1: Tooth & Claw

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Two days later
Whitecrest Enclave, The Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Private briefing with Officer Regaari

Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest

This was not the first time Genshi had visited Cimbrean on short notice, nor, he feared, would it be the last, not with what he was promised to learn. At least Regaari had dispensed with the usual pleasantries and nervous politeness. He simply marched over, led Genshi straight to his office, swept it for electronics (!) and then, without ceremony, pressed a device against Genshi’s head.

He grumbled, “What is the nature of your implants, Champion?”

Genshi raised an eyebrow. “With the suspicions we’ve had, I’ve downgraded to the basics. It’s an entry-level translator.”

“How entry-level?”

“Auditory and visual overlay only.”

Regaari glanced at his scanner again and back at the Champion. “…I must ask a massive favor, Champion. I need you to remove that implant.”

“…so it’s as we feared, then.”

Regaari said nothing.

Genshi gave a Human sigh. It was such an effective emote. “Could you not have told me this before I left?”

“There is a, uh, trusted augment surgeon in the alien quarter who can do it in an afternoon. I took the liberty of booking you an appointment.” Regaari duck-nodded in half-exasperated apology. He knew how much he was imposing.

“Very well. When is this appointment?”

“We should leave now.”

Genshi duck-nodded in acquiescence and studied Regaari very closely. His self-control was admirable but Genshi was an absolute master of sign and tell. And when he looked upon Regaari’s calm and collected exterior, he could see a deeply worrying truth.

Regaari was terrified. And if Genshi was honest with himself? So was he.

The walk was quick and would ordinarily be pleasant. It cut right past the large park the Clan of Females was designing and which promised to be a showcase of Gaoian life for the betterment of everyone.

Genshi couldn’t think about the park. With a concern that serious, no matter what he learned today his life would irrevocably change. The last few days had made him keenly aware of an ominous doom approaching and it was all he could do to tackle it calmly and rationally. He could not afford failure.

And if this didn’t end up being a true and genuine danger to Gao, he would personally destroy Regaari’s career and claw his eyes out in a back alley.

They arrived. Regaari shuffled nervously, “I must take my leave, Champion. Training will not wait and my Brothers are suffering their Rites even now. Stainless and Templar will arrive shortly to brief you.”

“Very well. Train hard, Brother.”

Regaari duck-nodded. “Light the Darkness, my Champion.” He turned and left.

Genshi stood for a moment, as if deciding. He steeled himself and went in.


Two hours later

Genshi found himself with an almost imperceptible scar along the side of his skull and, suddenly, an inability to communicate. Fortunately the Locayl augment surgeon understood and pressed an external translator into his paw.

“You’ll get used to the missing emotional context pretty quick. You Gaoians usually do.” He turned, made a completely unrecognizable gesture—Genshi noticed the missing context immediately—“See what I mean? Think of speaking as a textual message and you’ll cope.”

Genshi pondered for a moment, still waiting for the last of the anesthetic to wear off; he was fully awake and functional but his movements were just a tad sluggish. Since he had a few more moments with the surgeon he decided to be bold. “Why do the Humans trust you?”

“Why not?”

A remarkable non-answer, really, and an evasion so blunt it was almost admirable. Genshi decided to push. “I can think of many reasons, myself.”

“Many of them are probably true. But you will learn that for yourself soon.”

Nothing. One final gambit, perhaps, but without a neurotranslator it ran the risk of mistranslation. Oh well, nothing risked, nothing gained. This time he laid his ears back in as confused and mildly worried a gesture he could manage, hoped the Locayl could understand, and asked: “Why?”

The Locayl paused and again the missing emotional context stung Genshi. “You amuse me, Gaoian. As for myself? A favor was done, and a favor returned, and my mind was opened in the process. I can never go back and I would not wish to.”

He puttered around his surgery a bit, disposing of the used dressings and placing his forcefield scalpels in their charging bases. “As for you? I can only presume you are of immense value to the Humans, my little customer. They are doing you an exquisite favor but beware: it comes at an extraordinary cost.”

“What would that cost be?”

“Only you will know. Now leave, little one. I must prepare for my next customer, a Human who is interested in a display tattoo. They are so strange…”

Genshi resolved two things. Firstly, that he had, indeed, been overly reliant on a translator implant. And secondly, he would investigate this surgeon. Discreetly, of course, and only once his greater mission was achieved…

Feeling free of the anesthetic, Genshi popped up from the table, regained his balance, thanked and paid the surgeon, and left.


Technical Sergeant [select] Adam (Warhorse) Arés

Adam had two reasons to be there that day. The first was, genuinely, to get his very first tattoo. He’d hemmed and hawed about it for years, and as of late, Firth’s attitude of “my body is a temple” had rubbed off on him in more ways than one. Something about a permanent tattoo seemed important and he wanted to be completely sure about it before he took the plunge. Also: he was still rapidly growing, and that meant anything he did get would likely be distorted beyond recognition sooner rather than later. Best to wait it out and see where the Crude and his willpower would take him.

But a display tattoo? That was different. The alien versions were designed with many species in mind, some with wildly divergent body plans. They were designed specifically to accommodate changes in shape and volume, amongst other things, and were guaranteed for the life of the wearer. With that being the case—and after a long, torturous technical review and approval by SOR and, well, other entities—Adam had finally got the approval to take the plunge. And after all, he’d recently earned a line number for tech, and though his actual promotion was almost a year away, who wouldn’t celebrate a little?

“Hello!” Adam bounced into the room with his usual cheery attitude and a carefully-mediated smile. The Locayl understood Human body language fairly well by this point, so a basic translator was more than adequate.

“Greetings, ‘Warhorse.’ Have you decided?”

