10: Essayons

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That evening
“The Playground,” Operator’s Barracks, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean

Champion Daar of Stoneback

The truck was large. A full-sized pickup from the original expedition, it still had its British Colombia license plates, a broken windshield, and sadly, would no longer run. Gasoline was horrifyingly expensive to import owing to a host of reasons and the engine had long seized anyway. As it was the truck was of little use beyond sentiment.

Which made it perfect for SOR’s now rapidly growing pile of strongman “toys.” The Protectors had found religion at a training seminar about practical work being just as important as raw strength training and become hooked on it, and now their gravel backlot was filled with tractor tires, alarmingly massive atlas stones, farmer’s yokes, and the like. Daar approved, though he did find the equipment selection could use additions, particularly a harness and sled. Hard work is about much more than picking up rocks and putting them down, after all. Where were the ropes, pulleys, and heavy loads? How else would one toughen paws and strengthen grip? He’d comment on that later.

For now, Daar stood and studied the truck for a moment, walked around, gave it an experimental nudge at a couple of points. He was sussing out it’s relative mass, looking for the ideal lift point. It must be said he wasn’t quite as brave as he was earlier. The heavy Earth-level artificial gravity added considerable weight to the already-massive crew-cab pickup.

Of course, the men couldn’t help but tease. “Getting cold feet?”

Daar furrowed his brow. “No, my footpaws are perfectly warm. Ah,” he found the truck’s center of gravity, right at door seam between the front fender and the driver’s side door. He crouched down, gave an experimental lift, and chirred happily.

“Yes, this will work. Still care to make that bet?”

‘Horse, of course, did not fail to notice how much the truck moved when Daar gave his experimental lift. Nor did ‘Horse miss the moving shapes in Daar’s wide, long back, visible even through his dense fur. But ‘Horse was an amiable fellow and the bet sounded like fun…

“Nah, I wanna see you do this.” He grinned his enthusiastic puppy grin and stood aside.

Daar crouched down and felt around the underside for a good grip. He planted his legs wide and curled into a tight ball, lowering himself as close to the ground as he possibly could. He paused, breathing, then—

He exploded upward in a movement that perfectly illustrated how the Stonebacks got their name. The muscles in his massive legs and back bulged almost obscenely as he simultaneously uncurled his body and rocked the truck off its driver-side wheels. He pivoted his arms up and forward, transferring the load to his triceps and back and practically exploded forward, tipping the truck past its balance point and over.

He didn’t waste any effort. He darted forward to catch the truck on its roll, using momentum to his advantage. Quickly securing his handhold, he pounced down, again curled in a tight ball, and just as the truck was about to stop rolling he growled and exploded upward, and again the truck rolled over. And again, and again. By the end he had managed a half-dozen complete flips. He was about to try for a seventh but a wobble in his left leg and hip convinced him otherwise, and he instead moved safely away, collapsed, and sprawled on the ground, panting heavily and happily.

The truck, meanwhile, fell back on its wheels. It was considerably worse for wear.

It took a quick moment for Daar to recover from the tiring euphoria of heavy exertion, whereupon he noticed some odd noises coming from the humans. Their expressions were strange, too. They “smiled” and gestured vigorously, and presently his translator informed him the sounds were a particularly exuberant cheering.

“Dude! That was fuckin’ awesome!” ‘Horse ran up and hoisted Daar to his feet, hugging and back-slapping with obvious glee. The gesture was both friendly and a little painful; Daar endured it happily.

And Regaari was there, too, ready to seal the deal. “And that is why Daar has sired more cubs than any male in living memory.”

“Haha, really?”

Daar duck-nodded vigorously with a supremely smug expression. “Females like quality!”

“High-quality sales pitches, perhaps.”

“Ha!” Both chittered in amusement while ‘Horse grinned hugely.

“Regardless, our victory is at hand. I believe I shall name you Twilight Sparkle in honor of Daar’s success.” A smiling grumble from Adam conceded the bet.

“I didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout names, bro.” ‘Horse chuckled and shook his head. “Also, how do you know that name?”

“Who cares…I like it!” Daar retorted, still panting slightly and grinning maniacally, the great divots in the gravel showing where he had, with impressive effort, rolled the decrepit red truck over before his legs suddenly gave out. It was a performance on par with the most powerful strongmen of Earth. Though to be fair, Daar had a kinesthetic advantage from his shorter, heavyset legs and his long, broad, strong back. And after all, what good is a labor Clan that doesn’t teach their Brothers how to properly and efficiently perform?

Baseball, not to be outdone, flipped it back to the starting position with an alarming grace and a shit-eating grin. Daar did not fail to notice.

“You can do that so easily? And think I could not?”

“I’m a hell of a lot bigger and stronger, Daar.”

Daar head-ducked agreeably. “I can see!”

“Y’had a lot more in you, too.” ‘Horse looked Daar over with his intensely evaluative eye, the one that made anyone uneasy. “But you wobbled a bit.”

“Yeah! I think it’s the gravity. I lost my momentum, right? I didn’t wanna hurt myself.”

‘Base and ‘Horse looked at each other briefly. “Mhmm, prolly a bit weak in your stabilizing muscles, hip flexors and so on. I bet we could fix that. What’chu think ‘Base?”

Base grinned in a thoroughly worrisome manner. Daar chittered a bit nervously. “Am I gonna regret this?”

“Yes,” chimed Regaari, “But you’ll appreciate the results.” the Whitecrest brothers all chittered darkly. Daar flicked his ears downward quickly, some of his bravado gone.

“Yeah, isolating exercises at first, then lots of practice. Hell, I bet he could teach us all about practical work.”

“Isolating exercises? That’s rehabilitative therapy!”

“Oh yeah, it can be,” ‘Horse nodded agreeably. “We’ve found it’s also useful in high gravity training. Target the weak muscle, strengthen it aggressively, and suddenly your compound lift is a lot better.”

“…Makes sense,” he duck-nodded agreeably. “We mostly train for heavy working endurance. All-out strength isn’t really as important. Just add more Backs!” Agreeable nodding all around.

Meanwhile the men circled the truck and lifted at its corners experimentally. Straightaway Daar could see their technique was either poor or practically nonexistent. Could it be their immense strength had blinded them somewhat to proper technique? Or were they simply not accustomed to shifting heavy loads outside the weight room? Interesting. He would need to share that observation with Regaari later.

They weren’t completely without skill, it must be said; like anyone with serious time in the iron game they had a natural talent for moving and probing weight. They just didn’t think scientifically about the task at hand. There, thought Daar, I bet can teach them wonders.

