The Deathworlders – Chapter 63: Torn Part 4

Date Point: 16y11m5d AV
Hunter stellar array, mordor system, Hunter space


The hard part was the light. It was everywhere, and stepping out in it meant being exposed to a flood of radiation and enough heat to melt lead. The shadows meant life, but with the suit’s eye protection turned almost fully opaque to handle the glaring stellar radiance, the shadows were impenetrably dark. Anything could be in them, totally invisible. Not even the contrast-enhancing vision augmentation system in his helmet could do much in such a fierce EM environment.

There were other sensors in the helmet to help, but they could only do so much. And if the Hunters had any of their cloaked heavies out on the hull…

…Best to get inside quickly. Regaari’s paws touched metal and he felt the heat even through his suit. The Hunter array would have burned his exposed skin to touch, but his suit was designed to handle temperature extremes far worse than that. He stuck on, drew his fusion knife, and started to cut into it, sawing through the thick inches of armor plating to get at the hollow space the ultrasound sensors in his paws promised him was there underneath.

The hull was thick, though. Far too thick for him to move by himself, and his Human friends weren’t available for this part; they were all forcing their way in at the other end of the hull.

But that was okay. His best friend in the universe also happened to be its strongest. Daar dug his claws in and tossed the gigantic hunk of metal aside with almost insulting ease. Adam was doing much the same with his breaching team. Once that was done…First Fang and the HEAT swarmed in with all the aggression they could muster. They didn’t have time to do anything less.

Regaari was a lucky male. He was privileged to fight the darkness alongside his best and most loved friends, and there was absolutely no moral ambiguity to be had. The Hunters were evil.

But he could maybe have done without having to fight them on the surface of a tiny bunker much too close to a star for comfort. And a flimsy cloak of crinkly reflective material did not feel like adequate protection from the unrelenting stare of a main sequence white-yellow monster like this one.

Wriggling through into the hole that Daar made, therefore, was entirely welcome, even if it was a horrible moment of perfect blindness. There was no air to hear, his visor was still black against the stellar glare, he couldn’t have smelled anything through his mask even if there was air to sniff…

He felt a heavy vibration through his paws and flung himself aside. A fusion scythe slashed down and carved a molten channel in the deck plating where he’d been, missing him by whiskers.

Regaari lashed out with his own fusion knife and cut its legs out from under it. The Hunter fell, its scythe briefly lit the room as it swiped at him, but Regaari wasn’t going by vision right now. He was going by training, instinct and intuition. He sprang forward, parted the monster from its weapon with another stroke of his claws, then finally went for the kill with a stroke that opened sizzling gouges in it from belly to eyes. It died without further exertion.

Daar had been on his heels, Shim behind him, and others still pouring through the gap. Regaari sprang to the door and ferreted through it as Daar wrenched it open. There was no time to pause, gather his breath, or reflect. The facility was small, the Hunters would know they were here instantly thanks to their shared network. To surrender any momentum at all was to gamble with death.

Thought stopped. There was just flow. Knowing things, seeing things, doing things.

Knowing: Where he was, where the enemy was, where his friends were. First Fang and fellow Whitecrests behind and alongside him, HEAT humans seventy meters that way, making their own violent ingress.

Seeing: Opportunities, moments, movement, victims. A Hunter too slow on the uptake: Delete it. Another, too reckless and panicky in darting forward to counterattack. Slip under and past it, trust the heavies to catch and destroy it. If Daar was perhaps thoroughly enjoying himself more or less literally crushing his inferior foes, they could boast to each other later.

Doing: Killing, gathering intel, mapping the facility and its vital systems even while dancing through its halls in a blur of blood, bullets and blades. No time to count the near misses, stopping to even notice the danger would be fatal.

All the mundane complications were there, of course: zero-g, super-G, shifting and popping to and fro, even the occasional dose of hyper-G, though not much; probably the platform couldn’t handle it for too long.

And the usual wall of Hunters, most small and puny next to his hard-earned Deathworlder body, some more of a challenge. None quite so bad as the Tanks from the Ring. And drones. That was fairly new for the Hunters but not for other enemies they’d faced before.