“Yessir!” He examined the metal table carefully, decided it was probably suitable, then carefully settled his weight onto it. He was these days a stupendously dense and heavy being—far more so than even his epic appearance might suggest—and was therefore wary of all furniture not made with SOR in mind. The table groaned very loudly under his mass but held steady. He pulled off his shirt and gestured across his bulging pecs, “I want one that covers my whole chest.” In so doing put on an almost grotesque show of Deathworlder power and ability. He looked down and grinned sheepishly, “Oh, um…do I need to shave? I forgot to ask last time.” He scratched at the short, heavy layer of fine black hair covering his massive chest.

The surgeon stared, intimidated as anyone would be. “…No, that won’t be necessary. My tools are more sophisticated than what your kind would use.”

Adam bounced happily in place. “Sweet! It would’ve looked weird, y’know? I’d hafta’ve shaved everywhere!”

While he was by no means hirsute—at least, not by the standards set by Burgess (the Human poodle), Firth (a walking bear) or Sikes (who “manscaped”)—Adam was recently and suddenly possessed of an impressive dusting everywhere. It erupted shortly after Nova Hound, and though such an almost overnight change would catch anyone by surprise, SOR medical had an explanation; the Crude and the positive reinforcement it enabled in his body’s development meant, amongst other things, that his natural hormones were permanently and massively elevated, well beyond baseline and far into uncharted territory. Really, of all the other changes he was experiencing both physical and mental, a full-body “five o’clock shadow” was the least of his worries. Not that anyone would let it go unnoticed, of course; the teasing has been merciless.

Regardless, it was only one of the more visible changes he was experiencing. Most of the others were less immediately obvious but far more profound: his testosterone count, for example. In a context without Crude it would be so incredibly high it would be medically alarming. His was now well beyond documented Human experience. That was true of all the Lads but it was truest with him, and to slightly lesser degrees with Baseball and increasingly Righteous, too. It was a source of great worry at first, but as promised by the Corti, there had been no negative effects; there were none of the wildly out-of-balance problems that an abusing, uninformed athlete could develop, nor were there any issues of “atrophy,” something the Lads were keenly concerned about. Quite the opposite, in fact, to their awkward and mutual amusement.

All of which had an interesting effect on their presence and their behavior; they were, in effect, maximally male in a way that most everyone subconsciously perceived, either Human or alien. And as the Crude returned the older men to their biological youth, and maintained the Protectors at the perfect effective moment in their late teens? Their ever-increasing hormones affected their personalities, too. They were playful, caring, puppy-like, aggressive, boisterous, irrepressibly optimistic and high on life, and they grew more so as time went by.

And this was the second reason he was here. All of that was utterly embodied by Adam. He was, in effect, a walking propaganda coup for Humanity and was himself only dimly aware of it, a fact which made him useful. Intel sent him as a very subtle reminder to the Locayl of exactly who he was dealing with when he performed work for SOR. Adam, by nature, wasn’t one to act the enforcer; he was capable of breathtaking violence if necessary but he would far rather be friends. And that was why intel sent him. Any of the other men would loom and intimidate in counterproductive ways. Adam? He was simultaneously the most fearsome and most affable member of the team, and here, that mattered.

His orders? Simply remind the Locayl of the situation, discreetly. Intel felt no need to ask anything more; they didn’t ask him to posture, cajole, threaten, or do anything at all besides ask about payment terms and security expenses.

Sometimes, the very best agents are the unwitting.

Meanwhile, the Locayl examined the specimen before him. “That is rather…a lot of area to cover. It will be expensive. Do you have the wherewithal?”

“Yup!” Adam reached into his gym shorts and pulled out a credit card. Primitive by even the standards of modern Human payment systems, there was just something comforting in an encrypted physical token. The Locayl took it, ran a pre-authorization on the multi-terminal on the counter, then presented Adam with the estimate. The price caused him to raise a big, bushy eyebrow but he pressed his thumb to the reader and agreed.

“Much appreciated, Warhorse. Do you want anesthetic?” Despite years of advances, even a modern alien tattoo was given in much the same way as the traditional Human method of ink and needle. Most species interested in a tattoo of any kind therefore either felt no dermal pain or required anesthesia. For some, the pain they would experience could be lethal. But for Humans?

“Nah. Starfall says it’s part of earning it, man. I’ll do without.”

The Locayl made a display of disbelief, which Adam did not properly interpret. It had the effect intel was hoping for.

“As you wish. If you would lie flat?” He did, carefully. The table creaked alarmingly. While the Locayl boggled at this in the manner of his species, Adam kicked off his sandals and settled himself in with his hands behind his head.

“How did things go with him?” Adam asked the question directly.

“As expected, I imagine. He asked some pointed questions.” The Locayl moved toward Adam with his tools.

“Heh, I bet! Whitecrests, they’re smart, huh?”

“Indeed.” He began work. Adam made absolutely no sign of reaction or pain beyond a curious glance down and over his enormous slab of a chest.

“…do you not feel anything?”

“Oh, it hurts like hell, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Then why forgo the anesthetic?”

“Meh. Pain is a friend. It’s just a warning sign, no more.”

The surgeon said nothing. He grimly filled in the tattoo.

There was a long, anticlimactic hour of increasingly rapid work as the Locayl applied the tattoo more and more aggressively. Normally, that much area would require several days of application but Adam’s pain tolerance was immense. In the end the Locayl worked with as much force and speed as he would against a chitinous hide. Adam only gave the barest of winces, and then only on the detail work around the vestigial parts of his mammalian anatomy. An odd quirk of Human biology, that.

“That's it, Warhorse. Sit up and we’ll calibrate.” He went to fetch the programming console, got a matching bridge token so Adam could re-program the tattoo with a Human computer, and began the calibration pattern. Adam watched, fascinated, as his brand new chest tattoo rapidly progressed through a number of colors and patterns. The Locayl fetched a drone camera and aimed it at the tattoo. “Move around naturally. The token must calibrate for your full range of motion.”

“So, what? Just prance around a bit?”

“Move in any way you’re likely to move.”

Adam shrugged, and did so. He bounced off the table with a heavy thump the Locayl could feel through the concrete floor, then progressed through simple movements: swinging his arms, stretching out, crossing them across, scratching his back.

