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Inherit the Earth Forums => Fan Art & Fiction => Topic started by: cairn destop on September 16, 2018, 06:57:56 PM

Title: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on September 16, 2018, 06:57:56 PM
This is an update of an earlier topic.  It needed a lot of work.  The story consist of 24 parts and will be released starting Monday 09/24/2018.  A new comment thread will also be made available.  The old story has been removed.  Those who read it will understand why the updated version.  Those who didn't, sit back and enjoy.

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on September 24, 2018, 06:47:48 AM
Captain Riven exited the comm center and jogged to the command bunker.  He slipped his helmet onto his head as he weaved his way through the trench system, making sure he stayed below the rim.  Instead of entering the bunker, he followed a stairway to the observation post.  The Terratwo sun had risen an hour ago but the surrounding mountains kept this base and the valley they guarded in deep shadows.  A look up at the steel grey winter sky told him not to expect sunshine today.

A mixed terrier poked his head out of the bunker.  “Morning Captain.  All’s quiet.  Both seismic detectors and ground radar stayed green.  Only activity overnight has been from our patrols.  Sentries and scouts reported nothing.”

Captain Riven acknowledged the report as he scanned the valley stretching beyond his defensive outpost.  The mountains were too steep for climbing so he didn’t worry about snipers.  If any of those hairless monkeys tried it, the nightly patrols should have eliminated them before they became a threat. 

His concern focused on an evening infantry or armored assault.  At this time of year, the setting sun blinded them.  Another ten days and the sun would shift far enough to remove any glare.  Until then, they would have difficulties seeing their enemy if they slipped past the automated detectors. 

“Corporal, hold a readiness drill for later today.”  He continued his inspection of the area.

“Captain,” whined the terrier, “we can go from condition green to all weapons hot in five minutes.  Those seismic detectors will give us at least a fifteen-minute warning.  Why your insistence on these pointless drills?”

“I have confidence in our equipment but I’ll not trust my life with it.  Technology can be thwarted but not a pair of sharp eyes.”

He knew the location of the enemy’s camp.  The humans were at the eastern end of this mountain pass hiding behind a series of trenches and dragon teeth emplacements.  Dismantling them would take too much time so Captain Riven didn’t anticipate anything more than probing assaults.  Those never consisted of anything stronger than a half dozen armored vehicles, perhaps a pair of second grade tanks, or a hundred soldiers. 

As a forward base station, his mission was to hold and observe.  Fortunately, High Command saw fit to upgrade their defensive capabilities.  Since the last human offense stagnated, their camp expanded from a slit trench for a dozen soldiers to a viable defensive fortification occupied by almost five hundred morphs.  Better weapons and communications made them a powerful defensive outpost.
“Everything all right commander,” his second in command asked as he exited the command bunker.

“Everything is as it’s been for over six months lieutenant,” Captain Riven replied.  “We are in a stalemate with the humans.  This pass is what they would call temporizing land.  Whichever side moves first will be at the greater disadvantage.  If anything is going to happen, it will be through the mountain pass to our north.”

He adjusted his chin strap to prevent the oversized helmet from slipping over his eyes.  Every time their logistics division resupplied them, he searched for something to fit a ferret instead of the oversized dog ones they kept sending.  Even the smaller rat helmet would be preferable.  Riven understood why the rear echelons kept sending additional dog helmets.  Most of his command consisted of dogs.

Riven likened his base to Dante’s Divine Comedy, a human novel he obtained off the body of some dead soldier too many years ago.  The trench system consisted of nine interconnected rings with each ring defending the outer ones.  If an outer ring fell, the next one in could decimate the invaders while enjoying the protection of those rings behind them. 

The enemy still sent sorties in force to test their resolve.  So far, the humans hadn’t gotten beyond the open field without heavy losses.  Riven saw no reason for the humans to attack this particular pass.  The only way through was along a single and very narrow road.  His artillery had it ranged and he held drills daily to confirm that assumption.  Nothing could go too far off road as you either encountered the sheer mountain wall or came within range of his base.

By the time he inspected the trenches, oversaw the multiple scheduled artillery drills, and checked in with his subordinates, he had little time remaining.  As was his habit, he made a point of taking chow within the mess hall for a different ring each day. 
Today he had the outermost ring, which delayed his return to the innermost circle of his personal hell.  Riven missed his favorite event of the day, the officer’s mess.  One of the drawbacks of command.  By the time he arrived at the innermost ring’s security checkpoint, the setting Terratwo sun touched the eastern mountains where the humans camped.

“Lieutenant Snarken, anything to report?”

“Commander, replacements are delayed due to icy roads.  They should arrive after nightfall.  Those scheduled to go on R and R will have to wait until morning,” replied the wildcat.  “If we get the predicted snowfall, roads will become impassable for a few days.  Expect a lot of complaints from those due to rotate out.”

Captain Riven laughed.  “The humans would call that a SNAFU.  We’ll call it bad karma.”

A glance upward confirmed the lieutenant’s comment.  Grey clouds tumbled in slow motion like dice across the evening sky.  Stars disappeared one by one as the weather system moved eastward.  Even the air held the scent of impending precipitation, though what kind still appeared debatable.  Not ideal conditions for replacements but it kept the humans quiet. 

Captain Riven made his way along the switchbacks until he reached the blackout curtains to the post’s communication’s center.  Officer quarters offered both privacy and comfort but the radio room would learn of anything needing his attention first.  As he did every night, he slept on a simple cot in a storage room near whichever dog had the late shift.  He left the door open and soon fell into a deep sleep.
Her voice intruded on his dream fantasy.  Riven shifted on his cot and glanced at the clock mounted above the radio room’s single entrance.  The hour hand hadn’t passed one yet so he slept less than four hours.  His feet slipped into the boots he removed earlier.  He dressed fast but left his weapons resting on the shipping crate he used as a night stand.

The female rat sat hunched over the radio switchboard, her voice fighting to remain calm.

“Resting . . . you don’t have anything . . . of course I know the chain of command . . . yes sir, a corporal outranks a private but I have my orders . . . proper protocol is to give me your report and I’ll pass it on to my superior before waking the commander.”

Riven startled the rat when he came up behind her.  He grabbed a second headset and plugged into the system.  A somewhat frantic voice kept alternating between hurling insults and insisting he talk to somebody that knew more than regulations.  He waited until the silence at his end had the unknown caller hesitate.

“Unless you’ve been promoted to major in the last few moments, you are speaking to your commanding officer.  Give me a concise report and without the hysteria displayed earlier.”

He wheeled a chair closer and pushed the female rat far enough to the side that he could access the nearby computer.  A check on recent intelligence reports contradicted everything this soldier said.  The pass to the north gave no indication of activity.  Those back in HQ hadn’t issued any advisories regarding human troop movements over the last two weeks. 

“Corporal, gather your team and return to base.”

Riven gave the female rat a long look as she placed all channels on standby.  She made to say something but he held up his paw to silence her.

“You wanted to give me an accurate report and not the ravings of some front-line soldier, commendable and by the book.  However, you’re on the front lines and not back at boot camp.  We do things differently here.”

“How did you know I came from boot camp, sir?”

“Three things.  When I went to bed, there were no rats under my command.  Second, your uniform is pressed.  Third, you smell of soap.  Nobody can keep that clean under combat conditions.”

Captain Riven ordered her to place the installation on condition yellow and advise Lieutenant Snarken of the situation.  He than informed her of his intention of verifying the scout’s report while gathering his gear.  As he parted the blackout curtains, he heard the female rat relay orders to those officers on duty via the comm system.

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on September 24, 2018, 06:48:51 AM
He rushed down the central path, following a series of twists and turns until he came to a pair of thick black curtains.  Captain Riven parted them and followed a short corridor deeper underground.  A second pair of curtains blocked his path, which he pushed aside.  Four red lanterns gave him just enough light to identify six rows of occupied bunk beds.

Once he removed his helmet, Captain Riven used it like a hammer on the nearest wooden support beam.  The sound of thunder echoed through the room.  Every dog tumbled out of their bunks.  The nearest one recognized who had disturbed their slumber and called for attention.  The soldiers stood by their bunks in various states of disarray as they wrestled with the idea of military protocol or a proper uniform.

“Alright mutts, without any of the usual alpha bragging, which of you is this company’s best sniper?”

A dalmatian at the far end took one step forward.  Captain Riven strolled up to the fellow and just stared, letting the tension build and the silence grow.

“Get our best spotter and whichever shooter would give you the most competition and report to Hanger Three in ten minutes.  Draw a full load for each type of round.  No way of telling what we’ll encounter.”

With that, he pivoted on one heel and made for the curtained exit.  Just before he stepped past the inner curtains, he informed everyone that the camp was officially on condition yellow.  As he departed, he heard the remaining soldiers preparing for the possibility of combat.  At least those soldiers would be ready if things deteriorated fast to condition red.

His memory served him well.  Though the path had many twists to it, it was the most direct one to Hanger Three.  When he pushed pass the blackout curtains, he found a wide room bustling with activity as mechanics scrambled over the different vehicles.  One cigar chewing boxer kept bellowing orders as he prowled the hanger.  One private didn’t respond fast enough and received the kind of tongue lashing soldiers believed only drill instructors possessed.

When the Sargent realized who had entered his hanger, he hustled to his side.  Since they were in a combat area, the boxer abandoned the formality of saluting.  Instead, the boxer took Riven by the elbow to a land zodiac.  At present, the vehicle sat on four stubby legs, its hover engines disconnected.  The land zodiac ran swift and silent on a cushion of air a full foot above the highest terrain within ten meters of their path, an ideal scouting platform.

A young private ran his paw across the exterior while he read through the prelaunch checklist.  One look said it all, like the rat in communications, the young ferret must have arrived with the latest rotation of personnel.  No doubt the Sargent guessed the reason for his discomfort and relayed the fellow’s record and his personal assurance that Private Lewark was the best driver available.  His mind kept fixating on the fact that all his accolades were achieved in a sterile training environment, not in combat.

Three dogs announced their presence just as the private started the engine.  Captain Riven eyed the two who joined the dalmatian.  Like the dalmatian, the shepherd carried his sniper rifle slung over his shoulder while holding onto a large backpack.  Instead of the usual camouflage outfit, the two shooters wore a heat reflective dark suit.  Uncomfortable for long missions since it didn’t ventilate any body heat but it did leave them invisible to inferred detectors.  A definite plus on any night mission.

The third dog, a small terrier carried no weapon but did have the same camouflage outfit.  Instead of a weapon, he carried a tripod mounted scope.  This had to be their spotter.  All Captain Riven could do was hope the fellow competent in such adverse weather conditions.  While the two shooters waited, their spotter packed his gear and mounted the back seat.  The shooters took the middle seats leaving him the jump seat next to the driver.

The zodiac gave a slight hiss than tilted forward.  Four running lights flashed as their driver crossed the hanger for the exit.  The inner doors opened and the craft drifted forward.  The attendant handed the driver his IFF code and the fellow punched it into the transponder.  All running lights winked off and the hanger’s outer doors slid open.

Everything appeared black.  Both moons remained hidden by the clouds as the zodiac crept forward.  The clang of the hanger doors shutting turned into a starter’s pistol.  Private Lewark tipped the bow down and their ride accelerated to full speed in mere seconds.  Ground radar guided the driver as he followed a pre-plotted course over their mine field towards the first bend in the pass. 

Captain Riven tried keeping calm in the featureless night.  Snowflakes became stinging pebbles digging deep into his facial fur as they sped into the darkness.  He knew the distances by heart but without any visual references, the first turn almost threw him from the zodiac.  A glance behind him showed the three dogs not only secured their gear before departure but had strapped themselves down as well.  He followed their example just before the driver executed a second turn that should have hurled him over the side.

It came more as a sensation than anything definitive.  One moment their speed hovered near the upper end of the normal operational limits and the next it became a slow crawl.  The vehicle gave a low whine and Captain Riven felt himself come to a full stop.  The three dogs beat him out of the vehicle even though he traveled with little gear.

Their spotter pointed uphill and all fell in line behind the terrier.  Captain Riven stayed with the spotter as the two shooters disappeared into the night.  While the terrier attended to his equipment, Captain Riven pulled out a pair of high-powered night binoculars and allowed them to rest on his muzzle.  The eerie greenish tint colored everything as he scanned the distance.

A quick check of the compass readings confirmed what he saw.  Humans scurried like ants over the dragon teeth installed at their end of the pass.  Other soldiers worked to establish makeshift bridges across the antivehicle trenches.  Further back, a line of trucks extended to the first turn.  On either side of the road, armored vehicles sat.  Unlike the usual second quality vehicles used on raids, these were top grade armor.  Captain Riven had his confirmation, the humans must be preparing for a major offensive drive.

The terrier interrupted his observations.  “Orders, sir?”

Captain Riven considered his options.  “Find two officers working on those obstructions.”

The terrier muttered into the headset he wore while using his scope.  A moment later he gave the command and two shots echoed as one.  The results were spectacular.  Soldiers dove for whatever cover could be found while others prepared for some defensive move.

“Use explosive incendiary and light the night.”

Again, the terrier muttered into his mike while keeping his scope focused on some distant target.  It seemed to take a much longer time for him to coordinate with the shooters but when he gave the command, the effects proved spectacular.  One truck filled with fuel drums and parked within a circle of battle tanks caught fire.  Fifty-five-gallon drums of high octane fuel exploded like roman candles.  Another truck turned into a fireball setting off a nearby munition stockpile.

The spotter folded his tripod and unscrewed the scope.  His mike sat halfway in his shirt pocket.  The laser comms he retrieved and packed in another pocket.

“I don’t know where you’re going soldier, but we have a job to do.”  Captain Riven snarled at the smaller terrier.

“Begging your pardon sir, but you don’t understand snipers.  First shot is always a surprise.  Second shot gives those hairless moneys our general location.  We take a third shot without moving at least half a mile and they will drop a dozen mortar shells right on top of us.”

“Than you better hope our driver is as good as his reputation.  Antipersonnel, target of opportunity, no officers.  Everyone expects snipers to target the brass.  You shoot a grunt and every soldier will wonder if the next bullet is for them.”

It took longer reestablishing contact with the shooters while the spotter reset his equipment.  Than started a series of contact reports that seemed to be identifying every soldier on the far end of the valley.  These reports continued as shooter and spotter debated the value of each target.  Agreement at last and the spotter gave the standby command.

The terrier covered the mike with his paw.  “When I give the command to fire, get your furry butt to that zodiac, sir.  We will have approximately ten to fifteen seconds before they get a firing solution and another five seconds for the ranging shells to land.  Anticipate a full salvo after another five seconds.  If any of us are still here, we’ll be fertilizing the spring grass.”

Private Lewark must have anticipated the hasty retreat as the vehicle no longer sat on its legs.  The zodiac floated in place, its engines purring.  All four of them jumped over the sides as they scrambled to safety.  Forward thrust came just as the first two shells landed.  One fell on the opposite side of the rise while the second shell landed a half dozen yards in front of them.  Their driver applied maximum thrust even as the air filled with the banshee screech of shells on a downward trajectory.  A series of explosions filled the area just vacated.  Half exploded on contact while the rest detonated several meters above the ground.

They made it beyond the kill zone before a series of high caliber shells further churned the landscape.  Everyone managed to secure themselves and their gear prior to the first turn.  Their driver reduced speed to the normal operating range as he backtracked their course.  All of them kept a watch on their rear, checking for any pursuit.  Either the humans thought they killed the snipers or were not about to expend additional ordinance.

They made the final turn for base when the radio crackled.  “Inbound zodiac, base has gone to condition red.  Adjust transponder and Ident.”
The driver reached for the code box and moved wheel one up a number, the second wheel two notches up, the third wheel three notches up, and the last wheel four notches down and pressed the transmit button.

“IFF verified.  Automated defenses deactivate.  You have thirty seconds to reach departure point.”

The zodiac engines went to full power as they raced across the open field.  As they roared across the field, Captain Riven tried locating the hanger.  With eight seconds remaining on the countdown clock, Private Lewark killed thrust and allowed the zodiac to drift to a stop.  The Captain thought the sound of the hanger doors closing behind them the sweetest sound he ever heard.

Once the craft came to a stop, Captain Riven darted through the hanger.  He raced through each ring as he made his way back to the base’s comm center.  Soldiers passed him going in the opposite direction as they rushed to their assigned station.  His second, Lieutenant Snarken, remained a pace behind him as he entered the innermost ring.  By the time he found the comm center, he had been fully briefed on the status of all defenses.

The female rat still maintained her post.  One glance at the security files showed them armed for self-destruction.  Rice paper sat on a table above a bucket of water, its agitator churning and leaving a puddle on the cement floor.  Captain Riven grabbed the stack of messages and scanned each before dropping them in the bucket.  He hesitated on one that said when the commander of the Northern Pass Fortress last conducted a security sweep.  The final message referred to an updated weather report.

He dug down a few pages and pulled up the weather forecast.  All color drained from his face.  He shouted for the secure laser relay line to HQ.  Somebody had to be there from intelligence.  It took him almost thirty minutes convincing the lower echelons his message important enough to relay to the next level of command.  When a colonel responded, he figured either this guy listened or it wouldn’t matter.