The danger, as always, was in the unknown.

The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas

It had been quite clear to the Alpha-of-Alphas when the foe noticed its stellar superweapon. An extremely fast warp signature departing the star’s vicinity, where there had been none before, was a sure giveaway of a stealthed scout completing its mission and returning data to its Alphas.

From that moment, the gambit was foiled. There would be no rapid-fire of stuttering light-pulses to devastate the system fields and the deathworlder capital ships. The loss of the system became a certainty, and it was a painful loss in a long string of painful losses.

…But not yet catastrophic. And potentially, hidden in the belly of this loss, was a gain.

The Alpha-of-Alphas had prepared for this contingen cy. It set its Builders to work inside the array, dramatically altering its profile and function. The very concept of using it to send overwhelming bursts of coherent solar radiation into the outer system was abandoned, in favor of constructing something… else.

Something that was only feasible with the most powerful of forcefields anyway. Something that demanded extreme and expensive field geometries, which in turn demanded high-precision alignment and complex mechanical calibration within an appropriate suite; not, therefore, typically the domain of ship passageways.

Fortunately, the Alpha-of-Alphas had foreseen this need, though for entirely different purposes. Its design for the array had included an appropriate antechamber for the field-expedient repair of large modules. After all, tooling was difficult and time-consuming to rig for any project.

Even so… it had come down to the narrowest margin. The Builder brood lessers were still working feverishly on the modifications even as the Eaters flung themselves futilely at the deathworlder invaders and were slaughtered. Their sacrifice was barely enough… but it was enough.

A Fur-Face and a Human, marginally forward of the others and leading the assault, burst through the Eaters and obliterated the Builders.

The Human was designated Alpha-4; a worthy specimen in its own right and significantly superior to its lesser-ranked fellows. The Fur-Faced was, if anything, an even better specimen, and that was a concept the Alpha-of-Alphas still found itself straining to adapt to. It would clearly need to re-classify its inventory of enemy spaceborne broods at some point.

Either way… it could barely ask for finer specimens to fall into its trap.


STARFALL was the first to the array’s core, and the first to ken that something was wrong. Some instinct, something sharper and more aware than mere sight and sound, prompted him to twist, turn, and slam his shoulder square into Kodiak’s chest so hard that the big brownfur was thrown back to safety in the instant before the trap sprung.

They saw the forcefields snap taught, then delicately peel all his equipment apart, layer by layer.

Then they did the same thing to Blaczynski himself.

The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas

Humans were so… vexing. They seemed to have senses that extended beyond mere sound and sight and scent. There was no conceivable way that one designated Alpha-4 could have seen the trap, and yet… somehow it did. Not quickly enough to rescue itself, but quickly enough to save its counterpart. Perhaps they could sense building electromagnetic fields? Even through their armor? If so, that would be a valuable new trait for the Swarm to learn and incorporate.

The Alpha-of-Alphas would have to be content with one Alpha instead of two… But what an Alpha it was!

The analysis began with the twitching, struggling and defiant Human’s equipment. Forcefields and crystalline nanoblades peeled the armored suit apart, inspecting every intricate layer, noting every detail.

The outermost layers were fabric-based camouflage, equipment carrying systems, power systems and utility forcefields. Below that, a thick stratum of metalloceramic scales so refined, so elegant and simple, and so perfectly functional that they inspired in the Alpha-of-Alphas a rare feeling: its sense of artistic beauty.

Beneath that, thermally activated shock-absorbing gel performing the dual function of keeping the suit gripped tight around its wearer’s body, and also of distributing impacts over a wide area. It was no wonder these Alphas could weather even heavy hits, when they wore armor like this.

Below the gel was a surprise: water. It squirted out in zero-G, and a pair of forcefield capillaries siphoned it up for analysis, but it turned out to be just water, with a few trace additives like fluoride that may have been contaminants. The water system was spread through the whole suit, visiting both a dispenser in the helmet where it could be combined with a soluble powder (Some kind of stimulant or nutritional supplement) and a heat exchanger in the armor’s outer layer. And, as the investigation concluded, the water supply could be restored using the operator’s own filtered and purified excretions from both the skin and orifices.

