2: Longest Prefix Match

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11y, 8m AV
Outside the Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Champion Meereo of Clan Longear

Play was a universal concept. The forms that play might take varied greatly, and the purpose was sometimes inscrutable, but all intelligent sophonts the galaxy over had their own methods and preferences.

Predators had similar tastes in games, it seemed. Meereo learned that as he sat on a bench outside the Alien Quarter, watching a Human and Gaoian cub wrestle and chase under the wary eyes of two adult females, also Human and Gaoian. A small drama erupted; Humans could make fists even at such a young age! The Gaoian didn’t appreciate being hit, and swiped back, drawing a thin bleeding line on the little Human’s flat and strangely expressive face. Meereo wasn’t sure what the expression meant, exactly, but judging by everyone’s reaction it was probably some mixture of anger and pain.

The two Mothers intervened immediately, followed by the unmistakable posture of two younglings being forced to apologize and not at all caring for it. Meereo flicked his right ear in amusement. And then, not a minute later, they were playing again, all slights forgotten.

Their play now centered around a chase-game with a smallish ball. It was a little large in the Human cub’s hand but she could throw it with remarkable power and accuracy, which delighted the Gaoian to no end; the smaller Gaoian cub would billow and rage after it and pounce, then return with the ball, pleased and happy and quite tired. They threw and chased many times until a truly enormous creature arrived, ears up and eyes laser-focused on the two cubs. Meereo perked up, suddenly anxious at its arrival.

Meereo boggled at it; it was larger than the fully-grown adult Human Mother by a vast distance. It had a long and rough coat with black, brown, grey and silver colorings, but that did nothing to disguise its sheer, bulging fitness or its blatantly obvious Deathworld origins. With paws and claws as large as meal plates, and teeth and jaws so big it could bite either of the cubs’ heads clean off in one chomp? It was fearsome. Even the way it moved was grotesquely and intimidatingly predatory. The beast brought to mind a vision of an alien Stoneback: huge, strong, dangerous. It huffed, focused on the Cubs exactly like a Gaoian pouncing on prey, and ran towards them! Meereo stood up, alarmed, and charged towards the scene on fourpaw—

It gently tackled the cub to the ground and licked it everywhere while the Humans laughed their throaty not-bark and the Gaoians chittered happily. After a long snuffling moment, the massive creature stood in a play-bow and allowed the Cubs to inflict all manner of happy abuse. Apparently it was like a Stoneback in personality, too. Meereo relaxed, the threat past, but suddenly felt a bit self-conscious in such an Uncivilized state and stood up, straightening his fur and flicking his ears in embarrassment. The adults noticed his sudden approach and abrupt stop and waved for him to join. He ambled over, ears set at an asymmetric and apologetic kilter.

The Human cub stood up and approached suddenly. “You look like Anubis!”

“…I do?”

He bent down and gently sniffed at the air. The little Human was pungent like all her kind but he detected nothing untoward. She smelled like a child should: dirty with hints of recent exertion. The tang of blood was about her as well but her shallow wound clotted with surprising speed, and so that smell was faint. There was no sharp and coppery scent of anger, nor the acrid bite of fear. Only curiosity.

“Yeah! He’s the ‘Gyptian god of death, I think!”

Meereo found he did not enjoy the comparison.

“I am not sure how I feel about that.”

His translator, when rendering Human language, gave him a tenor pitch and very precise diction, which Meereo found irrationally annoying. His natural voice was deeper!

“Anubis was a god of the afterlife, specifically.” The Human Mother spoke up. “He dealt with resurrection and was the guide of souls to and after Judgment. He was also patron of embalming. As death deities go, he wasn’t so bad.” She also gave him a curious look, which Meereo could not identify.

Meereo found himself humorously nonplussed by the sudden and strange encounter, and swiveled his ears in bemusement. “Yes. Well. Is everyone fine?”

“Just a little Cub drama, but otherwise fine.” The Gaoian Mother gave him a look-over. Then she looked him over again. “Visiting?” Meereo was suddenly paying rapt attention to her and swiveled his ears forward to listen.

“Yes, on official business for my Clan. I do not know how long I will stay…” He set his ears wide and slightly back, inviting her to comment.

“Oh! Well, when you’re done, maybe we can give you a tour? Folctha isn’t big but the people are very friendly!”

The massive creature which precipitated the encounter finished licking the tiny cub, who had practically chittered herself exhausted. He ambled over with utter confidence and sniffed boldly at Meereo, forcefully placing himself in front of the Cubs and Mothers. He did so in a way which suggested Meereo was not yet a trusted individual, though it wasn’t exactly an unfriendly advance. Merely…extremely assertive. Dominant, even, to the point of near aggression.

Meereo wasn’t about to challenge him.

“Oh, don’t mind Bozo. He’s a little protective.”

“Bozo? He has a name?”

WURF!!

Meereo’s ears flattened of their own accord. That…sound…was boisterous and obviously cheerful, but it was so loud it was slightly painful.

“Yup, that’s him.”

“…this must be a ‘dog’ I presume?”

“Yup! Say hi, Bozo!”

Woof! That was a much gentler vocalization and originated in the creature’s mouth instead of deep in its cavernous chest. The ‘dog’ pressed forward and snuggled against Meereo’s paw. He chittered and scratched at the creature’s head, which earned a wagging tail and other obvious signs of deep pleasure.

He looked the massive creature over. While one could never possibly mistake this Bozo for a Gaoian—his body plan was all wrong, the face was dopey and far too beastly—there were certain similarities. The eyes and eyebrows were expressive and the ears seemed to be as well. There was something brutally simple and primitive about this creature, and yet, somehow, Meereo understood its expressions and scents, as if filtered through an almost perfect translator. And the creature seemed to understand him, too.

Bozo seemed content that Meereo wasn’t a threat to the others. He stretched out luxuriantly, showing off a physique far too robust and obscenely over-muscled to be anything from Meereo’s homeworld, except maybe a Naxas bull in its absolute prime, or maybe a Stoneback or extremely large Straightshield. Bozo then stretched his mouth open very wide, showing off an impressive set of gleaming and very large teeth. Even its jaws were flanked and layered with a huge mass of dense, fibrous muscle. Presumably this was a threat display, though Meereo felt a strange compulsion, suddenly, to do the same thing.

Both the cubs imitated immediately.

“I think yawns really are contagious!” This from the very fetching Mother.

“Oh God, not this again.” The translator paused at that second sound but decided it was only a mild exclamation and continued. Human idiom was tricky to process and he’d not had time to upgrade his translator before arriving.

Meereo very much wanted to continue this conversation; the Mother was delightfully alluring and there was a certain inexplicable attraction with the Human female as well. Most likely it was the simple novelty of actual conversation than anything else. He’d met a number of Humans on the visit so far but he’d not had any chance to simply…talk. Share. Tell a story, even. Longears loved to communicate. What was the purpose of a network, after all?

