most other Given-Men. But the Taking that came with such a strong Giving, was that the People needed…more. More food. More sleep. More air, and Ferd needed lots more than his men. The gods had blessed the People’s place-under-the-sky with much of everything the land could Give, but there was always a Taking to ensure the balance.

Humans, for example: they mostly had small and soft bodies, not enough meat on them to be quick and strong like the People. But, they were clever, with clever hands. They were wise and perceptive. They could go and go and go. Long after Ferd’s arms and legs felt dead, long after his whole body was too heavy to lift and his every muscle sang with pain, Humans could keep going. And they barely needed to sleep, it seemed! They liked a good full night as much as any man of the Tribes, but a Human could get by on very little if he really needed to.

And Gaoians could make do with even less! Most of them were very small and even weaker, but speed was a strength too, and so was their nose! Tooko ate almost nothing!

The Humans Ferd knew could do plenty with not much, and they were the kinds of things Ferd appreciated: climb trees, knap knives, hunt food, travel the land, move all day. He found himself jealous of that at first, though the Humans had shown him that he could be strong at that too. But it took so much painful and tiring work to train up!

Wild seemed to love that slow-run they called ‘jogging.’ Ferd…didn’t, but he worked very hard so he could keep up with his little Human friends. He wasn’t far behind now. Soon! He’d never thought of slow-running as strong, but he’d never thought he’d be able to keep galloping along for an entire day either, or that it would be so gods-blessed useful.

The Humans had much they could teach the People. Ferd was a good learner.

After their glorious raid, and after decon, and the celebration, and after Wild had strongly said no to any other kind of play…too bad. Maybe next time! Ferd enjoyed himself wrassling everyone until they were crushed into submission, but before long, tiredness fell upon him and his men fiercely. The Humans grew sleepy too, but they seemed to recover so fast…

But! They’d had a couple days to rest. They’d had a chance to eat good food, and Ferd’s belly was hard with a hearty meal gurgling happily inside him. Pretty soon he’d have wanted to do something strong to put that food to good use, and he knew that would start to annoy Wild…

Now they had another raid, where the People’s strength could help the sky-tribes. So Ferd heaved himself out of his bed and pushed himself upright, using his tail to bounce to his feet. The ship’s gravity was turned up nice and high to help keep them strong. Good! Ferd bounced in place and enjoyed the weighty feeling of strength it gave him.

“What’s the mission?” His ‘English’ was getting better every day.

“Pretty similar to last time. Check it out.” Wild had maps on the table, sent up from the world below.

Silent But Deadly was resting in a large chamber aboard another ship, the Raining Vengeance. They were protected and well-supplied inside the bigger ship, but pretty much stuck on the smaller ship by rules and by the way everything in the Vengeance was built for slim little Gao. Most of the ship-paths were fine, but some of the little holes they climbed through were much too small. Ferd couldn’t even get one of his legs through some of them! And most of the buttons and things were too small for his hands anyway.

He’d spent most of his exploring-time stuck to the food-room and the big nest-bed rooms, whenever his little friends invited him. They fed him well with lots of good meat, and they’d started to tell boasting stories to each other…

Ferd wondered if he’d meet them again. He could wrassle them too!

Frasier, Rees, Tooko, Nomuk, Tumik, and Genn were already at the table, studying the maps, and Ferd leaned in over Tooko’s head to take a look.

It was one of those ‘sat-a-light’ pictures, the ones from a long, long way up, and it showed a square compound of big ugly buildings around a yard with steel rails running into it.

Wild tapped the picture. “This maximum fun-and-sunshine land is a Hunter tank factory,” he said, simply. “Regular Hunters go in, have most of their body amputated, come out as a rapid armored assault unit that’s playing merry hell with Grand Army patrols near the Clawhold.”

Ferd shivered from the top of his crest right down to his tail. The ‘Hunters’ sinned against their own bodies! How could anybody do such an evil thing?!

Tooko squirmed a bit in Ferd’s grasp, so he grunted and loosened up. He hadn’t even realized he’d hugged his little friend close and he had to be careful; it wouldn’t take much to hurt him.