Ingenious. One simple system handling four different roles at once. Incompressible structural support, cooling, hygiene and hydration/nutrition.

That discovery alone opened whole forests of possibility. But the time had come to consider the creature itself. The Human was male. Like all of its kind, he was gifted with a wide range of limb motion, which it tested carefully; it wasn’t interested in harm for its own sake, it was interested in knowledge. He resisted its careful handling with surprising force; it made careful note of that for later. In considering the gross anatomy, it was forced to conclude that Humans had an almost perfectly ideal form. Powerful, versatile hands whose fingers could fully pivot at their base joints. Legs that were adept at a striding locomotion without sacrificing too much muscular power. All his joints were highly mobile, while the extensive musculature connecting it all together seemed perfectly placed for an optimal balance of power, speed, and endurance.

The Alpha-of-Alphas took a bare moment to admire the creature. The more it thought about the evolutionary pressures that led to something so supremely well-adapted to surviving and mastering the world around it, the more it grew convinced it could have never designed a better form itself. Even the compromises were exquisite! The eyes, for example: Humans only had two, but observations and anecdotal evidence suggested they were supremely capable sensory organs, far beyond most Prey or a Hunter’s natural eyesight. The field of view was necessarily more narrow, but their other senses seemed to inexplicably compensate for that. Or perhaps that was just their neuro-processing? Humans were rumored to excel there, as well.

There were some confusing details. The feet had what seemed to be mostly vestigial digits that likely corresponded to the same in their hands. A quick X-ray pulse confirmed that the feet had internal complexity that wouldn’t make sense in an engineered lifeform; Humans were definitely evolved creatures, which only made them all the more wondrous. The genitalia were much larger than would seem necessary, if one considered the Prey species’ reproductive anatomy by comparison. Alas, the Hunters’ method of reproduction was far less efficient in terms of genetic mixing compared to a sexual system. Yet another thing that needed improving about its kind.

Aside from those minor points of confusion, there was hardly anything to critique. The Human body was, for lack of a better concept, exquisite. Only the Fur-Faced were their peers. Finally, with a gross anatomical survey of the Humans, the two could be compared, and the inescapable conclusion was that the Humans and the Fur-Faced were gifted with both Deathworlder and Predator’s bodies, yet they were very different kinds of hunters, with different and complementary adaptations. Alas that it didn’t catch the Fur-Faced Alpha! More study would absolutely be necessary, but for now it would make the most with what it had.

It proceeded with the vivisection very carefully, to maximize the information gleaned.

Surprisingly flimsy skin, with rather a high capacity for subcutaneous fat, though this particular specimen was extremely lean and its skin had been shallowly injected with pigments and nanotechnology of no comprehensible function. It wasn’t protective; it didn’t take much pressure to pierce the dermis, which mostly seemed to serve as a temperature regulator and microbe barrier, not as protection against anything large. The pigmentation must have been for communication, but the precise meaning was a mystery. The Alpha-of-Alphas removed the entire skin in one piece to enable separate imaging and analysis, though the operation was tricky; thin though it may be, it was highly elastic and very firmly attached to the layers below.

It had to increase the field’s restraining pressures significantly during that operation, and turn down the sensitivity of its microphones in response to the Alpha’s suddenly much louder vocalizations.

Human muscle tissue was well-studied, but the difference in this case was that the Alpha-of-Alphas had a live specimen in exceptional condition to consider, not the mangled remains of a malnourished stray caught by the Swarm. It considered the chemical floods it was observing, recorded the way that chemistry interacted with dense fibrous matter to heave and struggle mightily against the forcefields, and dug deeper. Several times, it needed to increase the power output to keep the specimen properly restrained.

Thick tendons with a shocking tensile strength were intricately woven among that marvelous tissue, and eventually anchored in strong, heavy bone. Hydroxyapatite and collagen, literal stone wrapped in an organic matrix. Difficult to break, an impressive compressive strength, and quick to heal if properly aligned. It found evidence of a few past fractures, since healed stronger than they would have been before the mishap.

