11y, 7m AV
Warhorse’s room, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean
Immediately prior to beginning of “Run” phase
Sergeant Regaari (Dexter) of Clan Whitecrest
The worst thing about formal letters was how short and curt they were by nature. Though given the subject at hand, and the revelations of DEEP RELIC fresh in Regaari’s mind, in-message detail was a risk he could not afford, either by his recent oath or by the prudence required of the situation. He was reluctant to trust even Whitecrest’s impressive communications security; this was a task for a face-to-face meeting, and one serious enough that, of all the powerful figures in Clan Whitecrest that Regaari might presumably influence, only the Champion could possibly be trusted.
This would be a good test of the Human’s secure messaging system and it’s newly-established interconnect to Gao. But like seemingly every secure communication net the galaxy over, it was a bit quirky.
ZKZK GAO0001 DE ORQ31TV R 292527Z-GAO SEP FM OFR REGAARIemail@example.com// TO OFC THE CHAMPIONfirstname.lastname@example.org/ OFC THE PMemail@example.com/ POTUSfirstname.lastname@example.org// INFO TEMPLARemail@example.com/ STAINLESSfirstname.lastname@example.org/ BEEKEEPERemail@example.com/ RINGMASTERfirstname.lastname@example.org// C O N F I D E N T I A L SACRED STRANGER ORCON REL FVEY GAO-WC BT SUBJ/(U) PARTNERSHIP PROGRAMS//
The header block was automatically generated but the drafting software forced its display at full size, which annoyingly took up a third of the screen at all times. Nor was it easy to configure; Regaari grumbled at the atrocious UI and considered what Clan Shortstride could do with the smelly pile of Naxas dung. Regardless, Regaari eventually persuaded the clunky software to produce the correct forwarding header, and began with the message in earnest.
(U) Most Esteemed Champion,
(U) I am writing to you concerning a topic of Foundational Importance.
That bit, along with the title of Most Esteemed, was a Whitecrest code phrase which requested the Champion’s presence with all due haste.
(C//REL) The Partnership Indoctrination Program proceeds well. May it please you that your claw-picked Whitecrest Brothers have demonstrated themselves equal to the task, and not a one has failed any Challenge set forth by the Humans and their most excellent instructor cadre.
The subtle emphasis on Challenge was quite deliberate. It was a flag to indicate the category of the issue which must be discussed. Admittedly, that emphasis may draw unwanted attention, but the most an attacker would learn is that Regaari was very interested in a meeting.
(C//SAR-ST//OC/REL) The instruction has been exemplary and the Humans have expressed interest in further collaboration. In particular, they are quite interested in Exchanging lesson plans, so that both our peoples may improve.
Another deliberately emphasized word. Foundational/Challenge/Exchange indicated a revelation that would radically impact the future of the Clan, and that there would be a great need for cooperation and coordination. That left one last message to send, and it would be alarming.
(C//REL) I have been asked by the Human leadership to arrange a private meeting with your office. My humble belief is this meeting would Please our Clan, and with the Immediate opportunities that would result, benefit our reputation amongst the Gao. I submit this for your pleasure.
(U) Light the Darkness,
Officer and Sergeant Regaari; CL BY: OCA-Regaari-1; REASON: 1.4(a,d); DECL: 25X1
Closing with his Clan’s motto was enough to give him pause. A call to action at that level is something an officer could do perhaps once in their career. If he was wrong…his career would be over.
But it was too late for caution. DEEP RELIC needed a response, now. And if that required he end his career? So be it.
He hesitated, then pressed send.
Chapterhouse of Clan Whitecrest, City of Wi Kao, Planet Gao
Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest
Regaari’s message was both expected and dreaded. The Humans had long exhibited curious behavior around certain worrying elements of their own security, the implant issue being chief amongst them. To that end, Genshi had done two things.