Murray seemed the most deeply skeptical of the group. He gave one experimental lift in the same place Daar flipped the truck, then backed off with a wry, impressed smile. “I couldn’t do it, Daar, and I’m a bit bigger than you.”

Murray regarded the wreck warily with the other men. Even the massive Rebar, largest of the Defenders and heavy enough to threaten furniture, clearly had his doubts. After all the old red truck was an extremely heavy thing, almost double the mass of a small, American-style car. And in the full gravity on base?

Daar would hear none of that. “Sure you could! There’s a trick to it, wanna see? I bet ‘yer all strong enough.”

Murray nodded, “Show us.”


Many minutes later, a totally exhausted and pleased Daar wobbled back to the barracks on fourpaw while the men played with the thoroughly battered truck. He snuffled around, found a bed that smelled uncrowded, crawled on top and passed out.

The men practiced until bedtime. Over and over they rolled, then, with practice, effectively tossed the less and less truck-like object until they had mastered the technique. It was easy, really, with a little muscle and will, once one was in the right frame of mind.

Even a Gaoian could do it.


“Think he has any other tricks to teach us?”

“His Clan has made a science of hard labor for millennia. I suspect there is much he could teach us all, Whitecrest and SOR alike. Oh,” Regaari added, “They also have a warrior tradition, remember? Imagine what you and your men might teach him in return!”

Rebar considered. “Well…he’s claimed my bed as his already.” He chuckled, “Figgers the first Gaoian I get is as big as a goddamned house.”

Regaari chittered in amusement. “I grew up with him. This is all familiar territory for me so excuse my lack of sympathies.”

“Nah, s’all good. I mean he’s still, what, a little smaller than Murray, right? Plenty of room.”

Regaari duck-nodded agreeably. “Do you think it is a good idea, then? It is very short notice, but Stonebacks have much to offer a potential alliance and I guarantee you that Daar is willing and able to participate.”

“Well,” cautioned Vandenberg, “I still gotta get approvals. He’s my guest for now but he can’t officially stay until everyone says yes. Fair?”

“Fair.”

They shook on it, said their good nights, and went to bed. Regaari did not go directly to sleep. He sat at ‘Horse’s desk and began furiously drafting letters and video messages to get ahead of the process, and only stopped when ‘Horse gently but firmly picked him up and pulled him into bed.

“Sleep!”

“…fine, you great oaf.”

A rumbling, sleepy chuckle followed, and a pillow was provided, along with the usual affectionate bearhug. The two fell asleep almost immediately.

Rebar? He learned to sleep with a massive furry hot water bottle, one who insisted on curling upon, around, or on top of the big man. Annoying at first, but as it turns out…

Not bad at all. They too fell asleep in short order.


Morning came with the blaring tones of a horrifying sound-demon situated on Rebar’s night stand. Alarmed, Daar practically exploded out of bed, desperate to stop the awful screaming wail of the sadistic device.

Rebar grunted, slammed his fist down on it with incredible force, and rolled out of bed. Slowly.

“…This is your wake-up sound?”

“…mmm. Yeah.” Rebar then stretched his mouth open very wide and inhaled deeply and slowly. Daar had no idea what the gesture was but he felt strongly compelled to mimic. He resisted the urge.

A knock at the door. Daar answered, still slightly worried about Rebar. Baseball appeared and demonstrated that near-telepathic ability all humans seem to possess and answered Daar’s silent worry with a chuckle. “Oh, don’t worry ‘bout him. Rebar’s a heavy sleeper and he hates mornings. Don’t’cha, sweetie?”

Baseball batted his eyes at Rebar. Rebar shot him a terrifying glare, one filled with promises of painful retribution. “Get me my fuckin’ coffee before I get creative, punk.”

Baseball chuckled, “Yes, sergeant first class. C’mon,” he gestured, and they headed down the hall to the kitchen and prepared breakfast. As promised ‘Base produced coffee (so bitter-smelling!) and brought it to Rebar, who emerged a few minutes later in a far better mood, all slights forgotten. This ’coffee‘ must be a potent drug indeed, thought Daar. He watched as the SOR proceeded through their morning routine, all in various degrees of awareness.

‘Base and ‘Horse had already finished their first morning exercises. Righteous was still at his, judging from the rhythmic banging of weights downstairs. Everyone else was just waking up and preparing for the day, though the time was still so early the sun had not yet risen. It reminded Daar of the many labor Houses he’d been assigned to over the years; orderly, happy, busy and slightly chaotic before the day’s work began.

“Here, eat. Eat as much as you comfortably can.” Warhorse sat a pleasingly large plate of food down in front of Daar. “Then let it settle for a bit. We’ve got a big day planned for you.”

Some trepidation from the previous night returned. “Oh?”

“Yup,” with that evil grin, “It’s Leg Day.”

Somehow, Daar knew his day would be long and painful indeed.


“How is he?”

“Recovering and in a lot of pain. I gave him a human-dose shot of Crude because he’s actually big enough that the small doses won’t help.”

“You know we’re not authorized to do that, lad. Not on a regular basis.”

“I know, sir, but he was hurting and we’ve learned a hell of a lot already.”

“Fair enough. Such as?”

“He has a strong back and legs. He couldn’t hit the same weights as us but he could keep up with us set for set, and he absolutely would not allow himself to give up. It was fuckin’ impressive, sir. Hell, between him and Murray? I’m not entirely sure who’s stronger overall.”

John chimed in. “Eh, Murray I’d say, for now. He always keeps something in reserve. He thinks we don’t see it but we do.” Adam nodded agreeably.

“Still, it’s impressive. At least in a lower body workout, he actually outlifts you by a fair bit, major.” Powell raised his eyebrows. “But Daar’s legs are pretty short, too, so it’s not really a fair comparison.”

“Also, Daar’s got weak stabilizers like we thought. But on the other hand, he can move some seriously impressive poundage without stopping at all. I’m pretty sure he could have lifted all day long with some slightly lighter weight.”

Adam nodded. “Yeah. To be honest, I’m not sure I could do that, sir, at least, not like he can.”

‘Base grinned, “Not yet, anyway. He’s gonna teach us, and we’re gonna teach him!”

Powell chuckled, “Aye, that’s a worrying thought. First Firth, now Daar?” His eyes twinkled, “Y’got designs on me next, lads?”