“Oh, yeah! I’m supposed to ask you if you have our next bill ready.” Adam got creative, doing handstands and generally tumbling about. “Am I doing this right?” The drone began to struggle with Adam’s rapid, unpredictable motion.

“…yes. That should be enough for calibration.” The Locayl touched something on his device, and the token chirped a happy sort of tone.

“Sweet! Can I program it?”

“Yes, Sync the token with ‘Bluetooth’ and download the app, and you should be able to upload any design you wish.” Adam tapped on his watch, touched on the floating virtual holodisplay only he could see, and grunted happily when the token beeped. A moment later, a large, greenish pair of stylized Human feet appeared on his left pectoral, and a stylized Human silhouette on the right.

“Dude, this is sweet! Can I animate it, too?”

“If you wish. As for your unit’s bill, I have already prepared and transmitted it. Will there be anything else, Warhorse?”

“Nah, thanks!” He fetched his sandals and t-shirt, pulled them on, said goodbye, and thumped his way out of the office.

Not for the first time, the Locayl wondered just how wise it was to be so intimately involved with a species as eminently impressive and terrifying as the Humans. But they did save his life and that of his wife and children. And that favor was one he could never repay.

He cleaned up for his next customer.


Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest

When he emerged from the clinic he met a Human—older and of an intense and dignified mien, if Genshi was any judge—in the full uniform of an “Admiral.” The man was tall and stately, with an understated Deathworlder strength Genshi found himself admiring instantly.

The man next to him was a shock. That man was considerably shorter—only slightly taller than Genshi, in fact—but so utterly embodied the dense, dangerous power the Humans were infamous for, he could only be a SOR operator. He wasn’t as large or obviously strong as Daar, but the Stoneback was a genuine freak in his own right, and the man before him palpably radiated deadly ability in a way Daar simply did not, or maybe could not.

The taller man approached and spoke in English. “Welcome, Champion Genshi. It seems remiss we have not met before now. I am known as Templar. This is the commander of SOR, Stainless. He will be our translator for any tricky bits.”

“Pleased to meet you both,” spoken in Gaori. Genshi stepped forward and offered his paw in the Human manner of greeting.

Templar offered a firm but careful handshake, and the shorter man gave a squeeze that was almost painful. “Good to meet you,” he said in absolutely perfect Gaori. Genshi silently marveled; Stainless had even managed the complex growl-clicks involved when communicating status, a trick most cubs did not master until they were close to adulthood. Here, he settled on a carefully neutral and friendly click used when one was unsure of rank or status.

Impressive.

“Shall we?” The admiral gestured down the path towards the gate out of the Alien Quarter. They walked in silence. Genshi had to move quite quickly to keep up; even with an ambling shuffle, the Humans’ long legs gave them an easy, brisk pace.

They arrived at the gate, sped through the exit process, and walked toward a tremendously large utility vehicle of some kind. Templar opened the rear door and gestured for Genshi to hop in. “After you.”

The Whitecrest bounced into the tall vehicle with dignity intact and chose the far seat. Templar climbed in next to him, Stainless into what was presumably the operator’s seat, and the moment the doors were closed, Templar produced a scanner and affected what Genshi believed was an apologetic look.

“My apologies, but we must be absolutely sure.”

“I understand.” He acquiesced by way of a tilted head, Templar made a quick and discreet scan, and as the device glowed strongly green, the Humans sighed in what felt like profound relief.

“Are you satisfied, ‘Templar?’”

“Yes, Champion. May I refer to you by your name?”

“When I know yours, I will not complain.”

The Humans made a chuckling noise which Genshi knew was laughter.

“A fair cop. And now the paperwork. You’ve seen one of these before.” Templar produced a Human computer—the same one Regaari had produced almost a year ago, in fact—and this one had a very similar set of forms. The only difference was the codeword.

Genshi paused. “So this is the moment I have dreaded, I guess. The codeword is interesting. Is ‘deep relic’ an accurate translation?”

“Aye,” remarked Stainless. “And it’s fookin’ relevant, too.”

Templar favored the major with a chuckle, but Genshi thought maybe he detected the most subtle rebuke in it. It was hard to tell; Human expressions could be quite complex but he’d lately consumed much Human media, and he felt was growing quite adept at “reading” them.

Genshi considered. “Well. That is certainly…a term filled with potential. That does not ease my worries.”

“…no, I suspect it wouldn’t. Are you ready to be briefed?” Stainless pressed a button and the vehicle drove off on its own, and the windows suddenly became opaque. Genshi also noticed the outside noise was gone; only the three of them could be heard.

Genshi signed the agreement with his thumbprint. “I am.” At last.

Templar let out a breath, than began his tale. “It begins with San Diego…”

Over the next hour, Genshi learned the meaning of Revelation.


Admiral Sir Patrick Knight

Admiral Knight took a drink from his water bottle. He’d talked at length as he briefed Genshi, and with only the occasional pause to review supporting evidence, Knight found the long monologue thirsty and exhausting work.

The subject at hand most assuredly did not help matters.

Genshi’s reactions were difficult to read. With Gaoians, their basic expressions were disconcertingly similar to canines. That someone as intelligent and sophisticated as Genshi had so much in common with Bozo seemed a cruel prank of the Universe, but it did make the essentials of interaction possible. Happiness, surprise, joy, worry…all there.

What was missing were the subtler clues, which for Gaoians were mostly communicated with the ears. Theirs were huge, expressive, highly and individually mobile, and depending on their mood could flick every which way in the course of a conversation. For most Gaoians, anyway. Whitecrests kept their ears under control: noticeably so, in fact. Knight felt it added to their general air of dignity and showed a proper restraint befitting an officer and a gentleman.

If only it didn’t make Genshi so damnably difficult to read. The Champion sat in the truck, looking forward at nothing in particular and clearly lost in thought.

“I find a cup of tea helps me think in these situations. What do you think, Stainless?”

