The Deathworlders – Chapter 65: Leaps of Faith Part 5

26th day of the first year of freedom
The “Clawhold,” above the old-bent-leg tunnels


The “Clawhold” was… Uku hadn’t realized that a place could be so clean, even while it was alive and working. Not even the hydroponic farms in the warrens were so well-kept.

The light was a little too bright for her, but a helpful Gao had given her a pair of darkened lenses for her eyes. They rested on her nose and kept the worst of the glare out so that she was comfortable.

Another had shown her how they archived their knowledge. Whole vast troves of knowledge were neatly tucked away in some distant storage, and she could read those records—or a translation of them, anyway—through book-sized devices controlled by taps and touch.

The Hunters had similar things, so their existence didn’t come as a complete shock. But there was a lot around Ukusevi that was far beyond what her people had achieved even at their height before the Hunters came. Their machines had been all wrought iron, rivets, steam and wood. Electrical power had been a new and intriguing invention, only a few years old, before that fateful day.

And of course, her people hadn’t stopped thinking, inventing and innovating during the long years in hiding. They’d been stifled and slowed by their circumstance, but everything around Uku was understandable, even if she’d never had the chance to see such things up close.

Though, she hadn’t had the chance to see most of it. For security and safety reasons, she’d been confined to a small part of the Clawhold, behind sealed doors with attached pumps, where filters and fans kept the air cleaner and fresher than any that she’d breathed in her life. It had only been a few days, and already she felt… fresher. More awake and alert. And the trauma of being attacked, while it still throbbed, was fading.

Now, though, she had an important meeting. So important that Grandfather Vark was accompanying her to it.

“I should mebbe warn ‘ya about the Great Father,” he said, with what Uku could only guess was a pensive set of his ears. “He is…a very big creature. In every way. Overwhelming even when he doesn’t want to be. You will need to take that charming meekness of yours and bury it very, very deep for this meeting. Can you do that?”

“…Charming meekness?” Uku wasn’t sure if she should be offended or not, and wound up standing straight, planting her hands on her hips and giving him a curious look, one ear askance and the other straight up above her head.

“Yeah. I don’t mean it bad. It’s jus’ that somethin’ about y’all brings out my protective instincts very hard. It’ll be like ten times worse with the Great Father. It’s what he is.”

“I don’t think of myself as particularly ‘meek.’”

“Mebbe it’s jus’ perception on my part, then. An’ mebbe I ain’t bein’ fair. But ‘ya weren’t so bold when we first met, yijao?”

“People were trying to kill me!”

Vark duck-nodded agreeably. “Ayup. Like I said, mebbe that ain’t entirely fair o’ me. I done a whole lotta killin’ in my time. But I can only go by what I think is true, an’ I’m tellin’ ‘ya this ‘cuz Daar—the Great Father—very much doesn’t like scarin’ people he don’t wanna scare. Oh, an’ there’s one other thing. Y’know how we don’t like lies?”

“An admirable trait, even if it maybe makes you a bit too blunt in your observations…”

“Daar is the Champion-Emeritus of my Clan. He is more an embodiment of what we are than any who have ever lived, an’ that’s the honest truth. So…”

Ukusevi considered that word. “An embodiment. A living symbol? Avatar of your ideals and virtues?”

“Yeah. An’ more. He’s a good man, but…”

“You’re fretting on my behalf.”


Uku put a grateful hand on his arm. “Thank you for the advice. But I think I can handle myself. Librarians can be…passionate…in their disagreement, as you have seen firsthand.”

Vark chittered, a gravelly noise that sounded nothing like her own people’s laughter, but she knew the sound well enough by now to smile.

“Yeah, fair ‘nuff,” he agreed, then angled his nose toward the door. “After you.”

They walked a bit through the warren of corridors and airlocks that made up the Gaoian’s temporary village on the surface. No matter where they went, the air had that same marvelously clean and cool quality, and it also carried a faint…it smelled green like the hydroponics gardens they kept in the Library, but stronger.

She knew instantly when they were approaching the Great Father’s quarters, however. The gentle breeze moving down the hallway was suddenly saturated with a heavy musk much like Vark’s, except… more. It wasn’t unpleasant, really. But it bullied every other aroma into the background, even the scent of Vark standing next to her.

It obviously had an effect on him. Vark’s ears flicked backward in a clearly docile gesture as he approached the door. There was a grooved metal plate mounted in it above the handle, which Vark scratched loudly with his claws.