Firstly, he networked amongst his fellow Champions as gently and as carefully as he could to gain a feel for the political terrain he might need to navigate, should action become necessary. He knew no details of the Humans’ concerns, only the vaguest of fears and the nearly crippling decisions those worries had prompted in their Galactic interactions. Long experience had taught Genshi that such action indicated the most serious category of danger.
Secondly, he took advantage of Father Mavil’s hubris—and Regaari’s suddenly advantageous positioning—and continued the careful, gentle nudging that positioned his favorite Brother ever-closer to the Human’s orbit.
It was, after all, both a tremendous tragedy and a happy coincidence that positioned Regaari so well in the first place. One never questions luck, one only thanks the Universe and takes fullest advantage. Gentle words eased Regaari’s worries and encouraged a closer friendship with that truly enormous specimen of biology he called Friend, and indirectly with the rest of SOR and the Humans’ military leadership.
“After all, my mischievous Brother, it is a risky bet the other Fathers are neither well-positioned enough, brave enough, or intelligent enough to exploit. The risks are certainly high…”
A calculated comparison of Regaari to “other Fathers” before he had earned the rank was sure to fire his ambition. He was close to earning it already, Genshi knew. One or two little problems to solve…
He said no more. Regaari needed very little push, and was in fact already searching for reasons to go before Genshi had said anything, which spoke marvelously of his character. One thing led to another, and before long the Humans adopted his favored Brothers into their Clan, who were well on their way to completing the Human’s Rites. Genshi beamed with pride in Clan and Brother; what an accomplishment they achieved!
The tools were almost in place, but something more was needed. Further cooperation was always good…but no. More of the same was insufficient. Genshi’s sniff of the situation suggested he could not be too paranoid or wide-reaching in his quest for options.
We need another asset, he thought to himself. One a bit less subtle. One of Genshi’s most painful lessons over the years had been the demands of perspective. No matter how well-trained, widely-experienced, or deeply wizened any one might be, if all they did was surround themselves with like-minded sycophants, what more could be learned? No. This situation required additional perspective. He needed an intelligent partner with capabilities and experience as far opposite of a Whitecrest officer as could be managed.
He had the perfect candidate in mind.
“Brother?” He called for his personal assistant. “Would you please arrange a meeting with Champion Daar of Clan Stoneback? I have a proposition for him.”
The Brother duck-nodded and obeyed.
The next morning
Overnight workhouse, City of Wi Kao, Planet Gao
Champion Daar of Clan Stoneback
Daar awoke, practically bouncing in anticipation of a long day’s work and ready to exercise and greet the sun. He burrowed out from under the pile of Clanless laborers, stretched out luxuriantly, and regarded them with an amused set to his ears. It had taken five of the largest Clanless sleeping at the workhouse that evening to wrestle him down, and even then he so utterly exhausted them they fell asleep almost as soon as they claimed their “victory.” Workhouses could be raucous places! It was fun, though; he got a couple small scars out of the deal, always a good thing! And the Clanless? Well. They earned what they got. Daar chittered to himself quietly and hoped their newfound badges would improve their prospects. But first thing’s first. Daar needed breakfast! He padded to the mess hall and wheedled some food from the cooks.
This was how many of Daar’s mornings started; slightly sore from the day before, hungry, smelly with Clanless and sometimes his fellow Brothers, and ready to work some new Job; the harder, the better!
Clan Stoneback worked a little differently from the others; while all Clans were meritocratic, and all had minor allied Clans from which they could pull associate or honorary Brothers, Stoneback was unique in how very difficult it was to become a Brother in the first place, and in how Brotherhood was open to all comers who could pass the Rites.
This was unlike their chief friendly rivals, the Ironclaws. While they were also an intrinsically physical Clan, most of their Rites focused on advanced engineering skills and that meant it was near-impossible for an adult to join. There was simply not enough time after the Cubhood “hollow mind” phase to learn the required skills, so a Brother joining after his fifteenth year-day was very rare.