“Colonel, the humans are mounting a full-scale offense.  Alert those guarding the main mountain pass of the attack. . .. They haven’t conducted one for five days. . .. Yes sir, I said five days. . .. That’s why they’re attacking, sir. . .. This weather will ground all air for at least a week.  Our air superiority is worthless. . .. The humans don’t have the time to hunt down our gunships. . .. Tell him to try contacting us in an hour. . .. Well, one of us will look the fool.”

Captain Riven couldn’t believe this fellow’s obstinance.  All he kept saying is winter and heavy snows.  Even mentioned the human’s adherence to some ancient Earth holiday observance.  At least he did pass the information to his immediate superior.   The phone hummed for several moments before a new voice responded.  He never got to confirm his orders before the line died.  His first guess, the humans found their laser relay station and took it out with a hand-held missile.

“Our orders are to hold at all costs, no retreat.” 

He had to shout above the whine of incoming artillery.  The lady rat grabbed her helmet and dove under her desk as the shelling commenced.  None of those shells came anywhere near this bunker and yet she cringed as if the next one might land in her lap.  He would have laughed but remembered his first battle when he was no more than a year older than her.  Captain Riven grabbed her belt and pulled her from under the desk.

“A word of advice, cut off that name tag.  Human spotters will shout out any name they see hoping you’ll poke your head up for their snipers.”  Captain Riven exited the bunker, keeping his head below the rampart.  “Too bad they don’t teach ancient human history.  We are about to become Malmedy or Bastogne.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on September 26, 2018, 04:44:05 AM
Talk about insanity.  Captain Riven couldn’t think of any other term to describe the last twenty-six hours.  In that one day’s time, an armored column managed to punch through the pass and relieve his command.  Those injured were evacuated to a veterinary hospital.  He hadn’t recovered from his operation when four armed and armored soldiers whisked his furry butt out of the hospital.

They hustled him onto a command hovercraft and broke every speed record getting to the nearest strategic air station.  Still strapped to his stretcher, they loaded him into a supersonic fighter and flew him to the continent of Capricorn.  He thought the base hospital his final stop when they released him from his stretcher.  Such hopes proved premature.

His guards took him down to a high-speed subway and whisked him to an unknown destination.  That’s when the lunacy of the military bureaucracy reared its ugly head.  The four guards who hadn’t left his side pointed to the stairwell and returned to the underground tram, leaving him alone.  Captain Riven had no other option than to use the stairs. 

Hard enough opening doors with his left paw, but every step up bounced his right arm.  Whatever painkillers the vets gave him were wearing off and the discomfort grew.  At least the exit was nothing more than a simple push bar.  He exited the stairwell in an underground garage.  As to the stairwell, a sign had been stenciled on the door reading maintenance room.  His groggy mind couldn’t grasp any reason for such games.

A voice pierced his tired and muddled mine.  “Captain Riven?  I’m your driver, please get in as we don’t have much time.”

The hydrogen powered vehicle accelerated as it rolled through the city at a casual pace.  While he leaned back in the padded seat, his eyes scanned the streets they passed.  He watched the many pups and kittens romping around in the park.  He spotted adults doing the many necessary duties that kept a city functioning. It felt good seeing so many citizens not in a uniform.  Such a relaxing and idealistic view.
The illusion shattered when he crossed over a pontoon bridge sitting next to a stone one destroyed in an earlier attack.  Capricorn was supposed to be a morph secured continent.  Hell, their government operated from the largest morph city, Nestling.  Yet here, wherever here was, Captain Riven observed the obvious signs of a city at war.

Radar installations and antiaircraft gun emplacements appeared on the roofs of some of the taller buildings.  One of the newest high-altitude missile systems had confiscated half the land earmarked for some park.  Military police roamed the streets along with their civilian counterparts.  Every billboard his car passed contained some inspirational message about the war.   His car hit a particularly large pothole and the jarring motion had him curse.

“Sorry about that, sir.  All hovercrafts are considered combat priority so we have to travel by wheeled transport and no tram passes our destination.”

“Don’t mind me.  My painkillers have worn off and this arm is killing me.  The vets removed every bone in my lower arm and packed it with regenerative gel.  Somebody was in such a hurry to get me off the front that they didn’t even use a cast.  Just this temporary splint.”
“You’ll have to excuse the scenic route, Captain.  I’m taking you to one of our most secure facilities and such security extremes are necessary to avoid human detection.  Please review the entry procedures as time will be short.”

The driver handed him a folder than focused his attention on the road.  He continued his meanderings through the city while he read the papers regarding security.  Captain Riven would have to surrender his firearms, assuming he still had them, but could keep the short sword he wore.  After so much time at the front, keeping any form of weaponry eased his mind.

The radio’s soft music stopped when another signal overrode the civilian band.  For the next twenty-five minutes the city would be in a satellite dead zone.  The driver hit a button that activated a military style siren.  He jerked the wheel over hard and the vehicle accelerated down a priority use lane.  Whatever clearance his driver had, every military vehicle encountered gave way.

Another sharp turn and the car entered a civilian business park.  Captain Riven couldn’t find anything distinctive about the brick buildings.  None of them had military personnel or markings.  The only thing differentiating one structure from another being the large numbers facing the street. 

Tires squealed as the car came to a sudden stop.  Pain which had been just below tolerable shot up to agonizing.  Captain Riven fumbled with the door handle and climbed out of the backseat.  He didn’t even get to close the door.  The driver’s acceleration slammed it shut as he roared out of the parking lot.  A glance at his timer showed he had under three minutes to get inside the building before the humans regained satellite coverage of the city.  Plenty of time to read the business logo.

“Creative Artistry Print Company, Adding clarity to the muddled mind.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on September 28, 2018, 04:44:00 AM
Captain Riven entered the business foyer and gazed around.  If not for the war, you would think this just another civilian business operation.  To his right, a hallway led to a bank of elevators.  Morphs of every species entered and exited the place dressed in tailored suits.  Some of these morphs stopped at the receptionist desk for directions.

A door to his left drew him closer.  Several morphs passed him as they too entered the building via the door marked employees only.  Those passing too close wiggled their muzzle whiskers or gave a snort when they caught his scent.  By the time they located the rancid odor, Captain Riven had passed through the doorway. 

He clipped the badge his driver gave him to his torn uniform and walked at a casual pace through the room.  The heavy smell of ink and paper overwhelmed him while the printing presses dominated all sounds.  Some of the presses printed civilian items such as advertising circulars.  Many contained patriotic material encouraging older civilians to conserve while others appealed to the youth’s sense of duty.  Interesting but not why he came here.

Captain Riven passed through another set of doors into a duplicate foyer.  This time he turned towards the bank of elevators.  A female rat at the security desk got out of her chair and took no more than one step in his direction before he gave her what he knew was his best “go ahead and try me” stare.  It worked.  She returned to her station.  He kept glaring at her, daring her to try pushing the alarm button.  She dropped her eyes, acting as if her manicured fingernails needed buffing.

He opened the maintenance room door and relayed the material to Elevator Six.  It took time as he had but one paw and his other arm remained immobilized within its sling.  When the designated elevator reached ground level, he pushed inside.  A one quarter twist of his key turned the elevator off and those inside the elevator car filed out, not even giving him a glance.  He set up the barrier and the universal “closed so we can serve you better” sign in the hallway.

A second twist of the key closed the doors and put the car in maintenance mode.  It shouldn’t work but his key turned another quarter turn.  He quickly pressed the buttons in the sequence he learned while riding here.  As he pressed the final button, the elevator lights came on and the car did the impossible.  It went below ground level.

The elevator doors opened on an unknown level deep underground and he retrieved the key.  He didn’t know what he anticipated when he stepped out but an empty room was the very last thing he expected.  The room measured six paces square and the walls reminded him of the dental office he visited while on his last leave.  Even the floor had that sterile off-white color medical clinics favored.  The one thing missing, a door.

As soon as the elevator doors closed, the surrounding walls sank into the floor.  Not much of an improvement.  Captain Riven stood within a plexiglass cell and armed guards manned automated weapon pods mounted into recesses in the floor and ceiling.  At least this room had a door, though he guessed the security monitor activated the locking system.

He approached the monitor and stood on the indicated red X.  The screen lit and he read the instructions for passing this checkpoint.  Paw prints proved difficult with one immobilize arm.  A few seconds passed before a green light appeared and the next identification protocol appeared.  The machine took a retina scan and a nose print without more than a momentary delay.  So far, three of four ID markers passed.  The last one appeared.

“You have got to be joking.” 

The machine wanted him to sing the theme song of Avenger Puppy, a show about a puppy fighting humans with his morph squad of youngsters.  With no other option, he sang the opening lines of the popular cartoon. 

The security door slid open and he stepped into the one morph chamber.  All the weapon blisters receded and the walls rose from the floor.  He had a feeling not too many of those assigned to this base ever went topside.  Bad enough the bio-scans but having him sing to confirm a voiceprint he didn’t even remember making was overkill.  Once the scanner determined he carried no biological or explosive components, the last door slid aside.  He just entered the most secured morph military facility outside those reserved for the Prime Minister or the Chancellor. 

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 01, 2018, 06:42:25 AM
No sense asking for directions from the guards.  They would ignore him until relieved, just like everyone he passed.  Captain Riven made his way down the single corridor.  On either side of him were rows of office doors, each with a series of letters and number.  He didn’t doubt those assigned here understood whatever code identified his location.  To him it was nothing but gibberish.  Up ahead he found what he needed, an information directory at a point where several corridors met.

An insistent horn blared in the distance.  The whine of an electric engine on overdrive competed with a blaring horn.  Within the confines of the underground facility, he had no way of determining where the noise originated.  Seeing a line of morphs jumping towards the wall confirmed the location of an approaching vehicle.  The shriek of brakes announced the driver had reached his destination.

“Captain Riven?  Captain Riven?  Has anyone seen . . . oh good, you’re already here.  Unless there’s another ferret officer wandering these halls, I’m guessing you’re Captain Riven.”

The wildcat wore the insignia of a lieutenant and his uniform was inspection ready.  Such a pristine uniform and every bit of fur trimmed to match the current military dress code.  All he had to do was smile and everyone would mistaken him for some recruitment poster.  He even came to rigid attention, executed a perfect salute, and slid into the at-ease position three paces in front of him.  Everything by the book with the exception of his twitching nose.

“With all due respect, you’re not really going to see the general smelling like that.  Completely unprofessional, sir.  Why didn’t you consider a hot shower and a change of uniform before coming here?”

Enough was enough for Captain Riven.  By his reckoning, before the relief column whisked him to the veterinary hospital, he hadn’t slept for two days.  He didn’t consider the time the medical staff operated as restful and all this travel didn’t improve his temperament.  Listening to this meowing kitten’s insults grated on his last nerve.

Captain Riven lowered his shoulder and charged the wildcat, sending him rolling down the hall.  Riven’s booted foot slammed down on the lieutenant’s chest, pinning him to the floor.  Riven drew his sword with his left paw and slashed down at his larger adversary.  The blade sliced through the muzzle whiskers and came to rest against the wildcat’s throat.  Every morph in the vicinity froze as they watched the unfolding drama.  His voice remained icy as he stood over the lieutenant.

“I have been fighting those hairless monkeys for seven days nonstop.  During that time, I’ve been shot, stabbed, and bludgeoned.  I used a kitchen knife to dig out bullets and a sewing kit to mend myself and those who served with me.  My sword has killed more than a dozen humans in individual combat in just the last three days.  I’ve faced twice as many more before that and survived.  I have held comrades in my paws as they died because of my orders.  I haven’t slept much or eaten enough and I sure haven’t had time to bathe in at least seven days.  Now, unless you can claim to have done as much, I’d choose my next words with great care or you might not get a chance to do better.”

The lieutenant licked his lips, his voice betraying his fear.  “General Prawner’s orders were to ‘get you to him yesterday,’ that’s why we need to hurry, sir.”

Captain Riven removed his foot from the wildcat’s chest.  Instead of a pristine uniform, the lieutenant’s blouse had a very muddy impression of his combat boot.  As for his trousers, they were no longer dry nor were they as fresh smelling.  The wildcat’s eyes remained fixated on the sword that sat on his muzzle.

“I don’t give a scat about your orders, lieutenant.  If anyone has to dodge out of the way or you hit that damn horn just once, I’ll throw you out of this thing and run you down with it.  Do I make myself understood?”

“Yes sir.  Absolutely clear sir.  May we depart sir?”

He took the passenger seat and watched the wildcat try to reclaim his dignity.  The yellow puddle and the dirt piles on the pristine floor did not help.  As he engaged the engine, every morph took a step back but kept their eyes on the cart as it accelerated.  Captain Riven sheathed his blade, his eyes fixed on the lieutenant’s face. 

Good thing the driver knew where to go, he got disoriented at the first turn.  At one point the foot traffic became heavy and the driver lifted his paw off the wheel.  Captain Riven cleared his throat and the driver’s paw returned to the steering wheel.  They stopped in a corridor like every corridor they passed in front of a door without a nametag, just a series of letters and numbers. 

As he exited the cart, the driver departed.  At least the driver maintained a sane speed until he reached the end of the passageway.  One turn and the sound of an engine accelerating could be heard.  A horn vigorously applied drifted back to him as the lieutenant made his escape.  That earned a good laugh, the first since the humans attacked.  It felt wonderful.

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 03, 2018, 05:00:51 AM
Captain Riven pondered a riddle as he stood outside the door.  It required an immediate answer.  Did he just enter the room and disturb whichever officer demanded his presence or did he knock and look the fool waiting for an invitation?  His mind must be exhausted if such a simple question defeated his powers of deduction.   

Another officer entered the same corridor.  Without hesitation, the soldier opened a door and stepped inside.  Captain Riven waited and watched the door he used.  Nothing happened.  Either the room belonged to that officer or the occupant wanted him.  He stood there counting to a hundred, watching the door.  It never opened.

He took a deep breath and grabbed the handle.  The door opened on silent hinges and he marched inside and came to attention.  Nothing dire happened.  No shouts, no screams, no recriminations, and no demands.  The sound of the latch catching as the door closed broke the evil spell his tired mind conjured.

The room appeared quite small for a commanding officer.  At least it did until he saw the lone occupant.  The lady rat had to be old enough to be his grandmother’s mother.  Her pelt had that looseness and lack of color, plus the wire rimmed glasses sitting at the tip of her muzzle did nothing to dispel her ancient appearance.  The lady’s fingers darted across a keyboard of their own volition while her eyes focused on the monitor in front of her.  She couldn’t be the officer as she wore civilian clothing.

After seeing nothing but military personnel within this complex, a civilian startled him.  It also had the effect of having him relax his military bearing.  He checked his surroundings.  The plaster walls all had a light bluish tint.  Even the floor’s tile had a blue color, though much deeper.  If not for the light brown desk, sofa, and area rug, the sole color scheme created a claustrophobic effect within his befuddled mind. 
He approached the lady.

“Captain Riven reporting as ordered.”

Her eyes remained on her screen.  “General Prawner is at another meeting.  I’ll advise him of your arrival but there’s no telling how long he’ll be.  He did tell me to let you wait in his outer office.  Help yourself to the coffee.  It’s the real thing, Captain.”

The rat’s paw left the keyboard and pressed an unseen buzzer.  A section of the wall slid aside, revealing another room.  At least he didn’t have to ponder his options.  The lady said he had been invited inside and that the next room wasn’t his office.  If the room contained a sofa like the one outside, this general might have quite a task waking him.

At least this place had a more earthen tone color scheme.  Considering what hung on the walls, it made sense.  A dozen paintings hung on either side of the hallway, all of them classic masterpieces dating back to the prewar era.  He stood before a painting he admired when he was on leave three years back, Antebellum Green.  The all white female poodle laid stretched out on a sofa in a provocative come-hither pose, the background displayed long green drapes, and four pups sat on the floor in the foreground on green pillows.

A voice intruded.  “I must admit, it’s one of my favorites.”

Captain Riven came to attention when he saw the otter general.  “It’s an excellent reproduction, sir.  Too bad the original was destroyed when the Pavlogen Heritage Art Museum was bombed from orbit a year ago.”

“No reproduction, it’s the original.  Our military intelligence broke their code and alerted us to their intentions.  During a surveillance blind spot, we removed most of the major works.  Pity we couldn’t save it all.  I kept this one for myself.”

“But the reports said everything was destroyed.”

“A military necessity to cover our breaking their code.  Pity they changed it three months later; no doubt standard human security procedure.  Anyway, I didn’t call you here to see my office collection; something far more important requires your presence, Major.  Yes, you’ve been promoted, effective once you arrived here.”

The otter pointed to a doorway at the far end of the gallery.  If Antebellum Green was the real masterpiece, it dawned on him that the other works were also the authentic originals.  Made him wonder what other artifacts these officers possessed. 

“It appears my staff took the word ‘immediately’ a bit too literally.  A blood-stained uniform missing its right sleeve, minimum veterinary care, and no time for food or rest?  Not a good combination for intellectual conversation.  I have a private washroom and can have a clean uniform delivered.  Let’s meet in the morning after you have a good meal and a long rest.”