“Whenever you want, sir.” Adam grinned excitedly. Then, more seriously, “But Firth isn’t fair. He was bigger than both of us when we showed up for SOR training, remember? We’d been on a dedicated Crude regimen for two years and he was still stronger until, uh, just before we moved to Cimbrean? Hell, he didn’t even start the Crude until the second year of training because he was so goddamned strong. He’s a genuine freak.”

The other two men nodded silently in agreement.

“And now you aim to push him as far as he can go?”

“Nah, he plans to do that himself. Gotta be strong to be fast an’ fast is what he does better than anyone. And we’ve got those Red Hunter fucks to worry about, too.”

Baseball seemed thoughtful. “Yeah. Thing is? Having guys like Daar is great. Someone who, I dunno, is, uh, strong like you, and has claws and a nose? Real useful for field work.”

Powell nodded in agreement but sighed, knowing what a problem that statement would become. “An’ that’s too bad, lads, ‘cuz Daar is one of a kind.”

“Wait, really?”

“Aye. I had a chat wi’ Regaari about him a while back, an’ accordin’ to Southpaw our Daar’s a right freak like Firth. A third bigger’n any other Stoneback, and stronger well beyond that, too. Hell, stronger’n me, by your reckoning.”

“Eh, sorta. It’s apples and oranges but, yeah. He’s a beast. But he’s the only one? There’s more dudes out there like Firth,” said Adam. “How can Daar be it?”

“Aye. So far, only one Daar. Why we don’t know, but that’s part of why he’s had so many cubs, lads. Clan Stoneback is tryin’ to fix his bloodline.”

Adam and John contemplated that fresh bit of intel. “So…we better not fuck up, then.”

“The Clan would appreciate that. Back to work, lads.”

The men nodded and left Powell at peace while he contemplated the situation before him. On the one hand, Daar and his Clan were very enthusiastic about any participation in the Partnership Indoctrination Program, and at least theoretically, the benefits were many.

Many, that is, if there were more Gaoians like Daar. With him they had something different and useful; Powell thought it obvious Daar would fit well with a JETS team on long-range exploration or surveillance missions, as he was a hardy and supremely strong being, and quite obviously friendly and intelligent, too. He would be a useful complement to most of the JETS candidates, really, especially since Daar would likely be the “muscle” on any such team.

But there was only one Daar. Other Stonebacks were not nearly so impressive, or so Regaari said. What then was the alternative? Utilize smaller-but-still-rare Clan Brothers who could only keep up instead of excel in a given domain? A good nose was useful, but field work was a much different beast to spaceborne operations. There, Whitecrest and SOR had complimentary interests, technologies, techniques, and approaches to the problem. Fieldwork on the other hand was long, wet, cold, and itchy, frequently slogging through bits of a world that didn’t wish to be disturbed. If one was to have a Gaoian along, that Gaoian needed to bring a distinct advantage to the mission.

Daar already had a few obvious things he added; he was tough, and a good fighter, and of course he was very, very strong. Powell had no doubt they’d learn more he could offer as well, as it was obvious from the beginning that Daar was not a being to be underestimated.

The same could not automatically be said for lesser Stonebacks. A team needed to immediately grasp why a member should be there, after all, and for Daar that was easy; one only needed to look at him, the flow of his body, the way he moved, how he reacted to things. But other Gaoians? With the massive strength advantage eliminated, that made every candidate an individual case to consider. That would greatly complicate recruiting and that would in turn wreak havoc on team morale. It would feel like a political stunt because of course it would be. Powell would be a fool to encourage such a disaster in the making.

Still. If there was one Daar, eventually there would be another. And if Powell had any sense of the Gaoians at all, that second would not be long in the making.

Best to be prepared.


HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean
Medical Evaluation

Champion Daar of Clan Stoneback

“My, you’re a large specimen. Rest your arm here, please.” She gestured to the armrest as she prepared her syringes. They were here to perform the initial medical evaluation for Daar’s acceptance into the Partnership Indoctrination Program. Rebar, Snapfire and Daar were particularly eager for his introduction, though his focus would be very different.

Daar happily complied and flexed his impressive arm. “I like you already!”

Regaari rolled his eyes. Daar had always been a particularly playful and flirtatious being, a skill he employed with everyone…now apparently regardless of species. That he was so blatant about it never failed to irk, especially considering how successful the simple tactic seemed to be. In the highest circles of Clan society, Daar’s romantic success was legendary. He never bragged or gloated about it, just smiled happily and absorbed the praise as it came, as if it were his rightful due. If Daar hadn’t been a fundamentally peaceful and happy soul it would have been absolutely infuriating. He liked everyone, enjoyed the attention and returned it freely. Like most Stonebacks he was friendly and very difficult to hate. Which was in itself annoying.

But it was never an angry relationship between them. Regaari very much liked Daar and Daar adored Regaari in return. They had been friends since their cubhood in the same commune, where Daar’s prodigious strength and Regaari’s keen mind both manifested quite early. They quickly grew inseparable and formed a deep and lasting friendship, one so strong it could bear ample teasing and gentle insults. Amongst Gaoian males that was very telling; pride and insult were potent weapons amongst hot-headed males looking to prove themselves to females.

Of course, it helped that these two had little to prove to each other and knew from an early age they would be successful, given their breeding, talent, and single-minded determination to succeed. Daar helped Regaari build up his body to pass the entry Rites of Whitecrest, while he helped Daar with his studies, a necessary requirement to join any Clan; nobody wanted to breed fools. They made the grade, kept in contact through the arduous Rites of their respective Clans, and eventually declared each other Cousin, an uncommon declaration and practically unheard of between such different Clans.

The difference made for interesting chemistry. Regaari was a calm, collected, cool and suave personality, one who disapproved of boorish and uncivilized behavior. Daar, on the other hand, had no effective shame. Even here he mugged and embarrassed himself for the female’s pleasure. As always his antics were quite entertaining to watch. And, predictably, the human female rewarded him with a giggle and a coy smile as she drew blood.

How much of her reaction was the simple friendly play between any sophont, Daar’s admittedly impressive charm, or related to the humans’ mildly annoying, automatic adoration of virtually any Gaoian…well. That would be something to tease Daar with later. Which would, of course, not bother Daar in the slightest. Also annoying. But enjoyable.

“All done. Any medical complications we need to know about?”

“Nah, I’m pretty fit!” He preened a bit, fluffing his clipped fur. “But, uh, I ‘spose all the usual Gaoian precautions an’ stuff apply.”

The nurse gave him a practiced look and smiled again. “Mhmm. We’ll brief you on that in a moment. You certainly seem fit and ready. Your fur is short, though. Is this natural?”

