11y, 4m AV
Training grounds, Cimbrean
Sergeant & Senior Brother Regaari (Dexter) / The Protectors
About eight weeks in they entered the “walk” phase of the Partnership Indoctrination Program, and in that time Regaari had seen dramatic changes to his strength and energy. Before? All of them were very fit and capable males by the reckoning of his kind, of course. Now? They would maybe compare respectably against a small, very young Stoneback—a Clan, few in number, which deeply specialized in hard labor, athletics, and martial arts—and there was little better compliment you could give a Gaoian male. Already his Brothers chittered about future mating prospects!
Males are the same everywhere, it would seem.
But the timing of the “walk” phase seemed to coincide suspiciously with a plateau all the Brothers were suddenly experiencing, one that was beginning to frustrate their mood. They trained diligently: enthusiastically, even, once it became obvious how effective it was, and they had long taken over their nutrition program once they understood Warhorse’s purpose. Their digestion improved, the indulgent and tasty meals were now even better, their energy went through the roof…then about seven weeks into the indoc program, their rapid progress near halted. Abruptly, and almost simultaneously.
For the first couple of days they thought maybe their diet was to blame. Was it the supplements? They didn’t think so. The various oils and meats (from Earth!) they were eating seemed to give them all the energy and protein they could stand so adding more didn’t seem like a good idea. Which probably pleased the humans; they had been quite vocal about that delicious “cod liver oil” and were not happy about the smell. As if they had any basis to complain; one thing the Gaoians learned quickly was that human sweat absolutely reeked of musk and suffused everything with its stench: clothing, their beds, the couch, even the walls. At times it got so bad they couldn’t readily distinguish each other’s smell! Ghastly.
Regular, extra-thorough “G. I. parties” by the humans and twice-weekly “fur shampoo” baths by the Gaoians became mandatory. The things people will do to maintain the peace. Though admittedly, their coats were now wonderfully soft and glossy…
Nor did the plateau seem to be an issue of exercise. They were already training at their limits—their genuine limits, the ones SOR helped them discover they could reach—and no matter how hard they strained, rested, ate, stretched, meditated or otherwise, they all practically stopped growing, stopped hardening, stopped improving.
It was like they had hit some preordained limit to their ability and it was absolutely maddening. On the one hand, they had each put on significant mass and strength very quickly and it looked and felt good. Why, Regaari probably massed upwards of sixty kilograms now, and the younger Brothers were even bigger, with Thurrsto approaching a large Clanless laborer in size. Everything had improved on their crash program. Their strength, their speed, their endurance…and for all that, for all their impressive gains, they were still not remotely comparable to either human or Stoneback performance. It was a humbling and frustrating situation.
Time to do something about that. On their next free day he went around to find Warhorse and Baseball. As usual the two were easy to find. Half of SOR’s working hours and much of their free time was spent in physical training of some kind, doing all they could to keep ahead of the demands their jobs placed on their bodies. For the Protectors, that meant the gym. And when they lifted, nobody stuck around. Excellent, thought Regaari. We can discuss this in private.
Regaari arrived. Both men were well into their workout in the fenced-off, high gravity section of the gym. The red lights were on, and as everyone with access knew, Red Means Dead. So he waited on the bench outside the “gravpit” while ‘Horse and ‘Base wrestled.
Today’s session was one of their epic manic-grin hypercompetitive bouts, contests which always resulted in bruised bodies and egos. It was the Protectors’ heavy lifting day as well so they were both playful and ferocious. They tussled, grappled, threw, slammed, growled and smack-talked their way through a constantly moving bout of combat, both of them sweaty and happy and reveling in their bodies and their power, high on life and glorying in their element. That manic grin was there, which they wore with a pure, ebullient joy, one that belied their terrifying competitiveness. These two were defined by their physicality. They were never happier than when they could properly exercise their abilities, in every sense of the word.
Warhorse, it must be said, was the more capable wrestler. He favored brute strength and grim endurance and the lightning speed his power gave him. His victories mostly came through sheer physical superiority, muscling his opponents into vague pretzel shapes and smashing the fight right out of them. But Baseball was no pushover. He compensated with his longer reach and more considered technique, and an agility often better than ‘Horse. As a result it was sometimes not obvious who might win a bout.
When Regaari walked in they were already well into it, victory in ‘Horse’s hands. ‘Base was pinned face-down on the mat, wrapped up in ‘Horse’s mighty limbs as he toyed with ‘Base and slowly squeezed the life out of him, gently taunting all the while. The match had clearly went on for quite a while because both were absolutely drenched with sweat and panting heavily.
Well, ‘Horse was panting, anyway. He didn’t actually seem very tired at all, just pleasantly exerting himself. But ‘Base could barely grunt, so tightly was he crushed. Every attempt at escape was brutally suppressed and punished with an even tighter squeeze. ‘Horse wouldn’t even permit ‘Base to raise his head off the mat. His giant paw snaked up and violently smashed ‘Base’s head back down so forcefully that it smacked loudly into the mat, his neck wrenched at a painful angle.
Still he did not submit. ‘Horse growled in response, ratcheted tighter, and worked his legs to pull at ‘Base’s hip joint. ‘Base winced at the new stress but fought gamely. To no avail. He was handily outpowered by ‘Horse’s significantly greater brawn, strength he used to his maximum advantage. He simply grunted and muscled ‘Base into any position he wished, constricting like a snake and bending ‘Base’s body every which way for maximum dominance.
Eventually ‘Horse had ‘Base flat on his back, arms and legs wrapped around his friend like a boa constrictor. ‘Horse squeezed tighter and tighter, his hand crushing ‘Base’s skull with terrifying pressure and his legs wrapped in a clutch hold around ‘Base’s waist and legs. Still ‘Base resisted, almost totally unable to take a breath and fading fast.
In response ‘Horse bore down with enough force to break any other member of SOR and outright kill even a well-trained MMA heavyweight. There was a moment of agonized expression on ‘Base’s face, and defiant resistance, but finally ‘Base nodded in surrender as a yet tighter squeeze forced the very last of his breath out in a woompf of pain. A victory grin and chuckling rumble from ‘Horse, along with an affectionate nuzzle and grin.