Sweeter words he couldn’t imagine.  Major Riven didn’t know which sensation ranked first.  When he dropped his bloody uniform, he felt halfway clean.  An invigorating shower with soap and hot water rejuvenated him.  He wolfed down more food than he ever ate while in combat and passed out on the general’s large sofa dressed in nothing but a damp towel.

A slamming door had him scrambling for his sword.  His terror faded when he remembered where he slept.  The otter general pointed to the chair and Major Riven dressed.  Everything brand new and it fit like the proverbial glove.  Without his right paw, dressing proved difficult.  He also missed his sword, which the general confiscated.  After several attempts with his left paw, he surrendered all attempts at tying his boots.
The general opened a large folder and read its contents while he dressed.  When Major Riven ceased trying to do his shoes one-pawed, the general leaned back in his chair.  For some reason, he pictured himself as an insect under the otter’s magnifying glass.  He wasn’t sure if the officer intended examining his specimen or burning it.

“You win a one in ten thousand teaching exemption from military service and loose it to politics.  What were you thinking when you sided with the Hoarders?”

“That file is wrong, sir.  I joined the Sifters, a minor faction within the Hoarders.  We believe some items from the humans beneficial and worth saving while the Hoarders want to keep everything.  I still believe the Puritans wrong for purging everything human but they gained power and I found myself in the military.”

“Human items like Dante’s Divine Comedy and Sun Tzu’s Art of War?  Be glad I intervened after we relieved your outpost.  The Puritans had an agent in your command who discovered your unauthorized material.  I managed to intercept his last communication so none are the wiser.  Their agent died in the battle, otherwise the Puritans would have you executed as a human sympathizer.”

If the general knew of his transgression and intended keeping it secret, he must want something big in return.  An officer on the front learns very fast the art of favors and trade.  Two camps, each holding something the other wants?  You fashion a trade equitable to both sides.  When somebody does a favor for you, expect reciprocation.  The bigger the favor, the greater the payback. 

“Until your arm heals, Major, you’ll be in the medical wing for some much-needed rehab work.  I’ve assigned you a driver who will also act as your temporary aide.  I’m sure you remember him and I know he remembers you.  Just do me the favor of not killing him; his father is a very influential member of the National Herd.  Rumor has it he came within a dozen votes of becoming our Prime Minister.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 05, 2018, 04:55:29 AM
Physical therapy or personalized torture, two terms for the same thing.  A team of vets attacked his arm while ignoring him.  They disassembled the splint, poked and prodded his arm, did things he couldn’t guess at, and after another hour, had his arm in a cast.  While they worked on his arm, vets gave him a thick rubber stick to bite.  He bit so deep into it that it took one vet almost five minutes removing the thing. 

If he thought that the end of his torture session, he was mistaken.  The Chief Veterinary Officer ordered him to report to another room when he left.  There, metal probes slid under his cast while the second medical team made sure of their exact placement.  Satisfied, they connected the probes to an electrical board and strapped him into a wooded chair “for his own protection.”  When they switched on the machine, he experienced a whole new level of pain.  The ordeal eventually ended and he thought he could escape their care.  He did, but just for four hours.  He had to return for another session of what these doctors called electro-stimulation.  Major Riven also had a term for this medical procedure but refrained from using it.

Five days later, they removed the cast.  A furless arm is not a pretty sight.  The vets again poked and prodded his arm.  They x-rayed it and every vet stared at the image with the same intensity he gave Antebellum Green.  Major Riven thought a happy vet signaled the end of his ordeal.  No such luck.  Time to engage in rehabbing his arm.

The therapist hooked his wrist to a wire that stretched his arm high over his head while he laid on a wooden platform.  He had the choice of enduring the excruciating pain for two hours or he could end the session by lowering his arm to his side a specific number of times.  Those first few sessions, he endured the pain, too weak to fight the weights.  After seven days, he still found the sessions painful but they seldom lasted over an hour.

The male rat would attach the wrist band and adjust the knobs on the resistance machine before he returned to his novel.  Major Riven tried talking to the technician when the pain became bearable but the rat remained unresponsive.  His latest attempt at lowering his arm took him longer than the prior one and that had Major Riven give a loud growl.

“We having a bit of trouble finishing this latest set of exercises,” asked the rat technician.

“There’s no . . . no ‘we’ on this table you bucktoothed sadist.”

“My word, major.  If you have the energy to curse me out, what say we increase the weight by half, double the remaining reps, and add another hour to your time.” 

The technician punched a few buttons on his side of the panel and Major Riven’s arm went to full upright.  No use arguing with the rat, he had the controls.  Major Riven concentrated on doing the exercise and managed to end his rehabilitation session half an hour early.  Not good but better than waiting out the timer.

As Major Riven made for the exit, the machine’s readout caught his attention.  In the earlier sessions, the machine turned off when he finished, its screen blank.  This time he could read the settings.  The weight level read double what the technician said he set it at for this session.  All he could do is point to the machine, too exhausted to speak.  Without even looking up from his novel, the rat laughed.

“Yeah, I lied.  Your bone mass has passed 98%, so it’s as strong as it was before your injury.  Maybe stronger.  Be glad you’re here, Major.  Soldiers qualify as fit for duty at 75%.  Though I’ve enjoyed our sessions and I’ve learned a few new curses, our time together is over.  I’ll inform command you have finished rehab.”

Perhaps it was for the best the general confiscated his sword.  Still, knowing he need not return to the medical wing made this last session forgettable.  The rat technician could either finish his novel in peace or he could torture some other unfortunate morph.  He didn’t care.  Freedom from the medical wing never felt so good.

“Glad to see you out early, Major.  General Prawner has requested your presence at today’s High Command briefing.”

“We wouldn’t need one every day if our armchair commanders actually did something at one of these meetings.  Oh well, no use complaining.  How much time do I have?”

“Three hours, sir.  You’ll have time to freshen up and change.”

Major Riven nodded and the wildcat lieutenant took his accustomed place behind the wheel.  The wildcat drove him wherever he needed to go, found a nearby parking slot, and waited until he finished.  Neither one spoke beyond that required by duty.  At least the fellow no longer drove like a speedster nor did he continue to be a hazard to anyone walking.  The driver’s efficiency meant he didn’t have to learn the complicated code for determining where he was or wanted to go.

It felt good having private quarters.  The presence of a full shower, along with all the amenities, spoiled him.  Somebody even provided a mini refrigerator and personal stove.  Cold drinks and hot food whenever he desired it made this place a great duty station.  As he fastened his last button, he wondered how much this would cost him.

“We’ll be there in fifteen minutes, sir.”

“Lieutenant, you’ve served me well since my arrival.  Our initial meeting . . . proved difficult.  If you ever feel the need for a combat station, contact me first.  You’re an efficient officer, one I’d be proud to have on my staff.”

The wildcat remained quiet for their trip.  As he pulled into the corridor where the meeting would be held, he parked on the side.  Something ate at him and his face displayed the full gambit of emotions as he sat there. 

“You know who my sire is?  He’s determined to keep me from combat, said our family has lost enough blood to the war.  I would have been honored serving you at your last post, even knowing what was about to happen.  I’m no coward, sir.  I’ll perform my duties to the best of my ability and hope it makes a difference.”

Major Riven entered the conference room.  Like all the prior meetings he attended, the central table had name tags for each member of the High Command scheduled to attend.  Ten feet back, the room contained two rows of nondescript chairs lining three sides of the room.  None of these chairs contained name tags for the attending staff members.

This led to a bloodless battle of supremacy prior to the start of every meeting.  Riven referred to it as the ballet of chairs.  Each staff officer tried to secure a seat in the front row and in a spot that would give them a chance to display their importance.  Some did this by commandeering a chair nearest the officer they served.  Others wanted one that required them to walk a short distance so everyone would see him. 

Early arrivals tried the “first there, it’s theirs” ploy.  Others tried usurping them with rank, either theirs or the superior they served.  The late arrivals pulled the VIP ploy, trying to claim a choice spot based on the agenda, inferring their boss carried more importance in this specific meeting.  None willingly took a seat in the second row as that might infer they didn’t have any real clout.  With a limited number of front row seats many had no choice but to take a back row, though not without trying everything they could to improve their status.

Major Riven didn’t care.  He preferred the second row where he could let his head rest against the wall.  He found General Prawner’s name tag at the main table and took the nearest seat meeting his criteria.  When a conference had a high number of staff members, he stared down any daring to dislodge him.  Those below his rank never succeeded.  Anyone higher he would point to the seat at the main table and shrug his shoulders.  It worked as no underling wanted to involve their superior in this power game. 

Every officer serving as an aide had minimum combat time.  Somehow, they either bypassed compulsory combat duty or their assignments kept them too far from any of the more intensive fighting.  Major Riven soon learned having combat ribbons, some from the bloodiest campaigns, trumped anyone not serving an officer who held a higher rank than General Prawner.  If anything, those seats nearest him became the most coveted seats.  Each staff officer wanted to hear the personal exploits of a combat officer.

At last the High Command officers entered the room.  They didn’t even dignify the presence of their staff until they took their chair at the main conference table.  That was when the ballet of chairs entered its most frenzied stage.  Nobody wanted it to look like they shifted place, but every staff member noted who chose well and who got upstaged.  The cruelest cut for a member of staff was having one of the main table players shift their location. 

Like him, General Prawner didn’t play such games.  If he had to move, he did so without complaint.  He knew he belonged at the main table.  It didn’t matter where he sat.  When he spoke, his contemporaries listened.  He considered giving way for another member a way of garnering favors.  A valuable currency in the military.

Most meetings had the High Command occupying all four sides of the main table.  Today, nobody sat at the head and none tried claiming those seats.  Another oddity, somebody wheeled in a portable air recirculator.  Riven knew the room sometimes got warm when a large number attended but today’s meeting had fewer members than what he experienced in prior conferences.  The High Command sat at the table, each officer engaging in idle chatter.  None seemed interested in tending to business.

Ordinary changed to oddity.  Six armed dogs entered the room and verified everyone’s ID.  Pockets were patted down and anything brought into the room received a meticulous search.  Even those sitting at the main table were subjected to the same inspection.  Bad enough Riven had to go through these procedures once.  This crew of retrievers did every attendee twice.

The reason why strolled into the room and every morph came to rigid attention.  Unlike everyone else, the rat wore no uniform but a well-tailored suit of exceptional quality.  Every soldier maintained their stance even after the rat took his place at the head of the table.  Once he was comfortable, the Prime Minister signaled the start of their meeting.

All sat while the Prime Minister’s bodyguards patrolled the room with weapons drawn.  Major Riven found the armed dogs a bit of a distraction.  Anytime a staff member moved, the dogs trained their weapons on that morph until he returned to his seat.  It kept everyone from shifting or making unnecessary moves.

As for those at the main table, they ignored the armed dogs, though none was foolish enough to place their paws below the table.  They stuck to the published agenda, a plethora of inane material.  Nothing these generals mentioned came close to necessitating the presence of the National Herd leader.  Even the heated discussion about accelerated pilot training didn’t cause any reaction from their guest.  After discussing a new warship’s positive and negative points, the Prime Minister passed out a piece of paper.

The three-star general who oversaw today’s meeting, glanced at the paper and read two names.  Major Riven almost fainted when the officer mentioned him.  The guards escorted everyone else out of the room.  Five of the guards departed while the remaining guard approached a comm panel.

The dog pressed a few buttons and engaged the ultra-security system.  Major Riven heard of it but never saw it deployed.  Upon activation, every opening in the conference room disappeared.  They sat in a sealed room.  Nothing could enter or leave, which explained the need for an independent air recirculation machine.  Without it they would eventually suffocate. 

Satisfied, the dog reached into a hidden compartment and pulled out a briefcase.  The fellow moved to the opposite side of the table and sat facing General Prawner.  The fellow opened a vest pocket and extracted a pair of eyeglasses, thick eyeglasses.

“Gentlemen, excuse the melodramatic,” said the Prime Minister.  “The dog sitting across from you is my most trusted intelligence analyst.  His identity is so secret even my security detail knows nothing about him.  His role on my security detail a ruse for any enemy agent.”  He chuckled.  “My objection to his performance will have him rotated to another security detail just to maintain his cover.  So, let’s get down to the important stuff.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 08, 2018, 06:53:19 AM
Major Riven hoped the Prime Minister would restrain his political side.  He found it difficult enough keeping awake during staff meeting when nothing affected him or the superior he served.  Throw in a politician who enjoys the sound of his voice would make it an ordeal.  He had to believe this conference important if the Prime Minister specifically requested his presence.

“We have an agent in the human’s High Command.  Nobody with any command power but one who has access to information, which has proven most valuable.”

“Hard to accept,” said General Prawner.  “We are in a mutual war of extermination and a human is willing to betray his kind?  You’re being played as a fool.  He’s giving you good data now to prove his value but eventually we will lose far more than we gained.”

“An inward spy,” said Major Riven, “has the greatest value but also the highest cost.  What do we offer him greater than his life?”

“Another insight from the teachings of Sun Tzu?”  The Prime Minister chuckled.  “Yes, I’ve suspected there might be some truth regarding your rumored ‘acquisition’ on the battlefield.  Your political views made you a liability to those in power and they assigned you to high risk sites as a way of purging the military of such ideologies.  You’ve managed to irk every Puritan in the National Herd by surviving against impossible odds.  As a recognized hero, you’re almost untouchable.  Almost.”

So, the Prime Minister either knew or suspected the book’s existence.  Did he learn of it from General Prawner or from another source?  Either way, the Prime Minister just gained leverage on him.  In today’s world, even the hint of human contact killed.  Major Riven understood how fast scandal changed heroes into traitors.

“Our spy’s best item offered to date were the IFF codes to the space station.  That base controlled the orbital bombs and the humans anticipated expanding its use to nuclear.  We couldn’t allow that to happen and his intelligence helped us capture that outpost eighteen months ago.”  The Prime Minister couldn’t contain his glee.

General Prawner didn’t act happy.  “With all due respect, we won that battle but lost almost seventy percent of our orbital reaction force.  The humans just shifted their space operations to Ying and Yang.  Those moon bases represent as much a danger as the orbital base, possibly more since they have mining facilities.”

“Did you wonder about the extra precautions at today’s meeting?”  The Prime Minister spoke so casually it had Major Riven wonder about the sudden change in topics.  “The humans designed portable holographic units.  They can now infiltrate our forces, appear as any morph, and change their appearance when necessary.  We are just learning how to counter such tactics but it’s a slow process.  Nobody ever considered security access as you cannot make a human look like a morph.”

“Begging the General’s pardon and not wanting to waste your time, Prime Minister, but where does a lowly line officer like me come to be involved with such High Command decisions?”

“A good question Major Riven and one deserving an answer.”  The Prime Minister sure knew how to build suspense.  “Tell me the tale of the five.”

He wanted a story parents told children?  Fine, Major Riven relayed the basic facts about how humanity left Earth and used morphs as the crew.  The morph races selected were rats, otters, ferrets, dogs, and wildcats since each race had a special talent valuable for an extended space voyage.  Nobody acknowledged the morphs as sapient at the time of the launch from Earth and never considered them a risk to the hibernating humans. 

Turns out the humans made a mistake.  Morphs were already self-aware.  When the colony ship reached TerraTwo, most morphs left the humans on the ship and settled on six of the planet’s eight continents.  Those morphs who stayed in orbit delayed awakening the humans from their cryogenic sleep.  Humanity repaid their loyalty by exterminating all shipboard morphs before they disembarked.  Mankind settled on the other two continents based on the shipboard computer’s evaluation, not knowing morphs inhabited the other continents.  A century later, morph and human met and the war of extermination started.

“Does our Prime Minister want some milk and cookies before I tuck him in for a good night’s sleep?” 

Major Riven couldn’t contain his anger.  He was a combat officer fighting a relentless enemy and this is why they yanked him off the front?  No wonder morphs were so hard pressed.  Their leaders acted like babes instead of strategist.

“Curb yourself Major.  We have a legitimate reason for including you.  Let me turn this meeting over to General Prawner.”

“Both sides have an impressive biological and nuclear capacity, Major.  Ever wonder why none use them?”  General Prawner reminded him of an examiner asking what appeared to be a simple question.

“Mutual destruction,” said Major Riven.  “Regardless of the outcome, both sides lose.”

“That’s the dribble we feed the public,” said General Prawner.  “It is true we are evenly matched on nuclear weapons and nobody wants a radioactive world.  Same for the biological agents.  Everything the humans have we can counter and whatever bugs we have the humans can stop.  Neither side gains by using such biological weapons.”

“Another stalemate?”

“Something changed, Major.  We learned humans are as tired of this war as we are.  They plan on withdrawing from this world when they find another viable planet.  That is the real purpose of their moon bases.  In anticipation of finding such a world, humans dismantled their nuclear arsenal as the fissionable material is essential for their generation ships.  We scale down our nukes hoping it speeds their departure.”