Of course, right at that moment his watch’s calendar went off, reminding him of his appointment with Champion Genshi.

“Alas, I must depart.” He looked down at the Cubs, “Will you listen to your Mothers?”

“YES!” in two different languages.

“Excellent!” He duck-nodded at the females. “Good day.” He turned around gracefully then walked to his meeting.


“He’s cute!” Melissa gave Niral a mischievous grin.

Niral looked properly scandalized! “Melissa! You are now the second Human female I’ve known that has an eye for our males. How do you know he’s cute?”

Melissa gave her a single raised eyebrow. “Girl, look at him. He’s wearing nothing but his watch and showin’ it all off. He’s got swagger and he’s toned as hell, too. I can see his abs and pecs through that fur! And it’s inky-black and looks so soft and silky…you can’t tell me that ain’t high on your list.”

“Well, yes, but—” Niral suddenly exploded with indignation, “But Humans don’t have fur! How could you even find it attractive in the first place!?”

“Who said I did? I said he was cute, not that I wanted to screw him.”

“Melissa—!”

“Hey, what can I say? Some signals transcend species. Pretty man seems to work both ways between our kinds. Weren’t you teasing me about Brian the other week? Didn’t you think he was attractive?”

“That’s different,” Niral sniffed. “He’s a teacher! He cares about Cubs.”

“He was shirtless and playing basketball when you made that comment.”

“…admittedly, his muscles were really impressive. But he’s Human, you’re all built like you’re from warrior stock!”

“No we’re not, not like that! But anyway, you were right. He is attractive. So I asked him out, and we’re going on a date this weekend. What’s your excuse?”

“Wh—!” Niral sputtered, “I just met him!”

“So?”

Niral wanted to reply but she was interrupted by her charge, who broke from a tussle with the Human cub and came over to talk. “Melissa?” The little Gaoian tugged at her pant-leg. “Who was he? He was pretty.”

Melissa chuckled, bent down and picked up the tiny cub. “…Y’know, we didn’t even get his name. A shame. And he was pretty, wasn’t he?” She shot an absolutely evil look at Niral as she said this.

“Yeah! His ears were really big!” She gestured to her own and made exaggerated motions to indicate a preposterous size.

“Mhmm.”

“Do you think Niral should talk to him?”

“Yeah!”

“…”

“I’ll watch the kids, Niral. Go. Talk to the pretty boy. And get his name! I wanna stalk him on Gaoian Facebook.”

Niral rolled her eyes. The Humans had enormous difficulty pronouncing the correct name of that most popular node on the Gaoian Infosphere, but it served a shockingly similar social function, so they called it the “Gaoian Facebook.”

The translation was pretty close, too.

Niral cast a glance at the male off in the distance. He wasn’t big—by Gaoian standards he was of average size, definitely towards the shorter and lighter side of the equation—but Melissa was right. He was very sleek and fit and well “put together.” And his fur was short, glossy and all black, a rare combination.

And he seemed friendly enough. “…I think you’re right. I’m gonna go talk to him.”

She trotted off, heart suddenly aflutter. Meanwhile, Melissa sat on the grass with the kids and the dog while the three happily played.

All in all, it was a good day.


The Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
En route to meeting with Champion Genshi

Champion Meereo of Clan Longear

Niral had caught up to him just before he’d approached the security checkpoint at the gate, and what ensued was a wonderful confidence boost. She was slightly flustered in the most adorable way and he found himself very interested to hear about the Cimbrean! He arranged a date for later that night.

“You set it up,” he offered. “I don’t know the area and I’m up for whatever!”

He was, too. Meereo very much liked to explore and that was one of the reasons he was so fit in the first place, though Gaoians in general were naturally and easily healthy and did not suffer from the “out of shape” problems to which Humans could be strangely prone. An odd adaption, that. Hoarding food resources so greedily it could damage their bodies? Earth must be horrifyingly dangerous. He shuddered slightly at the thought.

As they parted she gave him one last full body glance-over with an almost…hungry expression. Really, what male could ask for more? Buoyed, he happily strode through the security gate and the brief air-jet decontamination system, came up clean, and meandered over to the Whitecrest enclave.

Why were Gaoians naturally fit? Well, it was largely due to their millennia-old breeding programs and well-planned food availability, a benefit of Gao’s extremely predictable weather patterns; they were so predictable, in fact, meteorology was a very late science to the Gaoian people. With their world’s finalized ranking as a very high-end class nine, that near-perfect predictability likely saved it from Deathworld status. Not that the Corti would ever tell. Their classification algorithm was proprietary and they found geo-survey far too profitable an endeavor to give it up easily.

In either case, Meereo’s fitness was notably above average by the reckoning of either his Clan or the vast majority of the Clanless, though he wasn’t anything like the more physically imposing Clans; he didn’t have the long-working strength of the labor-focused Greentooth or Ironclaws, nor the intense, whip-cord muscularity of the defense-oriented Whitecrest or One-Fangs, nor the brute power of the Emberpelts or Straightshields. Nor was he like a Stoneback, who were generally all of things at once and vastly beyond any other males.

Meereo didn’t descend from stock that physically impressive. Instead, Meereo’s Clan bred for focus, intelligence, and perception, while also giving a healthy sniff towards a lean, rangy, and functional body. For someone who needed to wiggle through tubes, hang from poles, crawl under desks, or walk surveys? And occasionally use a little muscle to wrestle an un-cooperating piece of equipment into submission? It was enough. And his preference to amble and hike and climb gave him that extra little edge; he’d found more than one use for being fit over the years. Also? It got him laid, and that got him cubs, which was definitely a motivating bit of positive feedback and kept him active and mobile.

All off those were entertaining thoughts and distractions. But now, he needed to consider his meeting and it was one potentially fraught with peril. He tried not to let any of that intimidate him. Keep confident, he told himself. He did not let the Whitecrest Champion’s more…intense physicality bother him, or Genshi’s vast training in matters of death and stealth, or that he, as a relative combat novice, was walking blind into an encounter to verify if the Ghost had taken residence in Genshi’s head.

If so, Meereo would probably miss that date.


The Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Meeting with Champion Meereo

Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest

Genshi was inwardly nervous, for this encounter was incredibly risky. He had to be absolutely certain that Meereo was safe, and that was going to require…force. In their private messages to arrange the meeting it was painfully clear neither Champion trusted each other. And sadly, that could mean anything.

In his own way, Meereo was far more dangerous than any other Champion. Compared to, say, Daar? Well, physically there was quite simply no male now or very probably ever in the whole of the Gaoian race who was even remotely his match—and if Genshi’s research was correct, very few Humans, either—so any actual head-on confrontation would likely result in a dead and mutilated Genshi no matter what else might happen. Not that he feared such a conflict from the friendly hulk, but a good Whitecrest knew the Angle in any situation.