A deep, booming voice rumbled from the other side. “Come.”

It turned out that Vark had not exaggerated about the Great Father in the slightest. Daar was…he was…

Vark was right. She suddenly felt meek. It was just instinctive upon encountering someone so obviously dangerous. No other creature she had ever met, seen or read about had anything like the deadly ability positively radiating from him. It was etched into his every movement, into every well-fed and impossibly muscular line of his body, with terrifying teeth and rib-breaking claws every bit the match for all the rest. She willed her spine to remain straight, and her expression serenely curious.

Ukusevi quickly learned that capability and intent didn’t necessarily align with this creature. She didn’t get even a moment to gather herself before the Great Father boisterously greeted the much smaller Vark by effortlessly hauling him clear off his feet and half crush-hugging, half wrestling him in what could only be described as an affectionate show of dominance.

Vark didn’t seem afraid at all. That spoke of a deep trust, or perhaps a much better ability to read intent from each other. Nevertheless, he was clearly cowed by the Great Father. Despite Ukusevi having known Vark for a few days, that would have seemed like an impossible thing, until now.

“Mrf, I missed you too, My Father!” Daar put Vark down, and if he took a big gasp of breath, Uku tried not to notice. “I brought the Librarian.”

“Thankee! I know ‘ya got a lotta work ‘ta catch up on, so I won’t hold ‘ya captive…”

Somehow, she knew that wasn’t merely an observation. Vark knew he had been ordered out, and bowed out with a dignity she hadn’t yet seen from him.

“Thank you, My Father.”

Daar turned his attention to Ukusevi and though she felt a shiver of instinctive dread, he was nothing but friendliness. “You must be Ukusevi! Welcome, please, have a seat!”

“…Thank you.” Uku sat in the offered chair, feeling well and truly out of sorts, and was surprised when the Great Father ignored the furniture and promptly thumped his enormous haunches down on the ground with a slight tremor that she felt through her feet. He made himself comfortable right there on the rug and seemed to think nothing of it. The rational part of her brain told her that was clearly calculated to make him seem less threatening. With… limited success.

He seemed to know it too, and gave her what could only be a sly look. “I ain’t gonna eat’cha, y’know.”

“Most things in my life with teeth like yours would have,” Uku replied.

“I know. My people are obligate carnivores. But we do not eat thinking beings.” He indicated a plate. “I got veggie snacks, if you want ‘em. They’re called ‘carrots.’ An’ the dip is ‘hummus.’ Totally veggie.”

“I… Thank you.” Uku realized that she was in fact quite hungry, and accepted the plate of sweet-smelling roots gratefully. She dipped one, and sampled it with a satisfying crunch followed by a combination of flavors both earthy and fresh. It was… by far the tastiest thing she’d eaten in a long time.

“One’a my favorites,” Daar said. “Ain’t Gaoian food though. Human. Almost everything we eat has meat in it somehow.”

“I appreciate your discretion,” Uku told him, warming to the big feral alien. “And I don’t mean to seem intimidated. Your people have more than won my trust, but…well…Instinct is a difficult thing. I think your word is yijao?”

“Ha!” The Great Father’s chitter was almost a parody of Varks: deep, resonant and chest-shaking. “Not a bad pronunciation either!”

“All part of the training. We librarians have a phonetic alphabet.”

“Yeah! I’ve been readin’ th’ briefin’s my people are makin’ and it’s fascinatin.’ My own Clan’s got someone called the Lore-Master who I think you’d like to meet. Balls, Highmountain too.”

“I think I have a few more immediate concerns,” Uku replied. “The last report your Father Garaaf gave me said a great many of my people are being exiled to the surface by the… let’s call them the puritans.”

“That’s a good word ‘fer ‘em. You got ‘em outnumbered, but I suspect ‘yer people ain’t used ‘ta winnin’ those kinda fights.”

“My people aren’t used to fighting at all. We’re used to dying.”

That elicited what could only be described as a sympathetic keen from the Great Father’s throat, along with a visible attempt to restrain himself.

“…Is something wrong? I was told you prefer the unvarnished truth.”

“I do. Still hurts ‘ta hear.”

Uku nodded. “You’re right. We outnumber the puritans. But they’re just so angry. They’re in so much pain, so desperate for a truth that gave their lives–and all those deaths–a kind of meaning. And we’re tearing it away from them. I don’t blame them for being angry at us, but their anger is driving thousands of families onto the surface, and we can’t live on the surface!”