Major Riven wanted to ask why the morphs didn’t offer a ceasefire.  As fast as he thought of it, he dismissed the notion.  After so many years in a genocidal war, neither side wanted to appear weak by proposing any secession of hostilities.  Better an endless stalemate than having your people think you have capitulated.  Politics, it kept the blood flowing.

“Sixteen months ago, humans discovered wormhole technology.  A light year can be crossed in a single day but the hole measured two meters in diameter.  Not viable for a vessel the size of a generation ship but big enough for an automated probe.  Last month, they discovered a way to send larger ships.”

“That’s when the troubles began,” said the Prime Minister.  “Our spy said the humans are returning to Earth based on the evidence a probe discovered.  He managed to transmit a copy of the probe’s information along with the wormhole technology.  That’s where you come in, Major.”

The Prime Minister handed over a thick folder.  It contained the information retrieved from the probe and it stunned him.  Earth was now a morph world, devoid of any living human population.  Pictures showed a castle occupied by dogs and villages occupied by sheep, ferrets, wildcats, and a host of other morph species concentrated along an area around the ancient city of Vancouver.  Based on these photos, the morph’s society mimicked the Feudal Era.

Major Riven lifted a packet marked ultra-secret.  The Prime Minister gave his permission and Riven opened the heavy envelope.  A routine inspection of some computer subsystem revealed a message intercepted just before one of the colony ships engaged the near light engines.  That report indicated the means of eradicating morphs by targeting their sapience.  At least that was the inference from the file.

However, he saw no reason for concern.  The original colony ships took almost five centuries traveling the forty light years to Terratwo.  Due to the dilation of time by traveling near the speed of light, a thousand years passed on Earth.  If this bioweapon existed it would be inert, the lab long gone due to the elements.  He considered his two superiors paranoid if they saw something dangerous.

General Prawner pointed to the next file.  Fifty years before the human exodus, they invented ORMITS, the orbital research multilingual interchange system.  At the time humans departed Earth, the computer network remained a military one that denied morph access.  The orbital network should contain any military research done up to the collapse of humans on Earth.

One problem, bypassing the system’s security protocols.  You needed a special access portal known as an ORB, orbital research bridge.  Humanity didn’t need an ORB when they left Earth since they intended to eradicate the morphs upon arrival.  They never envisioned a reason to return since a round trip would take another thousand years each way.  It made anything ORMITS might contain inaccessible due to that travel time. 

Wormhole technology changed that.  A round trip to Earth would take just eighty days.  When humans learned a working ORB existed, it offered them another choice.  The bioweapon described in the message became a viable option.  It dawned on Major Riven what such a discovery implied.  With this information, either humans reconstructed the weapon or acquired the research needed to perfect it.  The morphs had no counter or antidote to this thing.

Humans knew the transmission sent to the departing generation ships originated from an ORMITS node.  If the node still existed, or one of its redundant backup nodes, humans could access information regarding this biological weapon.  However, due to the age and possible corruption of ORMITS, the only safe way to access the information would be through a working interface, and that was somewhere on Earth’s surface.

“In simple terms, can you find that ORB and destroy it before the humans can get to it?”  The Prime Minister awaited his answer.

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 10, 2018, 04:47:53 AM
“It seems my studies regarding human culture are suddenly important.  So why me?  There must be others who did the same thing during their student deferments.”

“None have been found though we are continuing our search, Major Riven.  The Puritan purge five years ago resulted in the destruction of anything connected to human research.  Reconstructing records takes time; time we don’t have.  We needed somebody with knowledge of the Feudal Era.  You’re the first morph we found still living who has what we need.” 

“It’s a race, General.  I have an idea where the ORB would be kept.  Problem is, everyone will be going to the same place since its location is so obvious.  The real question is how desperate are the humans?”

The Prime Minister stood.  “Humans will go for the bioweapon while working on their relocation plan.  If they succeed on Earth, they have options.  Otherwise, if the humans find another habitable world, they will launch their generation ships, abandoning this world.”

Their spy said it would take them ninety days assembling a team and preparing a ship.  The biggest hurdle was the wormhole engine.  Their spaceship has to be big enough to carry the engine, transport a crew, and solar powered.  If it used any type of fuel, the space needed to carry enough for a return voyage would limit the crew size. 

The humans learned the power necessary for generating a wormhole grew geometrically with the mass of the ship and the distance covered.  With the unmanned probes, other ships generated the power for the initial wormhole.  Storing power for the return trip limited how much the probes could do once they reached their destination.  This limited probes to an effective distance between eighty and one hundred light years.

General Prawner studied human spacecraft, looking for the most likely designs.  Three ships stood out as viable possibilities.  The Hermes could hold the equipment, but the crew would be limited to three or four.  Not enough to protect the ship and hunt down the ORB.  A Hunter had the space but its mass limited the vessel to a forty-one light year jump.  No margin for error either way, which made it too risky a choice.

One ship offered them an ideal choice, the Hydra.  It had the size for carrying the engine and a range of fifty light years.  Best of all, it carried sufficient armament to defend itself.  It had the additional advantage of aerodynamics.  It could land close to their target, shift to a safer location, and retrieve their soldiers when they completed their mission.  It gave the humans their best option.

That led to the obvious question.  What did they have?  In a way, the destruction of the deep space morph force when they captured the orbital station became a benefit.  They didn’t need to modify an existing craft, they could build one to fit their specifications.  Still, they had to use a standard design if they intended launching before the humans.

The Mamba design offered them the best option.  They could leave off much of the armor, which would give them greater speed once they reached Earth.  The reduced mass allowed them a quicker recharge time, a distinct advantage when returning.  Its size and aerodynamics matched the Hydra if they met in combat and the ship carried sufficient offensive power to counter the Hydra.

General Prawner switched to the topic of logistics.  They needed the ship ready for launch in one hundred days.  It would mean playing catch-up with the humans but he saw no alternative.  If he asked contractors to rush delivery, he risked fatal errors.  Worse yet, the humans might learn of their plan. 

Regardless of the propaganda, no antimissile system intercepted every incoming missile.  Something always got through.  They might risk the humans hitting one of their space construction sites since several factories produced the Mamba parts.  However, they had to be sure the wormhole machine evaded detection.  A spacecraft didn’t help without a working wormhole generator.

One contractor would assemble the Mamba at a high security site.  General Prawner intended to have all engine components built at various facilities and shipped to the assembly area.  This allowed them to meet the construction deadline.  The parts would come from so many different plants that nobody would know they built a wormhole generator.

The humans knew the morphs intended rebuilding their space force after the loss of material taking the orbital space station.  By now that battle and its consequences should be old news.  When the morphs diverted parts to an undisclosed location, humans would think it nothing more than standard security as they constructed a new deep space fleet.

Just one more thing remained, the personnel for the mission.  Major Riven wanted a small party.  Too many morphs attracted unwanted attention and they needed speed.  The downside was a small party could be countered.  He proposed a force of three squads of ten soldiers.  By inserting each squad in a different location, it increased the odds that one would succeed and gave him an offensive option if he discovered where the humans hid.

Major Riven insisted that the entire ground force be composed of ferrets.  The Prime Minister acted like somebody punched him in his stomach.  General Prawner’s eyes just doubled in size when he mentioned the composition of the ground units.  Even the intelligence officer sided with the others who demanded an expeditionary force comprised of all morphs.  Riven refused to concede.

“Examine those orbital photos.  Each one shows one morph race in each picture.  Unlike us, the morphs of Earth appear to be xenophobic.  If we try moving through the area as a multiracial group, we will attract the wrong kind of attention.  We may even have to fight these morphs.  A single race will attract less attention.”

“Than have each squad consist of a different morph race,” said the Prime Minister.  “As you said, a small number of morphs moving through an area will go unnoticed if it’s one race.”

“Eventually we must come together.  If anyone saw a dog and otter speaking, they would suspect both races.  Our advantage is stealth, blending in with those around us.  Once we reach our destination, I’m hoping we will have a sufficient numerical superiority to overcome any opposition.”

“So, you believe the ORB is with the ferrets?”  General Prawner didn’t sound convinced.

“No, the ORB is with the dogs.  A castle is a strongpoint and the base for a ruler.  Such a powerful devise would make the lowest pup a king.  The ORB is there, somewhere.  Its exact location will be dependent on what benefits the dogs gain from possessing it.  I’m betting every morph race is beholden to those dogs, which might work to our advantage if we announce ourselves as supplicants.”

Both the Prime Minister and General Prawner conferred.  Sometimes their words became heated but they conducted themselves in a civil manner.  Though the room seemed spacious for the four of them, Major Riven couldn’t hear their whispered conversations.  It didn’t take them long.

The Prime Minister pressed a hidden button at his end of the table.  Electricity crackled and the room filled with the smell of ozone.  Power outlets and ventilation openings appeared first.  Than came the outline of a door and its doorknob.  Somebody opened the door from the outside and fresh air rushed into the room. 

Without a backward glance, the Prime Minister exited the room.  His security detail surrounded him as they hustled for the nearest exit.

“Do as you see fit, Major Riven.  You have the full support of the National Herd.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 12, 2018, 04:52:44 AM
Alarms blared through the night.  Every ferret sleeping in the barracks became alert as they responded.  The soldiers grabbed knives, swords, spears, and quivers full of arrows as they rushed outside.  Once clear of the building, they made for the nearby trenches. 

If the attack came from an aerial threat, such as a missile or bomb, the trenches should protect them from all but a direct hit or nuclear blast.  If it came from some ground force, the trenches offered a secured defensive point and offered them offensive options. 

Major Riven dove into his assigned trench.  A few seconds later, he raised his head and surveyed the area.  Somewhere within the high security facility, searchlights crisscrossed the night landscape.  Flares arced high into the night sky, blossomed like a flower, and died, leaving darkness.  Instead of the usual nocturnal sounds, he heard sirens, explosions, and gunfire.

“Great time to be without a few monkey shredders,” one soldier whined.

“I’ll give you my spear for a scatter gun,” another called out.

“No deal.  Let me get my paws on a tickle belly and you’ll have a skin tent,” a third voice yelled.

“Pipe down,” Major Riven shouted.  “That gunfire is drawing closer.”

Blessed silence from within the trench.  Major Riven agreed with those soldiers.  They had no modern weapons, just paw held weapons similar to those used in Feudal times.  If these invaders found them, they didn’t stand a chance.  He regretted his insistence that nobody carry anything resembling a firearm.

A peek over the trench’s lip showed shadowy figures moving in their direction.  Six of the intruders formed a circle, their weapons pointed outward.  One intruder placed a cylinder on the ground and connected it to a box.  He heard a high-pitched whistle and saw a white flash.  When his eyes cleared, nothing remained but the smell of burning flesh, human flesh.

Three jeeps came to a stop and disgorged their passengers.  Flashlights came on as these new arrivals searched the area.  Two beams played along the lip of their trench and Major Riven slid to the bottom.  It didn’t help.  Half a dozen flashlights played over those cowering in the trench.

“Unit three five to command. . .. Trench six alpha is occupied. . .. Will do.” 

The security detail ordered them to leave without their weapons.  Then each occupant was patted down and a portable retina scanner used.  Each time the device showed a green light, that soldier was allowed to retrieve his weapon.  At last they cleared everyone, thanked them for their cooperation, and moved off into the darkness.

“Excitement’s over; back to the barracks.  We have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”
Major Riven felt just as tired, scared, and relieved as the others.  He never thought he would fall asleep but so much time on the front conditioned him to grab whatever rest was offered.  When they entered the base’s mess hall the next morning, stories about the human attack dominated the chat.  Some made outrageous claims of their exploits while others bemoaned their bad luck being far from the action.  The one consistent fact was the presence of humans.

Training continued with the paw held weapons but now he included pistols and grenades.  Some of the officers asked for more advanced weapons without success.  Major Riven insisted on proficiency on the close quarter combat weapons.  He kept stressing the need for stealth and how firearms would attract more enemy forces to their location.

A security officer approached.  It seemed the base commander wanted him at his office.  When he arrived, the building stood empty.  The one working apparatus being a wall sized television screen.  Major Riven saluted the screen and the Prime Minister told him he could sit.  Based on the sour expression on the rat’s face, Major Riven figured there must be some bad news.

“Last night’s attack was to determine if we had a working wormhole generator.  They saw both the engine and the Mamba under construction.  It must have scared whichever human is running this mission.  They launched from Yang an hour ago for the apex point.  You launch in two days from our secondary site.  Inform your officers off base as this location is no longer considered secure.”

He never got a chance to acknowledge the new orders.  The screen blanked and filled with static.  Major Riven sat there for a moment in case the signal interruption wasn’t deliberate.  Satisfied that the connection was cut from the transmission side, he left the base commander’s office.  He ignored the crowd gathered outside and the security car returned him to the training area.

His officers trotted over to him upon his arrival.  They wondered why the enlisted personnel were sent on a long hike without them but with other drill instructors.  Major Riven knew why but could not tell them.  Instead, he gave them orders that confounded them.  Even receiving a pass into the nearby city was greeted by confusion rather than celebration.

Night time in the city on a very dark street.  Major Riven wore a civilian outfit that had seen better days as he walked towards his destination.  None of the ferrets passing him took any notice.  Like him, most wore old winter jackets.  Anyone on the streets at this time were either going to the local factories or heading to their favorite tavern and none took notice of a single stranger.

The corner tavern was nothing more than a nondescript building.  Riven opened the door and pushed his way through the blackout curtains.  He stood atop a wooden landing with stairs running below ground level.  On one side, a long bar occupied by two ferrets.  In the middle of the room, three pool tables held the attention of a dozen patrons.  The opposite side had a number of occupied dining booths. 

Luck seemed to be sitting on his shoulder.  There was an oversized and unoccupied booth by the back wall, far from the other tables.  He no sooner sat than a female otter sauntered over to him.  He mentioned having a large number of friends coming here, hinting it was a bachelor’s party.  She nodded her understanding, took a few coins, and returned with six glasses and a pitcher of beer.

Riven considered himself fortunate in snagging such a large booth and one far from inquisitive ears.  Than he learned why the regular patrons avoided his location.  Each time a waitress entered or exited the kitchen, they used a pair of doors next to him and the escaping heat would roll over him like the surf at a beach.  Anytime an enthusiastic waitress exited the kitchen too fast, the door banged against the backrest.

The outside door opened and five ferrets entered the establishment.  Every patron gave them a quick glance and returned to whatever they were doing before their arrival.  All moved as one and made for his booth.  None ever looked around as they slid across the bench at his table.  One ferret snatched the pitcher and poured a full mug for all.  He then held up a ten-tick note and ordered another pitcher.

“I swear you guys are idiots.  Come alone I said.  Don’t attract attention I said.  Act casual I said.  And you do the exact opposite.  If I didn’t need you so bad, I’d shoot you and everyone in here if I thought it would help,” an exasperated Riven growled under his breath.

“These guys are drinking themselves into oblivion.  Nobody will remember us come tomorrow.” 

“All of you traveled together?”  Major Riven groaned when they nodded.  “Damn.  You probably led any human agent right to this place.”

“You’re either drunk or paranoid,” said lieutenant Lewark.  “Humans in a morph region?  Not possible.”

Maybe he shouldn’t have recommended the former private for such a rapid promotion.  Still, the ferret proved himself an excellent warrior during their seven-day standoff with the humans.  His actions resulted in the recapture of two rings when the humans first assaulted their position.  His leadership allowed for an organized retreat instead of a rout two days later.  When Major Riven learned he survived the battle, he recommended the ferret for promotion and assigned him to his command.  Too bad he hadn’t learned a little tact.

“How many remember that shepherd at the front gate?  The one missing a leg who made funnel cakes?  He wasn’t a dog.  He was human.”

At least that got their attention.  Major Riven than revealed the secret about humans having portable holographic projectors.  That was the reason behind the human attack two weeks ago.  It was also the reason behind command’s decision to send the enlisted to another camp without telling any of the officers.  Tomorrow, the officers would join them for the final week of training at an undisclosed location.

Major Riven’s security comm chirped.  “Confirm voiceprint . . .. We’re on private, speaker off . . .. When . . .. My officers are with me now . . .. Understood.”

He looked at the five lieutenants and verified that nobody else was paying them any attention.

“It seems we were most fortunate when we came here tonight.  The humans launched a tactical nuke attack on our base fifteen minutes ago.  The place is nothing more than a radioactive hole.  I’m sending each of you a text message for you alone.  The mission timetable has been moved up once more.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 15, 2018, 06:46:48 AM
The beer acquired a bitter taste with the news.  It also killed any jovial mood his officers displayed when they first stepped into the bar.  Major Riven dismissed them one at a time, allowing each a few moments on the street before sending the next.  He offered the waitress a generous tip before he too took his leave of the tavern.  The way the locals watched him, he had a feeling the appearance and sudden disappearance of six ferrets would dominate local gossip for a week.  No way to fix a cracked egg.

He checked his comm and his watch.  If the information proved accurate, he should find his last two companions around the next corner.  Perhaps he did feel a bit paranoid.  It took him almost ten minutes covering a distance of four blocks.  He kept watching every morph passing him until they rounded a corner.  His eyes searched the dark for anyone paying him too much attention.  With no time to spare, he rushed to his meeting place and groaned.  If he thought his officers acted like idiots, his two contacts just made them intellectuals. 