And besides, Daar was in some ways a primitivist and eschewed certain trappings of modern life. Implants were a very notable item on his “not ever” list and that happily kept him free and clear of this particular threat. The obstinate brute could barely be persuaded to keep a communicator on his person!

But Meereo? Well. He was the Champion of the Major Clan whose portfolio included virtually every communications system amongst the Gao. While Whitecrest did basic maintenance and deployment of their own equipment, it was Longear who designed, maintained, implemented, upgraded, and innovated with any networks and associated infrastructure. Already they’d stolen a few ideas from the Humans—and they vice-versa—and as a result there was a worldwide “upgrade” underway to “dual stack” everything for seamless access to the Human’s networks.

Genshi was reasonably sure he understood what that meant.

And that made Meereo effectively the most dangerous Gaoian alive. He had access to everything and if he wasn’t compromised, it would be a true and genuine shock. This made Genshi extraordinarily nervous. To that end, he picked his two best available Brothers, took them to the Surgeon to remove their implants, and briefed them with the absolute minimum necessary to accomplish his immediate mission. Whitecrests were discreet; if the Champion were to bring a Brother in on a mission, with no questions asked and none answered, they would know enough to keep their mouths shut. Forever.

Especially since Genshi was amongst the deadliest males alive.

“He’s arrived, Champion.”

Show time. “Very well, run the scenario. Everyone take up positions.”


Meereo

“Greetings, Cousin.” Genshi held his paws low and wide with his ears in a friendly set. The meeting was public with plenty of on-lookers, so appearances mattered a great deal. Meereo returned the gesture with a carefully-controlled set of his ears, betraying no hint of wariness or concern.

“And you as well. You’re looking healthy!” It was true. Genshi was, after all, the embodiment of Whitecrest, and theirs was a Clan of stealth and strength and speed, of intelligence and cunning. They had a certain hard and slender intensity to them that the other Clans didn’t quite possess. At first glance a Whitecrest might seem fairly average; Fathers knew the more ignorant of the Clanless could make that mistake. But their long, silky fur could be deceptive and many a foe had been lured into a false sense of superiority, to their cost.

Meereo knew better. Deep down, Genshi intimidated him.

“The Humans have built something unique here. I wonder, has your Clan benefited as much as mine?” They ambled along in a friendly sort of motion. Meereo kept a close eye on his surroundings. So far, so good.

“Hard to say,” said Genshi. “Certainly we’ve learned much from each other. One of those things I think is of great concern to both of us.”

“I had wondered how we might broach that topic,” mused Meereo. “The problem, as I see it, is we both have deep concerns, we both think the other may be on the same page—that’s also a Human expression, did you know?—but neither of us have any way of discussing the problem without potentially alerting an enemy.” He tilted his head, “Does that about cover it?”

Genshi nodded gracefully. “Astute as always. We have a standoff, and not an easily resolvable one in game theory. Are you familiar?” They had by this point meandered near a small café and the rich smells of many foods taunted them.

“Of course. The Humans have a rich study in game theory as well. As it turns out, both our cultures refer to this as the Prisoner’s dilemma. Well,” elaborated Meereo, “This isn’t precisely the same game, but the problem remains.”

Meereo glanced at his watch. So far, no communications were originating from Genshi beside his pocket communicator. A good sign, but not certain enough…

“Indeed. Which of course means there is only one way to escape the dilemma.”

“Oh?” They turned a corner and Meereo suddenly realized he was trapped.

“Yes. And I am sorry.”

He attempted to back out but it was too late. Two large and rather evil-looking thugs of Genshi’s pounced and attempted to immobilize him. But Meereo wasn’t a Champion for nothing. He had training and some experience as befits his role, and as the embodiment of one of the most modern Clans, it fell to him to defend the Clan’s honor against all aggressors, both external and within.

So he was pleased he didn’t go down without a fight. He even managed to get some really nasty cuts on both of the goons, who forced him to his knees and muscled his arms behind him at an extremely painful angle. But he stood little chance against two trained Whitecrest thugs in fighting trim. He lost. Quickly.

Genshi approached rapidly with a device in his hand. Meereo had no idea what horrors he was about to experience, so his ears were back, his teeth exposed and snarling, and he struggled with all his might, claws flashing, body wiggling as much as he could. A strong paw grabbed his skull from behind and pinned it steady, but still Meereo resisted. He would not submit, he would not—

Genshi pressed the device against Meereo’s head. It pinged, and a great wave of relief spread across the Whitecrest Champion’s face.

“Oh, thank the Fathers.” He slumped to the ground and sat in front of Meereo, and then more or less collapsed into himself as if a great burden had lifted. “Leave us, and remember your Oaths.”

The goons released Meereo and shoved him forward slightly, throwing him off balance. They were gone before he could regain his footing and retaliate.

“They are bound under our strictest Oaths of Secrecy and will tell no one.” Meereo returned his attention to Genshi. He sat, paws spread and ears sideways in a position of abject apology. But his claws were fully extended. Whether defensively or as a prelude to violence, Meereo didn’t know.

His claws remained extended. He wasn’t in a forgiving mood.

“That matters little to me, Oathbreaker.”

Genshi growled dangerously. “I promised safety and a public venue, and I have delivered. My officers are superbly trained and did you no harm whatsoever. This little encounter? That you were so easily led into a prepared corner is not my fault.” He gestured towards the market. Somehow, all the civilians present paid them absolutely no attention. “They can’t hear or see us thanks to some very advanced privacy and concealment fields. As for your ego? Well, to be perfectly blunt, your pride is the least of my concerns.”

“This isn’t about pride,” Meereo snarled, “It’s about trust, you Uncivilized savage. You violated the spirit of our agreement and that makes me question all our dealings. How would the other Clans react if they were to know?”

Genshi’s ears shot forward aggressively. “Are you threatening me?”

Meereo fired back with an undaunted growl. “No, I am stating a truth. Whatever victory you think you’ve won with your…device, had better come with an incredible explanation, because you are either very stupid or your concern is exceptionally grave, and I cannot tolerate either condition to survive. So speak, or I will leave this place and destroy your Clan with every tool I have.”

“That is a bold threat, Meereo. Are you sure you want to make it?”

“I already did, and I’ve already ensured I can carry it out.”

To his credit, Genshi realized what that meant immediately. “And you accuse me of Oathbreaking? This was to be a private meeting. Is this recording device of yours transmitting?”

“Perhaps. It would never have self-activated in the first place had I not been physically assaulted by an ostensible ally. Now speak.”

Genshi sat and considered his opponent for a long moment. “We have become aware of a security weakness in the implants. A deeply concerning weakness.”

So far, so good, thought Meereo. “How concerning?”