“Aye.” He nodded, deactivated the privacy shields and drove back to base.

Genshi stirred from his reverie. “This ‘tea’ is one of your mild drugs, is it not?”

“Indeed, and it is what powers His Majesty’s armed forces to glory and victory. The Americans prefer coffee. A perfectly civilized drink…”

“I see,” chittered Genshi. “I have heard of this ‘conflict’ as well. I’ve likened it to some of our inter-Clan rivalries.” He tilted his head, “Is this ‘tea’ safe to drink?”

Knight glanced at Powell, who nodded. “It is. Large doses should be avoided, but a cuppa won’t hurt too much.”

“…too much?”

Knight chuckled paternally. “Caffeine can be a powerful stimulant. Best to take it easy and learn your tolerance. Regaari, for example, is as good as a Human.”

“And Faarek,” added Powell, “Shouldn’t be allowed within ten miles of a cup.”

Genshi chittered quietly. “He always was a bit overstimulated, I thought.”

The mildly jovial attitude quickly faded as Genshi returned to his far-off stare. What he was thinking on, Knight could only guess. Not that any guesswork was needed; Knight had laid an incredible burden on his graceful shoulders.

“…Is there something I can do?”

Genshi looked at Knight and considered him with a surprising intensity for a long, awkward while. Knight held his dignity and said nothing.

“…Do you understand the things I must now do?”

“I would not presume to impose upon Gaoian affairs.”

Genshi growled low and aggressively. “A cute evasion, Templar. You owe me more than that. You would not have revealed this information to me if you planned to remain neutral. What other Gaoians have you shared this with? Are there other Champions I must contend with? What is your angle?”

Knight stood silent for a moment. He leveled his gaze square into Genshi’s eyes, and in that moment Knight transformed from a gentle, dignified elderly statesman in to the hard, calculated, utterly ruthless admiral he truly was.

“Now let us be clear, Genshi of Whitecrest. We have shared this information with Regaari, and his team, and now you on his advice. There are three other aliens in this galaxy who know the full context of DEEP RELIC and none of them are Gaoian. You met one earlier today. Our intent was not to manipulate, or cajole, or to cause internal strife or other strategic harm. Our intent was to warn the one and only promising ally we have on the galactic stage of an existential threat. Now I must ask, because this question has me deeply worried: are you up to this challenge?”

Genshi met it with a cool and calm response. “I must be, because if I am not, my people are doomed. Failure is not an option.”

“Aye,” chimed Powell.

Knight silently thanked him. It was a brilliantly effective interjection and allowed him a decent segue into more civilized topics.

“Yes, well. That aside, shall we close the evening on a lighter note?”

“No, thank you.” Genshi had the distinct air of someone resigned to a long, terrible road. “I have much work to do and I am already at a disadvantage. If you could please return me to the Alien quarter…?”

“Of course.” He nodded at Powell, who turned the truck around.

They sat together in silence, Genshi lost in his thoughts. A few minutes later they arrived. Knight stepped out, gestured for Genshi who hopped out, and they said their goodbyes.

Knight did not envy the Champion.

He climbed into the front seat and Powell set off for base. “What do you reckon will happen, Sir?”

Knight shook his head. “Death.”


Genshi

He wandered the Alien quarter in solitude until late evening. When he wanted to Genshi could move like a wraith, silent and undetected, and on that night he very much did not wish to be disturbed. He walked, and he observed, and he ruminated on his thoughts.

Evening fell. As always the rains approached, and though the forcefield was ever-present, it did permit sanitized rain to fall through mostly unmolested. Even in a fugue he had a sense of his dignity, and longfur Gaoians were not appreciative of water. He returned to the enclave just as the first drops fell.

The small enclave was calm and collected, the evening meditation complete, and was preparing for sleep. They broke into small groups and began to pile atop each other in the traditional nest-beds, and though all invited him, he declined politely. It would improper for the Champion to favor one group over another, of course, and so he choose a spot roughly equidistant from then all, grabbed a comfortable Naxas blanket, curled up around it, and went to sleep.

Genshi had never felt so alone.


The next morning

Genshi awoke early, as he always did, but on this morning he was ill-rested. He dreamed of things that were and how they were different in the fierce, unforgiving light of DEEP RELIC. He ate breakfast with his brothers, took their morning exercises with them—he noted they now incorporated elements of Tai Chi with some additional Whitecrest innovations—and barricaded himself in his office, leaving strict directions not to be disturbed.

The first thing he needed to do was consider Whitecrest’s Fathers. He drew up a blank spreadsheet, queried the personnel database for a list of all current and pending Fathers, and began making notes. He very quickly had a list of his fellows who were obviously on one side or another, and the patterns were easy to spot: the pro-Dominion Fathers were all allies of Father Mavil, currently enjoying his “promotion” on Qinis, while the pro-Human faction was clearly and unambiguously aligned with Regaari.

Some strategic blundering might be in order. After all, direct and obvious action, if it wasn’t quite obvious enough, could often frighten actors into hasty decisions. He decided he would run a query against their in-Clan decision support system. The query would be noticed by the analysis staff because it would require significant compute time back on Gao. Good.

  • Build a vertex graph of all Whitecrest communications to and from Dominion and Human endpoints over the last five years
  • Classify this response for Fourth Claw inductees only
  • Restrict access to a new Brothergroup
  • Add Regaari, Genshi, and Genshi-Staff to this Brothergroup
  • Run query with high priority
  • Send all data to this endpoint
  • Do not perform insight analysis

More mischief, he thought. But this was mischief of the deadliest kind. He didn’t send the query quite yet. He saved it in his queue and moved onto another, more important task. Before he could deploy his query he needed his trap set and ready, and for that, he needed to call in a very old favor.

He addressed his workstation. “Contraption? Compose a secure message to Champion Meereo of Clan Longear.”