In Stoneback? Most of their members joined from the Clanless. While, yes, Stonebacks also had academically challenging Rites, their emphasis on physical ability, willingness, and bravery was the strongest of any Clan by far. it was their view that Body and Mind were much the same and that training one could train the other. Likewise, neglecting the body’s yearning to excel could weaken the mind, and what good is anyone if neither brain nor muscles were at their best? They had reason for this belief; over the millennia, the Clan had long observed that the smartest, cleverest, most adaptable Gaoians tended to also be fit, strong, vigorous, friendly and noticeably more aggressive than the rest. Was it ambition driving ability and personality, or was it the other way around?
Wherever one fell on the question, those were qualities undeniably found in abundance amongst the Clanless, and so Stoneback were easily the heaviest recruiters amongst them. They took in all comers from all corners and weren’t picky about job or training, though they generally favored those clearly superior males pursuing more physical work, like firefighters with a strong and obvious Emberpelt heritage. But above all, what Stoneback wanted was spirit, a willingness to work at the limits of their bodies, good team play, and a certain mental aggression and adaptability that sometimes seemed in short supply.
In other words, Stoneback were looking for big, strong, and creative problem-solvers. A genius-level intellect wasn’t essential, but muscles were absolutely required.
Daar, as Champion, was the embodiment of Stoneback in every way: body, spirit, and mind. He was also one of the vanishingly few members who was of virtually pure genetic stock and who joined straight from Cubhood. That carried with it a certain undeniable cachet. What’s more, he’d been declared Stud-Prime on his Day of Majority, a very rare honor. It was especially rare in his case since he had not yet Challenged the incumbent Champion; he was too young and inexperienced and everyone knew it.
Nor could he be visually mistaken for any other Clan bloodline: he was tall, long-torsoed, and extremely broad from shoulder to hips; thick-set and massively muscled in his neck, chest, back, and limbs; and possessed of a very dense, short-cut, pure brown coat with the only coloration difference being the thick white ruff right in the center of his prominent chest. Combined with a Stoneback’s distinctively enormous, bestial paws and their likewise massive forearms and lower legs, he was impossible to miss in almost any crowd.
Which was what he wanted. Today he was running a delivery route with some likely males, the same five rambunctious and happy souls who had piled on the night before and wrestled him to the bottom of the pile. They saw him working on a construction project the day before and struck up conversation. They had dinner and Talamay at an inn, told boastful stories, engaged in some friendly and very manly wagers—which Daar won so handily there were repeat performances and more Talamay—and then, in a chittering humor, they wrestled! They’d put up a good fight so he let them sleep while he ate enough to sate six lesser males. He finished, then barged in and playfully tackled them awake, earned some happily disgruntled nips on his shoulders, then headed out to exercise while the rest of the workhouse roused themselves.
Daar hoped these Clanless were up for a hard day of work, and with luck make his depressingly short “maybe” list of potential recruits. Stoneback was very picky about who they would even permit to attempt the Rites, for they were tremendously arduous and exceedingly dangerous for anyone, and frequently fatal if the tiniest shred of weakness lurked within.
Today would likely be a good test. They would travel out to a Clan farm where they would harvest and load a variety of produce, along with fresh Nava and hopefully a whole Naxas, depending on what was on the order sheet for that day. And while Daar was qualified in a dizzying number of Jobs either menial or technical—or both—agricultural work was Daar’s formal specialty, and the day’s work would be challenging. A Naxas was a large, stupid, evil creature that was historically raised for its regularly shedding pelt as well as its meat and milk. Handling even one was arduous work, because shooting them from a distance would ruin the meat, herding them was challenging, and poisons of all kinds were obviously out. That meant one generally needed a team of the strongest and meanest ‘Backs to handle the dangerous creatures.
Daar was the strongest and meanest ‘Back of all, and he could handle a Naxas by himself. It was also his very favorite work. Challenging the beasts was a test of courage, strength, and skill, and it was something few laborers would brave; but hey, somebody needed to be stupid enough to try, or else how would Cubs get their milk? How would the Brothers at Highmountain get their pelts?