Genshi slumped further into himself and said with a sad little sniff, “Serious enough that I was willing to risk our alliance and our friendship, Meereo.”

Meereo was certain Genshi was manipulating him, somehow. Nobody played the game as well as he, and yet there was something…compelling about his sorrow. And his claws were retracted, too.

He decided a softer tone would be appropriate. “I need a little more than that, Genshi. I risked much coming here in the first place.”

“As did I, which rather suggests we have much the same concern, doesn’t it?”

“Perhaps, but I will not be distracted. I need specifics.”

Genshi affected a Human sigh. “Meereo, I am not an Oathbreaker and that is the problem I face right now. I have sworn and contracted a grave Oath with the source and it is an Oath I will not break under any circumstance. I maybe could convince the source of your need to know…but I need a little more, too.”

Meereo considered. If he was honest with himself, he was still plenty angry about the ambush and the laughable ease with which he was subdued.

“Why not have your goons simply beat it out of me? It’s not as if I would be able to do anything about it.”

“Oh, don’t be like that, you did remarkably well. We pride ourselves on our lack of scars and you gave them both a rather impressive set. And what’s more, they’ll never be able to brag about how they earned them, either.”

“Gosh, what a pity.”

“I’m serious! I wouldn’t have faired much better in your position.”

“Now is not the time to patronize me, Genshi.”

“I’m not. We are Whitecrest, Meereo. This is what we do. Did you think either of them would have allowed your skill to be any factor whatsoever? With the right tactic, your opponent’s training can be almost completely nullified. But one thing you really can’t cancel out is an opponent’s raw ability, and your reflexes were a worthy match for both of them. Which speaks volumes about you, really; I chose those two for a reason.”

“Your flattery will not help you here.”

“It is not flattery, it is a genuine observation. Which, admittedly,” he said with a sly nod, “Happens to be worth mentioning just now.”

“…I’m still not happy with you.”

“And you shouldn’t be. I have wounded your trust and I must earn it back. But I still need that reason, Meereo, if I am to convince the source. It is…skittish.”

Meereo pondered very carefully. At length, he too sighed a Human sigh. “Very well. We’ve noticed some very large objects moving across the Infosphere into and out of nodes which should never be processing those volumes of data.”

“So you’ve seen it move,” said Genshi with a suddenly alert posture. “How many have you seen?”

“…how many what?”

“Not disclosable at this time. How many?”

“…a few.”

“How big are they?”

Meereo wasn’t happy with the one-way nature of the exchange. “Hard to tell. Maybe if I had some idea of what you think we’re talking about…”

“Fine, I understand. How many of your Clan have implants?”

“Very few. We know computing technology very well and that makes most of us…leery of such devices in our brains.”

“In retrospect, that may prove very wise.”

“I fear you are right. So…what now?”

Genshi stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I go to the source and plead your case. Frankly, I’m not sure how to proceed without you, so…wish me luck, I guess.”

“l don’t like you enough right now for that. Instead I think I’ll hope for whatever benefits me the most.”

“…fair enough.” Genshi was hurt by that but hid it very well. Good.

“Yes. Well, if you will excuse me, I have a date tonight and many things to consider. Unless you intend violence again?”

There was maybe a bit too much acid in that closer, but Meereo didn’t care.

“Don’t be an ass, Meereo. Go, enjoy your date. I’ll be, y’know, busy working for our mutual interests.”

Meereo stood up and walked away with a contemptuous little turn. “I will believe that when I see it, Champion.” He ended the conversation and walked away, a blunt closing to an altogether ridiculous meeting. And he was fuming. After all, he had been assaulted and quite probably lied to, with only vague, uncertain promises of further details to come and an entirely useless insinuation of genuine peril with zero evidence to back the claim.

Meereo’s concern was that the Gaoian Infosphere had been infected with a new malware the likes of which they had no defenses against. While that was not a new concept, nor were their networks helplessly unprotected, the Humans took the concept of malicious code to an entirely new plane of capability and something as vast and well-developed as the Infosphere would be fertile ground for fun and profit. He and his Brothers had been scrambling to strengthen the Infosphere’s defenses against such a danger. But was this new danger so perilous it was worth risking an alliance?

Genshi thought so. And that alone was what stayed Meereo’s hand.


That afternoon
Downtown Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Sister Niral

A little quick search on the “Gaoian Facebook” found her date very quickly. He said his name was Meereo, which was a fairly uncommon name, and when she found his picture…

He’s a Champion!? Oh, Great Mother!

“Champion, huh? Is that good?” Melissa had that open-mouthed, slightly predatory and mischievous grin that Niral had seen on so many of her Human friends.

She stared, dumbfounded. “What do you mean, is that—yes!” She squeed excitedly at her good luck. “Champion! I’ve never even met one! There's only a few dozen of them among the billions of Gao, so to see one, let alone talk to one, let alone court one…” She yipped slightly in nervous excitement.

“Okay, so a really good score! What’s a Champion?”

“Well…” Niral suddenly realized she didn’t have a quick and easy definition to simply rattle off. “They’re…” She growled at herself gently, “Well, they’re a male thing. Most of the major Clans have them, right? It’s…a Champion is the Clan, in a sort of symbolic way.”

“So they…what, represent it?”

“Yes…after a fashion. There’s no real Human equivalent. If you think of the Clans as maybe ‘nation-states’ they could be something like an…ambassador, and maybe a head of state. Both at the same time, maybe. But…not really. They don’t make policy or…not officially, anyway.”

“I think the word you’re groping for here is ‘figurehead,’ honey.”

“No, they’re more than a figurehead. That particular concept took me a while to grasp while I was studying for my duties, and it’s certainly applicable…but it’s not enough.”

“I think you may be overcomplicating this. They’re a champion. A champion is what they are, and championing is what they do. Got it.”

Niral duck-nodded, “Yes, that’s certainly true. They also embody the Clan’s view of itself, both its ideals and its genetics.”

“Ohhh!” Melissa waggled her expressive eyebrows. “They’re the prime stud!”

Niral winced briefly. “That’s such an…agricultural way to put it. But yes, they are that in fact. Stud-Prime is the correct term, though it’s an ancient title and it’s only used by a few Clans these days. Theoretically a Champion could be distinct from a Stud-Prime, I guess…but with modern genetics and such that wouldn’t make sense these days. In fact I think the only two Clans that use Stud and Stud-Prime anymore are the Stonebacks and the Emberpelts…I’m rambling, aren't I?”

“Yes.”

Niral clicked ruefully. “Sorry, I’m just excited! So anyway, yes. Either officially or unofficially…they’re studly.” She chittered suddenly in embarrassed humor.

“Meereo is certainly pretty.”

“He is!” Niral had a certain…silly infatuated expression that was impossible to explain but somehow translated across the species’ barrier.

