06: Friendships & Revelations

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It began with two large pieces of equipment being wheeled into the office—a generator, and a piece of technology that Regaari didn’t recognize at all. Stainless didn’t speak until both were connected and powered up. Regaari gritted his teeth against the hypersonic whine that it made. It was probably outside of a human’s range of hearing—it was on the very upper edge of a Gaoian’s.

Stainless noticed his discomfort straight away. “Right, we’ll make this quick. Important talk time, because what’s decided in this room is going to make or break the future of our joint operations.” He gestured to a chair and Regaari perched on its edge.

Regaari perked up at that. “That seems…alarming.” He and his staff had been expecting a revelation at some point, but given SOR’s normally understated way of handling things, this was, indeed, concerning.

“It is. First and foremost, you may have noticed that your human comrades are not equipped with neural cybernetics of any description.”

“That had not escaped our notice.” Regaari’s alarm grew deeper but he maintained his outward neutrality. “Our assumption had been that it was either a security or technological matter—”

Stainless did something strange—he touched a finger to his nose and pointed at Regaari. “Top of the class as always.”

“—Well. Is it safe to assume a little of both?”

“We’ve…discussed how to break this news at length. Suffice it to say that the conclusion has been that we are going to reveal nothing…yet. But I invite you to consider summat—in all these months of working with us, in all the time you’ve known the SOR, have you ever known us to overlook or omit any detail except for extremely good reason?”

Regaari suspected the human was leading him on a bit; he let it pass. He trusted them utterly and had no evidence to suggest he should do otherwise. They were, after all, professionals in a way he deeply appreciated. Therefore there was a reason they avoided implants, a point he had forcefully made to the Whitecrest leadership. And given the esteem in which he held SOR, he naturally assumed it was an extremely serious matter.

On that point Whitecrest agreed and his Brothers, along with a cadre on Gao, were all tasked with English language immersion. All were making excellent progress, so much so they almost never spoke Gaori with the humans anymore. Progress that, Regaari felt with certainty, they would now depend upon.

Of course, this could merely be a simple medical issue or some other concern with the Corti. So he humored Stainless. It would be valuable to see where this conversation went.

“Of course not, Stainless. I have learned to trust in your judgement implicitly. This is not praise I give lightly.”

Stainless acknowledged the compliment with a nod. “Then trust it in this. I could have implants, any of us could. the Corti would happily sell ‘em to us.”

Regaari sighed. There goes that glimmer of hope.

“…we have a shuttle returning in a week. We can make necessary arrangements at that time.”

Stainless breathed out a great breath of relief. “I would be very grateful.”

Regaari head-ducked in acknowledgement. He was not looking forward to a lesser set of cybernetics. Suddenly: “To be clear, the issue is direct neural interface, yes?”

Stainless chuckled, “We’re not robbing you of an arm, mate. Direct brain interface is the concern. Other levels of integration are acceptable but we will need proof that any intra-cranial implants are not unduly intrusive. I’ll send you a file that spells it out.”

Regaari cracked a sly, toothy grin. “Excellent, I feel I would be properly useless without my hand. And besides,” he stood up and headed towards the exit, “Our English could always use practice.”

“You are greatly improved since you began!” said Powell in the best Gaori he could render. It was a bit of a childish tone, it must be said, and favored the easier, more direct core words. But that was understandable. Gaori could be tricky to pronounce.

The Gaoians’ English was getting good, too. It wasn’t perfect. Some of the sounds were quite difficult to wrap their canid-analog mouths around, and the resultant soreness in their tongues and jaws was an unpleasant surprise; yet more exercise to prepare themselves. Fortunately the humans were similarly challenged. Some sounds in Gaori involved growls, yips, and very tiny snarls in rapid succession and those sounds were almost physically impossible for a human to produce.

One did not need them—the core language was designed to be easy for a cub to render—but the more advanced sounds conveyed emotion and social status that mere words could not. It was similar to the subtle tones of human speech, and Regaari often wondered if that subtext was as impenetrable to humans as tone was to he and his Brothers.

“Excellent. That is all,” said Powell, making an attempt at a formal growl-click indicating friendly, superior status. Close enough for a beginner. Regaari head-ducked in acknowledgement and stood to attention. Powell stood as well and deactivated the whining box to Regaari’s profound relief; the sound was becoming physically painful. “You are dismissed.” Regaari turned to leave.

“Oh, and Sergeant Regaari?” This time it was in English.

“Yes?” He replied in Gaori automatically.

“Call me…Major Owen Powell.”

Regaari paused and struggled to contain his emotions. “Yes sir.” He left to pack.


Their visit to Gao was quicker and much more productive than they had anticipated. It was not entirely without drama, however. There were those in Whitecrest who did not approve of the Brothers and their increasingly deep integration with and fondness for the humans. In fact, when they initially arrived the very first thing their waiting transport detail commented on was their scent.

“You smell like human.” A rare and aggressive open insult.

And it was true; they did. Eating the SOR’s food, sleeping in their beds, exercising, wrestling, piling on, all had permanently imbued Human and Gaoian with each other’s scent. The Brothers sometimes joked the Humans smelled like Gaoians! The implication, of course, was that such “civilized” aroma could only improve the human’s lives.

But the guards were not delivering a friendly joke between Gaoian and Human Brothers. This was an insult to their adopted Human-Clan, an insult to honor, and it was not one that could be permitted to stand. Gaoians were a proud race, their males triply so. Hackles were instantly raised but a sharp growl from Regaari brought the situation to heel.

“Indeed we do. We’ve lived very closely with them and learned much. Would you care for a demonstration?” He grinned viciously and bared his teeth.

The guards responded immediately but so did the Brothers, and the guards paused, every one of them. The Brothers radiated a new, undefinable quality, a dangerous competence the guards had never experienced. It was very…Human.

Thurrsto stepped forward. The guards stepped back. He was big, almost a small Stoneback in size and in many ways just as threatening. He snarled and bared his teeth without any of the civilized veneer Regaari had managed. “Let me, Regaari.”

Regaari nodded and smirked. The lead guard gulped and stepped forward, and attacked.


“I’ll never speak ill of you or your friends again.” The hapless guard coughed up a loose tooth as he said it and sprayed a visually worrisome amount of blood in so doing. The other challenger said nothing; he was unconscious with an arm bent the wrong way.

“Good. Be glad you did not fight Regaari.” Thurrsto took mere seconds to defeat his two challengers. The speed and endurance they had gained, combined with their excellent training as Whitecrest operatives and some new ideas the SOR had given them…well. It wasn’t much of a contest.