“There’s a Fourth Fang unit and a couple of Whitecrests already watching the place, and the Whitecrests have successfully infiltrated the compound. Problem is, their mission was recon, so they didn’t have dump webs with them. Which wouldn’t have mattered anyway, since they’re also not nearly strong enough to carry the big dump webs like we have.”

Ferd, Nomuk, Tumik and Genn grinned at each other knowingly.

Wild indulged them for a second, then got back on task. “So, we’re going to meet up with them and bring our toys. We’re going to go in quick and quiet, kill the shield emitters on the roof and deploy targeting beacons for precision orbital strikes, then get out so the Vengeance can put the factory out of commission.”

He reverse-pinched outwards with his fingers, and the picture zoomed in. “The large building in the south-west seems to be the actual production facility. That’s our first and most important target. Adjacent to that is shipping and receiving, our secondary target. Third target, up here in the right-hand corner, is believed to be quarters and admin. Finally, this in the south-east corner is a nuclear power station, which we are leaving intact.”

“Only raid important bit like last time, yes?” Ferd checked.

“That’s right. We have friends along for the ride this time, and they’ve already done some of the work for us. It’s thanks to them that we know which building is which and what we’re going to hit. But the stakes are the same as last time: keep it quiet, quick, and clean. Last thing we want is a Barney with those bloody tank things…. Though just in case, we’re taking along some Javelins.”

Not long ago, Ferd would have bounced excitedly at that news. He’d only got to use those weapons once, in training! And in his heart, he was still a little eager to see what they did to a real enemy…

But he’d seen too much since coming to more-door to really feel that way, now. This was a serious fight to the death, not just a playful raid to let another tribe know who was stronger and more cunning, who got the first fucks with the prettiest women. If they needed those javelins…

Wild caught his eye, held his attention for a second, then nodded and carried on with the briefing.

“…SBD will drop us here, south of the facility, an hour after local sunset,” he said, pulling the map back out. “Fourth Fang, Second Claw are waiting for us here, in this stand of trees. Two Brothers of Clan Whitecrest have infiltrated the compound and are hidden among the atmosphere filters on the roof of the cargo building, here. We’re going to link up with Fourth Fang, hand them some Javelins, and then together you’ll be climbing the building. We’ll be keeping the perimeter clear.”

Ferd and his men nodded seriously. They knew this was something only they could do.

“When you get up there, hand off the targeting beacons to the Whitecrests. They’ll place them for best effect. Each of you find a buddy and stick to him, got it? You’re their egress because you can just jump down and you won’t even notice the added weight. You focus on getting to the shield generators here, here and here. All of them are in protective shacks, so…hulks smash. Wait ‘till the signal, then tear it apart, emplace your dump web, grab your Whitecrest buddy, and get the fuck down.”

“That will be like punching a stinger-nest again, yes?”

“Yup. When those shields go down, they’ll bring out absolutely everything. The orbital strikes should do most of the work for us, but our first priority will be getting back to the ship alive. No showing off, lads.”

“We won’t!” Ferd said a bit indignantly. He knew the Humans were wary of their ‘monkey-fun’ as they named it, but still. “Raid not time to flex or fuck! We fight first.”

“Relax, mate, I was talking to Reesy.”

“Fuck, and I was going to whip it out and have a quick wank just to show them who’s boss…” Rees snorted.

Genn slapped his back. “Is okay, Rees. I hold you like woman when we come back! Show you what real man like…”

“Just make sure to lube him up beforehand,” Wild said in his not-laughing way of joking. “Anyway. That’s the outline of our mission. Questions?”

“Any idea how many tanks are on site?” Frasier asked.

“They ship four at a time, a couple of times a day. The Whitecrests think they’re sending all the ones they have every time, and we’re timing this so in theory there won’t be any around. In practice…”


“Natives?” Tooko asked.

“There’s an unknown number living in an underground bunker over here to the east. That’s part of the reason we’re disabling this facility with precision strikes rather than turning it into a crater.”