“But what else does he do, besides be pretty? That’s to do with his Clan isn’t it?” Melissa was a teacher with a keen interest in developmental psychology. She liked encouraging Niral to talk about the Gao and she responded happily, as she usually did. Diplomats could be motor-mouths.

Niral nodded vigorously. “Yes! For the most part, anyway. All the Clans have their own…niche, I suppose you could say. Maybe the best analog in your society would be either a major industry or a government function.”

“Interesting. What about the Clanless?”

“They generally pick a skill or trade and align with a Clan. Nearly all males are at least associates to a minor Clan, even if they cannot claim status as a member. Some even gain entry at a later date or form their own Clan. That’s pretty rare after majority, though.”

“Really? Why?”

“It’s to do with our cognitive development. We enter adulthood around our fifteenth year-day, which I believe is around…twelve years old, for a Human. That means we have our full mental powers but our neural-plasticity decreases, much like yours does around twenty-five of your years.”

Melissa paused, shocked. “That’s…twelve is right around the time we gain those abilities. You don’t even start to think properly until a while after that either. So, when does this start for you?”

“At our adolescence, which is also very early compared to yours. It starts around five of our years. We’ve learned that our development during that window is remarkably fast compared to, well, everyone else. The only species we’ve found that compares is yours, in fact.”

Melissa seemed strangely yet predictably depressed by that revelation. “And we Humans have a much longer window, too.”

“Indeed. But,” Niral by now had long experience with this discussion, “It is not the great disadvantage you fear. It just means you Humans have more time to explore and adapt. A Gaoian? We must choose our path very early and pursue it as fiercely as we can. A cub’s Day of Majority is like your college graduation, really, and they’re just as well-equipped.”

“But you’re stuck, then.”

“Not necessarily! It’s just more difficult to learn deeply. You are experiencing the same thing right now, aren’t you?”

Melissa’s twenty-sixth birthday was less than a month ago. “I…guess? I don’t feel slower but…I dunno. I guess I’ve found myself not really…trying?” She struggled for words.

“Exactly. Let me ask you another question. Would you go back to university right now and study something you’re completely unfamiliar with? Engineering, perhaps? How do you feel you would fare?”

It seemed to click for Melissa, then. “Not well. Somehow I just know my heart isn’t in it and it would be hard. Like, really hard.”

“Exactly! From what I can tell it is much the same for us. I’ve also noticed you Humans seem to consider this a weakness and it embarrasses you. Personally, I don’t see why. It gifts us with focus. That is a quality we see lacking in your kind sometimes.” She half-shrugged, “Different species, different approaches.”

Melissa brooded for a moment on that, but she was rarely one to allow a boy matter go unaddressed for long.

“Okay, fine. Enough of this depressing stuff. He’s a Champion of a Clan, right? Which Clan, and what does that mean for you?”

“Longear, can’t you tell?”

“…Longear? That’s the name?”

“Yes!” Niral chittered, “Males can have a strange sense of humor!”

“…okay, so what do they do?”

“Networks, communications systems, computing infrastructure…I don’t know the details.”

“Wait. So they’re the IT guys.”

“I think so, yes.”

“And Meereo is their Champion.”

“Yes.”

“And he’s fit and super handsome?”

“…yes? Where are you going with this?”

Melissa squeed, loudly. “You’re dating a cute nerdboy with abs! That’s amazing! Like, he could be Doctor Who!”

Niral feigned offense. “Meereo is much more attractive than those Doctors!”

“Hey, I like them! But enough about me. Are you gonna scritch his ears?”

“MELISSA!”

“What? You scritch Bozo’s ears.”

“Bozo deserves it, firstly, and secondly it doesn’t mean the same thing.”

“…Oh. I wanna stop asking questions, don’t I?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll leave you two kids to it. Where are you going?”

Niral suddenly showed desperation. “…I don’t know yet. Help!”

Melissa shook her head and chuckled like Humans were wont to do, and together they planned out an evening which would impress Niral’s soon-to-be beau.

At least, if Melissa had anything to say about it.


That evening
Admiral Knight’s office, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest

“You are asking much, Champion Genshi.”

“I am aware, Templar. But I need a degree of freedom if I am to have any hope of being any kind of use, and I cannot, for example, easily cart all of my co-conspirators to Cimbrean for a simple briefing. That would be noticed by even the densest adversary. And I cannot simply invite you to Gao, repeatedly…”

“I understand the problem.” He sighed and took a sip of tea, and while he was at it, stood up to recharge Genshi’s cup. “You are aware of the permissions I must seek for this?”

“I would presume it would involve yours and your allied leaders.”

“Indeed. They are understandably nervous.”

Genshi considered for a moment and decided it was time for a story. Or more aptly, a mild tall tale. “Are you aware of how the Corti system classification scheme works?”

“Vaguely.”

“That is an apt term. Classification isn’t quite as cut-and-dry as they make it out to be, and I think this frustrates them somewhere deep in whatever they have that passes for a soul.”

“Not a fan, are we?” Knight gave an impression of humorless mirth.

“No,” growled Genshi. “I’ve lost good Brothers to those abominations.”

Powell nodded approvingly. “I must say I am not enamored of them myself. We conduct certain business with them, obviously…”

“Warhorse is a floor-shaking reminder of that.” Genshi was still slightly cowed by that meeting. The massive Human was shorter than Daar and yet somehow made the greatest Stoneback seem like a little cub. He was so dense and obviously strong it was difficult to believe, even after reading the briefs, meeting the man, and seeing him reluctantly demonstrate his strength. And to think, Regaari and Warhorse were becoming the closest of friends!

That seemed a very useful alliance to encourage.

“Indeed,” said Knight with a raised eyebrow, “Along with Righteous and Baseball and the whole lot of them.” He set his tea down, “You were saying?”

“Yes. As you may know, shortly before Capitol Station our world received a final classification of nine point nine-two. That is perilously close to Deathworld status.”

“That seems…an oddly specific number.”

“Yes. There are thousands of criteria they use in the calculation, and to their credit many are objective and measurable. Some, however…”

“I don’t think I like where this is going.”

Genshi nodded respectfully.

“There were four surveys conducted. The first exploratory survey had us at a high class eight. The second, before formal contact was established, had us at nine transitional, which prompted further analysis and more ‘wildlife’ samples.” Genshi delivered that with an unmistakable loathsome growl. “The third classified us as a provisional and low-level class nine, and formal contact came shortly thereafter.”

“And yet, your final classification is as close to Deathworld as you can get and not cross the line.”

“Yes, and we suspect that may have resulted from a more aggressive reading of the more subjective factors.”

Genshi had a personality tic. He loved to build scenarios for friends and adversaries and see what conclusions they would draw. Templar was a delightful soon-friend and impressed Genshi with his sharp, dignified wit, as befits one of the most important of all Human officers.