The presence of an otter in this section of town might draw some attention but this one made sure others noticed him.  The fellow wore his dress black uniform announcing to one and all that he belonged to the space patrol.  Bad enough he wore his rank insignia, he also wore his name tag and ribbons.  His rolling gait might have been misconstrued as inebriation but the uniform said he hadn’t been dirtside for an extended period.

His companion stood out as well in his army uniform.  Like the otter you could tell the ferret’s name, rank, and unit.  At least he didn’t have any combat citations.  Not that he should have any as a veterinarian.  If anyone missed his designation, the medical bag he carried told all his profession.

Major Riven hailed a cab and they rode in silence to the theatre district.  Once the cab left, they walked towards the opera house and sat on a nearby bench.  Fifteen minutes later, the doors opened and the patrons exited.  Some made their way to the local tram and others for their personal vehicle.  The three of them mingled with the crowd waiting for cabs.  A moment later, the driver whisked them to the intercity tram line.

When the Gold Line arrived, they took one of the open cars.  Major Riven read the discarded program he found while his two companions sat in silence across from him.  After a two-hour ride, the train came to a stop.  The three of them exited the car and stood on the maintenance platform until the train left.

As they descended the stairs, a car flashed its headlights.  They climbed into the back seat and the car pulled away from the tram line.  It took another hour before the car pulled off the paved road and followed a gravel path through the forest.  Security checkpoints didn’t delay them too much.  Driver flashed his pass and the guards waved them onward.

At last, their final destination.  They walked into the stone mound and rode an elevator down to a large meeting room.  Every enlisted ferret they left the day before was gathered here.  Even the officers he met earlier tonight mingled through the crowd.  Major Riven ordered everyone to their seats and the briefing started.

“Until now, everyone was told we were going to go on a commando raid deep into human territory.  Stealth was such an imperative that we had to use paw held weapons.  I’m here to tell you our real mission.  Tomorrow morning at 0900, we will return to Earth.”

Major Riven waited for the shock to evaporate.  With the undivided attention of his audience, he revealed everything he thought these soldiers needed to know.  Photos from Earth were projected on a screen, showing their ultimate destination.  Maps were distributed and each officer learned his part in this raid.  He withheld all information regarding the human spy.  None would believe it.  He sure didn’t.

Good thing nobody asked how or where they got this material.  When he mentioned the wormhole, most looked like they couldn’t believe such a thing.  Telling them they would be chasing humans got several hungry looks.  They all had a score to settle with these hairless monkeys and this seemed like a great opportunity.

The meeting ended.  The soldiers went to their bunks while the otter joined Major Riven in the commander’s office.  Seemed they had an additional briefing to attend.  Turned out he could have stayed out, it only concerned their pilot.

Maybe he should have stayed with the other soldiers as ignorance is bliss.  According to the scientist conducting the briefing, every sun or star had two jump spots.  One was called apex since it sat above the planetary orbits and the other was nadir, which was below the planetary orbits.  A massive human fleet departed Yang for the apex jump point earlier today. 

The problem was the human space force.  They had almost five times as many ships as the morphs, though none could be classified higher than light-to-heavy class.  They too lost all their capital ships during the battle for the space station.  Based on the position of the moons, the humans intended escorting their jump ship and defending apex with all possible space assets.  If they kept the morphs away for an additional thirty days, the humans would have completed their mission and be guaranteed an uneventful return via the same wormhole.

With every human spacecraft committed to assuring the Hydra’s safe conduct, the nadir point remained unguarded.  High Command believed the humans could not shift its force in time.  They also concluded the humans couldn’t split their forces and guard both jump points as they didn’t know how many capital ships the morphs replaced.

What the humans didn’t know was the extent of the morph space fleet’s losses last year.  The morphs had no capital space assets and wouldn’t for another year.  Their High Command focused on defending the planet from any attacks launched from either moon so they concentrated on short range fighters.

It might appear the humans conceded the nadir jump point but that wasn’t true.  A large sector of space between the planet and the nadir point had automated stealth defensive platforms.  So far, every attempt at crossing this barrier cost the morphs a minimum of one major combat vessel.  They couldn’t afford any additional losses even if they had any capital spaceships available. 

As for the humans, they continued modernizing and expanding this space barrier.  At its current size and based on Terratwo’s position, it would be twenty-eight days before they could circle the automated defenses.  The morph High Command couldn’t wait that long. 

Sleep eluded him.  Major Riven wanted to believe they could be successful but running a suicidal gauntlet wasn’t his idea of a winning solution.  Morning came and he entered the ship feeling more like a condemned prisoner than a soldier on a vital mission.  By 0800, Captain Jakes joined him on the bridge.  Than came the inevitable delay.  Six hours later, the countdown commenced.

Technicians swarmed over the bridge as they made final preparations for launch.  The spacesuit felt like it weighed a ton as he couldn’t move.  Leather belts secured every inch of his suit to the launch couch.  Major Riven had mobility, to a minor degree within the suit, which brought up an image of rations stuffed in a tin can.  He hoped this flight wouldn’t have him bouncing within his suit.

As the last technician prepared to leave, he rushed over to his chair.  The terrier within the suit gave him a wink and used a small prybar to get some space between one belt securing him and his suit.  He held up a computer flash drive and shoved it under his belt.  A quick look around to verify everyone had departed before the dog placed a suction cup on his facemask.

“Major Riven, we met earlier when I was with the Prime Minister.  For your eyes only.”

The voice rebounded within the helmet and the sudden silence when the dog removed the suction cup emphasized the importance of whatever the flash drive contained.  With no way to communicate, all Major Riven could do was watch the morph flee the bridge.
Made him wonder which form, terrier or retriever, was the intelligence officer’s real breed.  One cannot switch breeds so Major Riven wondered if the morphs already had a portable holographic unit.  It would explain the sudden change in breeds.  It might also explain how the morphs managed to infiltrate the human’s version of their High Command.  His head hurt trying to determine which story was real.

All command bridge hatchways closed with an audible clang.  Captain Jakes’ voice came over an interior speaker as he read down an extensive list.  When he sneezed, the otter pilot never reacted.  At least now he knew he couldn’t transmit.  Jakes continued his prelaunch routine with a monotoned voice as he spoke with Launch Control.  Their pace increased, signifying their imminent departure.  Instead of excitement, he found the wait taxing his nerves.

A loud boom from somewhere outside announced the final countdown.  One lick of his lips to remove a drop of sweat and another explosion rocked the ship.  Unlike the first one, this one reverberated as if it ran nonstop.  Everything shook for a second before silence.  A final deafening roar and the ship moved.  Each passing second had the pressure increasing until he wanted to scream.

Over his earphones he heard Captain Jakes sound what must be some spaceman’s cheer.  Nothing but the sound of pure joy, that’s what he detected from the otter.  All he could do is lay back and endure the launch.

He didn’t know what changed.  One moment he couldn’t move.  The next, some computer control released every strap holding him.  He had just enough sense to snatch the flash drive and slip it into one of the many pockets before the otter turned to him.

“Our skin tails from R and D have come up with a solution for our travel arrangements.  That’s why the delay on liftoff.  Bad news is that it cost us our medium lasers though now we have one large laser.  If we run into that Hydra, ol’ Jake here had better be hitting the center ring every time.”

As far as Major Riven was concerned, insulting the rats who devised this plan wasn’t a smart thing to do.  Karma had a way of nipping at your heels at the worst of times.  Better to credit the rats in research with ingenuity as anything else turned their mission into a suicidal one.

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 17, 2018, 04:48:53 AM
Jakes had his suit off so fast Major Riven wondered if he wore one during takeoff.  Good thing the otter had other things to do.  He never saw him move the flash drive from a suit pocket to his uniform pocket.  It took four technicians an hour to move and assemble his space suit with him inside but he carried everything without any assistance.  The Captain’s comment about microgravity didn’t clarify anything.

Major Riven took the control station assigned him prior to launch and inserted the ear buds.  A slight turn of the knob and a cacophony of voices assaulted his ears.  Yep, he had the system channel selector on passengers.  He adjusted the volume to a level that wouldn’t give him a headache.  At least he could maintain a one-sided conversation if needed.

“Quiet down everyone.  You’re staying in those tin cans for a while so just get comfortable.  I’ll get you out after we get through the monkey’s gauntlet.”

Captain Jake’s voice purred in his ear.  “Good idea.  No sense having everyone panicking if this doesn’t work.”

A flick of a dial and he could speak with the pilot.  “So how do we get through an automated defensive grid where every weapon is protected by stealth technology?”

He anticipated a complicated plan but it proved simplistic enough for his nontechnical mind.  Electronic detectors probed the meteorites and mapped them.  They fired a missile deep into the meteor belt and its detonation created a bright light for a microsecond.  A passive system mapped all meteors and compared it to the map produced by the electronic scan.  Meteors that went undetected by the electronic scan or those with major geographic changes must have hidden weapons.  They targeted these meteors with their large laser from a safe distance.  Thanks to their combat computer, they could do this at full thrust.

Space travel had no equal dirtside.  He had no sensation of movement or acceleration.  That held true until he made the mistake of glancing at Jakes’ navigational display.  The spinning motion had his stomach rebelling at the conflict between vision and sensation.  When he mentioned the possibility of tossing his last meal, Captain Jakes told him to keep his back to the screen and concentrate on the radar units.  The nausea passed.

“Initiating gauntlet program.  Main course laid in.  All systems go.”

Captain Jakes ceased his monologue and the ship’s bridge became quiet.  Major Riven concentrated on the aft radar array, which made a soft beep each time the sweep indicator made a full circle on both the XY and Z plane display.  The silence made him edgy so he counted each beep as he continued staring at the two blank screens.

“Well I be damned.  Those skin tails came up with something that works.  Our navigational array has us more than halfway through this meteor field and we haven’t taken any enemy fire.  Another fifty minutes and we should be beyond range.  No other meteor belts between us and this nadir point.  Nothing but twelve days of smooth flying.”

Soldiers know better than to tease Fate.  Whenever things go smoothly or according to plan, the best thing to do is enjoy the moment.  Never question good fortune.  Do that and you’re guaranteed to suffer the consequences.

An alarm sounded and it came from his work station.  A quick check of the readout showed something moving aft of their ship.  He punched a few buttons and a readout scrolled on his screen.  It didn’t tell him anything useful, just that movement had been detected at Ying and several of the ships traveling to apex shifted.

“Nothing we can do right now, Major.  Those ships are too distant.  Try again after you get the others free of those suits.”

It took him half an hour freeing the others from their launch stations.  Once everyone stowed the gear, he told them of their success.  They celebrated the good news with high fives.  Before he left, he told the others to relax.  They had a twelve-day journey to the jump point.  He suggested they study the mission plans as they would get together later to talk strategy.

Major Riven returned to his station and plugged his mike into the comm panel and switched it to private.  “Captain, what happened to my unit?  The mission called for a minimum of forty soldiers.  Thirty for our mission and ten as a security detail for this ship.”

“The ship had less room than anticipated.  It was either take everyone and hope we didn’t hit any FUBARs or take the bare minimum and cover the most likely scenarios.  Considering the importance of this mission, you know what happened.”

No point arguing.  The morph officers responsible were back on Terratwo and the mission didn’t allow for a second try.  Instead of four ten-morph teams, he had a few over three full teams.  No way he could protect this ship if a human ground force attacked while on Earth.  Major Riven had to hope the castle infiltration effort required less brute force than expected.

Space travel, the most boring form of excitement.  First, they stick you inside an anvil with wings atop a rocket.  The rocket contains several tons of explosive fuel and somebody sets it off with your furry butt sitting atop it.  Then some genius figures out a way to gather fuel in space so you can go even faster while you’re stuck inside that flying anvil.  At least that was Major Riven’s opinion over the first eleven days of their voyage.

Another shift trying not to fall asleep at his post.  During his third hour on duty, the radar console warning light demanded his attention.  Long-range scanners just identified four human spaceships pursuing them.  Sensors soon confirmed the ships as Hummingbirds.  His computer kept scrolling through known configurations until it settled on the double fifteen-foot railgun with a forward fixed aim.

When he was a new lieutenant, their unit’s mission was to destroy a battery of six such weapons guarding a human strongpoint.  Railguns fired an iron-nickel musket ball accelerated by powerful electromagnets.  A length of fifteen feet set the musket ball’s muzzle speed to 4.5 mach.  One slug hit the front of a battle tank and reduced its length from thirty feet to eighteen inches.  Another slug missed the tank and vaporized the soldier standing next to him.  If the reload and power up time wasn’t so long, a small battery could destroy an entire armored command.

“Bet they have ‘em rifled too,” said Captain Jakes.

“Sonic waves crush railgun bullets; that’s why they use musket ball.”

“You’re talking ground-based railguns, Major.  No air in space means no sonic wave.  Railguns have greater velocity, range, and accuracy.  Those shells will either be proximity or high explosive.  Either way, one hit and we’ll suck vacuum.  Even a near miss could cripple us.  Just be glad the Hummingbird cannot reload while in space.”

Captain Jakes directed him to the main screen.  Having gotten past the meteorites, the screen had a solid black appearance, which eliminated his earlier nausea.  Colored lights appeared and a schematic of a Hummingbird with its vital statistics popped up on a neighboring monitor.  A green line went to a white X identified as their jump point on the main screen.  The human ships appeared as red lines that intercepted the green line.  Gold numbers scrolled down.

“We have a good lead but Hummingbirds are fast and these are moving just over the know max.  Bet those pilots are on a suicide run so they’re not worrying about fuel consumption.  Computer projections have us at the jump point five seconds after they reach a long-range firing solution.  It’s going to be close.”

Seven more hours of travel and it could all come down to a margin of five seconds.  Worse part being how that margin favored the humans.  With nothing more to do, Major Riven returned to his post monitoring the pursuing spacecraft.  At least their computer dismissed those rushing from the Apex fleet.  They would be a full day behind the ones from Yang.

Captain Jakes opened the ship’s intercom.  “Now hear this.  All power not needed for propulsion is being diverted to the wormhole generator.  Everyone is to go to onboard oxygen until we jump.”

Major Riven had an idea but didn’t know if it would work.  He set his comm to private and contacted the Captain.  The wormhole generated an opening based on mass.  The stolen human research established an optimum penetration speed, which was below maximum.  Major Riven pointed out that a slower speed destroyed the ship but nothing was known about exceeding it.  If they accelerated to max, could they reach the jump point, open the wormhole, and be gone before the Hummingbirds got close enough?

His comm line remained silent for a moment.  “Better a chance at success than some monkey putting a shell up our butt.  If I disengage the governor on the wormhole generator, I can get us jump power in five hours.  We can reach the Nadar jump point before those hairless monkeys get in range.  Going to maximum thrust.”

Major Riven watched the computer recalculate their approach.  The Hummingbirds continued to close the distance but the time factor to an optimum firing solution ticked upward and stopped at forty-eight seconds, in their favor.  They could do nothing more.

Seven hours is a long time to watch colored lights.  For Major Riven, he fixated on the time to a firing solution.  After hitting maximum thrust, the timer held for eleven minutes before going down to forty-seven seconds.  Still too close a race to declare a winner at this point. 

An alarm jarred him awake.  His eyes scanned the screen as it announced one of the Hummingbirds had fired.  The timer read ninety seconds to jump, could their intelligence be wrong about the range?  An impact timer appeared, its numbers racing to zero before winking out.  Again, the alarm sounded and the latest impact timer expired.

“Think those hairless monkeys realize they’re not getting close enough to guarantee a hit.  Since we cannot deviate course, they are trying to fire one up our exhaust pipe but at that distance, it’ll be a lucky shot.”

Major Riven watched the wormhole timer as it dropped below one minute.  Alarms sounded again as the last three Hummingbirds fired.  Six impact timers appeared.  Based on the computer’s calculation, the shells would reach them less than one second after they entered the wormhole.

He turned to the front screen just as the wormhole timer hit zero.  At first the black screen showed no anomaly.  Than a pinpoint of light appeared in the center of the screen.  As it widened, it reminded him of an eye, the iris reflecting every color of the rainbow.  Alarms wailed and the ship bucked like a jeep on a bad road.   Major Riven didn’t need to check the shot clock, one of the proximity shells exploded aft of them.
A kaleidoscope of colors appeared all around them.  Captain Jakes’ gleeful shout said it all.  In the instant they entered the wormhole, they left Terratwo’s star far behind them, along with the hostile forces.  Next stop, Earth.

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 19, 2018, 04:54:17 AM
“Computer, damage report . . .. verify . . .. log it.” 

Captain Jakes released his chair’s restraints.  When he jumped out of his seat, his heavy boots came down with a loud bang.  He danced on the bridge for a few seconds, his expression one of joy.

“Here’s something those reports never mentioned.  Inside this wormhole, we are experiencing gravity.  Best we inform your command or we’ll have a lot of broken bones.”