“Nope! My Clan works for a living!” Daar flexed, the nurse giggled, and Regaari struggled to contain his amused indignation.

He failed. “You’re as far from a laborer as I, you great oaf!”

“Bah, you’re just jealous you don’t get ‘ta do cool stuff like I do! Has all that time behind a desk weakened your body? We worked so hard for it!”

“No more than your obsession with pushing rocks has weakened your mind.”

“Ha! Rocks need pushin’ an’ carts need ‘ta be pulled. What about you? Is ‘yer desk gonna fly away without you weighin’ it down?”

“One can only hope.”

Both chittered in amusement while the nurse looked on with that special look humans had when they struggled to remain professional. For once Regaari didn’t care. Daar always…cheered him, in a way few could.

All the labor-focused Clans—and the great mass of Clanless laborers—kept their fur trimmed quite short to help with body heat. After all, heavy, continual exercise can be a serious problem under a pelt as thick and insulating as a Gaoian’s natural fur. A short cut was therefore the sign of a “blue collar” worker in Gaoian society, while a long, silky coat was for the “refined white collar” segment. That Daar, of all people, possibly one of the very most elite of all Gaoians, wore such a short coat at all times and in all weather…even despite his genuine need, it never failed to entertain.

The nurse finished her blood draw and then proceed to gather some other basic vitals. Height, blood pressure and pulse, saliva samples for typing, weight—that last figure caused a raised eyebrow.

“I’m bigger than I look,” Daar explained smugly.

“Pay no mind. It is merely his ego weighing him down.”

“Ha! Is that how you are so light on your feet? Does yer’ jealousy swell inside ‘ya and lift ‘ya like a balloon?”

“Oh, yes, that must be it. Hey, maybe your size isn’t ego! Maybe you’re simply growing fat?”

“Mhmm. Man, that’d be nice. Just be fat and lazy and eat all day?”

“you are very strange.”

Daar agreed vigorously.

The nurse giggled and entered the results into her tablet while the two bantered back and forth. “Good friends, then?”

“The best!” Daar reached over and pulled Regaari unceremoniously into an affectionate bear hug from behind, then scritched at the base of his impressive silver crest—almost a mohawk—while he squirmed resignedly.

“Indeed. Someone must tolerate him.”

Daar, of course, chittered in amusement.

The nurse giggled again but promptly returned to business. “Regaari, you are here because of translation?”

“Yes,” said Regaari in nearly perfect English. “We’ve discovered the automatic translators have…quirks, concerning your languages. Fathers know, it caused me embarrassment.”

“Oh my. Well, in that case. Daar, do you consent?”

“Yah. There ain’t anything ‘bout me he don’t already know.” Daar squeezed a bit tighter and nuzzled affectionately next to Regaari’s head.

Regaari acknowledged this was true then returned the nuzzle. Daar always brought out his affectionate, playful side like few other beings could.

“Very well. Wait here, I will fetch the doctor.” She left, but before she closed the door she looked the two of them dead in the eyes and winked. Regaari rolled his eyes but Daar’s ears perked up and faced forward in a decidedly interested fashion.

Regaari processed that for a moment. “Did—are you seriously considering her?”

“What? No, of course not! But,” his voice grew conspiratorial, “She is very female and the scent is distracting. And she likes me! You can’t tell me you ain’t even a little curious, can you?”

Regaari broke from the hug and looked Daar dead in the eye. “Cousin, I have lived in intimate company with SOR for nearly a year. All my curiosity about humans and their wild obsession with sex has been utterly satisfied.”

Daar chuckled in amusement. “Heh, thought so. You do smell vaguely like human now, you know. Did you partake?”

NO! For one, they’d probably break me. I’ve heard them carry on for days at a time and they’d do you proud. For another, I’d likely get an infection and die. For another, it feels so very wrong just contemplating it!”

Regaari sighed, “And yes, I smell like a human now. We lived very close together, yes? And they smell a bit like fellow Whitecrest. I think it’s part of us now.”

Nothing was said for a moment.

“Still, you’re not even a little curious?”

“I cannot believe we are having this conversation. NO. I am decidedly uncurious. And you! How could you be with as many cubs as you have sired? Is the entirety of the Gaoian race not enough?”

“Haha! No no, it was jus’ a natural thought. I mean…the lack of fur is very…no. Her face is too flat. Her ears! And I bet we’d not fit together anyway. But she’s still got an…allure.”

“That’s because she’s strong, she’s fertile, she was nice to you, and you’re pent-up and horny.”

“Prol’ly.” A pause, “Am I really that simple?”

“Yes.”

“…I s’pose you’re right.” They sat and chuckled for a moment.

“…Regaari, how did you do on the fitness test?”

“I am told about as well as a fit human male candidate, but given that I was about half said male’s average mass at the time, that wasn’t terribly surprising. The run was the worst part. You will have that bit easier as they will allow you to do that on fourpaw now. Why do you ask?”

“I am worried about some of it.”

“Y—you? Look at you! You’re incredibly fit!”

“Yes. But the test has things I’m not good at, like pullups. I only managed three the first time I tried and I’ve been training like crazy to make up the difference. I’m up to eleven, maybe. You?”

“…I managed seventeen by the end. The humans…did as many as they wanted.”

“Exactly. And the net climb, and the obstacle course.”

“Ah. I see. You’re not used to moving your body like the course demands. We had the same problem.” Understanding dawned suddenly, “It will be worse for you, won’t it?”

“Yeah. I’m too big. I’ve run the course five times now and I barely passed under time my las’ go. This really is a course meant for apes.”

And it was true. The problem faced by Gaoians was that their anatomy encouraged a very different style of movement: on all four paws, either explosively and nimble, or bringing force to bear with a low-down crouch. Humans on the other hand were still fully and properly apes. They could twist and propel their bodies in ways that made any Gaoian stare open-mouthed in amazement. From the casual play of human cubs, to the incredible feats of gymnasts, to the practical and seemingly impossible things anyone in SOR could do—even and sometimes especially the truly monstrous men like Warhorse—it was mesmerizing to watch, and intimidating to contemplate.

Regaari and the rest of his brothers spent several months training and practicing the course before they finally tested and could match the humans in a functional, less-than-graceful manner. They passed. If there was to be any genuine partnership, the Gaoians must be able to keep pace with the humans as best as possible. Fortunately they had lots of help and encouragement; Warhorse and his crew very much wanted them to succeed.