“You think the Hierarchy manipulated the results.”

Genshi duck-nodded. “I consider it likely, yes. We previously considered it a trade war manipulation but in light of Deep Relic I think it necessary to revise.”

“To what end?”

“Oh, that’s easy enough. Some in their ranks must perceive either us or our burgeoning alliance as a threat. And frankly, it wasn’t a difficult manipulation to make.” Genshi paused. “Here, let me share something with you. I require you to hold this with discretion, obviously. Consider it ‘top secret’ for our purpose.”

Genshi reached down to his secure communicator—one with both Longear and Human engineers responsible for its design—and tapped away at his personal holodisplay. An email ping sounded on admiral Knight’s secure terminal, and he quickly perused the contents.

“Fourth Claw inductees only?”

“Only the most skilled of Gaoian fighters use their smallest claw. It requires much practice, impressive paw strength, and supreme faith in self.”

“This is not the first combat-related analogy I’ve encountered from your Clan.”

“We are a martial Clan. Violence is one of our primary concerns.”

“Right.”

“Anyway, Fourth Claw is roughly equivalent to your ‘top secret’ with your major intelligence compartments attached. The hashcode at the end signifies the protection specifics, if you require them.” Genshi also flicked over a translated security guide, appropriately redacted for the Humans.

“You came prepared.”

“I try. But to be fair, we were considering sharing this anyway. Now that I know of this Hierarchy many of our previous findings are…alarming.”

Knight didn’t answer, as he was nose-deep in the document.

“Anyway, my point is this: if you review that document you will see that, with creative argument, it is possible to sway a planet up and down and across maybe three levels of classification without entirely breaking its logic. I suspect one could possibly argue Earth is a very high class eleven, or possibly to the top of class thirteen. I think, at this point, nobody wants that. As for my world, I think it would be a stretch, but if you argue resource scarcity…”

Knight skipped forward and skimmed. “There’s room there to assign points.”

“Yes. I personally think the end categorization is close to the truth and that was in no small part due to the Corti themselves. I think they take it as a personal affront to see their system abused.”

“But some faction could have classified you as a Deathworld species.”

“And they might not be entirely wrong. Though, frankly, compared to a real Deathworlder species like yours, I don’t like our odds.”

Admiral Knight reflected on this for a long moment.

“…very well. I’ll confess we were considering this anyway.” He reached into his desk and pulled out two paper letters. One was a Presidential Finding, signed by the American President, and another was the British equivalent, signed by the Prime Minister in the name of His Majesty the king.

“We had these prepared just before we briefed your Clan Brothers on DEEP Relic. The plan was to give this to Regaari…but I think you are in a better position to use this power.”

Knight pushed the letters over. Genshi read them carefully.

“This is a very broad grant of power.”

“Yes it is, and it frightens me. So let me make things clear. I am a fleet admiral.”

He left everything else unsaid.

“I understand. Because if I fail? No fleet will be necessary to destroy us.”

Genshi signed his name to each letter.


Meereo

He received a message from Niral to meet outside Kobe’s, a Human restaurant specializing in Japanese cuisine with an eye towards curious Gaoians and Humans alike. He was warned to check against his registered allergen list before arriving. He did, noting that his assay put any “shellfish” from Earth strictly off-limits. Gaoians as a rule could eat most Human foods, but things like onions, caffeine, or chocolate? Those could only be indulged sparingly.

As for the shellfish? Well, his documented reaction was mild enough that incidental exposure wouldn’t bother him much. He probably would have been fine sampling some, but since it was a date, and given the symptoms…

Definitely not a good way to earn a mating contract.

He arrived and spotted Niral immediately and took a moment to admire her poise. On “formal” occasions it was considered appropriate in Gaoian society to attend with as little material detritus as possible, and for anyone so inclined that typically meant leaving their many-pocketed vests or sashes behind. Meereo seldom carried much on his person anyway. Niral had considerable burden with her when they first met, most likely owing to the cubs. Without?

She was exquisite.

Someone had helped brush her fur. It flowed gracefully with her every movement and was bewitching to watch. He indulged for a moment, then noticed he was about to pant happily, and decided he wanted more.

He approached and greeted her courteously. “Hello, Niral.”

“Hello, Champion. The evening greets.”

He nodded with a serene expression. That was a bit formal. She’s a little nervous, thought Meereo. He understood. He’d investigated her on “Gaoian Facebook” and found a mid-level and highly competent member of the Female’s diplomatic corps. She’d scored a major assignment as part of a mission to the Humans (!) and her career had progressed steadily from there. She even had some exposure to Clan politics but Meereo suspected she had never dealt at his level, so to speak. He felt no smugness about that as some of the more wretched males might; he was simply happy to have her company.

“You needn’t be so careful with me, I don’t bite! What are we doing?”

“Oh! Uh…our reservation isn’t for another [hour] so I thought we would walk down Delaney Row?”

“Lead on, it’s fun to explore!”

She asked many questions of him which he tried to answer. Some of the more interesting: What’s life like as a Champion? (“Busy!”); Do you get into many Challenges? (“No, thankfully. Some of the other Champions would tear me to pieces.”); Why do I smell blood? (“…err, I may have gotten into a little fight today. Nothing big.”); Are you okay? (“Yes yes, it’s no big—”); Did you win? (“…well, honestly, I’m not sure. I think ‘no’ is a safe answer.”); Did they win? ( [chittering laughter] “Well, that blood you smell ain’t mine, so draw your own conclusions!”)

And so forth. He found the questions oddly enduring. Many females he’d courted had asked similar questions and that made him wonder: did males do the same to the females? They seemed to have a desperate curiosity into the male life, as if their own life experiences were so radically different.

Maybe they were! His own questions were in many ways a reflection of his own nearly cub-like curiosity: Why diplomacy? (“Why not? How can we avoid pointless conflict and fear if we do not communicate?”); Did you enjoy the Human mission? (“Oh yes, they are fascinating! I met a handsome Firefang too. Not as cute as you…”); What convinced you to relocate here? (“I’m not entirely sure. I think…the Humans, they have this energy about them, and I think it’s important we understand and make friends. I mean, look on the galactic stage? Who else?”); Do they really hate Nava? (“Only if you tell them what it is!”); Is chocolate really as good as I hear? (“Great Mother YES but…be very careful. Go to the ‘chocolatier’ and have ONE, and no more.”) What are they like ‘drunk?’ (“Very strangely and entertainingly broken!”)

They walked across the bridge and meandered along the river, telling stories and humorous exaggerations from their lives. She opened up quickly once she had something to discuss. Always she tried to shift the discussion to him, and always he wanted to hear more about her. Maybe it came naturally; diplomats were always talking about others, after all.