“Yeah. An’ that’s leadin’ me to the first big thing we gotta figger out. There is a Sky-People you’ve not met yet. They’re called Ten’Gewek, which means ‘the people’ in their own language.”

“Sky-people? I’m familiar with the concept of alien species, you know.”

“Yeah. But Sky-People is honestly the better word ‘fer this. Species is just a kind of living thing. Sky-People says a whole lot more inna lot less words. Anyhoo, I ain’t gonna bore ‘ya wif the details jus’ now. The chieftain o’ their people has convinced his fellows that they should give ‘yer people one of their worlds.”

“…A whole world? A planet?”

“Yeah. It’s a big thing ‘ta drop on ‘ya, I know. But we ain’t got the luxury o’ time. I’ll jus’ say that, their people are tied to their world in a way most aren’t. An’ they’re still hunter-gatherers. It’s a long story. But what the consequence o’ all that weirdness is, is that they ain’t got much use ‘fer that world. So ‘fer them, givin’ it is the good an’ obvious thing ‘ta do.”

“When can we start moving?”

The Great Father barked some kind of excited emotion. “Balls! You ain’t one to beat around the tail, are ‘ya?!”

Uku noted his choice of words. As she suspected, he was very much a surface-hero type of personality who was doing his best to mind his manners. The brave souls who’d left the tunnels to work for the Hunters, mine the world, make tools for them, and risked being slaughtered and devoured every time the so-called Punishment came to collect…they all had that same general coarseness to them after a while. Maybe it was how sapient beings of every kind handled true hardship.

Something about him told her he’d been through many such things in his time.

“As you said, we do not have much time.”

“No. But Ukusevi, you need ‘ta know some things. The planet has weaker gravity. Over time that’s gonna have consequences ‘fer ‘yer people. The world is completely untamed, too. It’s…going to take very much to make it your own. And I kinda think that movin’ in is gonna kill off what’s there, in favor of what your people bring along.”

“What are we going to bring?” Uku retorted. “There’s nothing left for us except poisoned, dead things. Our food crops are grown hydroponically, and those are about the only things we’d take, apart from our books and archives. We don’t have any pet animals or livestock, the last of those died generations ago. A Hunter ate it.”

The Gao must have kept pets too, because that statement elicited an angered growl from deep inside Daar’s chest that Uku was glad to know was intended for the Hunters, not herself or her people.

He didn’t let himself get distracted, though. “Well…you do have bacteria. Food plants. ‘Yerselves. You’ll need ‘ta piss an’ shit, just like anything else that walks. An’ we honnestly jus’ don’t know enough ‘bout ‘yer people’s particular flavor o’ life, or this planet’s life, or how it’ll play together. Or not play together. So there’s mebbe a lot o’ risk to this.”

“Well, we’ll deal with that.” Ukusevi shook her head. “I don’t care, Great Father, if there’s risk involved, and what concerns we will have to face. What I care about is that hundreds of thousands of my people are going to starve or die of poison very soon indeed unless we act. Next to everything we’ve endured and already overcome, the difficulties of settling a new, untainted world will be a blessing. And so I am eager to begin. I think you would be too, in my position.”

“Mhmm.” The Great Father rose and barked through to an adjoining room. “Tiyun! How are ‘ya doin’ on our crash colonization plan?”

A much smaller Gao—Ukusevi had seen enough of their species to deduce that this Tiyun was a fairly normal Gao, while behemoths like Daar and Vark were a feared minority—bustled through with a device of some kind, which he laid in the Great Father’s massive paw.

“There are a few lingering questions we need answers to,” he reported, “but the infrastructure is in place, we’ve received the Ten’Gewek’s go-ahead, and the groundbreaker team is ready to jump to Misfit’s array and build a larger one at your order.”

“Thanks, as always.” Daar fixed that intense predatory gaze of his back on Ukusevi. “Jus’ say the word, and it’ll be so.”

A thought occurred to her suddenly, likely prompted by Tiyun’s brief comments. “…Why are you doing this for us? This has already cost you lives! I don’t even know how many!”

Daar heaved a huge, serious sigh.

“My people were brought to the edge o’ extinction by these evil fucks. Once there were over a billion females among my kind, now there are just over one hundred million remaining. Worse, my people already had a natural gender imbalance of…well, six to one or so, but I’m digressing. The point is that I am the Great Father as a consequence of all that, my people yet live, an’ there are not words ‘ta describe how grateful we are to be free of an enslavement we din’t even know was there. We are a made people, Ukusevi. We were made to be a soldier species. And it’s only because of the Humans that we broke free.”