But before he let go, ‘Horse quickly flipped ‘Base over, re-pinned him despite a valiant attempt at escape, then grimaced in effort and squeezed much harder with his legs in a very long moment of alpha-male play. ‘Base didn’t seem to mind too much, grunting in pain but grinning all the while. There was an obvious and deep trust at play. But ‘Horse wasn’t quite done. He upped the ante and bore down with another crushing, full-body squeeze, this one so fierce he trembled with the all-out exertion. Base immediately tapped his free hand—the only thing he could move—on the mat in submission. ‘Horse did not immediately release. He held it for almost two full minutes, tearing up and grimacing with the agony of the extreme effort.
He did not go further. He knew ‘Base’s limits intimately and never crossed them. This was the cardinal rule between them, one of the very few boundaries they would never violate. At last, right at the very edge of what ‘Base could and would accept in rough play, and satisfied with his victory, ‘Horse grunted in acknowledgement and gradually loosened his grip to spare ‘Base the sudden shock of release.
He exulted in his victory; he knew he had more power he could bring to bear but he did not voice this. Instead he smirked to himself and held and nuzzled ‘Base for a long moment, the vicious pin suddenly a tender hug of friendship. But even still…
‘Horse couldn’t resist taunting his friend. “You ain’t gonna win, bro. Give in.”
It was a clever tactic, one that played on ‘Base’s ego. He would try to escape, and ’Horse would punish any attempt with a squeeze sometimes even more violent and powerful than before. Neither man seemed willing to quit. They tussled happily for over an hour as ‘Horse methodically dominated his friend to the point of utter, absolute exhaustion and submission. Not once in the long game did ‘Horse allow ‘Base to escape.
Regaari marveled at the extreme emotions at play; so firmly at combat they would break each other for the simple competitive joy of victory, and then instantly so affectionate and concerned it was as if Warhorse hadn’t genuinely tried to smash in Baseball’s ribs a moment before.
Finally it was over. Neither man had anything left to give. The big man rolled off and flopped noisily to the mat alongside ‘Base, and they both panted desperately for about a minute, spent and exhausted from very different stresses. Once ‘Horse had recovered sufficiently he helped ‘Base wobble up to his feet. They hugged again, briefly but fiercely. They staggered over to their supplies in the obviously very strong gravity, took a giant swig of sport drink and without any warning they were at it again, arms locked together and grappling for position.
Their attention was solely on one another. They had somehow completely failed to notice Regaari observing from the sidelines. He watched on, fascinated.
The next bout was lively and played back and forth several times in rapid succession, though as the match progressed, Baseball gained the upper hand and looked as if he may keep it. Warhorse made a tactical error and was now on his back, valiantly fending off Baseball’s attacks as the advantage was pressed, both men grunting in strain and laughing with joy.
Such bouts were incredible to witness. The Protectors were so quick and so strong, even for humans; the floor shuddered when they threw each other clear across the mat or slammed their opponent so hard it would be a crippling injury for anyone else. And they had much practice fighting each other these days since they seldom wrestled with the rest of SOR; even at this relatively “gentle” level of play they were far and away the grappling kings of the team.
Each had their advantages: Baseball’s superior nimbleness and longer reach, Warhorse’s unequaled speed, strength, and greater mass. And while neither would ever match the combat skill and agility of an Aggressor or master the many tactical options a Defender made available, in raw, physical, hand-to-hand brawling, both of them were a match for any two Aggressors or, really, all of the Defenders at once. At some point, power simply wins out over every other concern.
Baseball would be the victor this bout. He had managed to worm through Warhorse’s defenses and now had his arms encircled around Warhorse’s head, slowly wiggling towards a Guillotine choke. ‘Horse struggled valiantly but even his insane strength could not overcome the leverage—or the implicit threat—’Base posed at that moment. Baseball—with Righteous closer and closer behind him—was the second strongest human to ever live by any measure anyone might choose to make, and the lead those three men had over any other human was massive. But ‘Horse was the strongest human of all time, and the difference in strength between ‘Horse and ‘Base on the one hand and ‘Base and Righteous on the other was enormous as well. Therefore, the best tactic was to deny ‘Horse any leverage and prevent him from bringing his insane power to bear.
Leverage was both a strength and weakness of his; when properly anchored, his shorter stature made his moment arms far more favorable, which, combined with his larger and harder muscles granted him a mind-bending strength nobody could match. He was pound-for-pound the strongest man on the team—or anywhere—and he was easily the heaviest as well. But ‘Base had longer limbs, a more limber body and a bit more agility, even if his raw speed wasn’t quite comparable with ‘Horse. He used his bigger wingspan to keep ‘Horse off-balance as much as possible. If ‘Base could pin and trap ‘Horse in the right hold, all the strength in the world wouldn’t help ‘Horse escape.
‘Base was close, too. Just one maneuver once he had the chance…right at that moment ‘Horse made a very unlucky tactical error by digging his heel in too forcefully. It slipped on the increasingly slick mat and broke his bridge, leaving him totally vulnerable and flat on his back. ‘Base pounced at the opportunity and he was suddenly in position! Now ‘Horse was trapped, and neither man had ever escaped this particular hold when the other had succeeded with the attack. Baseball grinned in victory, rolled over, and viciously pinned his opponent. “Y’ain’t gettin’ free of this, midget!”
‘Horse writhed and bucked but ‘Base simply ground down harder, working his arms against ‘Horse’s valiant struggle. He got payback, too, bending ‘Horse painfully backwards while denying his limbs any solid contact with the mat. It was a difficult thing overcoming the strength in ‘Horse’s thick core. As always leverage was the key and long limbs—properly applied—provided it.