“Keep new Sky-People safe, then.”

“We’re here to liberate them so… yes.” Wild nodded. “With any luck, they’ll be smart enough to keep their heads down…” he looked around. There were no further questions.

“Good. Then let’s go get our equipment inspected. We go in four hours.”

It didn’t take very long to get everything ready. Ferd and his men hauled up the heavy things while Wild and his men went over everything. They never missed anything and Ferd watched closely, to try and see things like the Humans did.

Once they had everything laid out, they each ate some of their rations, the ones that made Ferd feel like he had endless energy. They used the last of their time to get good and warmed, get their muscles hard and ready for the work ahead, their joints free and happy. Being away from trees meant they had to be careful about that sort of thing, like War-horse had taught them.

Then it was time to squeeze into those tight-fitting ‘en-bee-see’ safe-cloths. Ferd felt almost excited every time he put them on, but not in a happy way. Putting them on, fidgeting to get all comfortable…it was like when Singers painted war-colors on their skin. He could feel his body ready to fight, to do for the little sky-peoples what they couldn’t. They would raid. They would smash the god-hated ‘Hunters.’ Ferd would prove again that the People were strong.

Then he sat in the middle of the floor, and watched as Tooko took them down into the fire.

Date Point: 16y11m4d AV
The Clawhold, Planet Mordor, Hunter Space

Garaaf, Father of Clan Whitecrest

To Garaaf’s surprise, the jump array’s heavy thump delivered not just Champion Gyotin to him, but two Humans as well.

Garaaf had met Gyotin a few times: the founder and Champion of Clan Starmind had been highly interested in the Hunters’ victims aboard the Ring, and especially in the case of the Humans who’d escaped from the planet below and aided Garaaf in his own escape. These Humans, however, were unknown to him.

One radiated danger, even inside his protective gear. He was short for a Human male, built squarely and powerfully, and his eyes took in the whole array room in an expert instant.

The other was taller, older, but still hard in that way that only Humans managed. Ten’Gewek might be harder, but they had more of a stonelike, boulderish quality to them: Humans could harden like knotted wood.

“Father Garaaf!” Gyotin was as cheerful as ever, and greeted Garaaf like they were old friends rather than acquaintances, sniffing his nose and embracing him.

“…Hello, Champion. It’s good to see you again.” Garaaf did mean it, despite everything. Gyotin was difficult to dislike.

“And you. Don’t worry, I didn’t bring any tea.” Gyotin chittered mischievously, then indicated the Humans, starting with the tall one. “I’d like to introduce Professor Daniel Hurt, and his personal security Mister Hoeff.”

Hoeff was a lot more than just personal security if Garaaf was any judge. That man was a Human Whitecrest. Hurt, on the other hand, he sized up as the sort of academic who eschewed the high isolation of offices and universities for real practical access to his subject. He looked a little nervous at having been brought to a warzone, but shook Garaaf’s hand with a tense smile behind his transparent full-face air mask.

“You can take the masks off, gentlemen,” Garaaf told them. “This facility is air-sealed and decontaminated. Just keep them to hand in case of an emergency.”

“Oh, thank God. My nose was itching like hell…” Hurt muttered, releasing the catches that held it snug around his face as though he couldn’t possibly be rid of it fast enough.

“That’s what the bit of velcro in there is for,” Hoeff told him. “Little trick I picked up from the HEAT.”

“Velcro…?” Hurt inspected the mask. “…Huh. I completely failed to notice that.”

“Professor Hurt advises the Allied governments of Earth on matters to do with the Ten’Gewek culture and religion,” Gyotin explained. “Alien culture clashes are his specialty.”

“That’s… probably overselling my expertise,” Hurt demurred. “But the situation you described is the kind of thing I study and work on with the Ten’Gewek, so when Champion Gyotin asked me for my thoughts on these people…”

“Thank you,” Garaaf duck-nodded. He gestured out of the jump room. “We should sit and talk. I don’t want to take up more of your time than I have to.”