And they did! It was the result of enormous effort and pain, but they showed they could move much like humans do, given enough time and training. But Daar was different from the Whitecrest Brothers. Stonebacks favored brute power and endurance over nimble movement, a trait of the Whitecrest. As a result Daar had a body extremely well-trained and bred to that ability and purpose. He could push and pull, carry and haul, and charge and run in ways that even the humans found very impressive. But a simple pull-up—easy for a fit human male—proved maddeningly difficult for Regaari and his Brothers, and even more so for Daar. After all, Daar was a very different kind of athlete and much more massive than Regaari. Daar’s concerns were obvious. Gaoians simply didn’t have an upper body so perfectly built for that kind of task. Humans were made for three-dimensional, kinetic movement.

“Do not fear, Cousin. I have no doubt you will defeat the course. Think of it as a new sport to master. Are you going to let a silly ape tell you no?” Slyly, “Or worse yet, will you let a puny Whitecrest like me beat you?”

“Heh, I would never live it down, would I?”

“I would tell all your mates. Ayma first!”

“You cruel thing! That’s a very un-manly thing to do!”

“Ah, yes. Manly. Because such things are proven by a male’s size and coat quality.”

“Big nuts, too. And mine are way bigger than yours!” A smug, silly grin.

“Given how many cubs you’ve sired, I suspect that is from overuse.”

“Ha!”

“Oh, and we mustn’t forget lack of skill, since ‘manly’ males are not allowed to fight smart. Can’t be efficient! No, far better to simply maul each other to death.”

“Nah. Jus’ pick ‘em up and break ‘em backwards in ‘yer paws! Oh, wait,” he grinned smugly, “You couldn’t do such a thing, could you?”

“No, indeed. Clearly you are the manliest.”

“Mhmm. Still jealous of my scars?”

“…a little.” That touched a bit close. Scars were very much a status symbol amongst Gaoian males and Regaari had few. Granted, this was because of his skill rather than conflict avoidance, but that seldom mattered where scars counted most. He instinctually flattened his ears before he could consciously control them.

“…I’m sorry.” Daar keened very quietly in sadness.

“You—oh, put me down!” Yet another snuggle-hug. He seemed to get those a lot these days. “You’re fine. You cannot easily offend me.”

Daar set him down. “You really are a better friend than I deserve sometimes.”

“Trust me, I know.” Regaari smiled, to Daar’s relief, and they chittered in amusement.

“Don’t take me too seriously. You know that.” Realization struck. “Besides, your hand! You faced down a Hunter, clawed his eyes out and spat in its face! That’s hardcore!”

“And I lost that hand, and would have lost my life had not Warhorse saved it.” Regaari remained both thankful for and very slightly bitter about his rescue.

Daar knew Regaari far too well to let such a self-rebuke slip by. “Hmm. You know what? As the humans say, ‘bullshit.’ You won, it’s dead, you have a scar much better than anything I’m likely to get, and I happen to know you’re drowning in offers these days. Don’t lie…you have two lined up for your next trip back home, don’t you?”

Regaari couldn’t help but preen just a little after a brief struggle with decorum. “My fortunes may have improved, yes.”

“See? How can you possibly complain? Look at you, you’re set! You’ve got an endless line of mating contracts ahead, you’ve got the deadliest beings in the galaxy as friends, we all love you, and we’re happy for you. So ‘chirrax,’ okay?”

Regaari lost his composure at the butchered human word and burst out laughing. Daar, as usual, had his victory.

“Okay! Fine. I admit defeat!” Daar seemed extremely pleased with himself. “But for the record, if it were you in that position you probably would have simply swat at it like those bears on Earth and killed it outright.”

Daar nodded agreeably.

A doctor popped in. “Daar of Stoneback? Right this way.”

“You gonna be doin’ all the pokin’ and proddin’ I was warned about?”

“Indeed.” They exited the room and head towards imaging.


Analysis Flight, 781st Expeditionary Medical Squadron, SOR
Special review: Gaoian (Stoneback) first encounter

“The imaging results are very interesting.”

“Not as interesting as the genetic assay, I wager. You first.”

“Well, Daar is very much like the rest of the Brothers in gross anatomy. Much broader and larger, of course, and with an extremely robust build, but still quite similar. Nonetheless the differences are many. Most of them are small things like you’d find between any diverse members in any species. But some…” She brought up a holographic deep-profile model of the two and removed the fur.

The geneticist whistled in admiration; Daar’s sheer physical development was very impressive. “Damn he’s a strong-looking boy. Does that translate to function or is it just for show?”

“Given what he’s demonstrated so far, he could easily outperform anyone in this room and most anyone living in town. You’d need to go to the gyms to find a match for him. And even then don’t screw around with just anybody. Go straight for the dedicated gym rats. I can think of only a few locals who might compare to him.”

“Exercise is still mandatory here,” he pointed out. “We’ve got some seriously fit dudes. Myself included.”

“Yes, I know. I think he’d probably break you, Mike.” A round of chuckles went around the table. “To be fair to both of you, he was quick to point out that Gaoians and humans have very different kinesthetics, so direct comparisons are problematic. You two could have lots of fun exploring that. But I think it safe to say that, outside the SOR, he’s definitely top tier.”

“…damn.”

“So yes, as you noted he is extremely muscular. Moving on, the gross layout is much more interesting. It differs in some very significant ways, especially the muscles of the arms and torso. Now, look closely here,” she indicated the Daar-model’s arm. “See how the forearm-flexor is attached? And see how it splits down the middle?”

“He has a bicep. Like a human.” His surprise was not from the muscle itself but what it represented, specifically: specialized and advanced muscle tissue, of the kind rarely found outside Deathworld life. Gaoians were one of the few sapient species that had any in appreciable quantity, and in many ways represented an “in-between” state of the supremely advanced biology of a Deathworlder on the one hand, and the efficient—but simple and low-performing—function of most galactic life.

“No. Not quite. If we switch to a nervous system view,” a tap on a pad and the models changed, “The innervation is much the same as a regular Gaoian. But you can see the branch forming here, yes? And how far up the nerve the branch forms? He’s a transitional form.”

“So, a proto-bicep.” Nodding all around. The team had long suspected the Gaoians were moving closer to Deathworld biology. Daar proved it dramatically.

“That’s fair, I guess. A human bicep is two independent muscles that are separately innervated. They each attach to different bones which allows maximum force to be developed regardless of position, since the bicep is also responsible for rotating the forearm. Daar doesn’t quite have that. What he has is close. It’s a single muscle that manifests a deep split during development. It has the same set of attachments as the human bicep or Gaoian forearm-flexor does, but instead of being a totally separate pair of muscles like a bicep, or a single muscle with multiple modes of pull like a forearm-flexor, it has a very deep split with a shearing layer between. It is almost two muscles. Or, in other words, it does not rely on the twisting layers that much of the more primitive alien musculature does.”

