12: Wargames

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12y, 10m
Major Powell’s office, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean

Staff Sergeant Timothy (Tiny) Walsh

“I remain unconvinced, major.”

“Oh?”

Walsh marshaled his words carefully. “I mean, the four-legged bit makes them impressively fast, and their claws are nice to have…but a human would be just as effective, if for no other reason than their strength.”

Staff Sergeant Timothy “Tiny” Walsh and Master Sergeant Derek Coombes watched the camera footage from one of the SOR’s ship-boarding scenarios. The combined unit had recently gelled into a very efficient fighting force, with the speed, lightness and nimble maneuver of the Gaoians complementing the raw, enduring physicality of the SOR quite nicely.

“They’ve come a long way since we started, mind, and they’re surprisingly capable.” Powell shrugged, “But spaceborne ops are only one thing we’ve trained. The bit we think you’d be interested in is field ops.”

Powell allowed himself a wry grin which instantly caught the interest of Walsh. “You’re scheming,” he grinned, “What do you have planned?”

Powell produced a map from his pocket and spread it out on the table. “You lads fancy a ruck?”

Coombes chuckled. “Well, fuck. What’s the mission?”

“Catch them, and don’t die.”


The setup was simple. A quick drive out to the training field and a tour from a high vantage point laid out the terrain. The land was wide and rugged, heavily colonized by both native shrubbery and, increasingly, Earth-imported usurpers. Bounded on all sides by bluffs, the land gently rolled for several kilometers across and deep, making for a perfect, varied environment for maneuver. Plenty of hiding places, thought Walsh. And lots of obscuring terrain for maneuver.

“Y’see the valley over there?” Powell directed their attention to the far end of the range. A small, narrow strip between two bluffs—almost a gully, really—led away into parts unknown. “There’s another strip of land like this. The Gaoians are on the other side, about as far away from that valley as you.”

Vandenberg chose that moment to effortlessly leap straight up and into the truck bed and loudly drop the tailgate. The squad of men, about ten strong, turned with a start as Rebar began rolling rucks off the back. It was a large, heavy pile, and would amount to a quite serious burden on the men to carry. Walsh raised his eyebrow.

“We’ve equipped you like we think a full-length deep recon mission is likely to need. A lot of the weight is food and simulated sensor equipment.”

Coombes scoffed at the notion even as Vandenberg continued to unload. “Uh-uh. No way we would go in the field with that much gear.”

“You sure?” Akiyama stepped out of the massive truck with his infotablet in hand. The truck didn’t seem to notice the enormous man had stepped off. “Are you considering that the local food may be inedible, or just inadequate to your needs? That you may need containment suits?”

Coombes gave Titan a withering look. “I’ve been doing field ops all my adult life. I have no doubt this pile—” another thud as Rebar rolled the final, enormous ruck off the truck, “—could be reduced substantially.”

Titan raised his hands. “Hey, we’re not questioning your wisdom! We’re just maybe aware of some things here you aren’t. Exo-terran operations are a different beast.”

“Aye, trust me, I went over these loads myself.” added Powell. “There ain’t much you wouldn’t need here. And remember, you need to protect the environment from ‘yerself. Cant even shit in the woods on most planets without consequence. You lads will need to make do.”

The locals chuckled at that.

Coombes seemed ready to object but a glance from Walsh told him to hold his tongue. “Huah, sir.”

“Aye. Here’s your radio. Make a discreet base camp and we’ll radio you with your mission update.”

“Yessir.”

“Good. Have fun, lads.” Powell nodded and hopped into the truck’s driver seat and wiggled into its comfortable depths, a ridiculously pleased expression on his face. The truck was a full-sized affair with an eight foot bed, tandem rear wheels, and a full-sized crew cab. Under the hood was an absolutely massive electric drivetrain and more power electronics than a truck had any right to have.

It was seriously overkill, of course. Just how SOR liked it. Especially Powell, who as a youth wanted so badly to play with big vehicles, maybe one day visit an American monster truck rally…and now he got to drive one. Sure, it was a bit strange for the officer to drive. His men did not insist on decorum. How could they, when something so simple made their commander so unabashedly happy?

Coombes turned to Walsh as soon as the truck was underway. “So, what’s his story?”

SBS for many years.”

“…ah.” That simple statement seemed to settle it for Coombes. “I suppose we’d best sort this gear out and get a camp going, then.”