The guard—smaller than Thurrsto but large nonetheless—stared open-eyed at the shorter, smaller Regaari. “But he—”

“Size is not everything.”

The guard took another look at Regaari. While Regaari was always an infuriatingly handsome male and had on more than one occasion outcompeted that particular guard for the attention of a female, even our hapless guard was forced to admit: Regaari looked good. All of them did. A little larger, perhaps, obviously stronger, but more importantly they were more…intense. The flow of their body was more prominent under their (strangely soft and silky) fur, their posture was…more animal. Ready for action. Even the way they looked at everything. Their eyes shifted, their ears swiveled…

These were not Gaoians to harass in any manner and everyone knew it instantly.

From that point forward things changed drastically for the Brothers. All of them suddenly found females interested in their company, even criminally ugly Thurrsto! Other males were far more wary. The Fathers…well. They schemed, as Fathers do and must. What would come of that was not Regaari’s immediate concern.

Then the implants were removed. They did retain a translator but it was auditory and visual only, and then via the sensory nerves instead of direct brain interface. It was disorientating at first, having a voice appear in one’s ear louder than what was being heard, and having a visual “overlay” seemingly inside their head. But those were the rules, and the rules were not to be violated.

They even went so far as to design the compute unit as an external device which could be easily removed by way of a simple retainer. Simply pull the device off its discreet magnetic pad in the skull and no sign at all remained, and critically no sophisticated electronics either. All of this was an idea suggested by the humans; they pointed out it would make upgrades and customization far easier. All in all, a very clever compromise to their…ominous concerns.

After that, there was essential Clan business to attend, some rest and relaxation, and then of course the return trip. All in all, productive, restful, gratifying on several levels; Thurrsto was a now a sire—Thurrsto!—and the professional rewards were many. Why, once the Fathers had seen what the Brothers could actually do, and saw that it wasn’t terribly different from what Whitecrest was already training, it was natural and easy to adopt the general philosophy into their existing programs. This in turn guaranteed prestigious and productive postings for all the Brothers under Regaari’s care, and what could make him happier?

Rumors began circulating as well. Regaari could find himself appointed to Father soon. That was a piece of news he wasn’t entirely sure he enjoyed.

Enough fantasizing. All of that was in the future. For now? He contemplated the return with happy anticipation. But more urgent and immediate needs drove him at that moment. He chittered to himself, snuggled much more firmly into the lovely, delightful female he bed, and returned to a thoroughly enjoyable sleep.

Soon, he would know the SOR by name.


“And so my idiot friend tattooed it on my abs!” Everyone laughed along as Blazcynski chuckled drunkenly, “But it really tickled, y’know? I couldn’t hold still! And he didn’t shave it, or clean the skin, or anything like that.” He gulped down more beer. “Oh! An’ I had really big abs even as a punk kid, too. So he just fuck’d it all up.” He wobbled to his feet, lifted his abused t-shirt and flexed his extremely impressive abdominals—tied for best-looking on the team in a raucous, impromptu competition judged by the ladies present—and twisted just so to make the poorly-executed design appear correctly. Once he did that it became obvious it was the logo for Project Starfall, an old human videogame.

“See, my favorite part of all this is how ‘ya doubled down on the design. I mean, your tattoo work covers your whole damn torso now.” Rebar grinned his sly grin and quite predictably provoked Blaczynski into action.

“Fuck yeah, dude! It’s a fuckin’ badass piece!” He grinned crazily and yanked off his t-shirt for all to see, and flexed his muscles outrageously to the good-natured jeers and cheers of everyone present. As Rebar—no, Vandenberg—commented, it did in fact cover his entire upper body, front and back, much like a human t-shirt would. Watching Blaczynski prance about to display his tattoo was an almost obscene study in perfect human anatomy. The way he moved was hypnotically predatory and incredibly organic; all the men of SOR were like this but the Aggressors in particular had very well-practiced control of their motion. It never failed to intimidate Regaari or his fellow Whitecrest. Nor, in fact, the other human males at the bar.

Fortunately Blaczynski was a dependably friendly (if amusingly obnoxious) individual and so it was clear he meant no harm, even when he danced right in front of Regaari with an odd smirk on his face to raucous cheers and whoops. The huge tattoo itself was done in bold and vibrant colors with the artwork nearest his navel (and the terrible logo) having integrated perfectly with the original tattoo. The effect was oddly beautiful and Regaari admired him as he strut about.

There was then some humor which escaped Regaari’s understanding. The other humans began throwing their archaic paper money at Starfall—Blaczynski—which was accompanied by lewd, laughing jeers and outrageous insults delivered in that special manner which indicated love and affection, instead of insult and derision. Even the Gaoians joined in! Blaczynski did not seem offended; to the contrary, before long he was dancing that same hypnotic dance practically on top of Vandenberg to his clear red-faced embarrassment and the much louder, animalistic cheers of everyone else.

Shortly thereafter all the men were shirtless and dancing to the incredibly loud and brutal music, and the women—many from the support unit, and some who were close friends of SOR and trusted guests of the Pub—soon joined in. The vibe and smell became decidedly more primal. Regaari chittered in amusement, for it seemed all the Gaoian Brothers would be sleeping in the common area on their old mats this weekend. A good thing; the humans got antsy if they hadn’t “got their rocks off” recently.

This cycle of building tension and happy release seemed to be common to most humans and it was not unlike the feelings a Gaoian male experienced. The difference was the focus and the intensity; the men of SOR had a laser-like focus on bedding someone agreeable. Siring a cub seemed at most a distant concern, at least at this point in their lives. Gaoian males, by contrast, had much different motivations. For them, the mating agreement and the promise of cubs was the central goal. The mating itself was a pleasantly long and desirable affair, of course—even with the inevitable small injuries—but they did not obsess or wax rhapsodic on it like the humans did, and certainly did not pursue sex with the same all-consuming drive.

Regaari suspected there was a very interesting study to be had here.

He chuckled at his thoughts and the antics, and watched from a safe distance. It was a thoroughly enjoyable return party. They were at Rooney’s, SORs favorite pub, and one which over time came to cater specifically to the nearby military base. It was a delightfully cozy establishment that very much appealed to Gaoian sensibilities. It was warm, homely, and comfortable. Though at the moment, with all of the operators and much of the closest support staff present, it was also crammed full of large Deathworlders all inebriated and stumbling slightly about. Best to keep his distance and stay safely out from underfoot, as it were.