“That is…intriguing. Does this pattern repeat across his body?”

“Yes. He has far less of the primitive sheeted-layer musculature than we find on the ETs or primitive Earth life, and much more of the more advanced muscle tissue we see mostly in high power applications and extensively in more evolved Earth-based life. The tradeoff is energy efficiency. He needs far more calories to sustain himself than a regular Gaoian. On a world as nutrient-poor as his that is a very heavy cost to pay.”

“I’ve watched him. He eats like my son!” Chuckles around the table as the gathered scientists remembered their famished adolescent days.

“It’s not quite the same, of course. He’s bigger and stronger than most fit human males, yes. Considerably so, in many cases. But he’s also got a slightly lower body temperature and his fur, short though it is, is extremely thick and insulating. Combined with everything else Gaoians do to conserve energy he eats less than his size and lean muscle mass would suggest, sorta like a human maybe, oh, two-thirds his weight? Which, even still. He’s very big.”

“That would force an endurance tradeoff I presume.”

“It does. Gaoians favor explosive action followed by long rest. Daar, being of a labor-focused Clan, is also capable of long endurance work but that depends on staying cool, which for Gaoians is a serious problem. They only sweat on their nose, their lower limbs, and the insides of their large ears. For the rest they need to pant or pace themselves, or take alternative measures. For example, Daar says laborers traditionally have a soaking tub nearby to cool, or at least a hose or something. That’s why his fur is trimmed short all the way down to the undercoat. Their undercoat holds water like a wick so they can soak, shake it out, return to work and let evaporation cool them.”

“Fascinating!”

“They really are. Moving on, his forearm anatomy in particular is interesting.” She gestured to the models again and here, the difference was immediately apparent. “The musculature has already separated fully into different muscles. The anatomy is quite similar to ours, in fact. This is unlike a ‘baseline’ Gaoian which has separately innervated and partially divided regions within the same pulling and twisting muscular sheath. This gives Daar both greater grip strength and potentially better fine motor control. We tested his grip strength and it is very impressive. On the other hand, he has trouble handling pencils and such. I do not know if that is unfamiliarity with the implement or if his hand-paws are just too big and calloused. They’re certainly quite large.”

“We have previously noted Gaoians for their more evolved musculature. Daar is, what? An extension of this trend?”

“Yes, considerably so. I am told it is a mark of his Clan. He is remarkably knowledgeable about Gaoian anatomy and function and so we’ve been questioning him. He’s been quite happy to lecture us at length, in fact. As a side note: Their kinesthetics are very different than ours, of course, but after listening to him it’s become apparent we had no idea how much this is true.”

“A bit of anthropic principle at play there,” he mused. “Anyway, do his anatomical differences stop at the muscles and tendons?”

“No. if you compare all the different systems,” she flipped through various different model views and quickly pointed out points of interest, “It is clear he, if typical of his Clan, is sufficiently different from our increasingly inaccurate notion of a ‘baseline’ Gaoian that we might, without other evidence, consider him a subspecies, or possibly a different species altogether. Under the fur he is a very different being from those we’ve examined to date. And this does go a long way towards explaining the frustrating ambiguity in their medical texts.”

“They are a highly variable people.”

“Daar is sufficient proof of that, I think.”

“And there’s the claws, too.”

“Yes. Unlike the Whitecrest, his are only partially retractable and always poke out a bit. They don’t seem to interfere with his grip, though. Fun fact? Fully extended they’re each at least four centimeters long, measured along the top curve.”

“Jesus,” raised eyebrows all around. “That’s fucking scary.”

“They aren’t sharp, though. They’re very blunt and hard. Regaari’s by contrast are a third as long but they are sharp enough to slice paper. His are typical of the other Whitecrest.”

The geneticist spoke up. “Back to the ‘subspecies’ comment. That hypothesis would be backed by his gene sequencing as well. It is startling. We have been collecting samples of the various Clan bloodlines to build a proper genetic library of their species. As you may expect there are quite significant differences in allele selection, but to our surprise there are also many functional mutations in active circulation. Clans seem to favor certain traits and they tend to accumulate certain distinctive alleles, true. But Daar, and I guess Stoneback by extension, takes this to the extreme. We have so far identified hundreds of apparently beneficial mutations in his genome. So many it can only be due to deliberate action, either long breeding or…” He left the possibilities unsaid.

“Wait, seriously?”

“I swear to God it’s the truth. I asked…apparently this phenomena has shown up in two other Clans, the One-Fangs and the Fireclaws. Both descend from a common Father. He apparently was a massively talented fighter pilot and none could match his skill. Their mutations are related to balance and may also have subtle mental effects, but even those Clans do not manifest as many functional mutations as Stonebacks.”

“Very well…what about Daar? Is he typical or is he unique?”

“He is quite unique. No other adult Stonebacks compare to him. His only competition, in fact, will be his oldest cubs.”

“Must be nice to be on top like that, geez.”

“Well, he seems nice and friendly, anyway. Very playful. I didn’t get any ego like you or I may expect from a guy like him, but that’s me seeing it from a human perspective, of course.”

Someone else piped up. “He must have high social standing.”

“My understanding is that he is very highly placed in the Clan, and that his Clan is very ancient and has been laser-focused on breeding strong, hardy, and lasting Gaoians since before the Clan’s written history. He is their Champion and Stud-Prime.”

“So, wait. This is that breeding program thing we’ve heard about.”

“Yes. I’ve been asking about it. Every Clan has one. Apparently they’re voluntary—more advice and guidance, really—and many cubs are conceived outside of the programs. Most Gaoians see great value in the programs and so they enjoy strong, widespread support. At least, according to the Gaoians here, nearly all of whom are of Clan. Which may be a problem. We’re beginning to learn that the Clans are almost like noble houses, except…not, really. Maybe ‘elites’ is a better word? Anyway, we need to ask some Clanless about all this for a different perspective. The monastery does have more than a few, lately.”

“Elite houses? Wouldn’t that cause social stagnation and unrest?”

She paused, flailing her hands to put the words together. “Um, probably not in this case. There’s a heavy component of merit to the Clans. You don’t get in based solely on your genes, right? Every Clan has their own selection and initiation Rites which are mandatory. I’m told the Rites can be quite arduous and…well, Daar indicated that, for his Clan at least, some do not survive the first week. Very few pass. Few are selected to attempt the Rites in the first place.”