And beneath those…

The chemical and hormonal splendor of a Human’s innermost workings. In the end it had needed to snip those marvelous tendons to keep the Human still, as any further pressure would end up breaking the specimen before it was done with its investigation. And it wanted the Human alive, if it was to maximize its knowledge.

Alas, there simply wasn’t enough time. The Fur-Faced Alpha of Alphas had teamed up with the Human Alpha-0 and another specimen it tagged as Alpha-1, and together the three were resorting to ripping their way through the walls. That was an entirely unanticipated course of action, but analysis showed it would be effective.

Further examination would have to be rapid. The Builder abandoned slow inspection, and quickly pulled apart its specimen, basking in the wave of data that flowed from its instruments.

The final bit to tackle was that fantastic brain. The Alpha-of-Alphas had to settle for a deep imaging analysis, which would have killed the specimen… but of course, that hardly mattered at this point. It watched the last flickering electrical and chemical signals sputter and fade, then concluded that it had learned all it could today.

If only it could have been more thorough and methodical. If only there had been more time! Even the rushed, crude process had shown the Alpha-of-Alphas wonders. How much more could it have learned? What secrets would the Prime-Alphas of the Humans and the Fur-Faced have revealed? They would now be wary of its intent, no doubt. Catching one of them would be a difficult challenge…

And the specimen’s brood had nearly breached the wall, where they were mounting explosive charges to destroy the forcefields. Its time was up. No matter. It had more than it had ever sunk its teeth into before. And with the knowledge it had gained…

…With that knowledge, Hunters would never be the same again.

The Alpha-of-Alphas re-assembled the former Human Alpha’s form and laid it reverently, even respectfully, on the floor, then ordered its forces to withdraw into deep space. The world and system were lost.

But the Hunters had won a victory nonetheless.


Three dump webs weren’t enough to break the array’s forcefields. Those fields were configured to handle the energies of a star, so nothing even vaguely man-portable could have managed: not even the two-ton full-size dump web Daar was carrying on his back did anything more than give them a light show.

It was…agony. An agony Regaari had no words to describe.

The Defenders quickly identified a wall which might be useful, but which had much industrial equipment in the way. WARHORSE and RIGHTEOUS threw themselves at it instantly, literally tearing it apart with nothing more than their bare hands and sheer desperate strength. The Great Father followed suit without a whisker of hesitation, adding his razor-sharp claws and even greater power to the effort. Everyone else set to clearing debris from behind the three titans. But by the time the three had clawed the wall apart, and TITAN and MOHO had blown the forcefield emitter circuitry to pieces…it was far too late. As a last act of sadistic defiance, the Hunters crudely re-assembled Blaczynski and left him on the deck, thoroughly, utterly dead.

The Humans… became something else. If Regaari thought he’d seen them at their most terrible before, he’d been deluded. Rage, vengeance and grief transformed them into silent monsters, who took the rest of the facility apart piece by piece. Nothing was left to chance, nothing was spared.

First Fang were carrying nukes. Plural. So while the Protectors gathered up their fallen friend’s abused remains and prepared him to go home, the Defenders and First Fang penetrated right into the station’s core, found the thrumming heart of its emitters, deployed their revenge…

…And withdrew. They left nothing alive behind them, and nothing intact either once the nukes went off.

When they were back aboard the Destroying Fury, and when they’d de-briefed, cleaned up, returned to the safety of Mordor orbit, mourned together and taken care of all else…

…It was only then, when Daar was alone with Regaari, that the Great Father of the Gao finally broke down and wept.

Journal of Keeper Ukusevi, Librarian of the Old-Bent-Leg Archives 11th hour of the 206th day of the 417th year of Punishment.

To continue my thoughts from my previous entry, I was roused from the comfort of my writing desk by one of the children. Some minor confusion over proper filing for me to clarify. I tended to my duties, ate and cleansed myself, prayed… but all the time my thoughts were elsewhere.