Ukusevi didn’t have anything like an appropriate reply to that. All she could do was take refuge in an observation. “…You really can sympathize.”

“Yeah. All of which means we can’t not help you, especially when it’s Hunters doin’ ‘ta you what their masters tried ‘ta do to us. Never again. Not while I’m still kickin.’”

“…They have masters?”

“They do. Garaaf mighta mentioned ‘em at some point as the Hierarchy. That’s a long story, an’ they’re the prey I ultimately wanna crunch in my jaws. But not right now. Right now, I care about you. So…are ‘ya ready ‘fer the adventure of ‘yer life?”

Ukusevi took a deep breath. She’d already gone on more adventures than one life really ought to contain, she felt. As if upsetting her religion and prompting a civil war weren’t enough for one woman.

“I don’t see any point in even asking,” she said. “My people need this. That’s all that matters.”

The Great Father nodded his head in a way that seemed to involve his neck and shoulders more than his head itself. “A’right.” He sank to all fours again, nodded at Tiyun, and prowled his way toward the door.

“C’mon. Let’s go see ‘yer new world together.”

Date Point: 17y4m1w4d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches


The final touch to his protective drone was a raspy, razor-sharp tongue. If Stabby were ever forced to take defensive actions, Nofl figured they should be memorable, so as to dissuade further attempts on his lab.

The programming should be sufficient. He’d run simulations, and everything. The idea emphatically was not to actually harm anybody, as the Folctha government took a curiously dim view of people protecting their own homes and property. The idea was that if anybody did invade his lab, they really, really would wish they had not.

Amusing as that thought was though, if truth be told, Nofl found his mind far more occupied by his temporary engagement. Singularity had, entirely without asking, arranged for the whole affair.

The Ark Project was ready for its first independent checkpoint review. There being precious few individuals cleared for the program, and fewer still who were experts in deathworld physiology and especially few who had any knowledge at all of normal early-life development for deathworld species… the candidate pool was necessarily thin.

Nofl didn’t know if that was an insult or an accolade.

In any case, there was no point worrying about it. With a put-upon sigh and no small amount of actual interest in what he was about to see, he grabbed his bag and headed out.

Transit was at least quick. Instantaneously, in fact, but only after he’d made the jump to Origin, been shuttled halfway across City Zero, driven down a bunker, and herded toward another jump array, this one behind multiple forcefields, security turrets and other measures besides.

“Is all this really necessary?”

“Project security is paramount.”

And…that about exhausted the small talk. Of course. His people had abandoned that particular social nicety a long time ago. No, no little pleasantries for the Corti, no being nice to each other.

Honestly, it was a wonder they were still around. Then again, they wouldn’t have been in a few more hundred years, if not for the project Nofl was now visiting.

With the black flash-thump of an Array, he stepped off the platform at the Ark Project and was immediately struck by a change in the atmosphere that had absolutely nothing at all to do with humidity, temperature, or the ratio of gases. The white-banner technician with three doctorate pips on her work harness who descended the stairs to meet him had an actual spring in her step, rather than the prim trot he was used to seeing.

“Doctor Nofl, thank you for coming!” she surprised him further with genuine warmth, which was unheard-of between somebody of her rarified caste and somebody of his decidedly more lowly one. “I am Doctor Feln, director of development and education.”

Ah. The headteacher. Suddenly, her downright personable demeanor made a good deal more sense.

Still, she wasn’t quite personable enough for Nofl to fly into the mode he used with Humans, so he settled for echoing her restrained happiness. “I’m pleased to be here! I believe you’re the author of that insightful paper on common traits in early juvenile sophont development, correct?”

Complimenting a senior academic on their published work was always a sure way into their good books, and so it proved for Feln, who was naturally much too cautiously inculcated in the ways of high-banner Corti to do anything so crass as smile, but nevertheless looked quite pleased.

“I’m pleased you have read it,” she replied. “Please, come this way!”

An actual ‘please’ from a white-banner? Nofl was beginning to think he’d stepped into an alternate universe, but what quickly became apparent as Feln led him into the facility was that… he almost had.

The Ark Project was deep underground on a planet at the fringes of Corti space. The planet in question was barren, the last of its photosynthetic life having died off millions of years ago as a consequence of a rather feeble core activity. Its magnetosphere had failed to conserve its atmosphere against the stripping power of the stellar wind, and all tectonic activity had ceased, meaning no volcanos to replenish the atmosphere. Being out the outward fringe of its star’s habitable zone, the loss of pressure had resulted in the temperatures sinking down, and down, and down, until it was far too cold out there to support life of any kind.