In the beginning everyone moved with extreme caution.  Those glad for the gravity anticipated a return to the novelty of microgravity.  The ones who enjoyed the freedom of near weightlessness bemoaned the change.  At least they all agreed on one thing.  A definite up and down made the trip enjoyable.

The Captain issued orders for repair crews.  Seemed they did not escape unscathed.  Two rounds exploded near them and the shrapnel affected electrical systems inside the ship.  Until they landed on Earth, all wiring routed through the outer hall had to be switched to an internal system.  According to the damage control computer, they had a number of minor oxygen leaks.  Those needed sealing as they didn’t have enough spare oxygen to cover another thirty-five-day journey through the wormhole and the transit time from planet to jump point.

Work commenced as soon as the meeting ended.  In Major Riven’s mind, keeping the passengers busy prevented trouble.  You couldn’t have so many packed in such a small space without friction.  Even if it took several times longer for inexperienced personnel to make the repairs, it beat lying on your bunk staring at the bunk above you.

By day three they sealed all the leaks.  Major Riven allowed everyone to drink the one beer each soldier was granted prior to liftoff.  None got drunk on so little alcohol but it did give everyone an emotional boost.  It took another twenty days rewiring the ship but every time a circuit showed green, that work detail strutted.  The competition to do the most wiring kept everyone’s mind off the seriousness of the upcoming mission.

That’s when Captain Jakes approached him.  To date, he had nothing but smiles and compliments.  He even joked that he was going to enlist every soldier into the space force.  Today, his eyes lacked their usual twinkle.

“Don’t know what’s in that pocket of yours, Major, but it’s getting obvious.  You keep patting that pocket like a pup hiding a cricket from his mother.  Do something about it.”

Since they launched, Major Riven kept the flash drive on his person.  Between the race for the wormhole and the frenzy to repair the ship, he put off reviewing what was on the flash drive.  He continued to worry about misplacing the thing and the necessity of maintaining whatever secrets it held.  His habit of patting his pocket caught the eye of the Captain.  With no viable excuse, he requested the privacy of the Captain’s cabin for a few moments.  He opened his personal data pad and slid the flash drive into an open slot.  The external drive activated without him touching any control.

The Prime Minister’s face appeared.  “Major, our human agent has been assigned to the bioweapon recover mission, along with eleven other commandoes.  He will send you burst transmissions on the frequency shown regarding updates whenever possible.  Our agent is the eugenics human.  Keep our agent’s identity secret at all costs.  Allow him to escape, if possible.  Given the choice between the data or our spy, your priority is eliminating all information related to the bioweapon.  This drive will self-destruct when the timer hits zero or upon removal from whatever computer you’re using.”

Smoke swirled out of the disk as Major Riven pulled the flash drive free of his computer.  He dropped it into an empty waste can until it stopped sparking.  When he retrieved it from the can, it no longer burned his paw.  He placed the lump of charred plastic in a pocket for later disposal.  Before he left the cabin, he programmed his personal comm to auto receive the frequency displayed during the message.

How could any eugenics human betray their creators?  They were genetically designed and artificially grown to eliminate certain traits and enhance whatever the humans needed.  Those bred as warriors were formidable soldiers, impervious to pain and almost unstoppable.  They went from newborn to full grown in eighteen months and stood over seven feet tall.  If their height didn’t distinguish them, they all had golden colored eyes.  The downside was a high infant mortality rate, their ten-year lifespan, and the inability to produce offspring. 

Captain Jakes leaned against the wall opposite his private quarters just as Major Riven opened the door. 

“Everything five by five?”  When Major Riven nodded, the otter sneezed.  “Best you put that piece of burnt plastic in its proper place.  Might do you some good operating the recycling plant next shift by yourself.  Good for your squad seeing the commander doing menial work.”

“You know.”  It was both a question and a statement.

“I’ve transported my share of commandoes when I flew atmospheric Soundblasters.  The smell of fried circuitry and burning plastic always came before insertion.  I said nothing back then and I’m not telling your squad anything now.”

The remainder of their time traveling the wormhole proved mind-numbing.  Soldiers exercised, and officers plotted plans for dirtside.  Otherwise, everyone caught as much sleep as possible.  Sometimes they would activate the forward cameras and watch the swirling rainbow but even that got boring.  The only item still interesting on the trip was the countdown clock.

Four hours remaining on the wormhole clock and still so much more to do.  Captain Jakes established the final repair priorities and the interior became more active than an overturned beehive.  All the jury-rigged wiring had to be secured and gear stowed in its proper place before the countdown clock reached one hour.  Than came the final preparations, drive engines and weapons system placed on standby.  All personnel than used the restraining straps, fastening themselves into their cots. 

“The humans jumped five days before us.”  Despite the calm voice, Major Riven detected a note of worry in the Captain’s announcement.  “That Hydra knows we’re coming, where we will emerge, and had enough time to go from Earth’s apex point to the nadir jump point.  They’re going to have every weapon charged and ready to fire at our egress point.  If we’re not faster on the draw, this is going to be one very short flight.”

A pinpoint of black in the center of the display marred the rainbow.  As the clock continued its countdown, the black expanded.  When they entered the wormhole, the burst of color announced they had crossed some unknow barrier.  No way of knowing what happened when you exited the wormhole.  No morph ever traveled through one before this mission.  Major Riven glanced at the readout as it counted off those final seconds.

Six - - - - five - - - - four - - - - three - - - - two - - - - one - - - -

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 22, 2018, 06:53:55 AM

Every alarm and siren aboard the spacecraft wailed.  A quick glance forward convinced Major Riven to concentrate on his radar panels.  First the IFF Indicator announced an enemy vessel at point blank range off their port side and high.  That alarm stopped screeching and the IFF aft detected a ship at its maximum detection range.  Those alarms ended just as he switched to the damage control computer.

High Command anticipated something going wrong.  Seemed they had good reason to worry.  Primary systems flashed from blinking green, through the yellow and reds, and settled on black.  Most of the secondary systems soon switched from off to bright yellow or dark red.  At least the tertiary systems remained green.

“What the hell happened?”  Major Riven didn’t care if he sounded scared.  He was petrified.

“Give those hairless moneys a ci – gar.  Now that’s some fine shooting.”

“Captain, what’s going on?”

“Our excess speed allowed the railgun shells closest to us to enter the wormhole.  They detonated when they exited the thing.  Luck us, each shell and our ship went on different tangents when we exited the wormhole.  Instead of a direct hit, we caught the concussion blast.”

Major Riven jumped onto the intercom.  Every soldier climbed out of their seat and organized damage control parties based on the ship’s priority system.  The red lights blinking the fastest slowed until they became steady.  Quite a few of the primary systems that went black now flashed red.

“My compliment to your gaggle of ground pounders, Major.  Hull integrity holding steady at seventy-five percent, initiating maximum thrust, and rerouting weapon’s energy to life support.  Course plotted.  Seems your move back home just reduced our travel time to Earth by three days.”

“Did we run into two human ships or just one?”

“One.  The Hydra was at zero thrust, waiting there.  If we came in at the recommended speed, they would have scratched this ship and turned it into scrap metal.  You didn’t notice the ship you first saw on the forward radar was the same one that disappeared aft of us.”

Major Riven released his restraints and joined the Captain.  It seemed entering a wormhole too fast caused the ship to continue its acceleration while in transit.  That acceleration shot the ship out like a bullet instead of the controlled exit they anticipated.  The speed alone should have shattered the hull but it held thanks to whichever work crew constructed the ship back home. 

It took almost four days of continual work to get all primary systems a steady yellow.  That did require them to cannibalize the tertiary systems but at least the ship flew.  The excess speed did bleed off and they continued at maximum drive.  Since Earth had no intervening meteorite fields or operational stealth weapons, the Captain jettisoned the missile system. 

They did loose enough oxygen that even with the emergency reserve, air rested at seventy percent.  The scrubbers could handle the load but they needed to refresh their air supply when they reached their destination.  It wouldn’t last much beyond that time.  Carbon dioxide poisoning would set in less than a day after reaching Earth orbit.  They would have to make their reentry burn on the initial approach.

At least the think tank rodents considered this possibility.  Their ship carried a discarded weapon system known as ORCOIL, the orbital combat insertions launcher.  Each missile tube carried a commando from orbit to the surface.  It worked fine on the chalkboard.  Too bad the brains forgot about the efficiency of the human’s antimissile systems.  On its first mission, another vessel fired two hundred missiles at a target.  Just three morphs made it groundside.  They discarded the prototype after that first disaster.

It came back for this trip as a contingency plan.  Since Earth had no operational antimissile system, those back home figured each morph had a higher percentage chance of survival.  Captain Jakes stressed how everyone had five days for training on a simulator.  Though all soldiers took combat jumps as part of their standard training, there was a difference between jumping at a thousand feet and fifty miles.

The timer reached forty-eight hours when the long-ranged sensors reacquired the human ship.  The Hydra had better speed than a Mamba.  It also had superior armor.  Good thing the Mamba had better weapons and maneuverability.  It made any one-on-one space battle a near even match.

Captain Jakes rubbed his paws together in anticipation.  He destroyed four spaceships during the battle for the orbital station.  Then his superiors switched him from fighter command to logistics.  While most of his comrades earned the coveted space ace ribbon, he stagnated.  Just the idea of getting that ribbon made him insufferable.

The humans would reach firing range five minutes before they entered orbit.  However, the Captain gained an additional seven minutes thanks to the Earth’s curvature.  He intended using that time to his advantage.  As soon as the Mamba disappeared from their screens, he would spin the ship a full one eighty.  Three minutes later, he would bounce the ship off the atmosphere while launching the ORCOIL missiles.  With so much mass removed, the Mamba would gain the advantage of speed.  Since bouncing off the mesosphere set him on a random trajectory, the humans couldn’t anticipate his incoming course.  Captain Jakes figured he would get off the first shot.  After that, it depended on the pilot’s skill. 

A slight course adjustment had the Mamba skim within three miles of the moon’s surface before making a final approach to Earth.  Captain Jakes gained another minute.  With an hour to go, everyone made for the ORCOIL missiles.  Thanks to microgravity, walking on the ceiling didn’t prove too disorienting.  All equipment checked out and all gear stowed.  Time for the ground team to prepare for launch.   

When the Captain sealed each hatch, the ferret wished him good hunting.  Major Riven shook paws and wished him good hunting just as his hatch sealed.  Static filled his helmet for a second.

“Major, forgive me for lying.  Our hull integrity isn’t the seventy-five percent I told everyone.  It’s more like seven point five.  I’ll launch all missiles five seconds before hitting the mesosphere.  Thirty seconds after that, the Hydra will get a sensor lock on our debris.  Those missiles have rudimentary stealth technology so let’s hope they think nobody survived the orbital reentry.  It’s been an honor serving you.  Good hunting down there.”

Silence.  He hung inside an ice prison colder than possible thanks to the liquid hydrogen circulating around the exterior. A sudden shake and the immobility continued.  He checked his helmet’s onboard computer display and confirmed the launch of all missiles fifty miles above the ground.  As the trailblazer, his launched a full second before the others.  He could do nothing but trust the onboard telemetry to get him to the landing zone.

At thirty miles, the icy prison boiled in an effort to cool the outer skin.  The water turned to steam, its pressure threatening to crush his armor suit.  The ceramic shell encasing his missile shattered as the super-heated water vapor escaped.  All that remained of the missile was the frame and the pad he stood on as he hurled downward at ballistic speed.

Twenty miles and telemetry had him on course.  Explosive bolt pushed the metal frame outward and it disappeared in the night.  Clamps holding his boots disengaged and a green light lit in his helmet.  The first drag chute popped out of the base, pulling it away from him.  Major Riven didn’t see the second drag chute that gave him separation space.  He continued falling at a high speed.

Parachutes deployed on his armor suit and caused him to spin as he hit the ten-mile mark.  The seams opened and the wind flung the parts far from him.  His personal oxygen tank activated just as the first drag chute opened.  It lasted one second before being torn apart but his speed had been greatly reduced from the initial ballistic speed.

Major Riven’s flight suit allowed him some maneuvering ability and helped slow him further.  As he passed through the five-mile mark, he checked his onboard display.  Still on course, good news indeed since everyone else followed him.  He should have detected thirty-five other morphs following him.  It seemed this high-risk option already cost him fifteen lives.

Bright sunlight kept the sky illuminated but the sun kept dropping to the horizon.  Bad enough landing in a field selected by a long-ranged sensor.  Too easy to underestimate its actual size or miss any hazards.  If the sun dipped any lower they would be landing in predawn darkness instead of the first hour after sunrise, not the most ideal of conditions.

An alarm rang within his helmet and he used the eye sensor to activate the final landing sequence.  As he passed the two-mile mark, his computer ejected his oxygen tank and opened his face plate.  He couldn’t receive any data from his head’s up display but now he breathed the planet’s air.  His wrist altimeter flashed red and the two-morph chute deployed. 

In a combat situation, the chute opened five hundred feet above the ground.  Somebody back home must have figured they could open a lot higher since they anticipated no armed resistance.  He checked his altimeter.  Five thousand feet and somewhere down there in the predawn darkness a patch of grass.  Things did take on depth and dimension as he passed five hundred feet. 

He started a slow walk as he flared his chute.  His feet took a few steps with nothing below them before he landed.  Never had the ground felt so comforting.  Major Riven remained where he landed knowing the others still needed the homing beacon built into his helmet.  Grunts, groans, and many an expletive announced the arrival of each soldier.  He lowered the visor and checked the readout.  Twelve accounted for, ten in the field and two in the trees.  Better than expected.

“We have a lot of work to do so get your gear organized.  I want us out within the hour.  Did anyone with the pistols or grenades survive the drop?”

A chorus of negatives echoed in the field.  Major Riven divided the guns and ammo with four members of his command and the grenades with another three soldiers.  None of them survived the drop.  Perhaps he should have let everyone carry a firearm and a full load of ammo but then they would lose their communicators and the feudal weapons.  Space in those missiles was limited.  It was his decision.

A voice shouted from his left.  “I’ve found the two in the trees.  One’s dead but we have one with superficial injuries.  Going to take time cutting him down.”

Major Riven cursed under his breath.  That left him with eleven soldiers to locate and destroy a super bioweapon while preventing a dozen human soldiers from obtaining it.  Of course, that assumed their spy told the truth about the human force.  He called for all officers to report to him.  The only officer dirtside was their veterinarian.  Once more he shouted out for any officers.

Lieutenant Lewark replied.  “Give me a moment Major.  I’ll be dirtside as soon as I convince this tree I’m not some weird bird building a nest.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 24, 2018, 04:54:38 AM
A gentle paw shook the slumbering figure snuggled in a cocoon of cotton.  The morph shifted positions and continued snoring.  The paw grasped the sleeper by his shoulder and gave a more insistent shake.  This time the snores grew in pitch.  That was when the intruder gave the sleeper a light rap to his muzzle with a knuckled fist.

Stifling a yawn, the previously sleeping morph rose from his cot and took in his surroundings.  Boxes lined the shelves along every wall.  Some of these carried the familiar names of local breweries.  Others held various supplied for the bustling kitchen located on the other side of the open door.

“You always were a difficult one waking, Stonemarker.  The night is done and the day not yet started.”

“I should be grateful, brother.  The night hasn’t been kind.”  Stonemarker covered his mouth as another in a series of yawns hit him.
Porcupines considered everyone within their clan family.  Even mates sometimes referred to each other as brother and sister.  Though in this case, the salutation contained a note of truth.  Westie was his older brother, by all of fifteen minutes. 

“Another of your dreams?”

Stonemarker nodded as he didn’t want anyone else to know just yet.  Restless nights led to dreams full of images or words that haunted his waking hours.  Such words and images became part of prophecies and foreboding things.  When he did reveal his dreams, the clan acted on them as his warnings proved valid too often to ignore. 

But this one seemed to be for outsiders and would not benefit or hinder his kind.  That never happened before and he didn’t know if he could trust it.  No use fighting the words or images.  Whenever he experienced such visions, they never made sense until something triggered a clearer picture.  He could do nothing more than wait.

“Anything happen overnight while you patrolled the grounds, Westie?”

“Chairwoman Goldenspike arrived at the ferry late last night.  She still waits for the first boat of the day.  I asked old Fester to launch the raft after her entourage lit the signal lamp.  His response?  Quote, not until light meets the waters unless our boss prefers swimming, unquote.”

Stonemarker groaned.  They still had another full moon before winter started but the otters reported icy patches upriver.  If they broke, a wayward piece of ice could puncture a boat or smash a raft.  He could understand not wanting to risk their clan’s leader to an unseen hazard in the river but you don’t keep somebody like Chairwoman Goldenspike waiting.  He grabbed his jacket and jogged to the landing.

At least Fester was making ready to ferry their VIP guests with first light.  Stonemarker arrived just as the old porcupine prepared to pole across the river.  He misjudged the distance between raft and pier in his hurry to board.  If not for the quick intervention of a welcomed paw, he might be crossing the river a bit wetter than he intended and without any shred of dignity.

Eight armed guards stood around the pony and cart as their raft bumped the opposite shore’s pier.  One guard lowered his blade and offered his arm to the lady sitting in the driver’s seat.  Like two lovers, the guard and lady meandered down the path and onto the pier.  The lady released the guard’s arm and continued to their raft.