There was an uncomfortable pause. “That’s pretty hardcore.”

“Indeed. Gaoians are not the fluffy cute trashpandas the internet thinks they are.”

A susurrus of dark chuckles. “That would indicate an incredibly potent drive amongst their males to succeed. I mean, if the Rites can be deadly…why?”

“Breeding advantage. Daar claims he has sired two-hundred and twenty-one cubs to date and his earned position had much to do with that. I got the impression he wasn’t exaggerating.”

”Damn.”

“Yup.”

She cleared her throat uncomfortably. “As an aside I now know more about Gaoian sex than any human alive, I bet.” She chuckled ruefully, “Daar seemed to take an almost perverse joy in sharing the sordid details. All I will say is this: definitely not cute and cuddly.” Another round of grins and chuckles.

“Okay, so: they run breeding programs. It’s male-focused?”

She shrugged, “Most breeding programs on Earth are the same. I am told the females are…less concerned about it all. Both Daar and Regaari said ‘it’s a male thing’ and the females are mostly just interested in healthy and happy cubs, and pick mates according to their own wants, so Clan membership helps a lot but it’s not everything. A part of me thinks that’s probably a very chauvinist view but, well. That’s also a human concept.”

“Fair enough. And this has been going on for…how long?”

“Depends on the Clan. The oldest have been doing this since before breeding programs were formal, organized things. Daar says his Clan has been doing this for at least fifteen thousand years, before it was even a formal Clan. Hell, before they had writing.”

“Fifteen thou—Okay, wow. So why Daar? Why is he here?”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? He is a Stud. Their best stud, in fact. Like anyone who follows animal fancy can tell you, a stud must prove himself. That’s what he’s doing, I bet. The Gaoians are consciously breeding and improving abilities in their kind, and they’ve been doing it since before our civilization invented the wheel. And Daar is one of their runaway successes. He’s here to fill out his résumé.”

“…we should probably brief our leadership.”


Whitecrest operatives teamed very well with SOR; they were small, quick, quiet, deadly, extremely perceptive, could go where the hulking SOR men could not. They were also well-versed in many tactics of subtle infiltration and maneuver, things someone like Warhorse or Righteous were neither trained in nor would be well-suited to perform.

But where did that leave Daar? He very much wanted to serve but he was in many ways the opposite of a Whitecrest such as Regaari; Stonebacks were large and hulking beings, extremely strong and enduring owing to their long history as laborers, equipped with much bigger and tougher claws and teeth from their long pedigree of security, protection, and warrior specialists…and it affected their attitudes as well. They were cunning and direct in their thinking. Admirable qualities for many purposes but not much use for a Whitecrest.

Which, when one thought about it, made a Stoneback—especially a truly exceptional specimen such as Daar—much like the SOR. But that being the case, what value does a Stoneback add to the team? Not even a legitimate freak such as Daar—one who could comfortably outperform most any strongman alive—quite compared against even the smallest men of SOR. At least, not in any functional capacity that really counted.

But then a funny thing happened. In their daily interactions with Daar where the SOR “felt out” his skill-set, they discovered Daar had an absolutely incredible nose, one much more sensitive than previous-champ Faarek’s. Was it due to his bigger nasal cavities? His larger head? Broader and deeper chest? Simple luck? No one quite knew, though both Whitecrest and Stoneback cubs were known for their excellent senses.

They learned this when Snapfire brought out some plastic explosives to “play” with. He was designing shaped charges for a demo project the next week, one to clear a large obstacle in the new expansion to HMS Sharman. Daar sat in the other end of the project room with Rebar, far away from the “safety” corner where projects such as Snapfire’s very small quantity of explosives could be properly handled.

Practically the moment Snapfire opened the packages, Daar paused, sniffed the air, then looked back over at the source of the smell.

“That smells like explosives. Three different kinds.”

Faarek piped up. “Hold on, you can smell the three separately? How?”

Daar furrowed his heavy brow for a moment. “Well, they all smell, uh, ‘sparkly’ I guess, like most explosives.” He approached as Snapfire watched warily, discreetly securing all but his working samples in their safety containers. “But that one—”he pointed at the C4 while standing a fair distance away, “—smells like tar, and a bit bitter. That one—”simple gunpowder—“Has an acrid smell. And that one—”a tiny wad of ANFO—“Just stinks terrible. Almost…rotten?”

Faarek approached with a bit more caution than Daar showed. With an approving nod by Snapfire, he sniffed each sample in great detail, nose practically on top of the sample.

“…yes, I can smell the things you describe. But you did so from across the room! How did you detect these undertones so quickly?”

Daar shrugged his big shoulders. It was a human gesture that had begun to thoroughly infiltrate Gaoian society. On most Gaoians—being fairly narrow across the chest—it was a subtle gesture. Not so on Daar. He was much broader and his shoulders were quite pronounced even beyond that. It still wasn’t like a human; Gaoian shoulders sloped down from the neck instead of jut out abruptly like a human’s would. This gave any Gaoian surprising strength on fourpaw but weakened them beyond a certain range of motion, the exact opposite of a human’s anatomy. But then again, upright labor was more amiable to tool use, giving a human a decided advantage. The laborers of Gao therefore needed to compensate for the less flexible shoulder with heavy development in their chest and upper back.

Or, in Daar’s case, just exercise to make everything bigger, apparently.

“I don’t know, Faarek. I’ve always had a very good nose. I heard tell once that it’s ‘cuz we Stoneback are bigger, but I dunno anything ‘bout that.”

The humans smiled. Daar was only beginning to learn English and so his translator—clipped to his tool harness, for Stonebacks were seldom found with implants—spoke for him. It had chosen an odd rendering for his voice. It was very deep, a match for his natural voice, had a bit of a “backwoods” idiom as the humans say, and carried a slightly Austrian inflection, whatever that meant. It never failed to amuse the humans and Daar didn’t seem to mind. He didn’t mind much anything.

“Hey Daar,” queried Snapfire, “You know much about demo?”

There was a pause as the translator deciphered the idiom and rendered it in Gaori. The word for ‘explosives’ was extremely and satisfyingly onomatopoeic.

Daar’s face lit up once that word was played back. “No! Are you going to teach me?” He bounced on the balls of his hind paws and wagged his tail, an emote so extremely canine it was impossible to remain stern-faced.

“Yeah, bud. We’re gonna do demo. Let’s go…introduce you to the toys. Can you promise to do only exactly what I say?”