The Directorate had surveyed it extensively in the hopes of finding fossil fuel deposits, but as it turned o ut neither the ecosystem nor tectonic activity had lasted long enough to produce those valuable resources, and so Tangent had been left abandoned. Claimed but forgotten, not really worth the effort of establishing even a mining colony.

Now, though, a tiny handful of scientists, secretly here in a hole far underground with no access to the surface, had devoted an otherwise useless rock to the future of their species and civilization.

The first generation of Corti 2.0 were now in their second year of life, by the Directorate’s calendar. They were walking, forming simple sentences, developing their fumbling motor skills and, it had to be said, clearly enjoyed drawing on the walls in crayon. One had clearly decorated the length of a corridor with a series of rather misshapen triangles at chest height.

“That would be Meru’s work,” Feln explained, a touch apologetically. “She is the oldest. Carbon Caste zero-zero-zero-one. And easily the most…precocious.”

“You can actually see her getting more accomplished…” Nofl mused. As they reached the end of the corridor, the triangles were definitely approaching a more ideal equilateral.

“That would be why we have not cleaned it off yet. The sequence needs scanning and analysing. Oh, that reminds me. If you hear a thumping sound getting closer, it is usually a good idea to flatten yourself against the wall. She and her siblings learned how to run about twelve days ago, and now they just will not stop.”

“You make her sound like a charging rhino,” Nofl said, suppressing the urge to giggle.

“A what?”

“Earthling mammal, as much as two tonnes in mass with thick armored hide and a large spike on the nose. Renowned for charging at things and trampling them.”


“That’s interesting, though. Human and Ten’Gewek infants at this stage in their development are still figuring out how to stand upright by holding on to things.”

“Gaoian cubs, on the other hand, are playing social games and using rather complex tools,” Feln replied. “Our Carbon caste develop similarly quickly.” She sounded proud, in a motherly way.

“And they’re physically dangerous to an adult?”

“They are about half your height and mass, and surprisingly strong. We haven’t had any injuries yet but I am quite certain we will unless we get into the habit of stepping aside when they are running around.”

Nofl considered the Human children he knew who handily matched that description, and decided that, yes, he’d rather not have one of the Carbons barge into him at an unsteady run.

The tour of the facility proceeded without such an incident, however. As it turned out, the Carbons were all in lessons or taking naps, and could not see him through the observation windows. That was a shame, he’d rather hoped to meet one and speak with them.

Feln had not exaggerated their size or mass, however. Infants they might be, but they already had a substantial solidity to them that was quite un-Corti. And their eyes were different. The classic, normal Corti eyes were large, ovoid and angled slightly upwards, but the Carbons had slightly smaller, rounder, more focused eyes. The difference was not large, but it was enough to highlight that what he was looking at was, in many ways, a different species. Certainly, none of them would be able to breed with a baseline Corti, though that was due to the fact that baseline Corti were effectively sterile.

But still. Being so different in every way, and having no realistic likelihood of interbreeding, was as reasonable a definition of speciation as there was. Strange, therefore, to think that this new, synthetic species based on the Corti, with traits stolen or purchased from three other species, were being counted as the hope of the Corti. They weren’t a continuation, they were… a replacement.

But they were being raised as Corti. The same culture, the same general structure to their lives. They would be different, and would surely take the Directorate in their own unique direction when they took over… but that was their right, as it was the right of every generation.

Feln was obviously very proud and fond of them, and surprisingly unabashed in showing it too, considering her caste. That part gave Nofl real cause for hope. Maybe his people hadn’t been as far gone as he’d feared.

That impression, however, was swiftly dispelled by his introduction to the rest of the project directors. Staid, conservative, dismayingly concerned with the performance of Caste. Predictable. Boring.

And in an endeavor such as this, dangerous.

He retired for study after the necessary social positioning and status-establishing rituals. Several hours to go over results and documentation were needed before he confronted them with anything important.

And it turned out, there were important things to confront. Two days after he first arrived, having dug, read, watched and reviewed his way through an incredible amount of data, he met formally with the directors to discuss his findings.

“I have concluded my overview. Now before we delve into the specifics, I’d just like to run through the ‘big picture’ as the Humans say.”

“That would be a restatement of the executive summary we’ve already provided.”