Age had stripped Chairwoman Goldenspike of her name.  Instead of fur and quills that resembled spun gold, she displayed a pale shade of yellow.  She also moved with the help of a cane, another concession to her advancing years.  She accepted the help of the raft operator and strolled over to Stonemarker.

“Chairwoman Goldenspike, welcome to River Haven Inn.”  He executed a deep bow to his clan’s leader.

“Innkeeper Stonemarker, I will be staying here for at least two years, if the Fates are willing.  The inn and its operations remains your responsibility.  My function is to review your operations and assure our best interests are being met.  I’ve heard good things about you and may want to offer you a position on our Board of Directors at the time of my departure.  Who knows?  You may well replace me.”

“Honored though I am, I’ll refuse.  I prefer running this place and occasionally cooking or tending bar.”

She stared at him until they completed the crossing.  Goldenspike complimented old Fester on his skills handling the raft as he shoved off to ferry the rest of her entourage.  Now the Chairwoman pulled him closer as they made their way to the inn, her words meant for his ears only.

“I am not sure if I’m proud of a child who excels in his duties or miffed at his lack of ambition.  Something to discuss later.”

The rest of the morning and early afternoon had him arranging accommodations for her and her guards.  Next came the task of scheduling meetings with the senior officers of the inn and reviewing all records regarding the inn’s operations.  By the time he took his leave, afternoon had turned into evening.

Stonemarker relieved the bartender.  He missed the opportunity of cooking today’s dinner so he pulled rank and tended bar in the common room.  He didn’t anticipate too many before the river cleared so he would have time gossiping with his patrons.  If he had to give a reason why he enjoyed being the innkeeper, mingling with his guests would be at the top of his list.

A washcloth and a dirty tankard offered him a chance to survey the common room.  One booth had two couples from neighboring wolf packs.  Another had the river otters who warned him about the icy river.  Two young porcupines worked at keeping the place clean.  Elders from his clan played cards as they enjoyed their downtime.  It would be a quiet evening.

The double doors swung open, admitting a dozen male wolves.  Each of them wore an outfit displaying an odd pattern of green, brown, and black.  With the exception of a golden eyed giant, the strange pack lacked the typical rank markings wolves proudly displayed when traveling outside their territory.  They stood just past the door surveying the room with a predatory look that made Stonemarker shiver.  All of them moved as one across the room to the largest booth.

He approached their table with his chin up but got no response.  Such a breach of civility concerned Stonemarker.  He gave the wolves a deep bow as he drew closer, hoping they would see it as a sign of submission.  He kept his eyes on the table as he spoke to the golden eyed wolf.
“Welcome to River Haven Inn, travelers.  Have I the pleasure of addressing your alpha?”

Another male, who sat near the back of the booth spoke with an accent he couldn’t place.  “If you mean which of us is in command, that would be me.  We have traveled a great distance and need food, lodging, and supplies.  We will pay a fair price if you can satisfy our needs.”

The wolf opened a bag and placed three gold coins, each as large as a lima bean on the table.  If these coins proved as pure as they appeared, what he saw was wealth beyond his comprehension.  The fellow than placed two gems on the table, one as big as his thumbnail and the other a quarter of its size.  Based on how the light refracted, they had to be high quality diamonds.

“Even one of the small coins would entitle you to far more than you could carry.  I shall provide meals and private lodging for the night.  Supplies you may purchase in the morning when our stores open.  I shall personally give you change, though I do hope you will accept our hospitality for a few days.”

The proclaimed alpha retrieved the treasures.  Two of the coins and the gems disappeared in his pocket.  While Stonemarker had their meals prepared, he summoned the clan’s jeweler.  Based on nothing more than the fellow’s expression, Stonemarker knew his initial assessment correct.  Exchanging this small coin would require them to smelt it in half and still it would drain their reserve of liquid funds.

When the jeweler departed, he called over the young girl.  The child recited the welcome message as she had been taught.  Pleased by her performance, he sent her off to fetch the key and escort their guests to their private cabin.  She returned and trotted over to the booth where the wolves sat. 

The girl gave one wolf a light touch to his jacket.  It should have done nothing more than gain his attention.  Instead, several of the wolves acted as if they intended drawing weapons, though none appeared armed.  At least the child didn’t notice their hostile glares.
As they left the common room, something flashed within Stonemarker’s mind.  He shuddered at what the reality of his sudden insight signified.  He called over the boy and sent him for Westie while he abandoned the bar to his assistant.  It was time.

Fresh air didn’t help.  He stared at the cabin assigned to the wolves and felt a sense of relief when the girl pranced out.  Westie watched the child go in and mimicked his brother’s leisurely stance.  After a moment of silence, Westie asked the obvious question.

“There are three in my prophecy, Westie.  The golden eyed wolf is one.  I know the second and must seek him out within the hour.  The last remains hidden but will soon be here.  When strangers arrive, be sure they are treated with great honor.”

“Chairwoman Goldenspike expects an innkeeper to remain here.  What am I to say?”

“Tell her my gift and my curse has sent me away for five days.  If I return with another, we shall speak of dreams.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 26, 2018, 05:02:31 AM
Once Stonemarker fulfilled his promise to provide change to the wolves, he departed along the eastern path.  After a full day, he found the road he wanted and followed it.  The second day came to an end and he set up his camp.  He made no effort to hide his campfire as he prepared his meal along the road’s shoulder.

Just as he finished his meal, three armed wolves stepped out of the shadows.  Each held their weapons at the ready as they approached his camp.  Stonemarker stood, keeping his paws away from his side as he confronted his adversaries.

“It seems we have an intruder.”  One wolf growled.

“And a fool who builds a fire bright enough that any pup could find it from a mile away.”  The second wolf did not hide his contempt.

“Intruders we can forgive but a fool isn’t tolerated.  Can you see any reason why we should let him live?”  The third one snarled.

Stonemarker showed no fear as he stared into the eyes of the nearest wolf.  “I claim herald’s right.  I seek one from your pack, he who was last known to be Alpha.  If Stripe still rules, then my words are for his ear alone.”

The first wolf approached.  Though his winter coat didn’t display its usual bulk, the fellow was an excellent example of his species.  Like all of his kind, the wolf’s shoulder just cleared Stonemarker’s brow.  Seeking to both intimidate and to establish dominance, the wolf twirled his broadsword as if it were an epee in an open display of power, its blade whistling through the air less than a finger’s width above his head.
“You heard his claim.  Check his gear.  If he has either blade or shaft, I’ll gut him myself.”

The second wolf approached the campsite while leaving his friend’s line of vision unobstructed.  Stonemarker did nothing as the wolf rifled through his gear.  As he expected, the wolf found nothing more than a few day’s rations of traveler’s food and a bottle of water. 
Having searched the camp, the wolf patted down his pockets.  He removed the fire making toolkit as well as the knife it contained.  The second wolf held the blade high so all could see.

The first wolf took a step forward and raised his blade.  Their third companion jumped between the sword wielder and his intended target.
“A herald is allowed one blade if it is paired with flint.  He has not violated the Law of Heralds and must be given safe passage through our lands.  Since he named our leader as the one who is to receive his message, we are also obligated to escort him to Stripe.”

Stonemarker made an incorrect assumption.  He thought the wolf who challenged him led this patrol.  Their leader was the male who searched his camp.  A good thing too as he didn’t recognize the wolf with the broadsword until he spoke. 

“I was second in the pack until this spiked-back whelp defeated me in battle.  Now I run the borders like some untrained pup or feebleminded elder.”

Stonemarker lowered his arms.  Knowing the angered morph wasn’t the leader gave him the confidence to confront his attacker.  Wolves respected honesty and a statement of fact garnered more honor among them than a glib tongue.

“You were drunk, Honech, and wanted to kill a boar that did nothing more than bump into you.  I even offered a free refill but you insisted on spilling his blood.  Had I not used my sap, who knows how many others may have died because you couldn’t hold your liquor.  It was you who violated the neutrality of the haven inn.  If you were disgraced, it was not at my paws.  Your own stupidity did that.”

It took both of the wolves to keep their companion from attacking Stonemarker.  After several heated exchanges between the three wolves, Honech sheathed his blade.  He retreated to a nearby oak and leaned against it, his eyes still sending daggers at him.

“I could claim his quills are shafts,” said Honech.

This time the second wolf’s voice carried a note of command that brooked no disobedience. 

“Keep your blade in its sheath or you risk your own life when we get back.  The porcupine can no more eliminate his quills than an otter can keep out of water.  Leave him be.  As a precaution, blindfold him when we take him to our camp.  If others follow, he violates the Law and our Alpha will decide his fate.”

Honech tied a rope about one wrist.  He draped Stonemarker’s cape over his head and cinched it about his neck.  Good thing their leader warned him of the consequences if any harm came to the herald before reaching their camp, otherwise that rope might have snapped his neck.  The hiss of steam as somebody extinguished his fire signaled their departure.

Stonemarker followed wherever the rope tugged.  Three times they stopped and spun him about ‘til he almost became too dizzy to walk.  At one point, he felt the cold waters of a mountain stream bath his feet and he almost slipped on a mossy log he had to cross.  By the end of their travel, he panted within his cloth hood.

They gave him no warning.  One moment he ran and the next instant a meaty paw slammed him in the chest.  As he scrambled to his feet, he felt the rope binding his paw drop.  Stonemarker reached up and removed the improvised hood.  The cold night air felt a lot better than what he experienced under his hood.

He stood within a wide glen surrounded by thick trees.  To both his left and right, Stonemarker spied several tents just beyond the illumination range of the central campfire.  Wolves gathered behind him as his three escorts led him towards the largest tent.

One wolf stood guard at the tent’s flap.  To either side of the tent, a banner hung proclaiming this to be the Red Hill Pack.  Below the stenciled head of a wolf were three red chevrons, the emblem that proclaimed Stripe still ruled as Alpha.

The tent flap opened and Stonemarker stared down at the base of a nearby tree stump.  In his peripheral view he recognized the huge male that left the leader’s tent.  Wolves were said to engage in contests of strength to determine leadership.  Stripe had the size and muscles to maintain control of his pack.  When he sat on the tree stump, it became his throne.  Every wolf dropped to one knee.

“I will hear the tale of the outsider who stands before me.”

The patrol leader relayed the story of how they discovered his intrusion and the events that followed.  If the Alpha asked a question, he responded.  Stonemarker anticipated either some boastful claim or an omission of facts to justify their actions.  The patrol leader did neither but stuck to the facts of the incident.  At no time did he make excuses nor did he justify what they did.

“Honech, this is the second time you have dishonored our pack.  I can excuse somebody who drinks too much but this time you were sober.  You threaten one claiming herald’s rights because of a personal grudge?  Questioning the legitimacy of a herald falls under the Alpha’s responsibility.  When the Spring Rankings begin, you will not participate.”

“You dare condemn me to sub omega for a year,” Honech snarled.

“Three choices have you.  Challenge me for Alpha here and now, accept your fate for this year, or immediate banishment.”  Silence stretched for a moment.  “A wise decision.  Be glad it is for the one year.”

Stonemarker said nothing.  As protocol required, he kept his eyes focused on the ground before the Alpha.  To look upon an Alpha in such a formal setting without his spoken permission might be considered a direct challenge to his authority.  Herald or not, Stripe would be honor bound to respond. 

“You are no sanctioned herald but the innkeeper at River Haven.  Your people negotiated our trade with the Dark Forest Pack, a contract that will benefit both sides without any loss of honor or blood.  For that, we owe you a debt.  If you had a message, we would welcome your herald.  Why the need to come in person?”

Stonemarker maintained his posture of submission.  “My presence should tell you the value of my words.  Hear me and decide.  I put no onus on you or your pack.  If you decide against me, we part and nothing more shall ever be said.”

“No obligation?  You have my ear and since it is for mine alone, come inside where we can converse as civilized morphs.”

Stripe walked back to his tent and the guard held the flap open for both of them.  Stonemarker found the interior comforting when he compared it to his travel accommodations.  Thick pillows kept one’s feet off the hard ground.  Two lanterns hung inside gave sufficient light.  In the middle of the tent, a low table.

“We are in private, innkeeper.  Forget Alpha, we are two friends talking.  Meet me eye to eye so I may judge the honesty of your words.”
Stonemarker spoke of his talent for prophecy.  Than he listed the odd actions of the wolves who visited them.  He described how they moved like warriors prior to battle and how several reacted to a child’s touch with hostility.  He mentioned the coins and gems the one carried and how they acted as if they knew nothing of its value.

“I can see hiding the identity of their Alpha if they traveled here as warriors, but to ignore two females in heat?  I know of no male who wouldn’t offer a challenge, even within the neutral lands you rule.”  Stripe shook his head.  “And what is it you want?”

As Stonemarker spoke, he stared into the flame of the nearest lantern.  He found the flame somehow aided his memory when he spoke his prophecies. 

“To fulfill the prophecy, you must travel to my Inn where you shall become the Omega to a weaker pack who tread an honorable path.  They seek a place where lightning brings death on a clear night and travel to where a field painted red shall speak without voice.  Their leader will ask much but will tell you even less, accept it.  A day will come when death stalks a bald hilltop that shall be crowned in fire, from there the path is chosen by another.  Search his path for the stone serpents that shall point the way.  They shall discard you one night as unworthy.  No honor is lost when you return home but look not to the sky for it is there that secrets best not known are revealed.”

Stripe laughed.  “For this I am to abandon my pack and follow you?  The rambling words of a dream?  I think not.  In another six months our pack will rejoin the females who are farming our home fields.  If I followed this dream and I am gone beyond the Spring equinox, another will become Alpha.”

“There is more to my prophecy.  It needs three warriors.  The first is the golden-eyed wolf, an enemy of enormous power and with secrets deeper than any lake.  You are the second, Stripe.  You know the land and your willingness to help will insure success.  The third warrior awaits our arrival, or so I hope.  He carries a weight greater than any mountain and is as much a babe as any pup.”

“Let me answer in the morning.  For now, you are an honored guest.”

Stonemarker couldn’t believe how congenial the wolf acted in private.  He first met Stripe at his inn when he introduced him to the Deep Forest Pack and an arbitrator.  Stripe later thanked him for making the contract possible but always he maintained a formal stance.  Seeing a warrior wolf in such a friendly mood contradicted every stereotype known about his morph brethren.   Stripe poured wine into two tankards and offered one to him.  He drank deep of the sweet wine.  Stonemaker felt odd, and not the odd that comes from overindulgence.

“Be at ease, friend.  The poison is mild and will put you into a deep sleep.  I cannot risk others learning where we camp and stealing all that we have.  Protecting the pack is the responsibility I carry as the Alpha.  When you awaken, we shall see the power of a prophesy.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 29, 2018, 06:55:38 AM
Water cascaded over Stonemarker’s head.  He tried blocking the waterfall with his paws and gazed up at the source of the drenching.  An upturned canteen hung almost a full meter above his head.  Another meter above that, the grinning face of a wolf he knew all too well.  He hoped the pounding within his head the aftereffects of the drug and not the start of a monumental hangover.

“Very funny, Stripe.  I suppose giving me a light shake wasn’t practical?”

“One never overlooks such a good opportunity at a little payback.”  Stripe continued laughing while Stonemarker gathered his gear.  “I did try nudging you with my foot, but your snoring kept drowning out the crickets.  So, I decided to drown out the source of the disturbance.”

By following a more direct route instead of the road, Stripe and Stonemarker shaved half a day off their travel time.  As they entered the settlement, a female porcupine hurried up to them.  When she reached the two travelers, she lifted her chin.  Stripe responded by tapping her throat with a finger and thanking her for the honor shown.  Once she completed the greeting ceremony with Stripe, she turned to the innkeeper.

“Brother, that wolf pack you told all to watch left around noon two days ago.  They bought a lot of supplies before catching the ferry across the river.  Old Fester said those wolves were on the main road going west.”

Stonemarker nodded and the female continued her report.  “We also did as you suggested and kept alert for strangers.  Yesterday, a large party of ferrets came here.  They staggered their arrival but I’m sure they’re together.  They all had the same strange accent and used copper coins instead of beads.  All they have done is wander about the place asking strange questions.”

“Have others inform these strangers that somebody needs to speak with them at noon; then prepare a private meeting room.  Tell Chairwoman Goldenspike of my return and that there is no danger.  Stripe and I will handle these ferrets.”

The female continued describing the oddities of both the wolves and their latest guests as they walked through the settlement.  Stripe did not ignore such gossip as it could prove informative.  Stripe’s nose twitched as he caught the odor of the Mountain Wolf Pack.  For a moment, he scented a female in heat.  Shaking his head, he tried focusing on the chattering lady porcupine as they continued to a nearby cabin.

Once inside, the two dropped their gear.  A quick wash and hearty breakfast were followed with a restful nap.  When a young porcupine shook Stripe, he felt ready to see these strange ferrets.  Curiosity brought him but he had yet to decide if the words of a dream merited his attention.
A quick walk across the compound brought him to another cabin where Stonemarker waited.  Unlike their previous quarters, this one had nothing more than a huge table in the center of the one-room structure.  The front and back each had a large fireplace that remained unlit.  Light came into the place from windows along the side and from roof panels somebody opened prior to their arrival.  A gentle breeze kept the room at a comfortable temperature.