They struggled, and ‘Base slowly worked his clutch tighter and tighter. ‘Horse grimaced in pain but like ‘Base he did not give up. It took several minutes of all-out effort but ‘Base managed to shift the pin into a blood choke. He smashed the crook of his enormous arm against ‘Horse’s thick bullneck, slid his gigantic bicep across ‘Horse’s throat, and squeezed so hard even ‘Horse’s mighty neck muscles were defeated. He struggled for a moment, unable to properly breathe and the blood flow to his brain cut off.
But there was no escape. Game over. ‘Horse (of course) conceded right before he lost consciousness, pinned to the floor by a laughing giant. ‘Base immediately released and helped his best friend up onto his feet. They instantly shifted into their brotherly mode as Warhorse staggered around a bit drunkenly, gradually re-catching his wind. They hugged, oblivious to all else, palming each other’s heads and pressing their foreheads together, muttering little taunts and praises meant only for each other. After a long moment, both finally noticed Regaari waiting patiently.
Horse mumbled something and Baseball nodded, and they detangled from each other and sauntered over, arms around shoulders as they chuckled and joked. They reached the border and deactivated the gravity, and invited Regaari in once the light was green.
“Sup, bro?” Warhorse’s voice was a bit hoarse, probably from having his trachea partially crushed by Baseball’s bicep. He ran up and immediately swallowed Regaari in a huge, crushing, snuggly hug. “You wanna wrestle with us?” Regaari grunted from the strain and sighed inwardly, but feebly returned the squeeze. He did enjoy the love and friendship even if his mind was pre-occupied. And his breathing moderately impaired by a giant Deathworlder.
“Urf, I am fine. I wish to discuss—HEY!” He found himself picked up and roughly slammed to the mat and carefully pinned under ‘Horse’s epic mass, with the big human smiling crazily above the comparatively tiny Gaoian. Any other time, Regaari would be more than happy to indulge but he was in no mood for a futile play-fight. Regaari attempted to escape, succeeded to his surprise, was immediately re-pinned…and was suddenly angry at being toyed with so casually.
“I AM NOT IN THE MOOD FOR THIS. GET OFF.” His anger grew and his hackles raised as he considered the silliness of his ‘escape.’ After all, ‘Horse was a man over ten times Regaari’s mass and so much faster and stronger it defied belief. Pent up frustration burst forth. He sat up and snarled quietly, only an inch from ‘Horse’s stunned and confused face. “Get. Off.”
‘Horse scrambled back and sat on his haunches, shocked and concerned. Regaari immediately regretted his (not wholly unjustified) anger; he knew ‘Horse meant well and perhaps didn’t deserve being snapped at. A quick glance showed a man confused and worried for his friend’s safety, and maybe a bit hurt, and aware he did something wrong but had no idea what it was. His expression was not unlike Bozo’s whenever a correction or rebuke was given.
“I’m sorry, Regaari. Are you okay?” Quietly, “Please don’t be mad.”
Few beings could be angry with a puppy for long. Regaari rolled his eyes and soothed the big human with words and a hug. “No, no, I am not mad. Just surprised.” Warhorse immediately sighed in relief, a faint smile returning to his face.
“Oh, good! I thought I had maybe pissed you off.”
“Annoyed, yes, but not angered. I just…we are frustrated, ‘Horse. We were doing so very well and now we cannot improve. Are we doing something wrong?”
‘Horse glanced at ‘Base, exchanging information in that near-telepathic way humans do. Baseball was the first to speak. “No, you are doing exactly what you should. We were expecting you to plateau right around here. According to our research y’all should be approaching your natural size limit. Gaoians aren’t generally very big and you were all, uh, pretty big by Gaoian standards to begin with.”
“That isn’t entirely true. Much more impressive Gaoians are known.” He left the details unsaid.
“Oh, we don’t doubt that. But again, given your extensive training history and your existing size, this is more or less what we were expecting.”
That wasn’t reassuring.
“So, then…? There’s four months left in this indoc program! What will we do?”
‘Horse spoke up, having muscled himself into a cross-legged sit. it was an impressive example of fitting a great deal of man into a small amount of space. “Yeah bro, we got you primed to grow, now we’re gonna get you strong and hard! It’s gonna be a lot slower though. You just don’t heal up fast enough to go crazy.”
Regaari tilted his head in query, “Don’t…heal fast enough?”
The humans exchanged another uncomfortable glance.
Enough of this. “What in the name of the Fathers is bothering you two so much?”
“Well,” Warhorse shifted uncomfortably, “We’ve long known that muscle damage and repair is key to sports training for humans. We’re a bit weird, y’see, because minor muscular damage will cause an ‘overcompensation.’ The harder we push—up to a point—the stronger we get.”
That was a bit of a minor revelation. “So all that torture you put the SOR initiates through—”
“Yup,” nodded ‘Horse, “Doin’ ‘em a huge favor. That’s the theory, anyway, but it’s borne out through human history and sports tradition. Every single day they heal up a bit stronger. That, really, is the big difference between humans and everything else. I mean…”
Baseball jumped in. “All these muscles we have, the tough bones, the immune system, all that? That’s all really just taking an existing thing and ramping it way up, yeah? This here is totally different. It’s a thing that makes humans really weird, right?” He paused, framing his explanation in his head. “Here’s what I mean. If you—a Gaoian—were to get a muscular microtear, it’ll probably heal back up but it wouldn’t be any stronger. Might even lose you some strength. That ain’t how it works with us. As long as we aren’t literally ripping our muscles apart they’ll heal stronger than they were before. Same thing with tendons, kinda.”
A pause as he considered. “Both human and Gaoian bodies respond to stress, yeah? But yours stopped strengthening in response to microdamage when you were barely past cubhood. Humans don’t really lose that trait until we’re quite old, and all our sports training takes advantage of that. SOR just…takes it to extremes, but that means nearly anything we would want to do with you needs to be carefully designed to avoid injury.”
“So,” Regaari paused, trying to wrap his head around this, “You deliberately injure yourselves to grow? Am I understanding that right?” This was something that absolutely flew in the face of everything he had learned about exercise, starting from his cubhood. Every Whitecrest knew his limits, because if he were to exceed them too much, he would be out of the game.