There was a briefing room set aside for them. Garaaf scrounged up a couple of extra tablets and handed them out, along with his dossier on the E-skurel-ir. Gyotin and Hurt read it thoroughly in serious silence, pausing to occasionally trade comments and point out important details to each other: Hoeff paced calmly around the room, taking the opportunity to stretch out and discreetly search the corners for items of concern.

Garaaf watched all three of them.

Finally, Hurt sat back in his chair, and nearly overbalanced: Gaoian chairs were entirely wrong for a Human’s long legs. He was sitting low with his knees raised high, and it looked uncomfortable. He cleared his throat awkwardly and stood up as Hoeff had done.

“…Delicate,” he commented. “They went looking for meaning in a meaningless tragedy, and as unflinchingly self-flagellating as their dogma is, they managed to find some. Just coming here and even trying to liberate them is going to kick that meaning out from under them.”

“They’re going to schism,” Gyotin said.

“Yes. Inevitably, I’m afraid.”

“What does that mean for us?” Garaaf asked.

“That the Grand Army is going to have to keep the peace between the sects,” Hurt said.

“Or rather, protect one sect from the other,” Gyotin differed. “If they schism along the lines of those who trust us versus those who decide we’re somehow the Enemies of God…”

“What if we took a more forceful approach?”

Hurt frowned at Garaaf. “…Define ‘forceful.’”

“We do not need their approval for anything we do here, beyond our own sense of propriety. If it comes to it, ignoring them, forcible relocation. Whatever. A religion like this would surely interpret that differently, wouldn’t it?”

“Hmm.” Hurt had obvious moral objections to the idea, but he didn’t voice them yet. Instead he wandered back and forth at the back of the room with his hand on his chin. “I suppose that depends on how interested you are in preserving their culture and unique heritage.”

Garaaf decided it was time to be a bit more blunt. “I am not. I am interested in their survival. The Great Father, however, has concern for their souls. That’s the purpose of this. How do we keep from injuring their souls further?”

“Whose survival, Father Garaaf?” Gyotin asked. “A people are more than just genes and biology. The Great Father is entirely right to be concerned for their souls: destroy their heritage, and you destroy them.”

“Their heritage is one of self-destruction, and one which is very likely to keep them from their own salvation, to borrow a word.”

Hurt made a dark noise that was some humorless cousin of a laugh. “‘Be saved, or die.’”

“More like, ‘take the opportunity to save yourselves.’ There are limits to what we can do.”

“Okay. And what about your souls, in all this?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you want to be the angels of divine mercy? Is that the role you want to play? Is that the story you want to tell them?” Hurt scratched the side of his head, just in front of his ear. “A little white lie to lift them out of hell, and then a hard truth later to maybe plunge them back into it.”

“I sincerely doubt the Great Father would approve of such a grand deception.” Garaaf said.

“No,” Gyotin agreed. “He wouldn’t.”

Garaaf duck-nodded. “Besides…I learned long ago that the biggest lies of all are told using nothing but truthful words. I need an unvarnished truth, Professor Hurt. One that is nothing but truth, is as complete a truth as possible, and will guide them away from their self-hatred.”

Hurt leaned his hands on the back of his former chair. “…They are just another species, the Gao are just another species, and the Hunters are just another species,” he said. “The E-skurel-ir suffered the grave misfortune of evolving on the wrong world in the wrong place during the wrong galactic epoch, and a bigger and crueller species found them and enslaved them. There’s no punishment or meaning to this, they committed no sin. They were just unlucky. That’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.”

“Bitter fuckin’ pill to swallow…” Hoeff muttered.

“Well, exactly. I don’t think there is a way to guide them away from self-hatred without challenging the foundations of their entire religion. The E-skurel-ir faith runs smack into the Theodicy problem: Their suffering can’t be explained in a universe governed by a compassionate and all-powerful interventionist god. God either did intervene, in which case this cruelty is clearly His will, which rules out compassion, or else He didn’t intervene, which means he either won’t—in which case, again, He isn’t compassionate—or He can’t, in which case He isn’t all-powerful. Their entire culture is built on a stool with one of the legs missing.”