“Yes it would, darling. That’s the point. We would hardly wish to proceed unless we were certain of our mutual understanding, hmm?”

The various directors agreed reluctantly, despite doing all they could to project dispassion. Nobody much liked having their projects turned upside-down by strangers. Silver banners being audited by a lowly steel banner such as Nofl?

How very terrible.

“Overall, the project is meeting minimum success thresholds in all capacities, and exceeding the optimal success thresholds in most regards. Per the Directorate performance evaluation algorithm, I am able to grant the Ark Project a Grade Two pass score.” Nofl saw nods around the table. “I am sure, of course, that you are all eager to hear what steps are necessary to achieve a Grade One score.”

Feln in particular nodded with rather more enthusiasm than her more bridled peers deigned to show.

Nofl nodded at her in particular, then turned to the presentation he prepared. “I see you took my advice on the Gaoians seriously.”

The project’s genetics director, Fehu, wore four doctorate pips and the triangular emblem of an emeritus professor. Clearly he’d retired from his tenured post at the college of xeno-genetics for his position here at the Ark. “Affirmative. We found a number of novel solutions regarding rapid early-life development, however: their genome is far and away the most computationally complex we’ve ever investigated. It’s almost two genomes, with heavy overlap.”

“It is two genomes, darling. They are an engineered species. So far as we can determine, they were designed specifically to combat stagnation among us lowly ‘substrate’ species.”

The Cultural director, Mavin, tilted his head subtly. “That…would go far to explain their social structure.”

“Yes, and the presence of ‘throwback’ Clans like Highmountain and Stoneback, especially rare individuals within those Clans. Frankly, I’m impressed you found anything that could be safely used at all.” A small compliment, to lubricate the gears. “So overall, I would say you have made optimal use of that resource. I am a bit more concerned with just how much Ten’Gewek and Human genomics I see in these New Corti. Both are naturally-evolved high-order Deathworlder species, and there are immense epigenetic phenomena at play.”

“Most such concerns were addressed in the early batches. Meru and her siblings were the result of serial run…” Mavin looked to the senior archivist to finish his sentence.

“Experimental Twenty-one Fourteen, strain three thousand four hundred and forty-five,” Tlenm supplied, promptly.

“Indeed. Nevertheless…. Director Feln, I read a rather extensive document concerning the, ah, unsatisfactory state of their alimentary health. I understand the poor things are suffering from routine gastric discomfort and incomplete digestion.”

“It has required us to formulate specialized nutrition for them, yes,” Feln acknowledged.

“I believe there may be a less industrially intensive solution.” Nofl called up his next slide. “An interesting fact for you. By cell count, a Human is actually as much as ninety percent bacteria and fungi. They’re more like a walking symbiotic microbial ecosystem than an individual organism. The symbiotic microbes make up only about one to three percent of their total mass, but the point is that an enormous part of what goes on in their body—especially their digestive tracts—is the work of symbiotic microorganisms. It was this quirk which led to the creation of the so-called ‘Human Disaster,’ after all. The same is very much true for Ten’Gewek, and it is from these species, directors, that you have extensively drawn your organ encoding.”

“In short,” he concluded. “You need to expand this facility to include a microbe research lab and start cultivating healthy gut biomes for the Carbons.”

Fehu wore a briefly concerned expression. “How will they propagate the necessary symbiotic bacteria after reproduction?”

“The problem, historically, has been how to prevent bacterial propagation. That is what the Frontline treatment was specifically invented for, after all.” Nofl reminded them. “Human and Ten’Gewek exchange microbes extensively in their daily and intimate lives, and especially between mother and child at the moment of birth. I assure you, propagation will take care of itself.”

Looks of barely concealed disgust were exchanged around the table… again, with the interesting exception of Feln, who looked like she found the whole subject intriguingly revolting. Of course, she’d probably had rather a lot of exposure to the natural end product of all those upset stomachs.

Nofl treated them all to a tight smile, and called up the next slide. By the end of the day, they would all have achieved that same level of inoculation, or else would leave the room desperately needing a shower. He looked forward to seeing which.

“I have a few recommendations on where the microbe lab should begin…” he said.

Date Point: 17y4m2w AV
Relay world, deep uncharted space

Ferd Given-Man

“That shield is a problem.”

Ferd looked up from his meal pack. The Human food hit the belly hard and stuck there, and gave them all they needed to be strong, but it didn’t taste so good cold. Frasier said it tasted better with the hot sauce, but Ferd had no idea why or how humans liked that stuff. It tasted like fire in the mouth, and if it got into his air-taster then he could do nothing except cough and have water eye for a long time after.