And were it not for the exceptionally powerful air conditioning it would also be stiflingly hot in addition to mildly dangerous. Instead it was pleasantly warm. This was much improved from previous years, from what Adam had said. Before the owner upgraded his HVAC to accommodate his most profitable customers, any SOR gathering quickly made the pub unbearably hot. Of course, over time the pub had been transformed into a space catering especially to SOR interests, both operator and support personnel alike. The seating, tables, and general fixtures were all of very heavy wooden or metal construction. Food came in enormous quantities with much emphasis on clean, high quality meats and produce. There was little in the way of fried or processed edibles on the menu excepting a few mandatories like the ever-popular scotch egg. Even the clientele had shifted over time to predominantly young and single patrons. SOR effectively claimed the pub as theirs. If one looked closely, one could find feet, daggers, and castles discreetly placed everywhere, along with other unit insignia from the many and varied support staff. Such was the fate of all military pubs. The owner didn’t mind.

Regaari reflected on the names and personal stories of the men he had until the evening before known by callsign only. The big reveal was something the men had planned for some time, since emptying out the Pub required advance notice. And the pub, as always, delivered an excellent spread. There were steaks (delicious), beer (a most excellent concoction, and so many varieties!), and foods of many description, along with the joyful rough-housing and carousing one always expected with SOR, and of course the tales behind their callsigns.

Warhorse in particular seemed deeply embarrassed about the story behind his name. Why would he be shy about such an enjoyable gift, especially given that Burgess and Firth were so smugly proud of their similar luck? The Brothers had long known the “Footlongs” were exceptional, of course; aside from the humans’ typically blunt and descriptive nicknames, there were few secrets in such close proximity and amongst such brashly uninhibited men. The difference was apparently that ‘Horse’s body had a very predictable morning routine, one which would not be denied no matter how embarrassed he grew or how much anyone teased. Not even the first and most personally transformative phase of his Clan Rites blunted his body’s need. Why this one aspect of himself could so embarrass him despite his utter nonchalance about nudity in any other circumstance was, yet again, a source of near-infinite bemused humor to the Gaoian Brothers. And the rest of SOR, apparently.

Baseball felt it was in part driven by mild jealousy on the part of most of the other humans. Understandable, of course, though from what Regaari could tell none of the other men were lacking, nor were any of the females complaining…he filed the thought away for future contemplation. Humans were a very strange species. He smiled ruefully at it all as he sipped his delicious beer. It was yet another victory his enormous friend had over him, though quite why he felt so competitive with Warhorse eluded him at the moment. No matter, he was in a good mood today and none of his routine, trained ambivalence lingered about his thoughts. He was with friends he now truly knew and he was raring and ready to adventure with them again.

And so they celebrated their return until the men—even Rebar, who generally kept his affairs private—had women on their arms and began to meander back to base and barracks to do what healthy, enthusiastic humans do when slightly tipsy, full of energy, and driven by hormones and unwise motivations. Most went in pairs, a few in other, more complex arrangements, but all had partners for the night, leaving a few lesser human males and females behind to contemplate each other, and perhaps “settle” as Blaczynski so bluntly put it.

Regaari had to commend the humans on the brutal honesty of their Game. Their mating dance was in its own way as vicious as Gaoian selection could be; it was sometimes even violent, though the men of SOR were remarkably self-restrained in that regard. Quite why the clearly superior males tolerated the occasional belligerence of the inferior males vying for attention escaped Regaari on an emotional level. Though it did make sense intellectually, and the females clearly rewarded them for it…

Oh well. Aliens were by definition alien. It was doubtful the two species would ever completely understand each other. Still, it was very hard not to like them no matter how odd their worldview or infuriatingly better it frequently seemed to be. At least they were friendly about it.

The Brothers followed shortly thereafter once the weight of the food had settled inward a bit and the mood in the Pub approached “last call” desperation. Definitely time to head back. They would have the weekend to rest, recover, re-adjust to life under the heavy gravity of HMS Sharman, and attend to any last-minute preparations. All of the Brothers were eager to resume their training, even knowing the pain that awaited them come Monday morning.

They returned to a barracks filled with closed doors and the well-muffled sounds of joy, surprise, and impressive physical exertion. The humans would, if history proved a guide, wrestle with each other until well past sunrise and only then fall asleep. They would awaken around mid-day and then would likely carry on through the weekend, feeding on leftovers, delivery from the chow hall, and “snack runs” by the Gaoian Brothers coupled with profuse thanks and promises of return favors. Sunday evening would be a scramble of chores and put-off housework and humorous, improbable tall tales of their amorous achievements.

Sleep would come very late for everyone. Closed doors and nearly soundproofed walls helped much but sounds escaped anyway, and there was nothing to be done about the scents and pheromones inevitably filling the Brothers with an odd restless energy. No matter. The Brothers were still on Gaoian time and had much studying to do anyway. Let the humans have their fun.


Regaari took a break from the Field Manual in front of him. It was 4 AM by Cimbrean time and he was losing his focus, even with the dedicated “help” of Bozo’s snuggling, wheedling encouragement. Time for a snack. He padded into the kitchen to prepare a roast beef and provolone sandwich for himself—he was up to a half-sandwich these days—and maybe have another of those delicious beers. He pulled all the required supplies out and set to work.

Bozo took up command in his corner, from where he could survey all traffic in the common areas. He was constantly vigilant, that dog, whether for treats or trespassers.

The FM was frustrating. It was a guide to tactics and maneuver, one the humans referenced extensively but were not enslaved to like some of the more rigid Clans of Gao could be. Doctrine was wisdom, not law, and on that point Whitecrest and SOR heartily agreed. The FM contained much that was worthwhile and broadly aligned with Whitecrest theory on the matter, though it was obviously more advanced in many ways and a little behind in others. This document alone would prove to be a fruitful exchange between the staff officers of their respective peoples, yet another strong, mutual benefit to the partnership.

If only it was not so impenetrably officious and overly technical. On that point Whitecrest could teach them much; he had never met a human who appreciated this style of writing and though his sample size was small, this must surely be a widely-held view. So why did they persist in this painful style of writing?

Aliens.