Master Sergeant Christian (Righteous) Firth

Firth was happy. He’d just completed the best day of combatives ever and had more to look forward to. Fighting the Gaoians was SO. MUCH. FUN!

Well, sure, they were little. Little by any modern soldier or operator’s standards, anyway, and that weren’t just compared to SOR. In modern battle y’needed ‘ta be strong to wear the armor and carry the ammo, and you still hadta move and jump and stuff. What’s the point of body armor if you couldn’t catch a little bitch Haji and crush his skull? What if you couldn’t get behind cover fast enough?

And yeah, sure. ‘Horse was makin’ ‘em strong just like he was makin’ Righteous an’ everyone else strong, but Gaoians had some no-shit limits, y’know? Their frames were pretty much all light an’ quick, not big an’ strong. Dexter? He looked good these days but he couldn’t be more than a hundred-fifty! Before the days of body armor, and at his height? That’d be a skinny soldier in perfect fighting trim! Now…not so much. Thurrsto? He was biggish but even he was maybe only a buck seventy or so. That’d be where any modern soldier would need to start to be any kind o’ useful, to be honest. Gaoians ain’t like Humans.

‘Course, Gaoians weren’t Humans, neither. Running forever with a ruck, soldiering up and down hills and through muck for days on end…that weren’t their style. They were just awesomely vicious and Firth felt they were his spirit animal. Strike fast and hard. Hit ‘em with as much as you possibly could. Cheat like a whore when the bill came due. And no mercy. Ever. Firth approved.

And that meant they fought like rabid, angry raccoons. They couldn’t punch or kick but they had claws an’ they were fuckin’ willing to use ‘em, too. Firth learned that lesson right away on the first day of combatives.

“Okay, listen up! We gotta see how y’all fight up close and personal before we know how we are gonna do this, yeah? So…” Firth decided to pick on their leader. “Regaari! Come at me like you genuinely tryin’ t’kill me, ‘kay? I got all three of our medics here just in case.” He nodded happily at Baseball, Warhorse, and Thurrsto, pulled off his shirt and sandals, flexed a little with an evil grin, then dropped into a wrestler’s crouch, ready for action.

Firth’s little show was meant to do two things. Firstly, only an idiot would fight in loose clothing like a muscle tee. A gi, maybe…but definitely not sandals, either. Gym shorts were the best. The second thing it was meant to do was intimidate. Firth considered himself a master at that particular art, and he was; but he’d failed to consider the Gaoians were already as intimidated as they were likely to be. They were lined up an’ waiting t’ fight the scariest Deathworlder there was: how much worse could it get?

His quick, nonchalant little display didn't work on Regaari. He didn’t disappoint. The little guy thought for a moment, then limbered up and gave the most vicious snarl, then pounced. Good Lord was he fast! It was a good thing Firth was faster, ‘cuz the big man narrowly dodged an attack at his eyes, followed by an attack at his groin, and then an attempt, when Firth spun around, at his neck. The little shit was tryin’ to put the big man off balance and it sorta worked, because he managed to land a four-clawed gouge right across Firth’s bare chest. Those wicked claws cut so deeply that the muscles underneath were exposed for all to see. Which he didn’t notice right away, because he countered with a punch so hard it really ought ‘ta have killed the little fucker.

It’s a good thing Regaari was really fast, too. He rolled into it and all he got was a dislocated shoulder and a dizzy limp, ‘cuz Firth’s fist knocked him all the way across the padded floor. ‘Horse immediately intervened, “HALT.” One glance at both combatants was enough to pacify their bloodlust. “Let’s call that a tie before you two kill each other.”

Firth grinned evilly. “What, for this little cut?” Deep wounds could be strange and frequently did not bleed as profusely as one might suspect. Muscular action worked to pinch off the smaller veins and so the mess kept to a visually disturbing but not immediately threatening level.

‘Horse weren't amused one little bit. “Master sergeant, do I need to pull medical rank, or do I gotta push ‘yer shit in and administer care anyway?”

“Relax, I’m just havin’ fun! Here,” he sat on the ground, “I’ll be a good boy, see?”

Horse grunted in acknowledgement and turned his attention to Regaari. To his credit he struggled up to his feet and fully extended his claws. But one angry glance from Warhorse took all the fight outta the little guy. Firth couldn’t blame ‘em; ‘Horse was scary when he were mad. “I will comply, Warhorse.”

‘Horse rolled his eyes and sighed but the Protectors fixed ‘em both up right quick. ‘Base padded over and set Regaari’s shoulder back into place, which he took bravely, then gave ‘em a big-ass dose of Crude. It didn’t work as fast on Gaoians so the little warrior would hafta sit out fer the rest of the day. Meanwhile ‘Horse stomped over to Firth and gave ‘em some ‘o that quick-clotting magic healing powder bullshit, along with a big mess of that really fuckin’ evil spray-glue cauterizing junk and a big shot of Crude, that from his humorously-labeled full-dose “Juggernog” bottles for combat or severe injury. Firth bore the hurt for a couple minutes while the spacemagic did its thing, then stood up.

He was ready to fight some more.

“Who’s next?”

Faarek stood up, scared but willing. Firth grinned; he liked these brave little motherfuckers. And Faarek didn’t disappoint, neither.


Holy fuck that was fun! Faarek learned from Regaari’s misfortune and saw the best thing ‘ta do was get his lics in an’ escape as quick as can. But Firth weren’t no idiot, either. He restrained himself and pulled his punches (after ‘Horse gave him that scary-as-fuck murder look he saved for when the big Aggressor went too far) but he didn’t hold back on speed, and that pretty much meant by the end of it, they had a big pile o’ bruised and broken Gaoians and a totally exhausted, lacerated, bleeding, panting, deliriously happy Firth.

All three of the medics got Good Training that day. ‘Horse and ‘Base fed him Crude and water and sent him to the kitchen for food. Then they fixed the Gaoians up with Thurrsto while Firth came down from his combat high.