“Yeah!”

“Heh, good Daar.” The joke was lost on him, or perhaps he did not care. Either way he growled happily and followed behind.

“Aww, I think Sikes made a new friend!”

“Bro,” said Titan, “If he’s good at demo…”

“Yup.” Rebar was already planning it out on his tablet. “I think we’ve discovered what Daar is for. Let’s go watch and make sure.”

One cleared range and twenty minutes later, Daar detonated his very first shaped charge. It was difficult to tell who was more pleased, he or Snapfire.


“That was amazing.”

“Mhmm.”

He pondered for a moment.

“You could reshape the landscape with little tools like that.”

All the Defenders grinned. “Yes, Daar. Yes you can. Let us teach you.”

He wagged his tail unconsciously.


12y AV
Entrance Evaluation, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean

Champion Daar of Clan Stoneback

Evaluation day arrived for Daar. He needed to do well or he would be jeopardizing his chances in the Program, and possibly the chances of any future Stoneback. After all, while he was without question an extremely strong and capable being, and with SOR’s training he’d greatly improved his full-body strength in an astonishingly short time, his size had proven to be a bit of a liability on the obstacle course; not even his very impressive power could overcome his shoulders’ inability to rotate like a human’s.

This hurt his course time, and hurt it badly. While the Whitecrest were small and nimble and had ways to compensate, Daar did not. He needed to use muscle power to get through, and while strength solves many problems, it is frequently a poor substitute for other abilities.

Just this once, Daar willingly admitted to a small measure of envy of Regaari.

“You will do fine, Cousin. The obstacle course is not the only part of the evaluation. The run, ruck, and field maneuvers are equally important. I know you’ll do well. Look at how much you’ve already improved!”

Daar wished he shared that sentiment.

Up to that point, though, his introduction to the SOR had gone well. He, too, got his expectation-setting Zero Day. Like the Whitecrest Brothers he performed well and earned a rare smile and nod from Stainless. Not that he understood; mostly, he suffered under Warhorse’s unflinching eye, exercising until movement was an impossible agony, and then beyond. Warhorse knew exactly how to push a Gaoian to the very edge.

But after the first week he hardened up quickly. He was, after all, bred for precisely that type of activity, and his body responded, strengthening muscles with new movements and loads. Like the Whitecrest Brothers he already possessed the necessary drive and capacity to perform. And his Stoneback training had him at peak physical conditioning, which greatly shortened the time necessary to bring him up to standard. All they needed to do was get him used to performing under load and at battlefield maneuver, and trained and adapted to the basic tactics of human special operations. He learned quickly.

And so, barely more than a month into his ‘crash course,’ he faced the obstacles. Some of the obstacles were team events, so the Brothers agreed to re-run the course so Daar could challenge it properly. Together they stood in the late morning light, while he waited at the course’s starting line and gulped nervously.

Warhorse approached. “You ready? Good and warmed up?”

Daar head-ducked nervously. “I think so.”

“No, goddamnit, you are ready. You’re gonna fuckin’ smash this, y’hear?”

“…yes, training sergeant.”

“Good. Line up at the starting point. When you’re ready, begin.”

He paused, psyching himself up, and began. He knew two of the obstacles would severely challenge him so he ran between them with all the speed his impressive strength could muster. Seconds count, and he needed them all. His first obstacle was the Tough One, a rope-net and balance challenge that tested his sense of balance. Next was Slide for Life, which was easy, then the Confidence Climb…one can see a theme developing. Virtually every obstacle involved climbing of some kind. Most were fairly simple for a Gaoian; claws could grip, and Gaoians were actually quite good climbers.

The Skyscraper was his first real challenge. In that obstacle, there were a series of open floors, and the goal was to climb up each along the supporting poles. That required one wiggle up a pole then haul themselves onto the landing above, preferably with teamwork to speed the challenge. And that, right there, was the difference between a Gaoian and a human. For a human, it’s easy: grab the lip of the above floor, swing up, and flip over. For a Gaoian that is nearly an impossible move. And what’s worse, once they reached the top, they needed to climb back down in reverse.

Even with the Whitecrest helping it took a worryingly long time. By the time he reached the top his shoulders and abs were aching and he still needed to get back down. And by the time he was at the bottom it felt like his torso was on fire.

Oh well. Medicine awaited him at the end. He ran at full speed towards the next. Next was Belly Robber, painful but easy, then Tarzan. This was the absolute worst of them all, as it required overhead swinging. A Gaoian simply could not do this with their body hanging down, like a human. Instead their body must hang forward, a very difficult bit of gymnastics for human or Gaoian alike, and quite nearly impossible for all but the fittest specimens.

Daar was certain he had a hernia. Onward, no slowing down.

The remaining obstacles were all balance-oriented and therefore not a genuine challenge, especially since fourpaw movement was permitted. A blessing, since Daar was well behind his clock. Ignoring pain, he charged across the remaining obstacles, hopping over and across logs and beams, jumping between stumps and making quick work of the silly x-rope jumping pads.

The end! In absolute pain and exhaustion he charged with what remaining reserves he had and zoomed across the finish line like a freight train, practically tumbling to a finish. He panted, desperately, growling in pain as Warhorse ambled up.

“You beat your last time by six seconds, bro. That’s a full fifteen seconds under time. Congrats!”

Daar weakly acknowledged the praise, too tired to even feel relief.

‘Horse, meanwhile, handed him a sports drink and a Crue-D patch. “Rest up. You need to start your run in two minutes.”

It would be a long, painful day.


“How is he?”

“In pain and passed out.”

“How did he do?”

“Well, altogether pretty good. The obstacle course really kicked his ass but we were expecting that. The rest? Actually, I’d say above expectation.”

Major Powell did not agree. “Eh, I’d say he was sluggish at the end.”

“True,” responded Arés, “But that’s because we were quite intentionally hard on him.”

“Aye, and the Whitecrest lads woulda done better.”

“And they’ve also had almost seven months of very intensive training, sir. Daar’s just barely begun.”

Powell considered. “It’s risky. I’d rather he had more time to get up to speed. Dropping him straight into advanced tactics could prove a mistake.”

The men nodded, but Adam pressed his case. “It’s a calculated risk, sure, but it’s also an opportunity. We need to see how these very different Gaoians perform together. If nothing else it’s good intel.”

Nodding all around the room. “Very well. He moves forward, but he is not to slack on his training. I expect you will push him as hard as is reasonable.”

Burgess and Arés both chuckled darkly. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

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