A door opened and he could hear Blaczynski’s distinctively light footfalls and shortly thereafter smell his overpowering aroma. He was heading to the latrine. Anticipating his hunger, Regaari fetched the dijon mustard, extra sharp cheddar cheese, and the rye bread. He drooled a bit from the smells. Gaoians in general loved flavors either pungent, sweet, or both. Sadly, all three of these items together gave him indigestion, and the mustard in particular was a bit overpowering for his nose. No matter. He made Starfall a pair of sandwiches just the way he liked them. Four times as much meat and cheese as Regaari preferred—the cheddar, not Regaari’s beloved provolone—no vegetables of any kind, absolutely no mayonnaise, and far too much dijon for Regaari’s comfort.

Of course, Regaari’s personal masterpiece of a sandwich was doused in cod liver oil and layered in anchovies, much to the disgust of the humans. To each his own.

He also heard and smelled Firth emerge from the same room as well, his heavy, loudly thumping steps as distinct as Blaczynski’s. He was one of the three men on the team truly pushing the definition of superhuman size and his mass would send small tremors through the floor when he walked. The ladies did not emerge—Regaari decided they were probably resting. Most likely the men will just want quick food, then. Easy enough. Firth preferred ham and turkey; Regaari fetched those ingredients and also fetched the eggs and butter. Firth liked to fry things for his late-night snacks.

Regaari finished Starfall’s food right as he emerged from the latrine. He sauntered into the kitchen buck naked and proud, absolutely drenched in musky sweat and very much disheveled, with an extremely pleased expression on his face and by all signs already contemplating his next amorous encounter. He was therefore not paying any attention and nearly jumped backwards in panic when he finally noticed Regaari, but then he saw the offered food and was suddenly as pleased as a puppy.

“Oh, DUDE, that’s exactly what I need right now, thanks!” He sat on the cold metal bench with a wince, got over it, and began shoving one of the huge sandwiches into his mouth.

“Coulth youf git me sum milkth pleatf?” Regaari rolled his eyes but did so. Much like with Bozo, there was just something very rewarding in the blissed-out pleasure on his big friend’s face, and of his intense joy at simple indulgences and little gestures. He seemed to absolutely crave any positivity directed his way and drank it up so greedily and so happily it was its own reward just to smile at him. Regaari took another bite of his own food, sipped his beer, prepared Firth’s sandwiches, and enjoyed the happy vibes Blaczynski practically radiated into the room.

Right on cue Firth arrived in much the same happily disheveled and sweaty condition as Blaczynski but…more. More primally intimidating with his taller and much broader stature, muskier scent, and his far greater size and strength. His self-pleased smirk was somehow cockier than Blaczynski’s, a feat that a mere moment prior seemed impossible to top. Everything about him seemed larger than life. His raw physicality was so completely overwhelming and his ability so great that only the veteran Protectors could best him and even then it was clear the three occupied the same strata of ability.

His presence was compelling and all but Adam responded subtly yet definitively to it. The Gaoians, for obvious reasons, were borderline terrified of Firth for the first week. He was slow to warm up to anyone and it was only his almost undetectable deference to Adam and the humans’ seemingly compulsory predisposition towards affection that broke through the anxiety and let friendships flourish.

Nowadays Firth was probably the most fond of the Gaoians besides Adam and Bozo.

And he was immensely pleased with the food. “Oh, hey! Thanks, man.” He gave a genuine, huge smile, pat Regaari roughly and affectionately on the shoulder, squeezed it firmly and complimented him on his growing strength, and sat down practically on top of Blaczynski to eat despite ample room on the bench. The huge man pressed up firmly against his (comparatively) smaller friend and both sighed happily.

That was hardly surprising. Firth and Blaczynski were the second bromance on the team and went through Combat Control School together as young, dumb kids, much as Adam and John had through the PJ pipeline. The two programs were considered sister schools in the Air Force special operations community due to their similarly long and hellish training schedule, the programs’ highly selective nature, and the alarmingly low graduation rate. Like the Protectors, the two Aggressors shared everything, knew everything about each other, and could seldom be found apart.

And they always ate together. Always. They sat down with their food and practically inhaled the heavy snack, shoveling it into their faces with an almost grim, practiced skill. But even two enormous cheese- and meat-laden sandwiches each wasn’t enough, not for men of SOR. Firth got up to fry his eggs, Blaczynski burped very loudly and scratched his lower stomach, and Regaari quietly watched.

“Bro, you want eggs too?”

That huge puppy pant-grin. “Yeah dude, over easy?”

“Mhmm. With butter and avocado!” Regaari fetched a pair without even asking, which earned him a firm snuggle and a quick ruffle of his crest. He quickly washed his paws; the oils in the skin and pit could be considered mildly toxic if ingested and one should not take chances with Deathworld life.

Blaczynski, as always, enthused genuinely about the prospect of food. “Duuude, you’re the fuckin’ best!” Firth gave a pleased little grin and fired up the griddle, slathered it in butter and prepped the avocado. Regaari sneaked a slice for himself and Bozo; Regaari loved the rich, buttery fruit and so did their giant mutt, though both could only indulge sparingly. Bozo wagged happily and sat unobtrusively in his corner.

“Y’think our girls want food, bro?”

“Nah, we wore ‘em out! Let ‘em rest before we go back, heh.”

“Heh.”

They chuckled to themselves for a moment, happily quiet. Then Blaczynski eyed Regaari with a lecherous and mildly worrisome leer. “Yo, Dexter, you get laid back on Gao?” Blaczynski was, as always, blunt and to the point. Firth gave him a warning glare but it was ignored as usual.

“I did indeed. Our cub will be beautiful, I imagine.”

“Wait, what? You’re a father!? When did that—”

“Blac, that ain’t news. He’s got lots of cubs, bro.”

“Wait, how did I miss this?”

“Prolly not paying attention, as usual.”

Silence. “…Yeah, you’re prol’ly right. I’m sorry, Dex.” He pouted sadly for a brief flicker of time. Suddenly: “How many?”

“Two dozen by my last count, and some of the males have now survived their Clan Rites.” Regaari sipped his beer and could not hide the deeply pleased expression on his face.

The look on Starfall’s face, however was difficult to read. He sat, contemplating.

“Do you keep in touch with them?”

“Blaczynski…” the warning tone was strong but Starfall was, as ever, oblivious.

Regaari understood. “I do check in on them occasionally but we do not form nuclear families, Starfall. We are raised communally, remember? And there is, sadly, a strong possibility many of the males will not survive until adulthood. The Rites of the Clans can be challenging and, well. Young males can be hot-headed.” He said it matter-of-factly in precisely the wrong manner.

Blaczynski suddenly looked despondent. “I suppose I can sympathize with that.”