Except he really didn’t. He was giddy and snuggly all night. When they watched their evening movie he tried ‘ta bear-hug all the Gaoians at once, though even he wasn’t quite big enough to manage that. He settled for gently wrasslin’ them on the floor. An’ he couldn’t stop talking ‘bout the fights, neither. They was so damned good. Ironically, the movie was Enter the Dragon and that weren’t lost on nobody.

“Too bad I won’t keep any of these scars, man. Y’all are scary in a fight!” The Brothers chittered amusedly. Since when did Humans value scars?

Thurrsto, as ever, chimed in with his medically-oriented mind as best as he could, which was no small feat while trapped in a fierce Firth squeeze. “The Crue-D is, erf, an amazing drug. Can you loosen up? Gnngh.”

“Nuh,” replied Firth. “Jus’ go with it.”

Thurrsto rolled his eyes and bore the hug. Firth did relent, eventually, but only when he rolled into a pin and snuggled, dragging the Brothers with him.

“The more I see you Humans fight, the more I think Myun had the right of it,” that from Faarek. Nodding all around in agreement.

“Maybe,” said Blaczynski, who plopped thunderously onto the floor next to Firth. “Your natural fighting styles are pretty damn good, though. Righteous’ll be working on counters for weeks and I’m gonna be his punching bag.”

“But you’re the best punching bag!” Firth’s legs snapped up and pinned Blaczynski with a giggle and a brief but fierce struggle. Firth handily won, and to secure his victory the big man locked his ankles and squeezed powerfully. Such a vice would quickly shatter a normal Human and ‘prolly kill a Gaoian, but as usual his Best Bud didn’t surrender. He just grunted in playful discomfort. Firth was still feeling aggressively giddy so he also snuggle-bearhugged Thurrsto, who quickly tapped for mercy. He got it, with more snuggles.

Blac struggled to pry Firth’s legs open and escape. He failed. Each of those huge legs were way thicker than Blac’s waist, who was himself a trim and athletic but very heavily and robustly muscled power athlete. Only ‘Horse had bigger legs and then only by a few inches. But ‘Horse was way stronger. Firth could, if he really tried, almost match the ‘Horse’s daily working weights on leg press and squat, but Righteous weren’t even close on reps, sets, or max weight. Someday he’d catch the stumpy fuck. Maybe. And hell, they didn’t even know what ‘Horse’s max weights actually were, neither. Not even their custom equipment could hold enough of the special competition plates to actually test his real strength. How do ‘ya beat someone when you don’t know the score?

Annoying. Firth tightened his leg hold, just ‘cuz.

“Mmf,” protested Blac, but still no surrender, not that Firth were gonna get one. Around that time Bozo showed up with his Pig of Respect and plopped on top of Faarek, and slobbered all over the Gaoian to his chittering protests. Everyone—dog, Gaoian, and Human—settled into a comfortable pile either on the floor or up on the couch. The night was gonna be fight movies!

So basically, pretty much a normal evening for SOR. And more and more, the Whitecrest Bros were part of SOR, too. Hmm. Firth filed that away for later.

Blac resumed his earlier thought. “Ya’ know what I learned today? Gaoian claws are fuckin’ scary. Best idea is to shoot ‘em from far way.”

The Gaoians made happy noises. As they should! The little fucks were mean.

“Pff,” scoffed Firth, “That’s what you always say ‘bout everything.”

“Well, yeah. I’m a combat controller, dude. My best weapon is my radio.”

Firth nodded agreeably. After all, Starfall was right.

“Oh sure, no argument there. But how many nukes ya’ use at Capitol Station?”

“All of them,” came the smug reply.

Firth smashed harder. “Rods from God,” he grumbled happily.

“Mmpf, fuck you, man.” Firth responded with a hard squeeze that blew all the breath outta his Best Bud, then quickly relaxed a little. It was their usual play so he weren’t being mean…but he weren’t gonna let the little shit think he could ever win. Firth had a position to maintain.

The rest of the room ignored the two’s roughhousing and banter. No other combat controllers in the history of the Air Force ever got to use the “big toys” and as a result, Righteous and Starfall were legends in the community. It didn’t help that Blaczynski was taller than Baseball and the perfect cross between an olympic gymnast, a sprinter, and a super-heavyweight powerlifter, and could handily outperform any non-SOR Human in all of those categories. Or that Firth was exactly the same except much more so. In either case the two had supremely large and well-fed egos just like any special operator or especially anyone in SOR. The trick was keeping it in check.

Which didn’t mean they wouldn’t measure and compare, though. That’s just how life in combat arms worked. You always improved and you were always in competition with your best friends and battle brothers.

“Back to the topic at hand,” interjected Rebar, “You got a training plan, Firth?” Now that the brothers were indoctrinated into DEEP RELIC and the final bits of SACRED STRANGER, it was a simple comfort to use each other’s real names.

“Eh, not so much a plan just yet as more…uh, gotta explore their instincts a bit. Today I learned they’re dangerous as fuck but really easy to break with a punch so, uh, I’ve gotta think around that.” He paused, pondering. “I think we’ll be fine. Just gotta noodle around with fighting styles, y’know?” He glanced at the movie. “Like, this? Bruce Lee is a goddamned stud but it ain’t really gonna be their style. It’s fast, sure…but see how he moves? Way too much reliance on an upright posture. He’s upper-body dominant, too. We need something else.”

“Load up another one?” Akiyama was already moving to the controller.

“Yes please. Maybe something…more modern? Yeah. Modern choreography tends to be a lot more realistic fer’ movements an’ such.”

Faarek began to object but Firth pulled him and Bozo over and snuggled them too. “Nah, it’s a fun movie but I really am tryin’ ta’ figger this out.”

Bozo wurfed quietly in objection but panted when Firth bribed him with belly rubs, and Faarek gently scratched at Bozo’s flank with his claws. Happy Bozo.

Akiyama clicked the controller and pulled up Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. They watched for a bit, then the big Defender started skipping to fight scenes.