The men each grabbed a shockingly heavy pack and shouldered it. Only Walsh seemed utterly unfazed by the load. He shouldered his pack, strapped it down and had the drinking tube in his mouth before the others had finished. He bounced about, limbering up.

Coombes eyed Walsh warily. “Is that even heavy for you?”

“Nope! It’s my training weight these days. I got all big for the SOR pipeline so why lose it? Being strong is useful as hell.”

Nobody could argue with that logic.

One of the men complained. “Fuck, I ain’t ever hiked with anything this heavy. Close, I guess…”

Walsh smiled, “It’s low gravity, too.” The other man’s crestfallen expression was very memorable. “See why I kept at it? JETS is where it’s gonna be at an’ I want in. Also, y’never know, maybe I’ll try out for SOR again some day.”

Suddenly the acknowledged super-heavyweight rucking expert, he helped everyone get the pack properly strapped on and situated, then took a quick look at the terrain with Coombes. He pointed downrange at a small nestle of hills.

“I like that. Excellent cover.”

“Mhmm. Looks at least a few klicks away.” They consulted the topo-map on the provided tablet. “And the terrain is rough, too.”

“Heh, we gotta get used to heavy packs in low gravity. May as well start now.”

“…ayup.” They limbered up, then set off at a hard pace.


“They finally get moving?”

“Yessir. Walsh is a man to watch. He seems to be lovin’ it so far.”

“‘Course he does, lad’s bigger and stronger than me. Coombes?”

“Admirable, but he’ll clearly be in pain tonight.”

“We old men get like that.”

“As you say, sir.”

“Aye. Our Gaoians?”

“I suspect Coombes and his men won’t like the Gaoian equipment loadout much.”

“They don’t eat or drink nearly as much, their fur cuts down on clothing, and their technology is considerably in advance of ours. And they have Daar. How’s he handling it?”

“…frankly, pretty much like a draft mule. He’s got most of their non-personal gear on his harness. Does mean he can’t get bipedal without dropping the gear, though.”

“Did ‘Horse get the quick release strap set up properly?”

“Yessir.”

“Good, probably won’t slow ‘em down then. Thoughts?”

The analyst held his chin in his hand for a moment and pondered. “Honestly? I have no idea who’s gonna win this. They’re such different units it’s impossible to know.”

“My thoughts exactly. I think Capture the Flag would be a good test, don’t you think?”

The men all grinned. “Yessir. I’ll get the mission order drafted.”


Daar snuffed at the air. “Smell that?” The squad was near the crown of the bluff separating them from the humans, still recovering from the quick lope across terrain and the scrabble to climb the small but steep hill. They kept behind it and out-of-sight so as not to reveal their position.

“Human,” Regaari agreed, raising his own nose a little higher to get the best of the scent. “They truly don’t have nose-smarts, do they? They’re directly upwind of us.”

“Coming this way, do you think?” Faarek asked.

“Probably…” Regaari mused. A thought struck him and he dumped his bag on the ground and scuttled up a nearby tree. He aimed his nose into the wind and took a deep breath, peering up the valley.

“Well?” Faarek asked, while Daar absent-mindedly raised a hindpaw to scratch at where the straps of his harness were rubbing. Typically uncivilized, but Daar had never cared.

“That camouflage of theirs makes it difficult to…There.” Regaari watched a few seconds longer to be certain that what he was seeing wasn’t an artifact of distance and the weather. Four shapes, slightly darker than the pale native grass around them, picking their way along a hillside, well below the ridge. “Interesting. They’re sticking to the rough ground. Clearly heading toward the valley.”

“Good place for an ambush,” pondered Faarek. The team agreed.

“Can we get in front of them?” Daar asked.

“Yes, if we move fast.” Regaari picked his way back down. “There’s a patch of scrubland over that way,” he gestured with his artificial hand, “Maybe we could sneak into the valley without being seen. We hide in there…”

“Right.” Daar set off at a lope. Faarek and Regaari glanced at one another, sighed and grudgingly dropped to four paws to follow him.

It was annoying how natural the movement felt, and how right Warhorse and Baseball had been that it really was the most efficient way for a Gaoian to cover ground. That didn’t mean that Regaari had to like it—it felt animal, it felt stupid. The fact that it worked so well was just insulting.

At least, from the perspective of Whitecrest or other such “civilized” Clans. Stoneback, on the other hand, prided themselves on their “whatever it takes” work ethic. They cheerfully took on the hardest, most dangerous, most unglamorous work and earned enormous respect because of it. As a result they sometimes took an almost perverse joy in their “uncivilized” status and received great latitude from the females, much to the shaking-head annoyance and amusement from most other Clans.