But this? This was something new.
The humans looked at each other again and nodded. “I wouldn’t call it injury, but…yeah.” Warhorse contemplated for a moment. “…Yeah. I think you need convincing. Let me show you.” Warhorse sighed perhaps a bit uncomfortably and headed over to the weights. “I suspect the only way to get the point across is a demonstration.”
They ambled over to the weights and Regaari watched ‘Horse’s almost-nude body in motion. The Gaoian was once again reminded of those disturbing red Hunters from their first encounter. Worse, even, because humans were too much. They had muscles in roughly the same shapes and positions as a Gaoian, but they bulged much bigger everywhere, settled on their frames like iron, and there were quite literally more of them in all the wrong places, writhing plainly in a sickly-hypnotic dance under their naked skin. Some Gaoian horror fantasies had monsters not dissimilar. And these two were the most extreme examples humankind had to offer. They were even more developed than their first meeting, for both had grown noticeably thicker and leaner since that time. Regaari couldn’t help but chitter a bit nervously.
But Warhorse smiled his friendly, goofy smile, drawing Regaari out of his little reverie. “Relax, buddy! You ain’t gonna do nothin.’ Jus’ sit on the bench and watch, and don’t enter the pen.” Regaari stepped out as instructed. Baseball fiddled the nearby control and it was suddenly as if a great weight had settled itself on their every muscle and limb. They tightened up and hunkered down in response to the load. “This works best in supergravity.” ‘Horse limbered up, stretching his enormous frame and bouncing around lightly on his toes.
A thought occurred to Regaari. “How deep is the gravity well?”
“Uh, something over three times standard Earth gravity, same as we were wrestlin’ in. We, uh, aren’t supposed to use it this high without lettin’ Rebar know. So don’t tell, okay?” Another puppy grin, his already sweaty chest and face once again dripping from the exertion brought on by the crushing gravity. They both took a long swig from their always-present CamelBaks and set to work.
Regaari boggled at that gravity. It was possibly enough to kill him almost instantly!
They headed to the weight rack and moved a shocking number of the large plates over to the curl station. By now Regaari had learned to read human numbers and measurements and he couldn’t help but boggle at the mass. It was more weight than he could ever fantasize toying with in any possible lift, even in Galactic standard gravity. They then proceeded to load a short, angled-grip barbell with a terrifying amount of weight. Even the barbell itself was pushing what Regaari could comfortably exercise with in any gravity, let alone a field that would crush him to jelly.
But to Warhorse the bar may as well have been air. He casually loaded it one-handed onto the curl bench and they filled it to bending with weight on either side. He sat on the bench. He paused for a moment, his face draining of all emotion and expression. He then picked up the bar and curled it with strict form, very, very, very slowly up and down and up again, grunting as exertion required but otherwise expressionless. “Ergh, look at my arms.”
Regaari did. And the sight was disturbing. He watched the big muscles pump up with each slow curl, the very tiny little subcutaneous blood vessels swelling, and then bursting, as the biceps went from ruddy to a deep red, and then a little beyond. Warhorse curled the bar slowly, repeatedly, and endlessly. He eventually began to slow and switched to a pausing, halting motion, face screwed up in pain and covered in sweat. On and on and on, and Regaari watched silently and in growing trepidation.
Eventually his strength failed but Baseball was there, helping him eke out a few more reps. “Hold it,” he commanded, also with an eerily calm tone, and he dropped a plate off either side. They then repeated the exercise until ‘Horse’s strength again failed him, then two more plates were dropped, and so forth. The end came five minutes later, with Baseball quietly encouraging him all the while, pressing down on the bar to make the exercise harder, or lifting gently to make it possible.
Finally ‘Horse was down to the bare bar. He continued until the bar was also too much weight and he could lift the bar no more. He dropped it with a thunderous crash, snapped back to the present and moaned in agony, then feebly applied a Crue-D patch to each arm. Every tiny little contraction of his biceps caused him to wince in obviously intense pain.
Under that gravity, the bar fell so fast it initially struck Regaari as physically impossible. The implications of that little revelation took a while to process.
“That’s…what I mean. Muscular microtears.” He panted in agony and painfully gestured to his swollen, bruised biceps. “Baseball and I figured out how to maximize the effect a while ago.” A pause while he caught his breath, “It hurts like a bitch and we can’t do it often.” More panting, “But nothing works better. If I didn’t have the Crue-D my arms would turn purple and be useless for at least a week.” A longer pause as he sucked in air, “Instead they’ll be good to go in a few hours. Either way, they’ll heal noticeably stronger as a result.” He smiled ruefully, “But I gotta suffer ‘till then.”
There was a silence.
“That is how you grew so strong? By destroying yourselves?”
Baseball nodded. “Ayup. Over and over and over.” He nodded to Warhorse, who was heading over to the dip station with a huge stack of weights, a belt, and a long chain. “Though if I’m honest, I can’t go quite as heavy or as hard as he does.” Baseball grinned sheepishly, “He’s definitely the King Kong stud when it comes to power, ain’tcha, Horsie?”
He looked up from the enormous stack of weights, through which he had threaded the chain. He grinned his friendly lop-sided grin and flexed his arm, and almost winced in pain. Baseball jeered and taunted him, of course, and ‘Horse taunted back, and that weirdly human habit of affection through highly graphic expletives made an appearance. Embarrassed and blushing, Horse returned to his task and fastened the chain to either end of the belt. The belt went around his hips, his arms went to the bar, his face regained its calm, and he hauled himself up with little more than a grunt and began a very long series of rapid, full-range dips.
Regaari didn’t bother to calculate the effective forces at play. He scarcely believed it anyway, even watching it in person. They watched for a full minute in silence. ‘Horse didn’t slow down.
“He ain’t done, either,” said ‘Base as he began moving weights toward the squat rack. “He’ll thrash himself until every single muscle in his upper body is totally destroyed.” He chuckled, “Then we’ll eat, wrestle again while we recover, and do it all over. After that, we if we still feel kinda spiky we may do weighted bridges and neck extensions, since in our scenarios we always seem to fall on our heads, and with as much weight as we deal with…”
There was another silence.