Firth weren’t quite satisfied. “Definitely better, but…”

“Too technical?” Highland always had good observations. But in this case?

“Nuh, that’s what I like. It’s the flying around bits later on that won’t work.”

Thurrsto chattered worriedly. “…Flying?”

Righteous was tempted for a brief instant to spin a tall tale about Human ability. It was one of the more fun games they had, but right then it would prol’ly’ve been a really dumb idea. Shame.

“They exaggerate the forms some. Actually, at the end they exaggerate a lot.”

“Kung-Fu can be really technical and complicated,” warned Burgess. “All the styles we played with? Those were always the hardest to learn.”

“Yeah, I know. But I kinda want something that has a lotta options, y’know? But…yeah. We’d need just the right style.”

“Tiger style?” That from Arés.

“Dude,” Firth laughed, “Shut the fuck up! Heihuquan is for impressing girls and makin’ movies! I want practical and simple. I think. Probably. I dunno. I gotta, like, noodle on it a bunch.”

“Drunken boxing?” A grin from Murray.

“Bitch I will cockslap you. Y’all ain’t helping!”

Murray grinned wider in reply.

“Okay, so…” Vandenberg once again tried to shift back on-topic.

“Basic forms and muscle-memory for now. Actually. Wait. Yeah. Now that I think ‘bout it? Y’all really do jus’ sorta go for it all claws out and rage. I mean, all y’all tried for my throat, my groin, my eyes—”

“—And failed,” noted Regaari.

“Yeah, which is good since I’m really kinda fond of those bits o’ me.” He grinned while the Gaoians chittered. “But, yeah. What kinda combatives training you guys have anyway? You clearly know what you’re doing.”

“Muscle-memory is a good word. We trained to react fast without thinking.”

“And for Gaoian fights, that makes a lotta sense. Speed and teeth and claws.”

Blaczynski seemed to catch on. “Enlightened instincts. But that won’t work if the fight drags on. So…teach them how to think strategically like we learned?”

“Yup,” Firth nodded. “But we did that the same way they did, muscle memory and practice. Lots of it. Hell, maybe that’s really it, stick to basic movements an’ shit, and just drill them until y’all don’t need to think about it at all.”

“Seems like a good starting point,” said Rebar, “But I’d really like a plan.”

“Sarry sargn’t first class, this here is one of those things I can’t really plan for. It’s too much on feel t’really do that. All I can do is go step by step.”

A part of Rebar seemed to rebel at the notion but he did understand, at least intellectually. “I know, and I trust you. I ain’t a combatives instructor, heh.”

“Heh. Don’t worry your big meaty sit-muscle ‘bout this none. I’ll git ‘er dun.”

“Fuck yeah!” Blaczynski interjected. “We’ll get ‘em so fuckin’ badass none of us’ll wanna fight ‘em!”

“Collect some tricks, too.” Murray grinned in anticipation.

“Hell. Yeah. The way y’all bounce and twist? There’s some clever shit in there. I don’t know how I’d do all o’ that…but we’ll figure it out.”

“Gloves,” prompted Murray. Burgess gave him an amused look like he’d been about to make the very same comment.

“Yeah. Today escalated really goddamned fast. So, something for your claws an’ something for me in case I hit too hard. Fair?”

“And please try not break each other so much,” grunted Arés.

“Yeah. But…fuck. I can’t fuckin’ wait until tomorrow!”

It was an interesting contrast, between Firth’s child-like giddiness and exactly what he was so happy about, and the Gaoians didn’t fail to notice.

But if they were being honest? They were happy too.


Commune of Clan Starmind, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest

Of all the many things the Gaoians learned from the Humans, one of the most exquisitely beautiful and useful was the full richness of meditation. He wasn’t convinced, initially. Hearing it described sounded much like the long-discarded mysticism of the ancient times, something that, perhaps, the Stonebacks or other ancient Clans might practice in their oft-rumored Rites. But Regaari had wheedled him into a visit with Father Gyotin—his Clan eschewed the concept of Champion—and after a long and surprisingly pleasant conversation he gave it a go. The first attempt was comfortably relaxing. He tried it again, later…

Shortly thereafter he became a devotee, and under his indirect influence so now was much of Whitecrest. He didn’t go in for all of the intricate trappings of Bhuddism but there was much wisdom to be gained from that mystical art.

Genshi sat on a modified zafu and freed his mind. He sat for a long time.

The Clanbrothers of Starmind tended to him in the quiet, ritualistic way one does when attempting not to disturb. Water was brought, which Genshi mostly ignored. Plain but flavorful food was brought as well. It had a very mild scent so as not to burden the mind with the Corporeal. And so Genshi sat, and his mind became Nothing.

And then, after a time, he knew what he must do.


Late evening

Whitecrest Enclave, The Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Private briefing with Champion Genshi

Officer and Sergeant Regaari (Dexter) of Clan Whitecrest

Regaari was still sore from the absolute beat-down he suffered at the hands of Righteous—no, Christian Firth. It was mildly depressing how quickly the giant had defeated him but then again, what was one to do? The massive Human was over five times Regaari’s size and so much faster, stronger, tougher and better it was difficult to comprehend. The only salve to Regaari’s wounded pride was just how badly he’d managed to would the enormous warrior; Firth was actually proud of Regaari for that score!

His mind was still on the training when Genshi entered the room. He looked…confident. Steely-eyed. Prepared to lead. And Regaari knew he would follow.

“I shall cut right to the point,” he said with admirable directness. “You were right to bring this to my attention. Well done. I see great things in your future.”

Regaari was inwardly elated but he maintained his outer calm. “Thank you, my Champion. How may I be of further service?”

Genshi settled into his chair. His bearing was one of command and control. “For you? I must ask a great favor. I need you to remain here with the Humans and learn everything they can teach you. And most importantly I need you to stay as far out of Clan politics as you possibly can.”