But Meereo didn’t mind. She was incredibly intelligent. He suspected she was at least his equal even if their domains could not possibly be more different. But at the heart of it…

“See, that’s the thing. You and I? We really do the same job.”

She chittered happily but caught the analogy instantly. “We’re both communicators, huh? But mine is so much easier to grasp! It’s just people talking to each other, sharing their dreams, hiding their fears…yours is all about bits and bytes and…” she threw up her paws comically to illustrate her amused frustration. “Whatever else you do! I’m sorry, I was never good in that class.”

“And I was a very awkward little cub for quite some time. I understand.”

They turned back towards the restaurant and from there he tried his best to explain what a network was. He loved doing this for the new initiate cubs; it was an excuse to practice storytelling!

“Well, networks, they’re built in layers. It’s like…you take a job, right? Some task, like ‘deliver this document’ to my most bestest friend. With me?”

She chittered at the childish turn of phrase. “Yes! it will be my diary, filled with gossip about all the cute cubs and what Clans they might strike.”

“A female’s diary? Well. Clearly this will be far too hefty to ship in one box!”

“Hey!”

“Oh hush, it’s funny and you know it.”

“It could be a male’s sharepage, filled with claw sharpeners and pulse rifles!”

He waggled his eyebrows, “And pictures of Straightshields and Stonebacks being all macho and doing manly things! Scars everywhere, probably flexing wildly with a young Sister on each arm, or something.”

She nodded sagely. “And explosions, off in the background. Probably with some very bad image effects!” She said that with a sly set of her ears.

“Oh, the worst! Something a fresh initiate would do. Oh, and fire, too.”

“Well, obviously! How could I forget?”

“Possibly too busy writing in your diary?”

He earned a gentle little claw-pinch on his shoulder for that.

“Ow!”

“Serves you right. A female has her dignity, you know.”

They chittered together and drew closer as they walked under the magnificent trees. Gao had something like them but they were few and far between. Many parts of Earth were so covered in their dense foliage (or so he heard) that one could hardly walk between them!

He returned to his story. “Anyway. So this massive, incomprehensibly huge diary—” another pinch, this one suggestively lower, “—Hey! Anyway, like I said, networks are built in layers. So the next step would be to divide the diary into separate boxes, or something like that. Make sense?”

“Sure, I follow. Then you need to ship the boxes?”

“Ah, see, you gotta think like a computer! You’re jumping to the end like a person does, but computers are stupid. So what’s the very next step?”

She considered. “Address the boxes?”

“Very good! But what does the guy at the other end do? If he receives thousands of boxes—”

“Thousands?”

“Just go with it. He’s gonna want to open them in the right order. Maybe he doesn’t get them all jumbled up and out of sequence, maybe some get lost and he needs to ask for another copy…”

“So the boxes must be numbered.”

“Yup! Now, what if someone else is sending a stream of boxes?”

“…oh. So you need to identify which boxes are from whom?”

“Well, yes, but you already gotta do that. What if the same person is sending two different box-streams?”

She stopped walking for a moment. “Why would a person do that?”

He smiled his most fetching smile, “Oh, a person wouldn’t. But like all analogies things start to get silly to accommodate reality. Computers? They may well send many messages to each other at the same time, and all will be divided into discrete ‘packets’ like our boxes.”

“So the boxes are marked both for their number in the stream, and for which specific message they contain.”

“Very good! They’re also marked for ‘application.’ That’s kinda like the name on the address.” He snuggled a little closer to her. They weren’t far from the restaurant now, and the smells were beginning to tantalize his nose.

“Okay, so then you mail the boxes?”

“That skips a bunch of steps but that’s fine. So, yeah. Hand off our highly contrived mega-diary box-stream to the carrier. So some burly laborer comes around and picks up all his boxes, but now the network needs to sort them!”

“Well…it has the addresses. Each box has it right on the label.”

“Yes, but now things get even sillier. Real addresses are, well, person-oriented, right? 207 Fyu Parkway, Wi Kao City, and so on. If you break that down, there’s actually a huge number of steps in decoding that address.”

And Fathers, she was sharp. “Oh! So, in a network, since it has to do this, um, thousands of times a second—”

“Trillions, in larger nodes.”

“…wow. So then you definitely need something easy for a computer.”

“We have the same problem in actual networks. The ‘network address’ which you never actually see? It identifies both a destination network and a destination node, and it’s variable in length.”

She considered. “That means it needs to take multiple steps to look up…whatever it needs to look up, I guess?”

“Yes, sometimes thousands of steps. The router—that’s the machine which routes traffic between networks—”

“Hey, I knew that, at least!”

He nodded agreeably, “I make no assumptions, it’s safer. Anyway, the router? What it needs to do is figure out the most specific route for each package and send them along the way. So, maybe the router knows how to get to Fyu Parkway directly, but another only knows how to get to Wi Kao. Both of those locations are encoded in the address, right? But each is its own destination, and one is more specific. A router needs to always use the most specific route it knows.”

“I don’t know anything about how you would do this in a computer, but that sounds like it’s complicated.”

“It is, and it’s very processor-intensive, too. This is called the longest prefix match and it’s something we want to avoid. There’s a lotta tricks involved that we’re gonna ignore but one of the cleverest we do is use another layer below the infosphere network address, called the local address. It’s only used for local delivery so they’re very simple addresses.”

“I’m not following that part…”

“Okay. Imagine the local network is a route run by one courier. He knows where every single delivery point on his route is, so sorting for him is a very quick operation. He doesn’t need to think nearly as hard as the guy sorting all the packages in the main office, right? So, to finish out the analogy, the laborer sorting your packages would look at the address and go ‘Aha! I know the postal code for that!’ And he would slap a barcode on them and carry on. The local delivery courier? He just looks at the numbers, and doesn’t need to think hard.”

She was so quick to learn! “And it’s easier to look up just a number?”

“Yes, especially if all the numbers it might be looking up are the same size.”

“…I think I am glad I am just a lowly diplomat.”

Meereo grumbled happily and leaned in with a friendly side-hug. “And I am glad for diplomats like you! I get excited about stuff and get trapped on a topic.”

“Me too! For example,” they walked up to the door, “What I’m going to eat!”

He chittered and gave a quick, friendly little pant, and they walked into Kobe’s.


Late evening
Whitecrest Enclave, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Genshi

Meereo was clean. That was good. And Genshi now had the power to brief him. That was even better, and he had the power to delegate that authority to other Gaoians after ensuring their suitability. The Humans had even made him an Original Classification Authority, a Cabinet-level degree of trust from either Human government. With that he had broad and sweeping powers to gain access to Allied information, protect new information under new or existing access programs, and grant that access to others as well.

The degree of the grant was itself worrying. It meant the Humans very much needed Genshi to succeed, and that meant he could likely call in favors.

And that meant he would likely need them.