“What about you?”
“It’s leg day for me, kinda my big weakness compared to him. His legs are just ridiculously strong, man! Anyway, one of us idiots has gotta be able to walk back so he gets to carry my sorry ass back to the dorm when we’re done. So today he’ll lay off his lower body work, give me a chance to catch up. And in a couple o’ days it’ll be my turn.”
Regaari gave Baseball a contemplative look.
He shrugged and answered the next obvious question. “It’s different for us. We gotta be so fuckin’ strong to do our jobs, right? So we started the Crue-D when were were both still teenagers. It’s changed us. Literally nobody else except us can do what we do, even if they wanted to. They’re too old, can’t grow into it like we did.”
He paused thoughtfully, “Well, probably Righteous can. But he’s just a natural monster so he don’t really count. Anyway, That’s why. We kinda owe it to them to get as strong as we can.”
He turned and headed towards ‘Horse, who was beginning to wobble in his weighted dips. “Don’t take it too hard, buddy. We each do what we can do. You got a super nose and sharp claws and warm, waterproof fur, right?” He grinned big and cheesy and flexed his arm, “Well, we’ve got this.”
‘Base turned his attention back to ‘Horse and quietly motivated him to perform. Regaari, not sure what else to do, sat and watched them lift and wrestle for the rest of the evening. He sat, and he thought.
Witnessing their training and participating in the conversation thereafter helped to alleviate much of Regaari’s concerns, at least on an intellectual level. Understanding the human psyche was the key. With them, it seemed it wasn’t about who was the “best,” at least not entirely. The big humans instead seemed more interested in the individual and what he could achieve, and what that person could offer the group. It was certainly illuminating to hear Baseball and Warhorse rattle off every Gaoian strength they perceived (including some Regaari had not considered) and every human weakness they could think of, some perhaps exaggerated.
“Valuing the underdog” was how ‘Base put it as his best friend struggled for words. ‘Horse, for all his many gifts, was not exactly a scholarly being. “Plain-spoken” by ‘Base’s description.
Which, as ‘Horse pointed out, “Is exactly the point were making, bro!”
A wise worldview, Regaari felt. But he couldn’t help feel it was perhaps a bit too convenient to the situation. That was a mindset for underperforming groups, not what was more and more obviously the pinnacle race in the galaxy. Could this be how humans actually saw their world? As a challenge requiring cunning and teamwork, and no small amount of luck? Did they truly not understand how the galaxy lay prone before them, if they would but take it?
It was hard to say. Earth was a challenging world, Regaari knew, and some of the things he had seen while visiting were impressive indeed. Their environment was so unlike Gao, where his kind lived unequalled and supreme before they had developed language or oral tradition. Earth remained a genuine challenge for that remarkable species, even today in the face of modernity. And that wasn’t even considering their society. That was almost incomprehensible. All of which would serve to color their instincts and worldview. How fiercely must Earth impress itself upon its children, and how strong those lessons must be!
If he could only get over the feeling the humans were merely humoring him.
It was an especially illuminating conversation with both men sprawled out and near motionless on the kitchen floor, guzzling electrolyte water from their CamelPaks, still sweating profusely and suffering from their epic exertions. The conversation seemed to distract them from the agony they tried so valiantly to hide…but Regaari knew. He could actually smell the pain they were in and he marveled at their perfect stoicism. When he pointed this out, that little conversational diversion proved fascinating indeed, though why they kept their routine experience of agony from their fellows—excepting Firth, whom they had “adopted”—went beyond his understanding of the situation. Yet another minor mystery to file away.
And so they talked, and Regaari learned. Like any good intelligence analyst he extended the fruitful conversation by helping them warm their pre-prepared food and promising to clean and mop afterwards, for which they were extremely grateful. They talked, and they each ate enough food to feed the biggest of his Brothers for a week (even on the new nutritional program), then grunted as they hobbled to the showers, then tiredly thumped their way towards bed, and promptly passed out.
‘Horse didn’t even bother to close his door or prepare for sleep in any way. He simply hung his towel and collapsed on his bed with nothing covering his nakedness, almost instantly stone-still and breathing the deep, powerful breath of an unconscious Deathworlder.
Regaari pondered what he learned for quite some time before cleaning up and joining ‘Horse. By the third day all the brothers had roomed up with the men of SOR, showing ‘Horse’s fears about rank and decorum to be seemingly misplaced or perhaps obeyed out of respect. Regaari wasn’t yet sure. Nevertheless it was a greatly appreciated gesture, especially once the men had all—awkwardly—offered to share their large, comfortable beds.
The offer itself seemed to embarrass them to the Brother’s near infinite amusement. The social subtleties of that embarrassment were naturally the subject of much teasing and speculation, but all were grateful for a good mattress instead of a flat, hard mat. Regaari, for his part, suspected this may be an engineered bonding exercise. If it was the men weren’t telling. It sure didn’t stop him from crawling into the warm, soft bed and curling into a ball. Nor did it stop ‘Horse from immediately swallowing him in an almost-but-not-quite-crushing hug like he did every night, apparently autonomously. How the humans regulated their strength even dead asleep was yet another mystery.
Regaari briefly wished the tight hug wasn’t so comforting and found himself immediately regretting such sentiment. He chirred to himself in rebuke, then exhaled in relaxation, letting the tension flow out of him. He snuggled into ‘Horse’s warm, happy embrace and fell asleep almost at once.
The next day
Training grounds, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean
All of that gave Regaari an excellent framework to put his Brothers’ minds at ease. His own doubts aside, he could not afford for this mission to fail, and if that meant “going all in” with the humans and proclaiming their virtues, so be it. And it was a good thing, too. The explanation about their expected plateau did not go over well with the Gaoian Brothers. They were all—Regaari included—perhaps somewhat guilty of hoping the humans had some secret they could share which would catapult Gaoian ability forward. A silly hope, of course. Biology always wins. But the effect on morale was painfully obvious. Fortunately Regaari meditated overnight on the discussion he faced.