Daar padded back in just as his chosen Clanless were finishing their breakfast. “You ready?” They duck-nodded.
“Good! C’mon, we don’t wanna be late. Naxas are even meaner once morning breaks.”
The five were clearly nervous and rightfully so. Daar didn’t want fearful helpers so offered them a face-saving out. “You sure you wanna do this? I like this job but I’m pretty dumb, heh.” He smile-panted friendly-like to try and relax them.
“We are worthy of the task, if you’ll have us.” The biggest of the group answered for the other four. He was being annoyingly formal but Daar couldn’t blame them. Amongst the laboring Clanless he was a universally known and vaguely mythical being; a Challenge followed by mild awe was the reaction he always got. Oh well. Hopefully they would lighten up by the end of the day.
Assuming they could walk afterwards. Daar led them to the crew van and drove to the farm. And who knows, if they worked hard and impressed…maybe the Rites would be in their future.
Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest
“He’s on a delivery van today?”
Genshi sighed. When Daar was on his “workabouts” it could be exceedingly difficult to locate him. Necessary though they were for Stoneback’s goals, it would be nice if the big brute could indulge his Civilized side just a little and activate his communicator! He never did; “if it’s important, people can find me.”
Sometimes Genshi wondered if Daar resented technology.
“Very well. Do we know what his run for today is?”
There was a pause while his assistant looked off into an unseeable display. “Yes, Champion. He retained assistance from one of Stoneback’s workhouses then reported to his Clan’s local ranch. He’s scheduled for…” more distant gazing, “…mixed produce, Nava, and Naxas delivery.”
Genshi chittered darkly, “Oh, those poor, hapless fools. Daar is gonna wear them out.”
“How so, Champion?”
Genshi grinned, “Have you not studied agriculture? All of those items must be freshly harvested.”
“It’s also Naxas mating season, as I recall. They’ll be particularly ornery. And before they’re harvested they must be herded, locked in a containment pen, shorn, stunned, and bled. They’ll fight every step of the way, too.”
His assistant sniffed a bit. “That seems like a brute’s work to me.”
“Oh, it absolutely is. You should watch sometime, it’s fascinating.”
The assistant visibly blanched. “No thank you, Champion.”
Genshi gave a sly little grin, “You say that as if I were giving you a choice…”
“…Yes, Champion.” The poor Brother subtlety slumped in place.
“Oh, don’t look so defeated! Never betray your feelings, your competition will use that against you. And besides, it’s a learning opportunity!”
His ears perked up. “What would I learn, Champion?”
“Possibly the hardest lesson for a Whitecrest to learn, which is that, sometimes, brawn is more useful than brains.”
“…as you say, Champion.”
“Do you have a clever strategy to convince a Naxas to prance to its slaughter?”
“Very well, then. Now, where is my Friend scheduled to deliver today?”
“Um…a triple delivery to a firehouse for Clan Emberpelt, smaller deliveries to several associated workhouses, another to our Enclave, a very large delivery to the Clan of Females, another—”
“Stop.” Genshi chittered heartily at the situation. “Tell me, Brother, knowing Daar is a Stoneback—indeed, the pinnacle Stoneback—and knowing their reputation, where do you think he would finish his route?”
The assistant thought for a moment, then a leer spread across his face. “He’s gonna finish at the Females, isn’t he?”
“Oh, indeed! I’d wager he’ll drop off the tired Clanless back at the workhouse, too. He’d tell them it was no problem, he didn’t mind doing the last delivery alone…” A twinkle of merriment grew in Genshi’s eye, and his ears were up and slightly splayed in humor.
“And the poor souls would be none the wiser, I bet.”
“Without question! Daar’s slick that way.”
The assistant chittered amusedly. “He sounds like a walking stereotype!”
“Oh, he is. He really is. But don’t worry, you’ll like ‘em. Anyway, I’ve got many errands and meetings to do yet today, shall we depart?”
They set off on the day’s itinerary.