“…How do Human cultures get around that problem?” Gyotin asked.

“Depends on the denomination.” Hurt sat down again, in a kind of cross-legged posture rather than trying to sit down with his knees up to his chest. “For most? God, in His wisdom, stays out of mortal affairs. He lets us chart our own course, and our judgement and punishment comes in the next life, not in this one.”

“Is that our angle?” Garaaf asked.

“Is that what you believe?” Hurt countered.

“Well… no. I don’t believe in that kind of a god at all.”

“Then it’s not your angle, no.”

Gyotin spoke, carefully and mildly. “What do you believe, Garaaf?”

Garaaf gave him a disgruntled look. “I’ve answered that question for you before.”

“Have you?” Gyotin flicked an ear. “…What kept you going, on the Ring? What reason did you have for opening your eyes every day, climbing out of bed, and enduring?”

“What kind of a question is that?” Garaaf almost growled, but restrained himself. He didn’t intend to disrespect Gyotin, but the question was infuriating. “It was that or die!”

“Was merely living your reason to go on?”

“No! Escape! Maybe even vengeance! Or just living to see one sunrise on Gao again,” Garaaf did snarl this time, but it was directed at the Hunters rather than Gyotin, and the Champion ignored it. “…When I met Ray, and when I spoke to her after…. She would say ‘we’re still here.’ That was her mantra. It wasn’t resignation, it was defiance! It was her way of saying ‘you haven’t beaten me yet.’ Well, the Ring didn’t beat me, because I didn’t let it!”

He realized that he’d surged to his feet. Slowly, he calmed himself and sat down again. “…Maybe you can tell me what I believe,” he said. “All I know is, I don’t believe in giving up.”

Gyotin’s ears twitched back and forth for a few seconds before he sniffed, glanced at Hurt and Hoeff, then chittered.

“Father Garaaf,” he said. “I do believe you’re an optimist.”

“And I believe we’ve found your angle,” Hurt said, the beginnings of a wry smile creeping up his face.

“…Have we?” Garaaf asked, skeptically.

“Oh yes.” Hurt leaned forward and rested his elbows and the table. “Let me explain…”

Date Point: 16y11m4d AV
Planet “Mordor,” Hunter Space

Thurrsto, Champion of Clan Whitecrest

There were many reasons why the Hunters had successfully terrorized the galaxy for aeons, With the most popular explanation among Gao and Human alike being that the Dominion species were just too incompetent and weak to handle them.

Which was true.

But it wasn’t the whole truth. Hierarchy interference, and the Hunters’ undeniable technological superiority in a few specific fields played their part too, and when it came to cloaking devices in particular the Hunters were the best in all the galaxy.

Keeda, the only reason Gaoian ones were so good was because of a prolonged and painstaking reverse-engineering program, and even then there were elements of their design and function that weren’t yet fully understood. When it came to turning invisible, nothing in the galaxy was better than a well-equipped Hunter, with the possible exception of Hierarchy equipment.

This made Thurrsto’s ‘big game hunt’ a dangerous proposition. Those tanks were deadly, and they were invisible. Tracking them involved more than a trivial amount of danger, therefore.

Fortunately, dangerous did not mean impossible. The cyberized Hunters might be invisible, but they were not massless. They left footprints and claw-marks in the mud, broke branches, scraped the bark off trees, left small shrubs crushed behind them, and left a chemical trail that no Gaoian could have failed to sniff out.

…If only they hadn’t been wearing activated charcoal filters. Thurrsto accepted that as the price he paid to not inhale a lungful of sulfuric fumes, nerve gas, formaldehyde, lead, chlorine, airborne hydrocarbons and a litany of other contaminants, but he wished he could use his nose right now.

Even so, the hunt was on.

“…What do we think?” he asked, watching their possible target through his scope. He was about… eighty, maybe eighty-five percent sure that the little patch of ailing trees downhill of his position contained a tank. Lots of little details added up to make it seem likely, including the torn-up ground, the way one branch had either grown very strangely or else was currently bent out of shape by the presence of something large or invisible.