And so, as a result of his extensive training and his long and amusingly undignified work experience, Daar was, in fact, more comfortable on all fours than upright, though even he would not publicly voice this. And in this position he was STRONG. The heavy load on his back hardly seemed much bother, beyond his deeper breathing and a greater thirst. The gravity was almost perfect, the terrain ideal…Gaoians, in this place, were in their element.

They loped down the bluff and into the valley, rapidly closing the distance. They didn’t want to get too close, lest they blow their cover. Camouflage was sadly not a skill the Gaoians had properly mastered, despite extensive practice with the SOR; their color perception simply did not compare to a human’s, and that made it difficult to conceptualize what may or may not work, clothing-wise. Best to stick to terrain and use their fur’s natural break-up pattern, while hiding in the dark shadows of shrubs.

On arrival they took stock. The terrain was difficult, to put it mildly. None of the Gaoians savored the thought of clamoring over all those sharp rocks along the side of the valley, and the little creek at the bottom was barely wet, a sticky mud trap. Slow-going for anyone.

But the cover above offered many possibilities to Regaari’s mind. Daar, though, kept his eyes on the ground and again showed himself to be a natural engineer. As soon as they had arrived he dropped his harness and snuffled around, flitting from spot to spot. He stomped his way up and down, searching, digging little holes, padding along the bottom of the river…

“They’re approaching, Daar.” Faarek growled it out in an urgent whisper.

“Yah, I can smell ‘em, just a little…HERE.” He chose a spot where the river widened and the terrain was a bit flatter and more manageable. “We ambush them here.” He then proceeded back up the river and began furiously digging holes. “Dummy charges all along here, too.”

As one the team fell to work, prepping and planting the dummy charges while Daar furiously dug pits for them along both sides of the river. That accomplished, he doubled back and covered them up, a quick camouflage job which Faarek and Regaari tweaked and improved as Daar moved along. Thurrsto, meanwhile, prepped their ambush point with the remaining team. In short order they were prepared, concealed, a lookout was placed high above to watch the humans approach…now all they had to do was wait.

Still. Regaari felt there was room for improvement. He glanced up the gulley and noted the excellent cover. “We should also target from above with rifles.”

“The charges should be enough,” protested Daar.

“I suspect not, myself. Call it…human paranoia.”

Daar duck-nodded agreeably and that seemed to decide it for the rest of the team, for which Regaari was grateful. Gaoians males had a tendency to respect the biggest and strongest amongst themselves almost immediately, regardless of existing power dynamics. A sometimes useful trait, but in modern societies it could cause endless drama and struggle.

But Daar deferred to Regaari on almost all matters and did so without even the slightest hint of bitterness or resentment. “I figgered out years ago you’re the smart one. I ain’t gonna mess with that.” It was a dynamic the other Whitecrest picked up on immediately and which, if anything, increased Regaari’s standing amongst them. His occasional sharp observation and leap of analysis only reinforced that perception.

Though it must be said, Daar didn’t entirely concede the point. “I still think you and I should ambush from down here. See if we can, uh, capture their ‘point man’ alive.”

Regaari agreed while the rest of the team finished relocating. He couldn’t argue with the reasoning, though Daar seemed to have his own reasons for the position; covered in mud and river slime, his enormous paws essentially giant clumps of matted dirt, his fur itchy, smelly, and crunchy everywhere…he couldn’t possibly be happier and his joy was infectious. Even Regaari succumbed to the play at hand. He assumed his position, prepared his cover, settled in comfortably, and anticipated. After all, “pounce” was the favorite game of all Gaoian cubs, and what were many military exercises besides adult versions of the same?

Daar sat next to him, body taut and almost trembling in anticipation. “One of ‘em smells big. He’s mine.”


“They’re gonna ambush us in that valley, y’know.”

“Of course they are. This scenario was practically designed for that.”

“Think we’ll get there first?” Coombes huffed under the load of his pack, which, though greatly reduced, was still enormously heavy.

Walsh carried his original pack and, additionally, some of the essentials from Coombes’. He seemed largely unconcerned with the added mass. “‘Eh, prol’ly not. They had an earlier start.”

“Yup…hmm.” He came to a stop, and his trademark evil grin made an appearance.