The irony of meditation on his problem with the humans did not elude him.
“What are we to them? We are hopelessly outmatched, Regaari. Outmatched in every single way we can be outmatched. Why are we proceeding with this farce?”
“To learn, Faarek.” Regaari did his level best to present a calm and unflappable persona.
“To learn what? That a five kilometer run almost kills us? And that they can do that run in a third the time, with twenty times the load, in gravity that could kill us? And run ten times further under that same load? Repeatedly? That they have the strength to put Stonebacks to shame?”
There was a rolling murmur of dismay at that last point.
“To learn,” repeated Regaari. “Their tactics, their abilities. We have all made many important observations about them. They think differently than us. They move different, too.”
“And this matters how?” Faarek’s tone bordered on insubordination. “We’re not their peers, Regaari. We’re their pets. They think we’re cute and adorable!”
“They behave the same with each other, Faarek. It’s how they show affection.”
“SOR do, yes. Other humans don’t act like that with each other. But every human seems to want to pet our fur, or hug us…”
And it was true. Their fur, their looks, the general cultural zeitgeist of the humans, all conspired to make a Gaoian almost instantly adored by any human they met. This was not as pleasant as one might expect.
But Regaari could see this was general frustration acting out, frustration he sympathized with. Best let it play out.
“That is true,” Regaari agreed, “And, yes, humans are generally more reserved with one another. But have you ever witnessed another group of close friends? They are much the same as SOR. The difference, I think, may be time and experience. The SOR seem to trust and understand each other very deeply. And having experienced a small fraction of their training, I can only imagine how deeply that shared set of trials must bond them, as our Clan Rites do.”
There was a general nodding in agreement.
“Very well, I will grant that. That does not explain why they are indulging us. What is it they hope to gain? Even their first-year SOR inductees are so far ahead of us I cannot envision ever comparing.” Faarek chittered in frustration, “Again, I cannot help but feel like a pet.”
“Maybe that is fair,” agreed Regaari, “Maybe there is an element of indulgence. But then, if they were doing such a thing, would they push us as hard as they have?”
Uncertainty framed Faarek’s face. He lowered his ears in mild acquiescence.
“I think they do view us as peers, Faarek. Obviously they have insurmountable advantages. But we have abilities they do not. Consider their natural weapons. They have no claws and that changes how they fight. They bludgeon with fists and feet instead of slashing with claws or biting with teeth. It suggests we may devise counters to their martial arts. And it further suggests they may find us useful in ways we’re not considering.”
Faarek did not seem convinced.
Regaari pressed on. “Consider also their senses. We already have evidence that ours may compliment theirs. Their vision is quite obviously superior, for example. It’s abundantly clear their color depth is better than ours, and they notice things moving and hiding almost like they were a living sensor platform. Squirrels! They see them before we can even smell them!”
He paused, to emphasize the contrast, “But I think they may be scent-blind. Or, at least, they don’t use scent like we do, or maybe they’re numbed against their own overwhelming aroma. And that’s something they believe, too. Just smell their ‘cologne.’ It’s so powerful it’s painful!”
The Brothers collectively shuddered at the memory of Starfall and his ‘Axe’ spray.
“They don’t act like it!” That was the strong young medic of the group. Thurrsto seldom spoke so boldly, despite his intimidating size and almost comically ugly face. He was usually quiet and friendly. “They react to each others’ pheromones almost perfectly!”
“And yet they seem not to notice very basic scent cues. I suspect you’ve all noticed this.”
There was a subtle head-ducking of agreement.
“We must remember why we are here, Brothers. To learn for the Clan and to build friendships. They seem very much to like us, and I for one am increasingly fond of all of them. They mean us well. And their abilities are peerless, even amongst the humans. Remember that, Brothers. The SOR are their absolute best and they are sharing that with our Clan, and only our Clan. That is an immense honor and advantage.”
He favored them with a sly little grin, “And do not forget, Brothers. They have not seen the best of our people. In a fight or a contest of strength, I would put a prime Stoneback up against any human outside the SOR, and I would bet on the Stoneback!”
There was a cautiously optimistic chittering.
“Against their scientists and thinkers? Let them test the minds of Clan Highmountain. Builders and engineers? Clan Ironpaw could no doubt teach them a trick or two. Do you see? We could list examples until twilight. Do not underestimate our kind.”
Pause for dramatic effect. Regaari smirked inwardly in that bitter-proud way all intelligence operatives do when using dirty skills for high purposes. Clinch it for maximum impact.
“Perhaps no Gaoian is a complete match for a human. Perhaps none of us can ever compare to SOR in any dimension.”
He shrugged, “Maybe the humans really are better than us. But we know what our real competition is, now. Only they are a true challenge in this Galaxy. One we will rise to. What will our Clan Grandfathers achieve in five or ten generations, now that we have a clear goal? Before long, perhaps we will stand alongside the humans, secure in our capability and our alliance. What then? Will we get there if we fear them? They want our friendship! They want to teach us, and to learn! They are practically begging for equals amongst the stars. And it is us, and only us, that can rise to the occasion. How could we possibly shy from such an offer?”
It was a good speech. Regaari almost believed every word of it.
The next day
The pep talk of the previous night threatened, at first, to unravel their confidence, since the very first thing Warhorse wanted to do was interval training. These were a series of exercises wherein some form of calisthenic was performed for a predetermined interval—say, pushups, leg raises, or crunches—followed immediately by a short, all-out run, and then without rest, more calisthenics. This pattern went on until everyone was exhausted, which, for the Gaoians, did not take long at all.
Worse, the humans were so much better at this form of exercise it was outright humiliating. Now it had to be be said that neither Warhorse nor Baseball saw it this way—for them, the progress was the important thing, and where one may have started along the journey was less relevant than the improvement: the ‘gains,’ as they said.