Late that evening
Central Crèche, Commune of the Clan of Females, City of Wi Kao, Planet Gao
Shoua was bored. Really, really bored. She sat in her chair, reading one of those silly mating fictions and awaiting the late-night delivery of the next week’s food. She could not leave until they’d received it. So she waited. And waited. After an age of boredom, a very loud scratch came from the door along with a deep rumbling voice. “Delivery! Three pallets worth!”
Finally. “One moment.” She lazily ambled over to the rolling door and raised it. The moment it was retracted enough, she heard a grunt of effort, and an absolutely massive pallet wobbled forward on field suspensors clearly operating at their limits. She wondered how the team was even moving it—
One male. A Stoneback, too. Of course, she thought derisively. He was hunkered down low like a beast of burden and pushing with little obvious strain. “Where should I put it?” He pant-smiled up at her with his stupid, brutal face.
“Over there,” she said with an air of contempt, gesturing toward a raised platform up a steep ramp. He nodded, pushed the pallet over and up the ramp with only a slightly deeper grunt of effort, leapt down and padded back to fetch another. On fourpaw, too, she observed. How disgusting.
She watched him move another, even heavier pallet into position. He pushed it up the ramp, again with little seeming effort. Again he leaped down, this time excitedly bounding back to his van like he was stupidly chasing after a flock of preening Kwek. He returned with the third and final pallet and right at the moment, several of the younger male cubs came rampaging out of wherever they were hiding and tackled the big idiot. Her heart leapt in her chest, afraid for what the monstrous male might do—
He rolled over submissively and bellowed his protests as if the tiny cubs had slain him. “Aargh, you got me!” The cubs play-nipped him and he played right back, growling and wrestling ferociously but with a clearly friendly intent. He pounced and pinned one…but so gently! She watched their boisterous play contentedly. Something about their interaction eased her tensions and played at her instincts in a way both subtle and profound. He put on a good show for the cubs but he was so very, very careful…she mentally upgraded the brute from “dangerous and disgusting” to “crudely charming and playful.”
Granted, he would still be a terrible influence on the cubs…Her reverie ended as Daar scooped up the cubs in his arms and hugged them as he sat on the ground. They hugged back, nipping happily. It was obvious they wanted to continue their play-fighting but the big brute had his mind on other things.
“Sorry little Brothers, I gotta finish this delivery, ‘kay?”
“Don’t worry, we can always play later!”
The littlest cub tugged on his ear. “Will I ever be as big as you?”
“Hmm…” He made a show of examining the runt. “Maybe! You gotta eat everything your Mothers tell you to, though. And you gotta exercise!”
“Even Meeshi greens?”
“Especially Meeshi. Good for your bones! You promise to eat your greens?”
“We promise, Daar!” They said it in unison.
“Good, now run along and listen to your Mothers!” They chittered in reply and bounced off to another adventure.
…Daar. That name seemed familiar. Wasn’t he—
Before she could recall who the male was, he bounded over with a signature pad from his arm holster and flowed up to his hind legs. He was standing upright directly in front of her, now, and she looked up, and up…
Great Mother he’s big! Three average males could stand abreast and he’d still be wider. He was so tall her eyes were level with his big, bulging chest. And all around her billowed his scent. It was strong, cloying, overpowering, and utterly, absolutely male. She looked up to his face, slowly, gulped a bit—
“I know I’m pretty, but I really do need ‘ya to sign this.” He had the cockiest expression she’d ever seen but his face was friendly and open and seemed generally inclined to good humor. He chirred gently then guided her attention toward his hand. Paw, really. It looked strong enough to crush stone and it was so large her face would fit in its palm. In that palm rested the signature pad, which looked tiny by comparison.
“…Oh! Where do I sign?”