The Humans were all too happy to have as many of the little bottles as they could get though, if Ferd and his men weren’t using them.

Wild, though, was fretting about something.

“Shield?” Ferd asked him.

“Yeah. I can’t see its bottom edge.”

“So we will use dump-web then, yes?”

“That would give us away, mate.”

“Hmm.” Ferd moved up beside him, picked up a seeing-glass and joined Wild in looking at the problem. Sure enough, the hazy shimmer of the field came right down among the buildings. Maybe it stopped just above the ground, maybe not. Hard to tell.

“We need to see closer.”

“Yeah. Probably.” Wild sighed. “Damn it. I was trying to see if I could spot an aqueduct or something. Some trench below street level.”

“I think, that would be too easy for big enemy.”

“Yeah, they’d probably be watching it.” Wild sniffed irritably. “…Fuck. And I left my TBM at home, too.”

“Your what?”

“Tunnel Boring Machine. Big fuckin’ drill for making caves. Not exactly portable, though. It’s as big as a couple of houses.”

“Ah. Joke.” Ferd considered the abandoned city below. “…Would be useful, though.”

“Yeah, mate. As it is… we’re on limestone up here. Hard rock. No digging through that lot, so going under the shield isn’t an option. Only thing we can do is walk up and hope there’s a gap to squeeze under.”

“Or else us dump and get noticed.”

“Yeah.” Wild grumbled. “…Something tells me this whole thing’s going to happen fast when we head down there. Those drones won’t fuck around if we’re spotted.”

“I remember,” Ferd said. “Killed many men of the tribes. Killed many tribes. Death-birds, we called them.” He watched the flock of them going round and around above the Relay. He knew they flew faster than anyone could run, had ‘plasma’ weapons that could explode a man like ripe fruit, and fusion blades along their wings that could cut even him in half.

“Good name.” Wild considered the city one last time, then nodded. “…Alright, fuck it. We’re going back to the ship, and we’re breaking out the big boom.”

Ferd pulled a small face to himself. The “big boom” was a piece of Gaoian sky-magic the Great Father gave them. He didn’t know what a gigaton was, really, but it sounded big, and the Humans and Tooko talked about it like it was really really big. All he knew was, it was as big as a bull Werne’s head and a lot heavier.

He would be eating well, though. There was always a shimmering flower to find.

“So we’re nuking it,” Rees said, perking up.

“Yup. Only way—”

“—to be sure!” Rees and Frasier chorused. Ferd blinked. Whatever that joke had been, it slipped right past him.

No matter.

The trek back wasn’t bad. There were many interesting things to see, and some small scuttling prey. Nothing worthy of a good meal, but they hadn’t deeply explored the forest next to the open ground yet.

They had a forest trail, though. Tooko had landed in a dry riverbed where no trees grew, and with the help of some nets, some fabric, and some sky-magic built into the top of the ship, he said it still looked just like an empty riverbed from above. He must be right, because so far the big enemy hadn’t seen him.

The path on foot through the trees was marked with Ferd’s forest-sign, carved into trees and stones with his knife. They weren’t big or strong trees like at home, but they were wide, with big flat dark leaves that covered the sky and drank the light, so it was even darker among them than the forests at home.

He and his men had no problem seeing in the gloom. The Humans though… they could see well enough to walk, but it took them a while before their eyes settled and they could see properly. Wild walked close behind Ferd, stepping where he stepped.

Their ears seemed to make up for some of that, though. “Hear that? Something’s following us, about five o’clock.”

Ferd flicked his right ear around and, sure enough…

“Sounds like a hunting beast on all fours.”

“Least it’s not a fucking tiger…” Frasier commented, turning and raising his weapon.

“Why not?” Nomuk asked.

“Completely silent, those are.” Frasier aimed into the bushes. “Light?”

“Shoot your tac light in the bush back there, yeah. See if we scare it away.”

Frasier nodded. “Watch your eyes, lads.”

Ferd turned his head. There was a bright flash, and something heavy panicked and started scrambling to run away behind the bush.

Nomuk wasn’t about to let good meat get away. He blurred after it, and within a couple breaths had caught it, broken its back with a muffled crunch, and flung it over shoulder. Ferd hooted softly: the beast was rangy and mean-looking, built more for slinking and pouncing then climbing or brawn. It reminded him of a Baru without pack-mates, and was both bigger and skinnier. And its fur was green. Weird.