Silence again. Something compelled Regaari to approach and hug his arms around Starfall’s head, who immediately swallowed him in an absolutely crushing hug. Regaari had his very breath squeezed from him before he even knew what was happening. He cast a panicked look to Firth who was fortunately watching. He firmly cuffed Blaczynski on the back of the head. “Easy bro! Dexter can’t breathe!”

“Oh! Right. Sarry.” He let go. His expression was…sad, definitely. And something else Regaari could not quite read. “Are you okay?”

This, too, felt like a phrase loaded with meaning. Meaning which just barely eluded Regaari. Again he relied on instinct. “I am fine. I think you fixed a back complaint I’ve had since returning, in fact.” He stretched to prove the point. “Thank you!”

A laugh, then, with a barely detectable shudder. Prompted by Firth standing behind and unseen by Blaczynski, Regaari asked, “Are you okay?”

“…no, not really. But I’ve got good friends. The best, man.” He looked Regaari dead in the eyes, universal predator language for Very Serious Topics. “Like you.”

This was not the kind of talk he would normally expect of Starfall. He was usually a very happy, bouncy, crass but well-meaning individual who had difficulties with interpersonal boundaries, all to everyone’s amusement and mild annoyance. Serious introspection was not something Regaari could ever recall seeing from the man. He wondered what exactly prompted this.

“And I you, Starfall,” and he said it with complete sincerity. Blaczynski understood and nodded thankfully, the happy smile returning to his face. Firth sat the massive pile of eggs down and the humans ate in silence, pressed up closely against each other in friendship and support.

Regaari again watched in silence. They were studies in extremes and very different in so many ways. Firth, for example, was without question the most impressive all-around physical specimen of the SOR, and across all of humanity. He was the tallest and broadest man on the team, taller than any of his massive fellows by at least four inches. He had shoulders wider than a doorframe before any Crue had ever touched his body and he’d only grown since. He was the biggest and easily the strongest of either the Aggressors or the Defenders. In a foot race he could handily beat any bipedal being, even the Protectors, and only they could best him in strength or sheer mass, a gap he was steadily closing. In matters of endurance he was tied with Sikes, for sheer physical toughness he was top tier along with Arés, and in serious close-quarters combat he was not properly challenged by anybody.

Unlike the Protectors he did not have the advantage of starting the Crue-D training regimen shortly after his seventeenth birthday. The drug was a kind of fountain of youth, in a sense; it could, over time, reverse the damage of years and restore a body to functionally perfect youth. So while John and Adam were, in effect, perpetually nineteen and held in the absolute flower of their youth, Firth’s body currently sat somewhere in his mid- to late-twenties. It took time to reverse aging-induced damage and Firth had not been gentle on himself.

In the end he too would have his second shot at a young adult’s health and vigor, but only for a few years before the resistance factor kicked in. Quite what he would have been capable of with a full fifteen years of extended youth was the subject of much barracks speculation and that loving, minor jealousy only the best of friends can have. No matter. The Crude gave him increasingly effective healing and recovery as the years slowly fell off, and he intended to maximize the opportunity, just like the Protectors. He was an absolute freak of nature, knew it, embraced it, and reveled in his unmatched natural prowess.

Blaczynski was very different, particularly in personality. Where Firth was more of a raging barbarian, Blaczynski was an armored and skillful fighter; Firth fought mostly on instinct and deep training, while Blaczynski fought with his head. He was, in fact, one of the most intelligent men on a team of exceptional minds, though one might be forgiven for not noticing; Blaczynski was emphatically not an intellectual. His was a practical mind, intimately tied up in the real world. Like all such beings, Blaczynski was an extremely physical man.

He was massively and powerfully muscled like all the men of SOR. He was bigger than Sikes—near Titan’s mass, in fact—and had strength to rival Rebar’s. But even a six-foot-four brick shithouse like Blaczynski was tiny compared to Firth. Nor was the smaller man remotely as strong, muscular, or heavy, though of course the least of SOR could snap even an impressive fellow human over a knee with disturbing ease.

Instead he was much more nimble than the giant Firth, which was saying something—Firth was, despite his incredible size, remarkably light-footed and deft when he wanted to be, though like anyone approaching his stature he found that kind of agile movement to be very energy intensive. Firth preferred the direct assault. Blaczynski preferred motion, and was enduringly nimble and quick in a way only Murray could best…and he was faster than Murray, too. And bouncy. He was the most kinetic of the Aggressors and loved any such challenge; parkour, time trials in obstacle courses, and so on.

But most importantly? He was tough in every sense of the word. Like Firth and the Protectors he had an iron-hard body and an incredibly high pain tolerance. And though he wasn’t as solid as Arés or Firth, he had tenacity and game like none other. He regularly shrugged off abuse that would leave a normal man broken and writhing in pain. He used this to his advantage, too. Firth, despite his unquestionably harder and stronger body, was also a giant and therefore easier to hit, and consequently more open to attack. This was an advantage Blaczynski regularly exploited. Firth of course retaliated as only he was capable but Blaczynski could and would absorb an incredible amount of abuse.

And then dish it right back, beyond his opponent’s ability to withstand. In the end Firth’s prime disadvantage was that he needed to take a lot of punishment in most any fight and even he had his limits. Nobody had yet found Blaczynski’s. He never surrendered. Beaten into unconsciousness? Certainly. Firth’s enormous fists did so regularly, and Arés could crush the man breathless with almost trivial ease. But not once had Blaczynski ever tapped in a fight. Firth and Arés, both much harder and stronger men…they couldn’t claim the same. Blaczynski was, perhaps, a little bit crazy, but anyone who knew him deeply respected his tenacity and heart.

The two were different in combat arms as well. Firth, while from the same military tradition as Blaczynski, very much preferred his fights up close and personal. He had an absolute savagery to his personality that everyone found intimidating—he quite honestly and openly enjoyed combat and all that goes with it—though most of the time he was a big, happy puppy-boy like the rest of them. That did make him a frightening sparring partner in combatives, of course, and though all would brave him, few left practice without massive pain and injury. He used his combination of tremendous size, strength, speed, and deep training with a good dose of Aggressor acrobatic magic and maneuver to relentlessly crush his enemies. He was an intense personality and he thoroughly enjoyed breaking his opponents, be they friend, foe, or otherwise.

Though he had to admit, in simple hand-to-hand combat the Protectors were hard to beat and in a straight wrestling contest he was no match for them at all. In a sport where, all else being equal, size and power mattered the most, he was quite simply out-muscled and out-massed.