“Oh shit,” came the chuckle from one of their squadmates. “I know that grin. What’chu planning?”

“This is a military exercise, right? Same trick we always do. Divide and conquer.”


The radio clicked in everyone’s earpieces, indicating the humans were proceeding into the valley. Well, some of them. FOUR ENTERING VALLEY, read the text display.

Regaari grumbled internally. SPLIT FORCE WATCH OTHER BANK HOLD FIRE, he texted to the group.

And sure enough…the humans above were virtually impossible to see. The Gaoians knew the humans were there; the valley absolutely stank of human at this point, particularly the large one on point. He smelled dangerous, much like the SOR. But the others remained out of sight until an accidental glint caught one of the Gaoian shooter’s eye.

ALONG TOP OPPOSITE BANK, SLINKING AROUND TERRAIN, NEARLY THROUGH. Regaari looked, and looked…and there they were.

Very well hidden and almost impossible to target. This left Regaari in a bit of a pickle; everyone was present, both parties had the high ground, both had personnel vulnerable in the valley, and neither wanted to make first contact.

He wondered what the humans were thinking.


Walsh stalked through the valley with his fire team, waiting for the ambush he knew was there. He didn’t see any traps or emplacements…but pawprints were everywhere in the creek silt, including some quite large ones that seemed more grizzly bear than anything else. It was all he could do to stalk through calmly, carefully, eyes on full alert.

His team made it through unscathed.


Daar practically trembled as he desperately restrained his urge to pounce and kill. Regaari could practically hear the pleading growl trapped in Daar’s heavy neck. The anticipation was gloriously torturous.

STEADY, Regaari texted everyone.


Walsh looked back as his fire team circled up defensively. The trap laid became painfully obvious from this vantage point; sign and marking was everywhere, most of it deliberate.

So why hadn’t the trap sprung?

He keyed his throat mike. “Boss, this stinks on ice.”

Coombes paused for a moment before responding; he had anticipated that there would have been an ‘earth-shattering kaboom.’ “What’s up, Walsh?”

“If there are Gaoians down here, they’re fuckin’ invisible.”

“Well, that explains why there’s no kaboom.” Coombes smiled to himself, before continuing. “So, up for a thunder run?”


The big human in the valley stopped muttering into his mike. Regaari wasn’t sure what a “thunder run” was, but—

Two of the other men dropped their packs and sprinted for the end of the valley, eating up the ground with the huge strides that humans could manage in what was, to them, low gravity.

“Shit.” OPEN FIRE SHOOTERS PRIORITY. “Daar?”

The second the gunners opened fire Daar let the traps go. Little smoke pots detonated, showing everyone the trap had been sprung. While nobody was there they did create a haze, and denied the river to anyone.


Walsh had plenty of experience with live-fire and training exercises, but those smoke pots still made him flinch just a little, and it was in that exact moment that a battering ram of fur, claws and teeth surged out of the brush less than ten feet away—brush that he was quite sure he’d looked into and seen nothing.

Walsh twisted and fired reflexively but it was too close, too fast, too sudden and he knew it. His hand was going for his knife even as a Gaoian—one who was so much bigger and heavier than the others that he barely belonged to the same species—crashed into him, bowling him off his feet.

He was briefly stunned by the violence of the impact and, a moment later, found himself with a cold nose pressed to his throat, and behind that was a deep, dominant growl and a…wagging tail?

“Tore your throat out.” The Gaoian told him with a pleased growl in his voice. The wagging intensified.

“Stabbed you,” Walsh replied, wiggling his hand where it was pressing the rubber combat knife. He couldn’t suppress his smirk.

The Gaoian looked at his “wound” and made a resigned noise, crossed his enormous paws on Walsh’s chest and rested his head on them. “Aww, guess we’re both dead. I’m Daar. Hi!”

Walsh blinked. He could hear shooting, but with Daar’s enormous weight bearing down on his chest and pinning him completely in place—the Gaoian was at least as massive as Walsh—it was impossible to get a sense of what was going on. “Uh…hi.”

“That was fun! I’d ask what your plan was, but, uh, I think we’re not supposed to talk about anything on the exercise now.” He yawned a bit and actually wriggled his head comfortably into place on Walsh’s thick chest, then snuffled happily at his face to the the human’s confused and happy amusement.

Walsh settled for laughing and wriggling a little himself so as to free his arm. “You wanna maybe…roll off or somethin’? You’re fuckin’ heavy.”