He was less confident about whether or not it was alone and unsupported.

“That copse is a little small for there to be more than one…” Brother Asku mused. He’d been hand-picked for this operation, they all had. Thurrsto would have liked to bring some of the HEAT Whitecrests, but they were needed where they were. So he’d selected the best of the best who hadn’t quite made the HEAT cut, and was pleased to find that they viewed this as an opportunity to really prove themselves.

He’d also picked two who might well go on to become HEAT, with just a little more experience. Toran and Tybal, two of the most talented troublemakers he’d ever had the chance to forge into something more useful. This wasn’t to be their first blooding, but it was going to be a real test of their abilities…

…Nuts, it was a test of Thurrsto’s abilities. He acknowledged Asku’s comment with a slow nod, and slowly tracked his scope along a nearby ridge, where some kind of pipeline cut through the diseased landscape in a dead-straight line. Fiin had sent a couple of patrols out along that pipeline and its service road, and it hadn’t taken long for one of them to be hit… but not heavily.

“The patrol reported only one in the attack…” he muttered. “…Alright. Cubs, play crawl.”

The team set their active camo to dynamic mode, and stalked forward, low on four-paw, noses to the ground, backs and hindquarters slinking slowly and cautiously. Toran and Tybal were easily the smallest males on the team and so found themselves at the front with Asku. Thurrsto…well, there were some downsides to being a big brownie-sized HEAT veteran. He kept toward the rear and far enough apart that he wouldn’t give away the team if he made a mistake.

Besides. The Clan couldn’t really afford to lose him right now. He’d be no Champion at all if he didn’t get out in the field and do some of the work himself, but he’d be no Champion at all if he got sliced in half by a Hunter’s fusion scythe, either.

Crossing the scrubby open ground took several tense minutes, especially given the need to pause every so often and let their suits recharge their energy reserves. Dynamic camo was a significant drain on the power cells, and the sunlight through the dense overcast cloud didn’t replenish them fast enough… though on the other hand, it meant they didn’t cast strong, visible shadows.

Tybal’s voice vindicated Thurrsto’s decision in the last stretch. “Cubs, Mother’s home.”

“What do you smell?” Thurrsto asked him. In the Clan’s battle-cant, ‘smell’ filled in for all the senses, just like ‘Mother’ filled in for hostiles of any type. In the Cant, his query was only two syllables long.

“Movement. Brave cub playing alone.“

“Be careful…” Thurrsto warned him. He got a radio-click in reply, and Tybal moved forward, taking point while the rest of them hunkered down in place and let their camo completely blend in.

Tybal’s next words had the flat, uninflected tone that said he was subvocalizing through the contact mic pressed to his vocal cords, uttering no actual sound. “Mother’s alone.”

“What shall we play?” Thurrsto replied, inviting the young male to give him a plan.

“…One, three, five, left; Champion, two, four, right. Play hide-in-the-grass, play touch-tail, play pounce.”

“Big cub likes that game. Let’s play.”

They peeled apart. Thurrsto thought he could see what Tybal had spotted. If he was right, the Hunter was resting, dormant among the trees and facing leftward, watching the pipeline and road. Tybal had sent the smallest and quietest of them around that way, while the heavy hitters went right to attack the Hunter from its blind spot.

‘Touch-tail’ was the risky bit. A favorite game among mischievous cubs who liked to sneak up on an unsuspecting Mother, tweak a little pinch of fur off the tip of her tail, then run chittering for their lives from her startled and slightly tormented retribution. In the Cant, it stood for getting the enemy’s attention and holding it with a daring hit-and-fade attack. If it went to plan, the Hunter would never see the other three pounce on it from behind until too late.

It went t o plan.