The boy’s name is Teeisyo, and I have had my eye on him for some time as a potential Keeper. He has a good memory, he learned his letters quickly, he writes neatly, he shows proper respect for the books, paper, pens and ink, he venerates the words properly and he loves nothing more than to read.

He would be… comfortable… as a Librarian.

What does that mean? I see two meanings nested inside that word. I mean to say that it would suit him well. It would be the path of least resistance for him, just as it was for me. He would be treading the path the Almighty seems to have laid out before him, to a service and duty he seems well-suited for. He would be good at it, I’m sure. He would find it easy.

And he would be safe.

To be helpless… is to be safe? How can that be? Our helplessness is in the face of higher powers. We were at the whim of beings from the sky who slaughter and eat us, and now we are at the whim of other beings from the sky who have been unflinchingly forthright in their promise to change us and destroy what we are and were. By what possible definition is our helplessness “safe?”

Impossible. To be helpless is to be unsafe by definition. But what about easy? The more I think about it, the more I know in my belly that Garr-avf spoke truly there, at least. It is so very easy to be helpless.

But the alternative seems impossible. How can we not be helpless? When the Punishers and the Gao alike dominate us so totally, how can we be anything but helpless? And they, surely, are less than the Almighty Himself, in whose sight we are all helpless. Punishers, Hunters, these “hyoomun” friends of the Gao (whatever they are like) and the Penitent alike.

The Long Chant says that we all play our role in the Almighty’s great plan. Is that not helplessness?

And yet… I have always found comfort in the thought that there is a plan, even if understanding it is beyond me. There is comfort in faith, in trusting that I am paying my Penance. That thought has always made the cruelty of the world above make sense. And I am… comfortable, when the world makes sense. It is only now that my sense of the world is disturbed that I find myself uncomfortable.

”Helplessness is like a heavy blanket: It smothers at the same time as it comforts.” I cannot escape that thought, no matter how I try… Because it is true. My faith was comfortable, yet what I had faith in was my own helplessness.

But how can I be anything else?

Date Point: 16y11m5d AV
HMS Caledonia, Mordor System, Hunter Space

Technical Sergeant Adam “Warhorse” Arés

The first Adam became aware of John slumping down next to him was when the deck shook a little and knocked him out of the total zone-out he’d drifted off into, somewhere between post-mission fatigue, grief, sleep and self-hatred.

His hands were still in agony. In fact his whole body was, way worse than usual. He’d thrown everything he had at getting through that wall and it hadn’t been enough. He wasn’t strong enough. Firth wasn’t strong enough. Not even Daar wasn’t fucking strong enough! They weren’t up to the mission…

He’d failed. And the thing was…

The thing was, that old, niggling doubt that had been there from the beginning was there, gnawing away at his soul. If he had been better! If he’d thought to go through the wall sooner!

John just put his arm around him.

“Bro.” A squeeze.

Adam immediately swallowed him up in a hug. Anybody else might have suffered a few popped ribs, but John was the one guy in all the world who could take it, and more importantly… Who knew.

Well. No. There was someone else, but he was in even worse shape than Adam right now, and Adam was being selfish. So, he nodded against John’s chest, blinked the tears out of his eyes…

“…How’s Firth?”

“He’s… lookin’ after Murray. Think it’s the only thing keepin’ him in one piece right now.”

Adam fidgeted. “I should—”

“Sit your fat ass down.”

Adam blinked. John had a tone he used, rarely, that worked kinda like a heavy slap in the face. It was his Healer’s Voice, carrying more weight of command and authority than even Powell or Costello could muster, and he saved it exclusively for patients who were being dumbasses.

Adam was pretty good at being a dumbass.

“Look at me,” John added, using the same tone, and it worked. Adam blinked at him in confusion. “Everyone on this deck blames themselves right now, bro. Look around. Tell me there’s one man on this team who isn’t telling themselves they coulda done better.”