For now.

Blaczynski’s combat style, on the other hand, was cold, calculating, and utterly remorseless. He wasn’t cruel but he certainly was not interested in his enemy’s well being, or in fact with most of the trappings of the warrior mindset. He had a job to do, first and foremost. He preferred to destroy his enemies from a distance if he could and had almost supernatural skill with the rifle, the throwing knife, the grenade. And in a pinch he was an excellent close-quarters combatant as well, even if he was not quite at Murray’s or Firth’s level.

Most importantly for a combat controller, Blaczynski was a wizard on the radio. That man had a grasp of the moving battlefield matched by nobody on the team, and Powell had once given him a rare smile and compliment when he utterly flummoxed the simulation team in a supposedly impossible scenario. He rode that praise-high for days. As for the simulation team, they still have no idea how Blaczynski had detected the hidden enemy with the information he had on hand. New recruits on the simulation team were told the tale like a ghost story.

And finally, Blaczynski and Firth were very different souls and personalities. Firth was a consummate warrior with massive rages and giddy happiness, a being of huge, wild emotions and absolutely iron self control. More than anything else, he feared his own very dark impulses and refused to succumb to their sinister allure. As a result he was generally quiet, reserved, and unassuming around strangers, even if he was unusually intense and deeply proud of his abilities. In his better moods—which, to be fair, were far and away his most common daily experience, despite his self-doubt—he moved through life with an understated, stoic smirk, as if his own vast abilities and people’s fear and admiration of them were part of the humor of life. Firth was the rare example of a massive ego not generally inclined to be a massive jerk. He’d far rather make friends. And probably fuck them silly. As long as he was in charge.

Blaczynski was a much simpler man. While he was not a shallow being, truth be told he was far more interested in experiencing life as simply, happily, and intensely as he could. He wasn’t one to brood or contemplate darkly violent fantasies as he knew Firth sometimes did. He was a soldier, not a warrior born, and he knew it. And hey, if his simple, happy life gave Firth an anchor and some slightly envious joy by proxy, well, what were friends for? Nor was Blaczynski one to engage in subtlety. He wore his thoughts and feelings quite openly and didn’t take many pains to filter his speech. With him, one always knew where they stood.

This became obvious when the two resumed joking as they finished their meal. The topic went back to their girls, Blaczynski grew quite obviously aroused, he received another (apparently loving) cuff to the back of his head, and Firth sent him to relieve his increasingly urgent needs, promising to join him shortly.

That left Firth and Regaari alone. Something was clearly bothering the giant man but it took him a moment to put his thoughts together. Regaari found no need to rush him. Not that it seemed wise to irk such a terrifyingly competent killer in the first place.

“Regaari, are you okay? Blac, he means well but he’s, uh, not really quite right in the head.”

“Is he defective?” That seemed very wrong.

“Oh! No no, he’s perfectly healthy and sane. He’s just…okay. Earlier? The thing with the cubs? Well, he’s had a rough childhood, man. He’s never met his father.”

“Ah.” Regaari pondered. “That I think would explain much. Why has he never mentioned this?”

“It hurts, man. It hurts a lot. He came from absolutely terrible circumstance and I am fuckin’ proud of him for escaping and getting here. Honestly? Odds are he woulda died on the streets from gang violence or a drug overdose. But y’know what? He told fate to go fuck itself, man.”

Firth paused again. “He spent time in foster care, too. It wasn’t happy. Did you ever wonder why he volunteers so much time in the after-school programs?”

“I…had not considered it, honestly. I thought it part of the volunteer work we all do in this unit.”

“…Yeah. That work means a lot to him. Want him to love you forever? Help him out this week.”

“…that seems beneficial for everyone.” Regaari tilted his head, “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because Blac decided he could trust you just now. That’s…You just made a lifelong friend, bro. One who would do anything for you. Do you understand how serious this is?”

Regaari suspected he could. “We have a similar thing amongst my people. When we form deep bonds with Gaoians from different Clans, we call them Cousins. I only have a few I call Cousin and I owe all of them great debts.” A worried head-duck, “Does he feel indebted to me?”

“No,” Firth chuckled, “This don’t go quite that far. But Blac, he takes friendship very, very seriously. This is no casual thing with him and I want you to understand that. I am only telling you all this because he trusts me and I trust you. It’s not a secret, just…a sore topic. You respect that, you hear? We’re all very careful about that subject around him.”

Regaari head-ducked in understanding. But he had to ask: “What did I do to earn such a profound thing?”

“Hah, that’s easy! All you had to do was show some understanding and love. He values that more than anything and he knows bullshit when he smells it. You’re the real deal, pal, and he knows it.”

They sat a bit longer. Regaari finished his beer.

Firth got up to leave. “One last thing. You let me know if there are any problems, okay? There won’t be, but…I look out for him, right? If you’re his friend, you’re my friend, too.” He grinned, “We’re a package deal, I guess. Heh.”

“I will.” Regaari said it with as much conviction as he could muster.

Firth nodded in approval. “Good night, Regaari.” He paused, awkwardly, then scooped up Regaari in a big hug like only humans could give. Regaari found himself lifted completely off the ground but this was a friendly and gentle hug, not desperately happy as with Blaczynski.

Firth put him back down and nodded. But his thoughts immediately drifted to his companions for the evening and his dominant smirk returned, along with the unmistakable signs and scents of a human male growing powerfully aroused. Like all things Firth it was quite overwhelming and mildly frightening, even compared to most of the other men of SOR.

Firth apologized by way of an incredibly smug half-grin. “Heh, I think I better go take care of this and teach that boy how ta’ fuck like a man. G’night, bud.” He clapped Regaari affectionately (and slightly painfully) on the shoulder once more, then turned and headed back to his room, leaving Regaari to contemplate exactly how humans, if Firth was any example, could safely couple. Trust and empathy, perhaps.

The scent remained. Regaari felt an urgent need to open the windows to eliminate the distraction. He did so, letting the evening sounds fill the barracks; they did little to dull the muffled noises still going strong across most of the rooms. And then Firth’s joined the fray, noticeably louder than the rest.

At some point during Regaari’s brief reverie, Murray padded in with nearly absolute silence. He wasn’t even trying; that was simply how he moved. Regaari only noticed he was there by his scent. “Heavy stuff.”

“Indeed.” He noted Murray had the decency to at least slip on a pair of shorts and not parade around the barracks shamelessly rampant, ready, and stinking of animal arousal.