“Fuck me, look at the claws on that bad boy!” Rees commented.

“Kinda reminds me of a sloth,” Wild replied.

“Sloth?” Ferd asked. “…Must be strong beast with claws like that?”

The Humans traded a laugh that said no, it really wasn’t, shook their heads, and turned back down the trail toward the ship.

“Least we get real meat today…” Tumik muttered.

“Sure.” Wild ducked under a branch and paused as the came out of the woods near the ship. “We’ve got some planning to do.”

As they stepped out of the woods, one of the ship’s smaller guns turned to track them. All as normal: Big Enemy got into people’s heads. Tooko was just being safe. There was a ’scanner’ on the ship that could see inside them for Big Enemy’s tricks, but it needed them to stand still, so they did. After a few seconds, the gun turned back to its resting pose and Tooko opened the door.

“How you holdin’ up, Pip?” Rees asked him jovially as the Gaoian emerged. “Goin’ stir crazy yet?”

“Glad to have the place smelling decent for a change,” he replied. “…What is that?”

“Lunch!” Nomuk held up the carcass.

“…Oh. Okay.” Tooko sniffed, then shrugged and turned to Wild. “So. Bad news first?”

“You already got the good news, in that we’re not dead or droned,” Wild replied as Nomuk and Tumik took the beast away to harvest the meat. “Bad news is, it looks like that thing’s shields come right down to ground level.”

“That takes me flattening it off the table,” Tooko grumbled. “…So what’s the plan?”

“Nuke it. If we can sneak that warhead the Great Father gave you in under the shield, that’d be perfect, if not… well, I doubt the shield could stop it anyway.”

Tooko’s ears flicked backwards. “Well. So much for the local ecosystem…” he muttered.

“Needs must, pal.” Wild took a swig of water. “…What’s the minimum safe distance on that thing, anyway?”

“Uh… preferably behind the moon?”

“Seriously, now.”

“I am being serious. The radiation pulse alone on that type of bomb will kill everything within line of sight. It’s gonna kick up enough debris to maybe trigger a nuclear winter. Nowhere on-planet is safe. And that doesn’t even cover the earthquakes, or—”


Ferd watched them both carefully. “…That big?”

“Bigger. The Great Father said we’re only to use it if there’s no alternative.”

“Pretty sure this counts, mate. Believe me, it’s not my first choice, but we came her to kill a Relay and by God I’m going to kill a Relay.”

Ferd nodded sharply. That was as solemn a vow as he’d ever heard Wild make, but he agreed completely.

“I hope the Great Father agrees with you…” Tooko fretted, but he duck-nodded and headed to the cargo hold. “I’ll prep the bomb for you, then.”

“Cheers.” Wild heaved a big breath once the Gaoian was gone, then gave Ferd a complicated look. “Never thought I’d nuke something…”

“Is a big Taking,” Ferd agreed, grimly. “Kill much of the world, from what Tooko said.”


“Worth it, though. Big Enemy threatens many worlds, many peoples, and has killed many over deep time. Take a big Taking by us to balance all they’ve done.”

“You’re right.”

Ferd clapped him heavily on the shoulder. “Good you take it serious, though. Men shouldn’t Take lightly, especially not on this scale.”

“Yeah, mate.” Wild stood. “…Took’s gonna need me to open the second lock. You get some rest and roast up that kill, ‘kay? We’ll go at night.”

Ferd took that seriously, because he knew what the nuke was like: bulky, heavy, and would make him the biggest target on the team.

Night came quickly. The days here were a finger shorter than at home, so dark and light seemed to blur past fast enough to lose track of time. By the time the kill was cooked, eaten, and declared good, the sun was already low in the sky.

By the time they’d painted their faces, checked their gear, gone over the plan and all clearly understood their part in it, the sky was washed with orange and pink.

By the time they emerged from the forest with the nuke on Ferd’s back and the old dead city in sight, it was dark. No moon, tonight. A good night for hunting. There was light down around the Relay though. Little deadly cones of it as the death-birds swept the ruins, ever watchful. And behind them, the faint off-white glow of the shield dome, invisible by day but clear in the dark.

No talking, now. They were ghosts in the dark, off to do a terrible thing.

And they would not fail.

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 4 (NSFW)

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Sweetness – Chapter 3 (NSFW)

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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)

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Shades of White and Orange

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Adam, Artemis, Atlas, & Icarus Part 2

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Adam, Artemis, Atlas, & Icarus Part 1

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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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