They got in position, inching closer one paw at a time until they were ready, clicked their radios to signal they were in position, and the three who’d gone left—Tybal, Toran and Ikuy—riddled the dormant Hunter with a trio of specialized grenade rounds: two shield dumps, and smoke. The Hunter was instantly invisible inside a cloud of dense white smog and a haze of highly reflective particulates that was opaque across pretty much the entire EM spectrum.

But not to the ultrasound sensors in a Whitecrest’s suit mask. From Thurrsto’s perspective, the tank became a big, bright blue contact as it moved, made noise, and dropped its cloak. Alongside Asku and Yaamo, he pounced into the fog.

A moving, thrashing, furious bulk became visible at immediate range. Thurrsto dived between its legs, rolled with his own momentum, and slapped one of his special toys onto its underbelly. Then his momentum rolled him onto his feet and he slipped out from under it again. A couple of other clong sounds behind him suggested the other two had succeeded, so he grabbed the detonator on his shoulder, flipped it open, and squeezed it shut again.

The devices triggered. They weren’t explosives. Instead, a number of fusion-tipped needles punctured the Hunter’s belly armor and injected a dense bundle of tightly compressed smart wire, which unfolded rapidly into its systems, infiltrating the tiniest cracks, hunting for electrical signals, especially the rapid low-voltage flicker of electronics. The degree of compression was incredible: each wire was much thinner than a hair but several meters long, and as relentlessly invasive as tree roots…though much, much faster.

The Hunter emitted a weird, strangled, mechanical squealing noise, jerked, and crashed to the ground spasming as many of its vital workings short-circuited and failed.

Down, but not out, and certainly not safe. The next bit required a brute’s unique skills.

Thurrsto drew his fusion knife, activated the sticky pads on his suitpaws, and sprang onto its thrashing, kicking back. Hunters had a physical limitation in that they couldn’t reach behind their own backs, and these big cyberized ones had inherited that flaw. He’d have been reasonably safe up there even if the monster’s limbs had been working properly.

As it was, it was the work of a simple moment to swarm up its back, stick himself securely to its spine, and drive his blade deep into one of its few remaining fleshy bits: the brain. They didn’t need that intact, after all.

The Hunter bucked hugely, and the only thing that kept Thurrsto from being flung several painful meters was his suit’s incredible adhesive technology… but after that one spasm, it was as dead as dead got.

Now came the tense moment where they waited for retribution from any friends it might have nearby. The moment stretched and hung in the air like the plucked string of some musical instrument…

Don’t relax yet, don’t relax yet…

…Nothing. Thurrsto bid himself remain alert and tense a little longer, then finally let go of his healthy paranoia enough to exhale.

“Right,” he said, and dropped the Cant. “Call in the dropship. If Second Fang want this nutless piece of kwekshit so bad, they can load it themselves. We did the hard work.”

There was a round of chittering, and Asku promptly turned away, keying his radio to call in their evac. Thurrsto gave the Hunter a last kick, then slapped Tybal on the back.

“Well played,” he said.

He didn’t need to see the young Brother’s face to recognize the delight there. And he didn’t need any more proof that the future of his Clan was looking good. As the clouds overhead parted and a Stoneback dropship wallowed out of them, Thurrsto looked back at his quarry and pant-grinned inside his mask.

It felt good to be the best.

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 1 (NSFW)

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 53: The Wild Hunt Part 2

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 47

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 53: The Wild Hunt Part 1

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

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Good Training – Survival Part 2

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 6

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 46

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 5

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 4

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 3

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

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Good Training – Survival Part 1

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 45

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 2

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

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Good Training – April Fool’s

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 1

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 5

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 44

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 4

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 3

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

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Good Training – Pecking Order

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

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Good Training – The Champions – Tidying Up

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 2

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 43

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 1

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Trigger Part 5

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

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Trigger Part 4

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

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Good Training – The Champions – Doom and Gloom Part 4

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 42

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

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Trigger Part 1

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

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Good Training – The Champions – Doom and Gloom Part 3

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 41

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

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The Good Samaritan

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Homefront Part 6

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 40

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

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Good Training – The Champions – Doom and Gloom Part 2

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

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Homefront Part 4

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

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