Adam looked around. The deck was littered with little tableaus of misery: Coyers sitting despondently on his cot, with Tisdale next to him giving the big friendly giant a commiseration backrub while Miller worked listlessly on one of his suit components nearby, her expression far away and pained. Butler deadlifting away his surplus energy and anguish in the corner, his face a mask of empty hatred. Akiyama sitting with his head back against the wall and his eyes closed, cheeks wet. Sikes, pacing a track in the deck, looking like he wanted to explode in fifty directions at once and kill something.

“…I just… I just feel like…” he began.

“I know what you feel like, bro,” John assured him, softly. “You feel like you coulda done more. Like you coulda done better. Well you couldn’t. Fuck sake, you’d blame yourself if you couldn’t jump to the moon to save a bro, and I love that about you, but man… You gotta learn to accept there’s gonna be times when there’s no such thing as good enough. I was there bro. You and Firth were on top of the situation before anyone else, you put everything you had into it… how many broken fingers you got right now?”

“…Three…” Adam admitted.

“Lemme take a look.”

Adam showed him. The pinky and ring fingers on his right hand, and the middle finger on his left had both gone painfully crunch when he’d been ripping at that wall. Thanks to his gauntlets they’d been kept aligned properly, and thanks to the Crude in his system they were already healing well. John rubbed and manipulated them, nodded his satisfaction that they would be okay, then considered the bruising in Adam’s shoulders as well. He gave Adam a serious look.

“Don’t lie to yourself about what more you coulda done, brother. You were literally breaking yourself. We need you strong and healthy, now more’n ever. So don’t you dare be fuckin’ yourself up like that.”

It…helped. Really, it did. He made sure ‘Base knew it, too. But it wasn’t really enough. What Adam really wanted to do was let the Hate out and just…smash. But right now he couldn’t do that. He was broken. He’d pushed himself hard enough to keep up with Daar for fuck’s sake and it still wasn’t enough! He had to rest. To heal. But he couldn’t really heal….

Fuck. He didn’t know what he was thinking.

All he could do was… watch. And hold it together. They’d get their vengeance. They had to. They had a long process of healing and improvement ahead of them before that day came, and Adam had no idea where to begin…

But they would.

It was what they did. And it was what they would do, no matter what.

Date Point: 16y11m6d AV
HMS Caledonia, Mordor System, Hunter Space

Captain Anthony “Abbott” Costello

Powell wasn’t one to take losses lightly. He never would have been, nor could he have been and successfully led the HEAT.

But there were losses, and then there was…

Blaczynski’s death wasn’t just a loss. He was a gut punch, a critical blow. He’d been loved, the team’s happy smiling jester, the joker and shenanigan artist, the guy who could get a laugh out of anyone even while they were giving him a blow upside the head for his irreverence. Morale hadn’t just taken a knock, it was in the gutter and likely to remain there. Losing him would have hit the whole team hard, even without the nightmarish scene they’d all been so helpless to stop.

So it was no wonder that Costello found the Colonel slumped forward over his desk with his elbows resting on its surface and the fingers of both hands splayed across his sparse scalp. It was a defeated, exhausted, anguished posture. Entirely right for the moment.

Their shared on-board office-slash-cabin was a small space that had probably once been storage for Hierarchy drones, before Cally’s capture and change of ownership. It had what they needed: beds to sleep in, desks that folded down from the wall above them… And privacy

Powell shifted as Costello entered, looked over at him.

“…Wondered where you’d got to,” he rumbled.

“I can’t sleep.”

“…No. Me either.” Powell sat back and groaned, massaging his bruised shoulders. He always bore a few pressure bruises and pinch marks from his suit, uncomplainingly but always there. “…And I’d do terrible fookin’ things for a drink right about now.”

“…Tea?” Costello suggested.

There was no humor in Powell’s snort. “…Aye, close enough. I’ll make it, you siddown.”

Costello took him up on that. He folded his desk up and sat on his bunk, took off his boots and bent to massage his feet. One of the small curses of the HEAT life was big damn feet, and that more often than not meant big damn foot aches.

“You’ve known Murray longer than anyone,” he said. “You ever seen him like this before?”