Which, now that Regaari thought about it, was him adopting a human sense of modesty. Or am I only applying their own standards to them?

Murray was direct and considerate, as always. “Need anything?”

“No. Just time to think.”

Murray nodded in understanding and handed Regaari some keys. “Horse’s apartment. He told me to give them to you.”

“…tell him thank you.”

“Tell him yourself, laddie, he’ll be out eventually I’d wager.”

“…understood.”

Murray fixed himself a quick snack and padded out again silent as a mythical ninja, one of his many unique skills that set him apart from everyone else. He was so quiet Regaari didn’t hear him walk down the hall, open his door, or even enter his room. It was only when he heard Murray’s partner stir that he could place him at all. That was the thing that was uniquely Murray; his careful, perfect movement. And he could move like that at full tilt, a silent, deadly lightning bolt in his EV-MASS, making him the only human member of the team stealthy enough to avoid detection by the Gaoians.

Regaari was about to clean up and leave when the floor trembled much more strongly than Firth’s footfalls, and the incredibly heavy, thudding, leg-swinging gait of Arés made itself known. The other men were of course varying degrees of extremely large specimens but only he could cause the entire building to shudder slightly just by walking. He was the hardest, densest, toughest, most massive and easily the strongest member of the team, and nobody but Burgess or Firth could approach his size, power, or appetite.

And he was fast, almost as fast in a short sprint as Firth…at just over a short-legged five-foot-ten. Burgess stood six-foot-four and Firth stood (even slightly hunched and crouching) five inches beyond that. Adam made up the difference with sheer, insane power. Like Firth he was a genuine freak of nature, but while Firth was an awe-inspiring, all-around athletic powerhouse of a warrior, Arés was a man possessed of extreme, naturally enduring strength developed to its absolute limits through pain, Crue-D, lucky timing, and ideal genetics. And like Firth, his aggression was deep and powerful.

Aggression he spent fruitfully and vigorously in healthy pursuits, such as Kovač, his current mate. He had many personal charms, of course, especially his fundamentally friendly and caring nature. But tonight was a celebration of the body. He too entered the kitchen as uncouth, unclean and uncaring as Firth and Blaczynski had earlier, fresh from his liaison and blissfully happy, yet somehow still bore the stink and appearance of deep, unsatisfied arousal. Clearly, he had much more planned for the evening. On Adam his love-stink was so powerful it overwhelmed Firth’s scent and not even the gentle breeze from the windows helped clear it out.

Regaari couldn’t help but take an unconscious step backwards and flatten his ears. Warhorse was so physically overwhelming in every measure there was no question he was the alpha-dog of SOR. But he needed food. An elite, hulking body like his needed fuel and judging by his disheveled state and the earlier noises from his room, he had burned quite a lot of energy that evening.

He thumped his way over to the refrigerator, grabbed a gallon jug of his meal replacement and chugged a third of it in only a few quick swallows. He looked over at Regaari and grinned, happy and smug. “Sup, bro? Busy night?”

It would seem so.


“That’s the last of them sir. No invasive cranial implants. They’re safe.”

“Cheers, Burgess.”

Baseball nodded and stepped to the corner of the room. Powell stood, grabbing a small clicky control from the table, and turned on the projector. It took a moment to warm up.

“What you’re now about to be briefed on is highly classified information,” he declared. “It is TOP SECRET codeword DEEP RELIC. You will not share this information with any unauthorized person for any reason. Am I understood?”

“Yes sir,” from everyone. It was a small room with filled with big men and furry Gaoians. Too small, in fact—an ongoing consequence of HMS Sharman’s small footprint—and the nature of the presentation made it an all-hands briefing. Twenty-two Brothers, Human and Gaoian, piled into, onto, and aside what seating could fit into the tiny room. The Brothers had long paired off by now and formed deep friendships. Regaari as always found himself seated with Warhorse. Faarek and Baseball stood to the side, all the seating gone, but even they had arms around each other’s shoulders. The general vibe in the room was comfortable and eager to learn.

“Lovely.” Powell admitted a satisfied smile and activated the projector. A holographic image appeared.

“This, lads, is—or rather, was—the city of San Diego. You’ll no doubt be familiar with it through Sergeant Arés. What’s known is that on a bright and sunny afternoon some seven years ago, some wanker jumped five kilograms of antinitrogen straight into a downtown basement.”

Warhorse—Adam—hugged tightly and held it, and snuggled his big head next to Regaari’s. By now the meaning of this gesture was long understood. Regaari could not deny his friend and nuzzled back in comfort and support. The anger and sadness ‘Horse must have felt…

The next slide was nowhere near as idyllic, except in the sense that it was overgrown and natural. Of the sunlit city that had sprawled from seaside to hillside, there was no sign, and the shoreline had a noticeable divot in it. Adam paused in his breathing only slightly but it was enough for Regaari to notice. Regaari responded with a deeper snuggle and a hug of Adam’s mighty arms, which earned him a firm, thankful nuzzle and a massive pair of legs brought up and wrapped tightly around his waist. He didn’t mind. Especially not now, not for San Diego.

“Two million civilians dead in the immediate blast. Global financial instability, and—this being Earth—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis all around the Pacific ocean. Easily the deadliest single act of aggression by a hostile force in the history of our civilization. The final death toll we think approaches ten million.”

Powell set his jaw. “This was not human activity, but alien. We ourselves still lack the resources to generate even a milligram of antimatter. In fact, I’d be surprised if all the clans of Gao combined could scrape together five kilograms of the stuff. The organization responsible is well known to the galactic community as a kind of…myth. A silly story that nobody takes very seriously and if you’ve heard of them before, you’ve likely been similarly dismissive of ‘em, but their name is The Hierarchy.”

Several of the Brothers—and Regaari was right at the top of that list—had indeed heard of the Hierarchy. Everything that Whitecrest had ever assembled on them seemed to conclusively prove that they were a paranoid fantasy and nothing more. Which…would make the entire affair a masterful deception. Regaari’s ears perked up and swiveled forward.

“Incidentally, if you’re wondering why every document you have on them treats them like a myth, it’s because of their nature.”

That line worried Regaari for a moment. But it was, of course, the obvious conclusion for the humans to reach if they had evidence Whitecrest was not privy to. And this made the briefing suddenly much more interesting. He edged forward as much as he could while wrapped up in Adam’s full-body hug.