“Yup! But dead people don’t move,” Daar said playfully. “And you’re comfortable!”

“Dude,” Walsh laughed and tried to push the huge critter off him. “The scenario isn’t that explicit, just…” he heaved, Daar tussled back, and just like that they were locked in a friendly, though strange, wrestling match. Daar’s long, broad torso and heavy legs were tremendously strong—Walsh suspected Daar easily matched his own strength—but Walsh’s human anatomy countered with greater function in his arms and upper body…

It made for a pleasantly confusing stalemate. They quickly grew tired and collapsed on top of each other like old comrades rekindling a friendship.

“I think we both lost again.”

Daar bared his impressive set of teeth—including his massive canines—and Walsh suddenly got an impression of what a human smile must look like to other species. Walsh did not feel threatened; it was clear the Gaoian was just grinning for his benefit. But even still…

“My, Grandma,” He joked weakly. “What big teeth you have!”

“But I am male…? Oh. This is a joke, isn’t it?” To Walsh’s surprise, Daar sat up, stretched and then—acting much more like an animal than a sapient Gaoian—he scratched furiously at his flank with one foot.

“This mud,” he complained, “Is so itchy! And I can’t reach the splatter on my back.” Daar rolled onto his back to attempt a scratch but only succeeded in collecting more dirt.

“Daar, must you?” Another Gaoian, presumably also ‘dead’ shuffled over to them. The translator rendered this new Gaoian’s voice with a distinctly refined, resigned, and affectionately annoyed tone. “I don’t know HOW you attract all those females when you insist on behaving like a beast.”

“Ha! Cousin, we’ve talked about this so many times. I’m a Stoneback, I’m not supposed to be a pretty, glossy, refined sophisticate like you!” Daar’s speech was rendered with a distinctly southern and rural twang, and perhaps a bit of generic Austrian action movie star added for good measure. With basso profondo and a raspy growl. It was an amusing mashup of a voice.

They bantered on, clearly good friends while Walsh watched and listened in amusement. Neither being actually insulted each other, he noticed. Everything said was a compliment in disguise, hidden as a disparaging remark. An odd behavior, that. Meanwhile, Daar resumed his mad attempt to scratch the mud off his back using more mud. There was a particularly large glob caked right in the center of his spine where he could not reach with his feet, paws, or teeth. It reminded Walsh so much of his childhood pet he couldn’t help but—

He walked over and scratched Daar right at the site of his discomfort. Daar instantly panted in relief, much to the rolling-eye disgust and resigned humor of the other Gaoians present.

”Oh, Father Fyu! That was maddening!” Daar shook himself off. “Thank you.”

Walsh shook his head and chuckled, an expression Daar couldn’t quite interpret, but surmised was meant well. “Well…I guess I have a new friend.”


“So the end result is… technically a win for the humans, on the grounds that there’s still Coombes left alive.” Powell summarized the exercise conclusions, which had been called off early once the ‘trap’ resulted in the death of, well, everyone. Everyone except Coombes.

Which meant, of course, neither side had seen the full flower of their efforts. Coombes had himself set up in an absolute gem of a sniper’s nest, protecting his team’s flag and base. It would have taken serious effort to secure that flag.

The Gaoians, meanwhile, booby-trapped their own base and flag, which of course was a device of Regaari’s envisioning. Daar entered the scenario with an absurd amount of demo (“There is no kill quite like overkill”) and was keen to use it. He had the idea to trap ALL the things which would have taken too long. But with a little strategic thought…

“Aww. And I put so much work into it, too!” Powell got the distinct impression Daar was pouting.

“If those had been real explosives, your flag would be all blown up. So, Coombes got a long walk home with no mates and no flag. Hence: technically a win. It’s what we call a ‘Pyrrhic victory’.”

Regaari scratched at a crusted bit of mud on his ear. “A result I am well pleased with given our, in retrospect, obvious tactical error at the outset.”

“You wouldn’t be pleased with it in reality, on account of being dead,” Powell told him.

“No, of course not. We shall learn from this and do better next time.”

“Mm. I’m sure the master sergeant’s interested in your relocation though. As it was you were gonna pass each other by, then all of a sudden you moved and put yourself in their way. How’d you know they were comin’?”

If it was possible to produce a bass chitter, Daar did so. He padded over to Walsh and took a quick sniff, earning a quirked eyebrow and a chuckle. “Walsh, this morning you ate a plain bagel with lots of cream cheese, at least three large eggs, uh…‘pesto?’ Definitely some other milk product, I think maybe protein powder or something… and a black coffee. Actually, I think maybe a lot of black coffee.”