He spent the evening reviewing his correspondence. Most of the replies were cautiously reassuring; Gao as a whole was proving to be mildly skeptical of either the Dominion or the Alliance. Which, while good, made the enthusiastically pro-Dominion forces both easier to identify and depressingly worrisome in their wide penetration across Gaoian society.

He decided to sort his contacts into strong-Dominion, weak-Dominion, ambivalent, and anti-Dominion. He spent most of the evening cautiously weighing his correspondence and sorting it all out.

In the end, a pattern emerged. the strong-Dominion faction was universally well-placed in all the Clans, and depressingly, they were strong amongst the Clan of Females as well. It was a small group but they were perfectly positioned to effectively control Gaoian society, with enough of a nudge.

He also noted his own Clan no longer matched the pattern and that would not remain unnoticed by a skilled adversary. He needed to plan and act quickly. Which of course left the question: what would he do? Dislodging that many all at once would not be possible with any subtlety.

He would need to kill them all, probably. And do it quickly. But he saw no way for Whitecrest to survive such a conflict, so that was not a viable option.

He really needed to brief Meereo. Once he could run his mischievous query, he might have better answers.


Meereo

Dinner was fantastic. The establishment had opted for a Human/Gaoian fusion experience and incorporated some of the dinner theatrics from both, and done so with resounding success. The presentation and preparation was a combination of Human Teppanyaki and Gaoian Ziaomei, both flashy styles of cuisine, and the chefs, Human and Gaoian, were masters. One used claws and speed and precise, impressive movements, while the other wielded knives and food with an almost lazy and natural grace. The Human would casually and with unerring accuracy toss food behind him, which the Gaoian would slash at precisely the right instant, and onto the griddle would fall a perfectly flayed meat or vegetable.

They also adopted the Human tradition of self-effacing humor, which was a delightful modification of a traditional Ziaomei performance. Both would crack jokes at each other’s expense with a deep and obvious fondness for each other; they must have been very good friends!

They would need to be; the Human’s nickname was “Fugly Ken” and the Gaoian’s was “Panda Express.”

They began with a Human-style fried rice with Gaoian embellishments; instead of soy sauce they used sooba paste, and instead of chicken eggs they used Kwek roe, which had a saltier taste to counter sooba’s sweetness. The meat, however, was chicken and beef. The vegetables were prepared with showmanship and humor and everyone around the table was laughing and chittering along, even when “Panda Express” didn’t cleanly slash through a green Earth vegetable; it stuck to his paw and he made a show of confusion and amusement prying it loose. Meereo didn’t know if it was a genuine accident, a stunt for show, or a happy little mistake.

He made a mental note to tip them very generously before he left.

In either case his date had chosen the evening’s activity well. This was a very good idea! He indulged his favorite pastime of people-watching, both his date and the others at the table with him. It was delightfully educational and entertaining! One thing he noticed straight away was that the Humans’ toothy smiles weren’t always scary. One just needed to get a feel for their tone and the set of their eyes, and once that was understood their intent became clear, even if their smiles never stopped being aggressive. And their intent was almost always one of happiness and good humor. Oddly disarming!

Niral was the real treasure. She was wonderfully talkative and expressive and had everyone at the table charmed before the second course began. He listened, rapt. But the food had his attention as well; he found he couldn’t work up the willpower to turn away from the feast on offer and converse! The second dish was a small serving of nigiri-zushi with young tuna from the Cimbrean waters. He found the fish to be flavorful and rich though the Humans commented it wasn’t like real tuna, at least not yet. “Give it a decade,” they said. “When the ecosystem is more firmly established…”

Meereo wasn’t much concerned. He ate, and he listened, and he was content.

Alas, all good things must eventually end. The meal wound to an natural conclusion and Meereo had a nice little bulge where the rich food was slowly digesting away. Already he was feeling a bit lethargic from the heavy intake. Time for a walk! They stood, thanked their hosts, answered one last question from the Human cub (“Yes, I do like a good ear scritch!”) followed by a scandalized look and another naughty pinch from Niral, then they said their goodbyes and headed out into the cool night.

The Cimbrean rains were threatening and that meant they needed to get back to shelter quickly. This didn’t concern Meereo overmuch; he was naturally short-furred and wore it even shorter. His Clan’s ancestral Fathers broke off from professional divers, fisherman, and longshoreman long ago and while they no longer performed such duties, they retained their lithe builds and genetic fascination with water. By Gaoian standards that made them a bit strange but what Clan wasn’t strange in their own way? Meereo found he liked the rain.

Niral was most decidedly not happy about it. They hurried towards cover and nimbly dodged until they were safe at the gate, and Niral could walk to her destination in the Alien Quarter without fear of a soaking. Meereo stuck to the streets and splashed the puddles playfully while she looked on, chittering.

“The rain doesn’t bother you?”

“Only a little! It’s a bit cold but I’ll be fine.” He stepped under cover and slicked some of the moisture off his body. “Also, it comes right out of my fur.”

“Neat! So, um…I really enjoyed tonight.” She moved closer, suddenly a bit embarrassed. “I think maybe I was a bit of a ‘motor mouth’ as the Humans say.”

“I liked it!” He said it genuinely. “You’ve got fascinating stories. I wanna meet this Human ‘Rylee’ someday, she sounds fascinating!”

“You don’t know the half of it,” she muttered to herself, then snapped back to the present. “She’s wonderful! She visits Cimbrean sometimes but I don’t know if we’ll meet anytime soon…”

“Too bad. I’d love to hear more stories!”

“Really?”

He seemed bemused and drew even closer. They stood almost nose-to-nose. “Really. You’re one of the most interesting females I’ve ever met. Most…they do important work, and I love them for it. All us silly males do! But not many females explore the galaxy like you have. Three diplomatic postings in less than ten years?” He flicked his ears, “That’s very impressive! The only reason you don’t have more is you’ve raised cubs, too. You’re a very impressive female.” He hesitated for a moment, then darted in and lightly nipped her ear.

It was a very forward and affectionate gesture and it caught her entirely by surprise. She stood, shocked, while he pulled back and panted friendly-like. “Message me? I wanna plan the next date!”

“Oh! Oh…okay.”

He beamed happily, said his goodbyes, and splashed off into the rain.

Niral considered, suddenly filled with a silly, happy energy. She rushed into the warmth of the Commune and headed towards her private little space, and immediately called Melissa.

“Melissa! …Yes! Let me tell you…”


Champion Genshi was there outside his hotel, waiting for him. How the Whitecrest kept his fur perfectly dry and fluffy in the humid air was a genuine mystery. Not that Meereo was happy to see him.

“What now, Champion?”

Genshi gave him a very serious look. From around the corner emerged two Humans, one very tall and stately, another much shorter and who looked as if he were hewn from a block of solid granite.

“You meet my friends, Cousin. And you, too, learn the meaning of Revelation.”

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