It also didn’t help that the humans were again literally running circles around them, this time with a full ruck on their backs. it was all Regaari could do to maintain his professionalism in the face of such overwhelming and casual ability. He was contemplating what he may do—
Faarek lost discipline first, right after the tenth set of flutter kicks, an exercise particularly difficult for Gaoians as that part of their core wasn’t nearly as heavily developed as in humans. Humans used their core as an anchor for all their upper body movement, while Gaoians—still functional quadrupeds—use their strong backs instead. This had several disadvantages for bipedal and upper-body function. Gaoians were built to run on all four paws and that meant their core was designed around that purpose. Their abdominal wall evolved primarily to maintain body tone and curl their core and legs back into a ball, ready for the next springing bound forward, driven by the power in their back and their surprisingly large-muscled rear legs.
And that was exactly what Faarek did. Rather than further embarrass himself with a slow, awkward bipedal gait, he dropped his harness, fell seamlessly to all fours and ran with such sudden and explosive speed that he managed to overtake all of the humans already on the trail. Titan, when he saw he was being swiftly passed, attempted to pour on speed…but it was too late. Faarek was there at the finish line waiting for him, panting heavily and smiling, stretching out his legs and raring to run again.
The humans stood stunned and silent. The physical difference on display was startling. Standing tall? A Gaoian looked to a human like an oddly thin and lanky being, with short, strange legs and a too-long and narrow torso. But on all fours? Faarek looked sleek, strong, and swift, like a long-haired greyhound or better yet, a soft-furred Irish wolfhound. The proportions and shapes weren’t entirely dog-like, but the similarities were clear and obvious.
Warhorse and Baseball weren’t quite so enamored.
“Hold up, hold up…what was that?” he asked, running a now very critical eye over the Brothers. It was the same evaluating look he had given on that first day, one so deeply predatory it gave them all pause, even the other humans. “Regaari, can you do that too?”
“Yes,” he said, expertly keeping the rush of victory out of his words, “We all can.”
And so they did.
‘Horse and ‘Base ran them through their paces quickly, still reserved about whatever they were thinking. They had each Brother run multiple sprints alone and against their fellow humans, and finally against themselves as well. And the results were interesting. Gaoians were fast on fourpaw. So fast, in fact, the elite SOR struggled to maintain pace. And it must be said the Brothers were a bit “rusty” on fourpaw; while Clan Whitecrest—like all the martial Clans—preserved their fourpaw heritage from ancient times, the Females in particular were not fond of such “primitive” actions from the “civilized” Clans. Nor did quadrupedal motion permit tool use, obviously a major drawback.
Nevertheless, speed could be useful and it has a charisma and a power all its own. Even Bozo meandered down and joined in the races. He was the fastest, but only just; Faarek couldn’t quite catch him. Perhaps with more practice, and if he were better rested…
By now Stainless had joined in, jogging from his office to see the commotion. He and the two Protectors held a quick discussion in hushed tones. A suddenly ominous discussion. Something about the general mood grew tense, a social discomfort that set in shortly after the Brothers ran out of energy. Running did take it out of anyone, after all, especially in a mode not well-practiced.
Regaari suddenly noticed the other humans had snuck away like whispers on the wind.
“Form up, Brothers. Something is wrong.” And it was a good thing he said that. The conversation broke and all three men were livid.
“CLAN WHITECREST! TEN—SHUT!!”
‘Horse barked out his order with absolutely terrifying force. It was so sudden, so loud, so compelling, Regaari hadn’t needed to say a thing to his Brothers. They immediately found themselves standing in absolutely perfect formation and at attention: shoulders square, ears pointed directly forward, as straight and tall on their legs as they could manage—unlike humans, their knees did not lock out—and standing well-planted on their feet, the heels very slightly off the ground. Like all positions of attention, it was mildly uncomfortable and required constant, well, attention to execute correctly.
A pause, while the humans evaluated them. Then all three descended on Regaari.
“HOW COULD YOU HAVE KEPT THIS FROM US!?” Warhorse yelled it a mere inch from Regaari’s face, with Baseball on the right and Stainless on the left, both towering over him just as close and intimidating as ‘Horse. All three were absolutely livid. All three yelled at once, all three demanded his undivided attention, and all three practically trembled with rage.
Regaari had never felt so intimidated.
“—DESIGNED YOUR TRAINING AROUND—”
“—WILLINGLY CRIPPLE YOUR ABILITY—”
“—DENY US TACTICAL OPTIONS—”
And repeatedly, loudly, and angrily: “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!?”
They shifted around, too, each of the three taking their turn front and center, each unloading on Regaari while his brothers stood rigidly at attention. The ordeal lasted a seeming age. Eventually Regaari could feel his discipline slipping, his terror starting to show—
Sudden calm. Warhorse stood in front, and the other two backed off a bit.
“This doesn’t help at all, Sergeant. We can’t train you properly if we don’t know something basic like this.” Forcefully, “Why did you hide this from us?”
Warhorse wasn’t typically an easy man to anger, nor was he any good at “faking” it. It took something quite special to earn his ire. He stood, visibly angry, confused, even a bit betrayed.
This was not a man Regaari could deny. With a quiver to his voice, and in the best English he could manage, “Cultural and practical reasons, sir!”
Warhorse paused and considered for a bit.
“…Tool use, right?”
Regaari was far too intimidated to be surprised. “Yes sir!”
Another pause. Much of the anger seemed to melt from Warhorse but his stern countenance remained. Regaari dared not spare a glance at Stainless or Baseball.
“…Okay. I get that. But I am really disappointed. Now we need to think how we adapt to this.” He glanced at Stainless, who nodded, and one of those seemingly telepathic exchanges occurred.
“Okay. Sergeant Regaari, do you understand the source of our anger?”
“SOUND OFF LIKE YOU’VE GOT A PAIR. DO YOU KNOW HOW Y’ALL PISSED US OFF!?”
“ANY MORE SECRETS LIKE THIS!? OTHER HIDDEN ABILITIES? NO SECRETS, BECAUSE WE SURE AS FUCK AIN’T GONNA KEEP ANY FROM YOU!”