His other arm came around and she found herself surrounded on all sides by him. He gestured with one massive claw, “Just touch here, check all these boxes, and touch here.” He growled low and friendly-like and in response she found herself quietly whimpering with…excitement? Fear? Whatever the feeling, she did as she was told, then turned around…and he was heading out, again on all fours. Except that time she paid rapt attention. She noticed his dense, brown coat, its very short cut, the hypnotic bulges of his perfectly formed muscles and his many, many scars, and how his body flowed like a sleek and dangerous beast with even the tiniest movement. He was overwhelming, he was—
“I’ll be back for the pallets tomorrow, ‘kay?”
She duck-nodded nervously. Daar gave her another smug and happy look, then slinked out of the loading dock without a sound.
Sister Shoua stood rooted in place, dumbfounded. But she knew what she had to do. She sent a message and re-scheduled for another shift tomorrow.
Maybe some brutes are okay.
“Head back to Chapterhouse, Brother. I’ll ride with Daar.”
“Yes, Champion.” The assistant stared off into space for a moment, then the car responded and drove off. He was already working on other things as the car wafted him back toward home.
Genshi contemplated how he would greet Daar. It had been a long while since they last met (which was a shame, really) and Genshi wasn’t one to surprise his colleagues unnecessarily. But time was pressing and Daar had been impossible to raise on his communicator; such was the price he must pay.
And that price? Mischief. He watched Daar pushing his pallets from a safe, downwind distance. There would be no fun giving the game away! But what game would they play? Daar was a rare opportunity; most Champions managed their every interaction with a certain…solemn gravitas. Genshi wasn’t sure Daar was even capable of such a thing. Quite the opposite, in fact. All the world was a game to him, and one of the many things Whitecrest had in common with Stoneback was their light-hearted and playful take on things. Both enjoyed a good game of Chase or Pounce when it was appropriate.
And right there, in the twisting, decorative playgrounds outside the Crèche? Play was the only appropriate action. So Genshi looked around and thought. Soon an evil idea came to mind! He would need to lure the lunk, first. He took a wide walk around the van and the dock to avoid transmitting his scent, and stood himself just around a corner so Daar would see him…only when he’d finished his delivery and returned to the operator’s side of the van.
Genshi waited. Before long Daar appeared around the van, happy and humming a simple tune to himself. He had a certain spring in his step—no doubt the great lummox had ravished some young, attractive female—and he stopped dead once he saw Genshi.
There was a brief pause. Genshi waggled his eyebrows, then charged around the corner with all the speed he could muster.
“…Genshi?” FRIEND!! Daar was about to galumph over and hug his friend, Cousin, mentor, and fellow Champion, because Genshi was a good friend and friends deserved love! But then Genshi waggled his eyebrows. Play!? Daar crouched down and wagged his tail, and right at that moment, Genshi charged away…on all fours!
Daar was so surprised that it was a moment before he realized he was chasing after the Whitecrest Champion. He snapped back into the moment, skidded around the corner, just barely saw a flash of Genshi’s tail around another corner, then poured on all the speed his immense strength could summon.
The chase was on.
As expected that got Daar’s attention. Now the real game began. Genshi needed to “cheat” a little to put distance between himself and the shockingly fast Stoneback, and if it maybe slightly scandalized any onlookers, oh well, more’s the fun. More importantly it lured Daar into the maze, and there, no amount of speed would avail him. Genshi slipped in through the entrance and proceeded to “cheat” without mercy. His slim and strong profile let him nimbly slip right between the hedge bushes with barely a sound. Daar was far too large to do that without damaging them, and if Genshi played it just right…
A maze! Daar had one at his Crèche but it wasn’t nearly this big. At least the paths were nice and wide; Daar reckoned he could take the corners at a pretty good clip! He sniffed, headed tentatively towards Genshi—there! A flash of tail. Daar chased! He tore around the corner—there he was! Genshi was fast and was already just around the next turn!
Daar chased as fast as his paws would carry him. He would catch Genshi and give him the happiest nips!
Genshi suppressed a chitter. All he had to do was slide between the hedges just outside of Daar’s sight, make himself barely visible at the end, then disappear into the next row. It was so easy and Daar played along, being the single-minded hot rod that he was. Now the next part, and this was almost sinfully evil. If he did this right, Genshi would tell the story for weeks.