That last bit was a stunner. “But Champion—”

“But nothing, my Brother. You and I both know this will not be pleasant. What I may need more than anything is someone beyond reproach, and someone with access to massive capability. Right now, you are one of only two assets I have positioned that could possibly meet this need.”

Regaari knew not to ask, but still: “I can help my Champion! I can—”

“—I know.” Genshi raised a paw to forestall the argument. “But you can help me more right here in ways you won’t yet understand. Please trust me.”

“…you know I do, my Champion.”

“Yes. Now go back to the Humans, Regaari, and become the deadliest Whitecrest to ever live. Contact your allies. Be discreet. Be agreeable and quiet. Do not raise suspicion. And all of you, be ready for what comes.”

Now that was a call to arms Regaari could accept. “As you wish.” He duck-nodded and stood up to leave, and the Champion stood with him.

“I am so very proud of you, Regaari. You and all the Brothers. Train well.”

Regaari’s heart swelled with pride! “Light the Darkness, my Champion.”

He nodded gracefully, and turned his attention to other matters. Regaari turned around and left, his heart filled with pride in Clan and his soul with Motivation.


Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest

Genshi was so tired. He was up very late, drafting correspondence to allies all across Gao. None of it could actually voice his concerns, of course. Instead, each and every single message was carefully crafted to elicit a response along his most Vexing Question.

Framing his correspondence as a gentle sounding of the waters, what he asked was not directly related to the Question. They were designed to gather intelligence via the proxy of other topical discourse because actually voicing the matter, no matter how circumspectly, could give away the game. What he needed to know was whether, and how strongly, the Brothers and Fathers he wrote were in favor of either the Dominion or the Alliance, or whether they would have preferred for Gao to remain neutral until the conflict between those forces reached its conclusion.

The question was a good proxy for Hierarchy influence, because everything the Humans knew suggested a rather…depressing lack of guile. While it was now obvious that the conflict had been seeded and nourished by Hierarchy action, they seemed to take it for granted that every sophont in the galaxy fell on one side or the other of that artificial divide, and they seemed to have few if any agents among the independents.

That was such a tremendous oversight it was actually worrisome; could they really be that incompetent? Or were they confident? Why?

So many things to consider, more than any one being could handle all at once. Solution? Sleep. He needed it, badly. It was well past the Resting Hour and he had no desire to disturb the sleeping Brothers, so as quietly as he could, he snuck into the nest-room and curled up with his Naxas blanket, alone.

But not for long. As one, the Brothers stood up and surrounded Genshi. They went from little nest-piles of two, three, or four into a massive pile of dozens. No words were spoken. None were needed. Genshi struggled to express the feeling, to show, somehow, what the small gesture meant…but they knew.

Genshi slept like a newborn Cub.


Late the next morning

The Brothers were perceptive, of course. They knew their Champion was under some undefined worry and did what they could—quietly—to support him. For that, Genshi was immensely grateful, but he was not surprised. They were Whitecrest and they were the very best. That was why they were on Cimbrean, after all; developing sources and methods amongst a burgeoning ally was always an exquisitely sensitive and perilous task. They had to balance the needs of Gao with the decorum and trust inherent to any alliance, and that meant running an effective and reasonable collection program an ally would accept and understand.

All allies did this. Fathers knew that Daar was running a particularly effective one against Genshi through the simple mechanic of being a good friend. And that was more or less what Whitecrest was doing with the Humans. Friends share secrets, and friends learn each other.

And sometimes, maybe friends snoop in each other’s business, too. Just a little.

For Genshi, that program had two aspects, one overt, the other covert. The overt collection was largely one of his doing: Regaari and the Whitecrest team. They were bound by new oaths of secrecy, of course, and now so was he, but that would not prevent any of them from working in Gao’s interests.

The second program was run by the internal Whitecrest Directorates. As Champion, he was ostensibly aloof from such concerns. The Directorates were the domains of the Fathers and the Grandfather, and he was allowed no direct command or control over anything the Directorates may see fit to do.

A convenient little lie. As the embodiment of Whitecrest he had no trouble at all remaining well-informed, and it was a trivial matter to nudge here, suggest there, whisper into the right ears…and before anyone knew what happened, Whitecrest was solidly aligning with the Humans.

Now he must preserve that work against his enemy Fathers. Having found the local Whitecrest Enclave free from Hierarchy taint—well, as free as could be expected, as most of the Brothers had translation implants—his task would be twofold. Firstly he needed to convince the Brothers to remove their implants.

That was easy. He pointed to his own thin and fading scar and said, “The implants hamper understanding, because they breed a reliance on translation and reference. Are you not more effective when you know the language and remember the material at hand?”

Half the Brothers had quietly scheduled appointments by the end of the day. The rest, he was sure, would come through competitive peer pressure. He normally didn’t appreciate the near-adoration his Brothers paid his position, but sometimes…it had its benefits.

Secondly, he needed to launch the query he’d written the night before. He felt uncomfortably exposed awaiting Meereo’s response and found himself exploring and exercising while he awaited news. He finally got it in the late evening, and it was short.

Cousin,

Very interesting development. I will do as you ask as well as those other things you do not yet realize you need. I hope you find your rogues.

On a more social note, I will be visiting Cimbrean to oversee the install of a node cache for Gaoians. Should improve their infosphere experience! Would you like to meet? I’ve always wanted to try Human food.


Meereo, Champion, Longear
“Wisdom is the most exquisite curse.”Father Fyu (apocryphal)

…interesting. Meereo put that quote in his signature with purpose. It was quite obviously misquoted, but importantly? It was Genshi who had originally corrected Meereo.

He was trying to prove he was himself.

What did Meereo suspect? Genshi had to know, and immediately.

He drafted a reply offering him Whitecrest hospitality, linked to the Cimbrean Consulate’s node on the Gaoian infosphere, gave stern warnings to follow their directions precisely, and made plans to stay a little longer. With luck, Genshi already had an ally. Or he was doomed from the outset; such was the nature of the Darkness. Genshi would light it, no matter the cost.

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