“Never. Hard thing to fookin’ see, too.” Powell clicked the kettle on and stood watching it. “…I’m worried about ‘im alright. I didn’t realize they were that close.”

“They’re like brothers, sir. That’s a relationship that’s only grown more intense over time.”

“Aye.” Powell sighed. “…Never thought I’d see that quiet Scottish bastard like that though. How is he now?”

Costello shook his head. Murray had needed sedating in the end, which was no small task when it came to a HEAT operator. He’d got… stuck, in his head. Constantly wired, in full blown restless fight/flight mode and apparently unable to bring himself down.

In any other company, that kind of restlessness wouldn’t have been much of a big deal, but HEAT operators had gone through extensive psychological screening and conditioning, indoc and selection processes with an incredible dropout rate precisely to winnow out the guys who couldn’t hack serious trauma, mental or otherwise. Every man in the unit had a titanium will, and Murray was no exception. Seeing him so shaken therefore was, yes, a big deal.

Though to be completely fair, Costello couldn’t blame him. Highland had been right behind Kodiak, and therefore almost a victim of the Hunters’ trap himself. He’d be badly shaken too, in Murray’s position.

…Costello should probably check in on Kodiak while he was at it. He made a note for later.

“Last I saw him, he was quiet. Firth’s taking care of him. Think it’s the only thing keeping the big guy together. For once, ‘Horse has even managed to keep some therapeutic distance.”

“Good. Was worried we’d have him tearing himself apart.” Powell performed his wizardry with teabags, sugar and milk, and handed over a mug of steaming brown comfort. “…We might have a problem. Murray never took the Homesteading credit.”

“I think that’s just one of several problems we might have, but… what’s so bad about that?”

“Aye, but this is one I can do something about. What’s bad is it means, given his rank, time in service and all the rest… he can walk straight out the door and never come back, if he wants.”


“Yeah. Be a real kick in the balls if we lost two of our best men today.”

“Do you think he would?”

“Christ, I fookin’ hope not. But I could hardly fookin’ blame him if he did, either.” Powell sat and sipped. “Just…fook. I’ve got my two best men in a bad way, I lost another, I might lose another… An’ that doesn’t touch what the Gaoians have going on. Did you see Daar? Fook that, did you smell him? I’ve never once in my life smelled anger, before today.”

“I’ve been worrying about… longer-term things,” Costello admitted. “How we’d deal with that kind of trap when—’cuz it won’t be an if, let’s face it—when we run into one again.”

“Aye. It worked. Which means the fookers’re going to do it again. And they’ll be building them solar focusing arrays up in their other systems even now, bet you anything.”

“Which makes their ships effectively unboardable, and their systems unapproachable.”

“Which makes us…”


Powell slurped his tea. “…Aye.”

They sat in mutual worried silence for a few moments, before Powell chugged the whole hot drink like it was a shot of liquid courage and set it down with a sharp tap.

“Right. That’s not going to fookin’ happen. Not on my watch. I didn’t build up the best fookin’ team o’ special operators in galactic history just for every man jack of ‘em to get mothballed. And I will not let Blaczynski’s death be the sad full stop that ends us on an anticlimax.”

“There’s still much we don’t know,” Costello pointed out, warming his hands on his mug rather than drinking. “Neither of us know anything about forcefields, really. We don’t know what the real limitations are. I mean…why has nobody ever done something like this before? Why didn’t we think to? What don’t you and I know?”

“Akiyama’s your man to ask there. And you know what? I reckon he’ll be glad for somethin’ to think about.”

“Is… this a concern to bother the men with? Now?”

“Not right now, no. But soon. Otherwise we’ll be comin’ to them in a few months with a bolt from the blue like ‘Sorry lads, Brass is pullin’ the plug. Nice workin’ with you.’ We’ll stand down, we’ll mourn, but then? Then we’ll keep doin’ what we do. We’ll prepare for the worst this galaxy has, so we can fookin’ smash it.”

Despite his sombre mood, Costello found a slight inspired smile pulling at his mouth. “…We’ll have Daar’s backing, I’m sure.”