Daar wasn’t thinking. His heart was pounding, his keen senses laser-focused on the chase. Run, slide, next row, run again, SPOT! Chase and chase and chase. It felt like he was getting closer and closer—finally he was in the same row! Genshi was upright and surprised, just emerging from a hedge—the flea-ridden cheater! Daar growled and decided he’d tussle extra hard in punishment. All pretext gone, Genshi ran away as fast as he could, but even he was nowhere near as fast on his rear legs as he was on all fours.
He didn’t drop down and properly run, the conceited overcivilized snowtop! Daar poured on the speed with every last ounce of his remaining strength, and he was almost there, around a wide corner…
And straight into the central pond with no room to stop.
Daar was an extremely heavy male. He held the record, in fact, and he held it by a good long distance. That gifted him with many blessings, including inertia.
Genshi could almost remember it as if it were in slow motion. He peeked around the corner he’d dashed into, watched as Daar charged around the corner at, frankly, an unbelievable speed, then recognized his peril far too late to prevent his crash. His paws scrabbled at the loose gravel, he tripped, tumbled…and splashed into the water so hard it pushed a wave up and out across the opposite side.
Genshi chittered so hard he could barely breathe.
It took Daar a long, panicked moment to right himself, gain some footing, assess his situation, and determine his next course of action.
That sneaky, flea-ridden, pansy little longfur!
Genshi was nearly paralyzed with chittering laughter. And what’s worse, several females and cubs were watching and saw the whole thing. Knowing it would be difficult to live this encounter down, Daar decided on some revenge. He paddled over to the near bank, pulled himself out of the water, and bounded over to Genshi. The Whitecrest saw what was coming but it was too late.
Daar shook the water out of his fur.
“…ugh.” Genshi swiped the mess out of his fur as best he could. It wasn’t terribly dignified but it was better than marinating in stink. Though he didn’t consider his predicament entirely unwarranted; he took his lumps when they were appropriate. “In retrospect, I deserve this.”
“Yeah you do! I’m gonna need a bath and soap now. There was algae!” Daar was generally of good humor but that prank had stung his pride. They were walking back toward the van, both upright and proper, and Daar was torn between friendship and his desire for revenge.
“If it’s any consolation, my fur will require much more attention than yours.”
Daar grumbled in response but seemed to accept that.
“But I must say,” noted Genshi with a sly tone, “Your expression was priceless.”
Daar growled unhappily. “It’ll take me weeks to play that off!”
Genshi’s ears flicked backwards, which Daar did not fail to notice.
“A…need, has come up. An urgent need you are singularly qualified to fill.”
Daar paused. “Hol’up. You came here, surprised me, embarrassed me in front of cubs and females, and now you’re gonna ask me for a favor? Not even a day or two to make it up?”
“It would not have been a surprise if you’d kept your communicator active,” retorted Genshi, “But…yes. More than that, I’m gonna appeal to your sense of duty to all of Gao.”
Daar paused and crossed his massive arms over his chest, an expression of utmost annoyance on his face. Even to Genshi the stance was intimidating. “Oh, this is gonna be good. Go on, tell me what great boon must I give the Champion of Whitecrest after he laid such a heavy down payment of goodwill all over my prospects?”
That stung. And it was apt, too. Genshi flattened his ears. “Daar? I am sorry. Truly.”
Daar eyed him suspiciously but relented after a long, angry stare. He grumped unhappily, “Yeah, I know. What do you need?”
Genshi gave him a humorless look. “I need you to go into space, ingratiate yourself with a pirate crew, recruit amongst the Clanless, and report back.”
Daar processed that for a long moment. He betrayed no emotion.
“…Why am I doing this?”
“Maybe to save the Gaoian race.”
“I would never lead you on about anything this serious, Daar. You know that.”
“…Y’know, I’m having trouble seeing how this ain’t gonna cost you the biggest Father-damned favor in the history of Gao. I’m not sure you can afford it.”