“…uh, yeah.” Walsh agreed, blinking in surprise. “Pretty much that. Also bacon.”

“To be fair to Daar, you all smell of bacon,” Faarek added.

“They switched to a different brand sometime last week,” Regaari observed. “The smoke component changed. It smells…vaguely like apples?”

The Gaoians all duck-nodded in agreement. Behind them, the SOR enlisted exchanged fist-bumps and grins.

Coombes could only stare open-mouthed. “…holy crap! Can all Gaoians do this?”

“More or less.” Regaari couldn’t help but tease slightly. “Faarek and Daar are our best noses, though. I could not pick out the two separate dairy components. It all smells like milk to me.” A head-tilt, “Can you not?”

“No, I certainly can’t. Fuck!” Coombes chuckled disbelievingly. “I take it all back, major. These guys’d be useful as shit!”

“Knew you’d see it my way.” Powell tucked his tablet under his arm. “I take it you’re interested in this scheme of ours, then.”

“Hell yes I’m interested! I’ll take every Daar there is! Uh, no offense,” he said to the Whitecrest, “You’re all fuckin’ amazing but already spoken for. And, well…Daar’s a goddamned mule.”

“Fuck that, he’s the fuzzy Vin Diesel! Dude fuckin’ wrecked my shit. My sternum still hurts.” Walsh absent-mindedly scratched at his big chest, then resumed grooming Daar with a slicker brush.

Daar growled happily and scratched at his own impressive chest, leaving his comb stuck in Faarek’s fur. “Mine too.” He resumed combing. A small mat in Faarek’s fur gave Daar a little trouble, but he eventually worked out the tangle to only minor objection.

Regaari nodded agreeably. “Of course, we take no offense.” He looked fondly at his Cousin, “He represents the best of us, despite his uncivilized ways.” Daar did not preen; rather, he shrunk in on himself slightly in the Gaoian manner of embarrassment.

Regaari lowered his ears slightly. “But as impressive as he is, I hate to deflate you: the only Daar there is, is this one.”

Daar shrunk further into himself. “…yeah. There’s, uh, nobody else like me. Not yet.”

“…okay, how ‘bout other Stonebacks?”

Daar affected a human sigh and explained. “If you want another Stoneback like me, one who’s strong like Walsh? There are no others. These days I’m fully a third bigger than the second largest Stoneback and I’m way stronger, too.” He sighed like he had seen the humans sigh. “I’m a freak and freaks like me are really hard to make.”

“So,” completed Coombes, “Daar’s effectively a one-off.”

“For now.” Both Daar and Powell answered at the same time.

“For probably a long while,” finished Daar. “At least until my cubs are grown up.”

The mention of Daar’s cubs resulted in a chuckling susurrus amongst the SOR.

“Well, I mean…a few dozen of them have gotta be good, right?” Sikes teased, with no sign of his prior misgivings.

“Wh—dozens? Wow.”

“Hundreds!” Daar preened with the most ridiculously self-satisfied tone in his translated voice. The other Gaoians rolled their eyes in an amused fashion.

“…just, wow…damn. Well, okay. So, why are you volunteering?”

Daar paused, collecting his thoughts. He even stopped brushing Faarek. “Um, I guess, it seemed like there’s something big going on. I mean, I didn’t know anything about any of this. I’m here sorta by accident. But, uh, Capitol Station, the increased abductions, the DEEP RELIC briefing…other stuff I’ve heard—” Regaari sighed inwardly, glad once again for Daar’s discretion. “—It just seems like, uh, I should be helping. That’s what Stoneback does. We help however we can. With, uh, strength, or, uh…” he extended his impressively enormous claws. “With this. And I guess this is what I’m best at, maybe.”

Coombes looked at Walsh and his men. They engaged their human not-hive-mind and arrived at a conclusion. “We can dig it. What’s next?”

“Daar finishes advanced tactics training here with Whitecrest,” Powell said. “But then the real fookin’ fun starts, ‘cause he’s on to Earth for engineering school.” He glanced at the protectors. “And won’t that be a barrel of laughs, right lads?”

Arés and Burgess shared a humorless chuckle. Daar, however, seemed undaunted. “I won’t disappoint, I promise!”

“No Daar, I reckon you won’t.”

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