“Don’t knock that. It might be that being ‘bestest friends’ with a man who is effectively the god-emperor of the Deathworlders is what saves us all.”

“I can live with that.”

“Aye.” Powell stood and cleaned his mug. ““In the meantime, send a message to Mears and have him schedule everyone. Possibly a group session too, if he feels that’s appropriate. Then try an’ get some sleep.”

“No promises on that last one,” Costello replied. “But I already drafted the message.”

“Cheers.” Powell sat down on his cot. “…I’m gonna try an’ get some kip.”

“Yeah.” Costello turned out the light, lay on his own cot, wrapped himself up in his blanket, and put his head down.

He stared at the ceiling in the dark. And somehow, in a confused way that left him with no idea whether he’d actually slept or not, night transitioned into morning. It certainly didn’t feel like six hours until the change of watch sounded to rouse him…

And he didn’t feel rested at all.

Journal of Keeper Ukusevi, Librarian of the Old-Bent-Leg Archives 20th hour of the 206th day of the 417th year of Punishment.

I met two of these “Humans” at last. A tall one, rather like a librarian in manner himself, and a short one, who was very much the opposite of a librarian, really.

In appearance, they are even less like us than these Gao. The Gao at least have fur, and proper ears. A Human is… not hairless, but sparsely furred at best. You can see their bare skin, behind the air masks they wear to endure the poisons. And when they took them off to show their faces…

I don’t know what to make of them. The short one seems like a man of violence, but the tall one…

He translated his names for me. He has two: The Almighty Judges Me, and Pain. Dan-yel Hurt. I don’t know what to make of that, exactly. Especially not in light of the things we spoke about.

But then again, I haven’t known what to make of things for some days now, so why should that change? So I opted for honesty, and told him—he assured me that I could know him as “Dan-yel” for convenience—just how confused I am.

It took rather a long time. He listens well, and I could see him filing it all away in his mind, just like I do. He’s a librarian and Keeper of his people, no doubt.

His guard had two names as well. The first was also Dan-yel, but the second meant “one who owns and works a farm.” Heff. It seemed appropriate for him, as he didn’t say much but he watched everyone and everything with an intense, unyielding gaze.

I am told that this name Dan-yel is quite common in their culture. In that regard, I think we may already have a little more in common with these Humans than with the Gao. Garaaf has so far always been diplomatic, whenever the question of the Almighty and His role in my people’s fate and lives came up. He has demurred, and given cautious answers.

He is a Nonbeliever, it seems obvious. And, I think, that is normal for his people.

The fact that this name “The Almighty Judges Me” is allegedly common among Humans tells me much about them. When I said as much, Heff showed me a small icon he wore: A vertical cross, with the intersection well above the midpoint. It apparently represents the suffering, death, and eventual resurrection the Son of God endured to save their people from eternal damnation; an altogether strange idea, but…

…The concept of resurrection stood out. Amid all the strangeness, that is the thought that I cannot let go of. To pass through the fires of unimaginable hardship and suffering, and then to emerge reborn on the far side, into a new life?

Garaaf, from what I know of his past, and from what he has said, views hardship as something to weather stoically. He describes others as having ‘broken’ around him, while he alone was able to endure. And I think that may be where I find him difficult. He is the sort of man who would stand firm and unchanging even when the Almighty pushes him to adapt. I cannot imagine him being reborn and resurrected. Hardened, yes… But not changed.

I do not yet know about Hurt and Heff. I felt a greater resonance with what they described, but…

But I have only just met them.

It was a long conversation, and I transcribed as much of it as I could, entering it into my archives. I will see how much should go in the Chant tomorrow, once I have had time to reflect and sleep. It has been a long day, and my brain aches from thinking.

But I think I am beginning to see answers to my questions.

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)

CopRit Empire, Halfil Sol 78 Of Race 3 Year 4958 Suburbs, New Baltimore I looked back up at the shopkeeper, the small Human was trying to appear unconcerned. Not that I could really blame ‘him’- glancing over at the human I checked the chest. It was a male, the chest did not protrude and there

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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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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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