“We have a narrow opportunity of insertion, too. You would need to depart immediately and, well, get trained during transit.”
“Biggest favor. Why me?”
Genshi gave him a forlorn look. “Because given the target, I don’t think anyone else would be appropriate.”
Daar considered this for a moment. “Tell me the details.”
They ambled back to the delivery van and hopped in. Daar preferred to drive manually; he did so while Genshi talked at length of the mission, covering the technical details and the targets of collection. What he didn’t explain was the purpose. Daar noticed. He was a Champion; his mind may have been crude and unrefined but it was wickedly intelligent and keenly observant.
“None of that explains why you want me there right now.”
“No, it does not, and I cannot tell you. I cannot risk the sources involved. All I can say is that the positioning is very important. I ask you take that on faith.”
They arrived at Whitecrest Chapterhouse. Daar parked and mulled it over in silence. Genshi considered now was a good time for a peace offering.
“Shall we get some Nava? There’s a very good stand nearby.”
One benefit of Daar’s friendship is that it was simple to remain in his good graces. All that was necessary was honesty, a little good humor and humility, and a willingness to buy him food. The two knew each other so well that at that point, such make-up offerings were frequent and well-understood by both.
Daar flicked his ears amusedly. “Nava, huh? I’m pretty easy I guess.”
“Oh, absolutely. I think this time I owe you the good stuff, though. And the top-shelf Talamay.”
“You really do.” Daar pondered. “And, um…I suppose I should buy you some of that good ‘shampoo’ that’s on the market, too. I’ve got a connection.”
Daar chittered deeply, “Oh, good enough you should try it in private first. Trust me, this stuff is the real thing.”
“Now I’m worried.”
“You should be! Now c’mon, I’m hungry and my fur’s starting to itch.” He pulled out his communicator, “Lemme get it delivered, ‘kay? Should be pretty quick.”
Genshi threw up his hands exasperatedly. “See, I knew you had it with you! Do you just not answer?”
“Nah, I had it turned off.” Daar suddenly remembered something. “Oh! I need you to do something if I’m gonna leave right away. The Clanless I had on the job today? They need t’be paid and I always do that personally. Also? They’re good, hard workers. I think they’ve got a shot with one of our associate Clans if they get some better work experience. Can you…maybe give ‘em a look?”
“Thanks. Shame about that lovely Sister…” Daar grumbled with good-natured resignation; he would not have time to score a contract, sadly.
“A shame,” said Genshi, dryly.
Daar eyed Genshi suspiciously. “Heh, gonna make a move? You evil thing.”
“It would be cruel to leave her alone and worried about her mighty Stoneback.”
“Mhmm. Your motivations are as pure as the winter snows, they are!”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Indeed. But since you insist on courtesy you can also pick up all the pallets, too. Today’s run had twenty-four all around the city. That’s good exercise!”
Genshi duck-nodded gracefully. “A fair price. And yes, it would be good exercise. Also…just between us?”
“Clanless can be much more interesting to talk to, sometimes.”
“Ha! Just don’t let those boys Uncivilize you!”
Daar chittered amusedly, “Heh. Anyway, less talk, more eat!” Daar bounced out of the van in the general direction of food-scent, confident he’d find the place.
Genshi in turn rolled his eyes and quickened his pace. He considered: by attaching a debt to the favor, Genshi had invested Daar more deeply in its success. It would cost Genshi later, though knowing Daar it wouldn’t be anything extravagant, despite promises. It wasn’t deliberate exploitation but Genshi would be a fool not to consider the ramifications and plan accordingly.
After all, one of the secrets to success in a Champion’s business was knowing how to take advantage of what came naturally. “Flow with the wind and the water” was Genshi’s favorite aphorism.
Daar found the place far ahead and bounced about, circling the tree in front of the stand. Genshi chittered; Daar really was a cub at heart, and very trusting.
Genshi hoped he was worthy of that trust.