Powell advanced the presentation again, and a reptilian being not dissimilar to humans in its rough shape stared at them from a static image. It was quite plainly a Deathworlder itself—nothing else would have had teeth and claws like that, though next to any human it looked skinny. “This is a V’Straki. A bit of ancient Earth history for ‘ya—Earth, being a Deathworld, has periodic mass extinction events every few hundred million years. There’ve been something like four or five of them all told and one of the most well-known wiped out a category of life-form we call ‘dinosaurs,’ of which the V’Straki were a member.”

“Wait. Your world has given rise to two separate sapient species?”

“Aye. The V’Straki were around some sixty-five million years before we humans were about. Moving on,” he gestured to his display, “What we hadn’t appreciated was that this event was not natural, but was in fact the culmination of an interstellar war between these V’Straki, and another species known as the Igraens. By dint of being genocidal bastards, the Igraens won.”

He paused and considered his next words.

“We’re still piecing together their history, but after the war the Igraens seem to have undergone a series of paradigm shifts.” He continued, “They messed around with their biology, figured out how to transplant themselves into completely different bodies, including a bioform they engineered specifically for warfare…”

A few of the Brothers broke discipline by making alarmed snarls at the full-sized Hunter hologram that was suddenly filling the room, making even Powell look small. He ran that trademark glare up and down it, and Regaari entertained the irrational hope that, even though it was a hologram and totally oblivious to its surroundings, the thing might flinch under the Powell’s intimidating stare.

That piece of the story made several things ‘click’ for Regaari and he shuddered slightly in recognition. Adam felt it and rubbed the hug a bit, his massive paw planted firmly on Regaari’s chest and gently scritching. The briefing continued.

“The most recent—and, near as we can tell, last—of their transformations was into a purely digital format. For an assortment of reasons, rather than retreating into a…say, an asteroid belt full of supercomputers or summat like that, they’ve instead decided that the best place to build their…for lack of a better word, their ’civilization’…is in the neural enhancement implants of every sapient being in the galaxy. From where they can, if they so wish, take over the body and do as they wish. What that can do to the mind of the host is best not said.”

The implications of that were so profound it took Regaari a moment to process. But when he did, it took considerable effort not to assault Powell with questions.

Powell paused, then stepped forward and rested his fists on the table. “I wish to emphasize the completeness of this infiltration.” he said. “I mean everything. Every translator, every cybernetic memory bank, every audiovisual enhancement, every last kind of cybernetic device which interacts directly with the brain is compromised, and can allow their user to be taken over and used as a Hierarchy agent at any time. And, armed with that power, they have devoted their time to keeping the galaxy ignorant of their existence. In their estimation, achieving this objective has necessitated the genocide and total extinction of every sapient Deathworld species. And that includes the human race. Only difference is, with us they’ve not succeeded…yet.”

He paused again. There was a stunned silence.

Regaari was, of course, a skeptic by training. He could not leave the root of these incredible claims unchallenged, if for no other reason than to get his hands on the evidence. “Major, you know of course that I trust you utterly. But this…do you have proof?”

“Aye,” he nodded sadly. “We do. A complete breakdown of everything we have will be made available to you after this briefing is complete—and I say ‘available’ on the understanding that you are expected to read it thoroughly and not relay it to anyone else—but on a personal note, about the hardest thing I ever had to deal with was the aftermath of a Hierarchy operation right here in Folctha.”

‘Horse—no, Adam—hugged tighter and his breath hitched. He also snuggled just the tiniest bit closer. It was profoundly emotive and he had not made even a sound. Powell seemed to be similarly affected. He hesitated for the briefest interval, examining his notes, then swallowed, blinked and his composure was back in place as if it had never flickered.

“Most of what we know was uncovered by interrogation. A Hierarchy operative on Earth was successfully rendered unconscious and transferred in stasis to a holding facility which used a barrage of experimental technology to try and prevent him from leaving. They’re not quite sure which of the dozens of things they did was the one that worked, but work it did. ‘Number Six’ was interrogated over the course of three months and, eventually, he told us everything.”

He clicked through about fifteen minutes of very telling and deeply disturbing interrogation video. “Killing with kindness” was the phrase that popped in Regaari’s head, but it was not sufficient to describe what was obviously a methodical, relentless, utterly calculated interrogation. One where not a single scratch was inflicted or an angry word uttered. He made a mental note to research the subject at a later date.

“What happens after this remains classified beyond our need to know. Not even I have knowledge of what occurred after Six was broken. But the end result was a treasure trove of information and, we believe, the securing of Sol and of this system. It has also accelerated certain other initiatives we will need to speak about at length, Regaari.”

All eyes turned to him. “Yes, well. Assuming all of this holds up—and I have no doubt it will—you do realize the position you have placed us in? This is a grave threat to Gao, given how we’re aligning with you, and if some of our more, ah, uncommon abilities were to become public knowledge…” He shifted uncomfortably in Adam’s grip, which was loosened.

“…Abilities, Regaari?” Given the fourpaw incident from earlier in their training this was a potentially sore subject.

“I speak of abilities from other Clans and some things we have not shown you yet. We intend to,” he added hastily, “It’s just been a matter of timing and, well, comfort. Regardless the subject is a matter of strict security and we are, uh, contemplating how we share this information.

“Suffice to say, our world is a class nine, and in deep time, given how things are progressing, it is likely to shift to Deathworld status. Those things together…”

“You are worried about a long-term threat.”

“Correct. Which is apt to become a short-term threat, because we will not abandon you to this fate. That I can virtually assure you, once we discuss how Grandfather Hyarrin and Mother-Supreme Yulna are to be briefed on these matters.”

Powell nodded in understanding. “You and I will discuss this offline, as the American officers are fond of saying. For now? This briefing is concluded. Save your questions for after study time. Old crew—” by which he meant the original SOR, “—Please be available to answer questions and assist the Cherries.” That was an old, rough-affectionate military term denoting a new or first-time recruit to a given discipline, one which was generally martial. It was also sometimes applied to large intelligence revelations and their occasionally career- or life-changing nature.

Today the meaning would likely apply in both senses.

“Major Powell? I think, afterwards, you and I should have a full briefing on our Clans and why I am so concerned. I think you will understand my reluctance when I explain.”

“Fair enough, dismissed. Get to studying, lads.”

Everyone stood up and stretched awkwardly in the cramped space, and shuffled out of the room. They headed back to their barracks with a secure infotablet, paired up with their buddies, and set to it.

Nobody slept well that night.

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