“ARE YOU SURE!?”
Quiet, now. A long, uncomfortable moment. “Right. Me and ‘Base gotta redo our entire training plan now. In the meantime I expect y’all to train yourselves like there’s no tomorrow. I trust this will be a very good session for you lot.” The emphasis on ‘trust’ stung, like bee defending its hive. “Don’t you be holding back anything. You use your real abilities. Understand?”
“YES SIR!” He retreated with his Brothers, talked quietly for a moment, and they begin their exercises anew. These incorporated forms and movement suitable for their four-legged abilities. All three humans watched with a keen eye, then retreated, leaving the Brothers to their devices.
They didn’t finish until late evening.
11y, 6m AV
Training grounds, Cimbrean
End of “Walk” phase
Horse and crew did not remain angry for long. It wasn’t in their nature, firstly, and Regaari and his Brothers had learned early on that humans in particular had a difficult time maintaining any genuine aggression against Gaoians of any sort.
Regaari gave his brothers strict orders not to abuse this subtle advantage. They were here to train, after all, and they would not be maximizing their benefit if the humans went soft. Not that he expected that was likely, but one could never be too careful.
Nevertheless they dutifully incorporated fourpaw movement into their training routine, and once the humans and Gaoians had wrapped their heads around the new tactical possibilities, training improved greatly for all involved. Most of the “Walk” phase, therefore, incorporated the basics of tactical maneuver and emplacement, adapted for the unique abilities a Gaoian/Human team brought to bear.
It started with the Harness.
Warhorse and Rebar concocted it, inspired by some of the equipment they’d discovered while researching Bozo’s pulling harness and hiking packs. what they came up with was part load harness, part ruck, part tactical vest, and part rescue frame. It was designed with MOLLE-style webbing, allowing Regaari and the Brothers to totally customize the placement of everything for easy access. It was light, itself weighing only a few pounds, even with all the little pockets and accessories attached.
It took advantage of Gaoian anatomy as well; Gaoians had narrow, strong backs and relatively deep chests, exactly as one may expect of a running animal. This allowed them to put the most frequently accessed stuff in the ample side panels and the heavier, less commonly handled things (CamelPak, radios, rations, etc.) directly on their back. it enabled the Brothers to carry much heavier loads far more comfortably, and once ‘Horse had found a more breathable material and better padding? The overheating problems went away too.
Combined with the quick-release strap, it was Regaari’s opinion that this was possibly the finest piece of field kit he had ever owned. The possibilities for further development when he got it home made him practically giddy with excitement!
And as it turned out, the harness was critical to the success of their new tactics. What the humans learned about Gaoian kinesthetics was interesting; they were made for shock and ambush. The startlingly easy way with which a Gaoian could slide between bipedal and quadrupedal modes made them ideal raiders, as they could charge forward on all fours at incredible speed, maul with claw and teeth, and finally bound up to their hind legs and engage with weapons. They could then take appropriate cover and catch their breath while their human friends provided distraction. Then the Gaoians, having caught their wind, would simply down an energy shot and charge back into the fight, if necessary, or fight from emplacement.
The harness also had another important function. One major weakness that even their fourpaw movement couldn’t overcome was endurance. While a Gaoian on all fours could generally expect to surprise a human with his canine-like speed, he could not maintain that speed for long. Unlike dogs, and especially not like humans, a Gaoian simply didn’t have “gas” like either of those two impressive species. A simple schoolyard dash was enough to both impress the humans and wind the Brothers, and that was a genuine tactical weakness.
The Brothers could move slower for much further, of course, but even then their range was currently measurable as a dozen kilometers at most, and the humans could of course jog much quicker and further under load than a Gaoian’s awkward lope, made worse under heavy gravity. Sprinting? The gravity had little effect on their motion. Their lope, however, was thrown completely off by the too-quick rate of fall. It made their bounds smaller and more exhausting in exactly the same manner as lower gravity paradoxically exhausted the humans. Gaoian frames weren’t built for distance in this gravity, with torsos too long and limbs a bit too short. Quite the opposite of a human’s compact, powerful upper body and his long, strong legs.
And so, despite the Brothers’ slow-but-continuous improvement, the men of SOR could easily run ten times further than a Gaoian under far greater loads. So much greater, in fact, that they could effectively carry a Brother and his entire equipment load with them and not sacrifice much range. The harnesses therefore included hooks to clip onto the human’s massive backs, where the Brothers provided their keen hearing and smell, along with a second set of eyes. This was, of course, not unlike Regaari’s first adventure with the SOR. That impromptu team-up proved quite successful, so why mess with a good thing?
They trained, and learned tactics and maneuver, and hardened their bodies for the new tasks before them. Slowly, painfully, they grew in ability and gained endurance, strength, and even a little speed. Their understanding of English grew better day by day in the intensive training environment, as did the SOR’s comprehension of Gaori. Body language was soon no mystery to either species. Before long the Brothers—Human and Gaoian—had bonded so tightly together they would freely code-switch languages in conversation, sharing metaphors and cultural references and in-jokes so private to their group it was almost impossible to divine their origins.
It was almost as if the training program had been designed with this in mind; Regaari and Faarek were virtually certain it had been. It was difficult not to admire the obvious foresight and planning by the unseen army undoubtedly guiding Warhorse’s mighty hand, amplifying his natural talents as a teacher to impressive heights indeed. The Grandmasters of the Clan could even learn a trick or two from his example, which as far as Regaari was concerned was an honor no being in the flower of his youth had any right to claim. And yet, there it was. Horse was good, incredibly so, and so was every other aspect of their training. The training environment was so effective, in fact, Regaari expected his regular reports were already producing useful new insights into human psychology and ideas for the new Rites even now being re-designed.
This all by itself made the entire endeavor worthwhile. And they weren’t done yet. They finally approached the “Run” phase, where weapons and live-fire simulations would be taught. Everyone eagerly awaited this day. At last, they would begin to see the fruits of their painful labors.
But not before a serious and deeply alarming talk with Stainless.