Stonemarker and Stripe stood at one end of the oaken table, waiting.  The door to their left opened and in stepped a ferret of medium build.  He eyed the two and remained wary, but when the porcupine pointed at the table’s chairs, drew closer.  The ferret had not gotten halfway to the table when the door opened again, admitting another ferret. 

In quick order the table became occupied by a total of eleven ferrets.  Six sat on one side and the rest on the other.  None spoke as they stared first at each other and then at them.  When Stripe moved down to the opposite end, every eye followed him and continued to do so even after he sat.

Stonemarker broke the silence.  “Good ferrets, I don’t know who you are but I do know why you are here.  You are tracking a pack of wolves that left this settlement two days ago.”

“Sir,” one ferret said, “I have never met these other ferrets or know anything about the wolves you speak of.  Like I told the one tending bar, I’m just a simple traveler going wherever my feet take me.”

Stipe watched the innkeeper approach the ferret that spoke.  The porcupine leaned close to the fellow until their muzzles almost touched.  Stonemarker banged the table with the sap he kept in his vest pocket.  The bag of lead pellets struck so close to the ferret he yanked his paw off the wooden surface.  Three ferrets started to rise but sat when another waved them down.
“Now is not the time for lies!  I have brought you an ally, somebody who is an expert tracker and is familiar with this region.  Decide if you wish to continue your deception or if you will accept Stripe’s help.  Our clan will provide whatever you need at a reasonable price.  All of you carry the same stench of death I smelled on those wolves and I’ll not have it here.”

The innkeeper turned towards the nearest door and stomped across the room.  He then flung it open and stepped beyond the threshold.  When the door banged shut, the room returned to an eerie silence.  Each ferret stared at the one sitting opposite him before glancing at the one who spoke earlier.  Stripe waited, wondering if they would continue their charade or admit they traveled together.

The ferret Stonemarker challenged gave a quick sigh.  “Testy morph.  Isn’t he?”

“Porcupines can be that way.”  Stripe growled.  “Thing is, this settlement is too valuable.  Every morph race has reason to mistrust others.  Such tension always makes trading difficult.  No village wants strangers prowling about.  We each fear an attack from our neighbors over land, food, or some other treasure.  This is a neutral site where deals can be enacted and goods exchanged without endangering ourselves.  For example, my pack will be here when summer ends to conclude a deal with the Dark Forest Pack for using their hunting grounds.  Without the porcupines negotiating an equitable trade, a harsh winter could prove disastrous for both of us.”

The ferret rose and stood there staring in space for several seconds.  He then gazed at each of the ferrets seated before turning towards him.  Clearing his throat, the ferret shook his head as he took his seat.  Again, the silence stretched.  Then the fellow turned to Stripe.

“The porcupine is right; we have been tracking those wolves over a great distance.  We have been given the duty of stopping them, at all costs.”

“So, the porcupine was right.  These wolves are either well-organized bandits or a disciplined squad of rogue soldiers.”  Stripe glared at the ferret.

“I can neither confirm nor deny your assumption.  All I will tell you is that if we fail, many will die.”

Stripe laughed.  The sound took the others by surprise if he correctly read their expressions.  A few had a bemused look but each of them kept their eye on the one who spoke first.  Such actions made the wolf laugh even harder.  Stripe extended his paw to the ferret.

“Command me and I shall obey your orders.  Stonemarker claims that he saw you in a dream and said you were on an honorable path.  He told the truth.  You are hiding something but not the purpose of your quest.  So, on my oath, I shall speak to none anything I hear from this moment forward.”

The ferret looked at the massive paw and placed his atop the open palm.  A brief shake was all it took.  Stripe rose and motioned the ferret into his seat and then took the one vacated by the fellow.  He didn’t know which end of the table to consider the head but knew he couldn’t remain in the end seat if he were to accept this ferret’s orders.

For the next hour Riven introduced his traveling companions.  Riven questioned the wolf as to where he thought the other wolves were going by asking what laid beyond the river to the west.  If Stripe asked a question for clarification, Riven sometimes evaded answering it.  Stripe never pressed for explanations.  When they concluded their talks, they made for the door the porcupine used earlier.

Outside, they found the innkeeper leaning against a tree.  Stripe nodded, signaling his decision to join these ferrets.  Stripe led them to one of the stores and spoke with the porcupine behind the counter.  In moments the ferrets had selected enough gear for a trip of thirty days.  Once they finished outfitting themselves, Stripe led them to the ferry.

As they crossed the choppy waters, Stripe muttered.  “Dreams can be a real tick in the fur.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on October 31, 2018, 06:41:26 AM
Stripe led the ferrets down the road at a slow pace.  While the ferrets kept to the stone walkway, the wolf kept off the path on one side staring at the ground.  After a hundred paces, they halted and the wolf searched the opposite side, retreating to where he stopped the last time.

This routine continued for the entire day.  By the time Riven ordered a halt, they had covered a distance that had the other ferrets upset with the wolf’s continual backtracking.  That had the wolf snarling at the ferrets in general but at no time did he respond to any specific ferret’s verbal attack.

As they sat about the campfire, Riven approached the wolf.  He kept shifting from one foot to another as he stood a distance away from the more powerful beast.  A motion of a huge paw and the wolf patting the nearby log had Riven draw nearer.  For a moment, the two sipped at the coffee they obtained at the settlement, the wolf calling it excellent while Riven compared it to muddy water.

“You didn’t come over here to describe the coffee.  You’re wondering why we travel so slowly when your adversaries are slipping away.”

“No, I’m not complaining.  You’re a tracker and we have to check both sides of the road.  I thought you might appreciate it if I told you one of the wolves we chase contacted us.  We now know they are going for something called the Orb of Storms.”

Stripe gave a menacing growl.  “A wolf managed to slip past me?  Impossible!  I would have scented him long before he got in range.  I saw no parchment or stone markers, so how did you get this message?”

Riven tried maintaining a calm exterior, but his eyes followed Stripe’s agitated pacing.    “Let me just say we have a way of communicating you don’t know and could never understand.  I can say nothing more.”

Stripe cursed as he muttered something about dreams.  Riven heard him vow to cause mayhem on a certain porcupine when this adventure ended.    Taking a deep breath, Stripe stared up at the stars and remained in that pose for several seconds.  When he returned to his place at the fire, his face displayed a look of contrition.
“Forgive me.  I don’t like being omega to you or any beast.  Yet I am compelled by my oath to do just that.  All I ask is that you answer one question.  Did this wolf slip past me?  I will be of no help to you or your cause if he did.”

Riven stood and placed his paw on the wolf’s slumped shoulder.  “None got past you.  This form of communication is something that cannot be seen, smelt, or heard.”

Such an answer made no sense to Stripe.  How does one talk without sight or sound?  If the message came by other means, he should have seen it.  No morph approached them and the ferrets remained on the road in full sight.  This communication even defied scent.  It seemed implausible but honor required him to ask no questions.

“Your warriors are good.  They move down the road watching for danger and have their paws close to their weapons at all times, though the one at the end seems inept.  He carries no weapon that I can see.  Is he an untrained welp or a coward?”

Riven laughed.  “The one you think inept is the bravest of us all.  He carries no weapon and will never fight.  He is honor bound to heal any who are injured.”

Stripe hung his head in shame.  “I did not know such a custom existed among your kind.  If battle comes, I pledge my life for his.”

“He would not want such a pledge if it puts you in harm’s way.”

“It is the time for a commander to make a decision.”

Over the next half hour, Stripe explained the history of the Orb of Storms.  He relayed all he heard of the recent theft and recovery, plus the repercussions.  A map was produced and Stripe dismissed it when the landmarks didn’t jive with those he knew.  Using a sharp stick, he drew a crude map showing the location of the settlement they left, the road they followed and the location of the Sanctuary.  When Stripe asked if he thought the other wolves would take the long and easy road or the more direct route, Riven laughed.

“That’s what I thought you would say.  Come tomorrow, we leave the road.  We push hard enough we can gain a day as I know ways around the hills these others must climb since they follow the road.  If luck is with us, we might beat them there.  If they go through the woods, I will catch their scent.”

“It’s good we have you, sir.  What say we sleep now and get an early start?”

As dawn broke, Stripe roused the ferrets.  All ate a hasty meal and then secured their gear before entering the woods.  The party made no effort at stealth as they knew their adversaries were two days ahead of them.  Even Stripe no longer checked for signs of the other wolves since he knew their eventual destination.

At times the others wondered why he led them on such a serpentine route, but Stripe kept his counsel.  When the forest became too dark for running, they moved at a more sedate pace.  By the time the moon rose above the trees, the forest became too dark and they made a fireless camp.  None spoke as they fell into an exhausted slumber.

After the second day, Stripe called to Riven and informed him that the Sanctuary of the Orb would be visible when they reached the hilltop.  Many of the ferrets expressed joy at the news and all stepped a bit livelier as they climbed the hill.  Breaking out of the tree line, each ferret reached into their backpacks and pulled out a strange contraption that they placed over their eyes.

“Is that a spyglass?  I’ve never seen one so small.”

“Size does not mean efficiency.  With this spyglass, I could count the number of bricks in that wall.”

Riven kept staring at the Sanctuary for several moments before he called out to the others.  “Anyone see anything peculiar?”

The one named Lewark gave a snort.  “Yeah, if this place is so important, where are the guards?  For that matter, where are the workers for the wall?”

Riven returned the spyglass to his backpack pocket and ordered everyone to prepare for battle.  Stripe objected, claiming weapons were not allowed in the Sanctuary.  None paid attention.  In the end, Stripe joined the others as they moved across the open field to the nearest wall. 
Peering around the corner, they saw the body of a hare guard.  Using his paw to relay instructions, the others fanned out and circled the building’s exterior.  Several tense moments passed before the other ferrets returned.  Everyone stood by the unbarred door.

“We found the bodies of another five hares, all showing the same . . . marks.”  Lewark stared at Stripe, but a command from Riven had the fellow continue.  “There is one large wound in their head and a smaller one in their chest.  Standard commando raid protocol, an armor piercing . . . blade . . . to the chest and a hollow-pointed . . . dart . . . to the head.”

“Search the Sanctuary for the ORB and check for any survivors, though I doubt there are any.”

“These wounds were done by no blade or dart, Riven.”  Stripe rose after examining the body.

“No disrespect wolf, but that is about as accurate a description as somebody of your intelligence could comprehend.”

Stripe raised his hackles at the insult but did nothing until his ears detected something.  That something repeated itself and Stripe raced for the sanctuary door.  His shout from within the building had everyone rushing to him.  Riven tried to follow Stripe as he raced towards the building but the wolf was much faster.  Just past the reception area Riven found Stripe cradling the head of a hare struggling for every breath.

“They came . . . they came last night.  The guards outside must have thought . . . thought the porcupines wanted to see the . . . the high priestess.  They came inside, pointed something at me and thunder roared.”

Riven knelt by the unknown hare.  “Did they get the Orb of Storms?”

The hare shook his head.  “They never discovered its hiding place, unless our priestess took it to the castle.  I’m a novice here and not privy to such things.  I heard the golden eye fellow say something about another Orb being located in a village of . . ..”

Stripe lowered the dead body of the hare.  “Stonemarker said that we would find a place where lightning brings death on a clear night.  Would you agree with that description of what killed these guards?”

Seeing the squad leader nod infuriated Stripe.  “You lied to me.  We weren’t tracking wolves; it was a gang of porcupines.  Why the deception, and why didn’t you warn me about these weapons?”

“You said it yourself.  Porcupines are trusted as intermediaries.  If that trust were destroyed, it would endanger everyone, which is why your friend asked that we say nothing unless it was necessary.  We are hunting these rogues down because they have acquired weapons from an ancient site and seek an even deadlier weapon.  That is why they need an ORB, to locate that other place.”

That had Stripe scratching the side of his muzzle.  “I know where this other Orb can be found.  It’s in a village of ferrets, but that Orb is of little value.  It will help you learn how things are constructed, but it has no other powers.  Even the wisest of rats hasn’t found a way to do more with it and the ferrets gave them a full season trying.”

“True, but these others don’t know that.  We’re now less than a day behind these killers; can you get us to this settlement quickly?”

Once more Stripe stared at the lifeless bodies of the armored hare guards.  “If these porcupines are willing to kill trained guards, they’ll not hesitate with folks armed with nothing more than pitchforks and hammers.  We give these guards a decent burial and then we move on.”

“We cannot help the dead.  This is more important.”  Riven’s comment came across without emotion.

Ignoring Riven, Stripe gathered the body of the guard and carried it outside.  “It will take them three days if they follow the roads.  We shall travel like the honeybee and get there before them.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on November 02, 2018, 04:51:19 AM
Working together the ferrets soon had a shallow pit dug along one of the Sanctuary’s outer walls.  Following Stripe’s directions, they removed the weapons and armor from each of the dead hares and leaned it against the wall above its owner.  When they filled the pit, the wolf had the armor laid on the ground as if the deceased warrior still wore it.

Stripe stepped back.  “We give homage to those who use sword and shield defending those that do not.  There is no greater duty and we grieve over the loss of those who fall in battle.  Let the dead be guided to a place of peace with the next rising of the sun.”  After the invocation, Stripe raised his muzzle and let out a long mournful howl.

Each ferret came to attention and one by one snapped off a sharp salute.  They maintained their rigid stance for the duration of the wolf’s invocation and showed no reaction to his baying.  Turning, they marched three steps forward before relaxing their pose.

“We have honored the dead; now let’s hunt down those responsible before more join these hares.”  Growled one of the ferrets.

Everyone nodded in agreement as they shouldered their backpacks.  Stripe led them down a stone path at a fast gait.  None complained about the pace as their feet ate the distance between the graves and the Builder’s Orb.  After a short rest, he led them into the forest.  Riven saw no trail but their guide must know where they had to go.

They continued their run for another day.  An hour before sunrise, the wolf led them at a slower pace.  Riven worried their quarry might beat them but Stripe sounded so confident.  Their guide called him forward.

A large settlement dominated the skyline on the other side of a cultivated field.  Stripe pointed to the left where a road ran right to the town.  Riven had everyone observe the place.  They examined the low outer wall for any signs of an armed defense and found nothing more threatening than a pair of guards at the gate.  Riven examined the inner walls and found them patrolled by sentries who moved at a sedate pace.  All saw nothing outside the normal activities of a village awakening after a night’s slumber. 

The wolf laid a massive paw on his shoulder.  “You and I must remain outside that stockade while the rest go inside and reconnoiter.  Wolves are not welcomed within their inner walls and you because of a certain porcupine’s dream.”

“For one who is supposed to be ‘following orders,’ you sure give a lot.  However, there is wisdom in your counsel.  As ferrets, we’ll not attract any attention and the settlement is large enough that they might not notice us as strangers.”

Taking a few steps away from the wolf, Riven whispered to his squad.  They each nodded and jogged off along the forest edge as they searched for another entry point.  For an hour the wolf and ferret waited.  Then the commander tapped his companion’s shoulder and they advanced.
Before reaching the main gate, Riven let the wolf know that the others were now inside the settlement and working their way to the stockade.  A questioning look from Stripe had Riven assuring the wolf he knew this as fact. 

A quick greeting to the two guards and they went inside.  Riven chuckled as he complimented the wolf on his lie as they passed the gateway.  Within the outer wall the two passed several large business establishments and many homes.  These Stripe ignored as they worked their way to the rear of the heavy stockade.

On an open field stood a mound of red mud that had been piled higher than the wolf was tall.  Though none tried stopping them from observing, the armed guards made it clear that they would not be allowed any nearer.  A question from Riven had Stripe explaining.

“The ferrets who live here found this red clay half a day’s journey to the north.  It’s high grade mud if you’re skilled in pottery.  The village uses it for trade.”  Then Stripe leaned so close to his ear that his whiskers touched him.  “I have no idea how a red field can talk, but that is what Stonemarker said.  I’ll leave you here and will watch for the others at the main entrance.”

Riven leaned up against the wooden fence, grateful for the shade.  He watched several workers move wheelbarrows of the mud to and from the pile.  He noticed other ferrets that passed his resting place.  They either ignored him or gave a quick nod acknowledging his presence, but made no effort at contacting him.

A light buzzing sound came to his ears and checking to be sure none were near, he retrieved his communicator.  One member confirmed that there was an ORB present, but he didn’t know where.  Another reported a building towards the rear made of stone that had a high number of armed guards.

That had the ferret fishing through his equipment.  Retrieving a small box, he first checked his surroundings.  None were paying him any mind.  When he turned the box on, it filled with script.

Well I’ll be damned.  That wolf was right about this field talking.  I must be within twenty meters of that ORB as I’m getting a detailed view of its display.

He was about to inform his squad of his findings when all his communicator channels lit up at one time.  Riven listened as his men reported panic had struck inside.  They described armed ferrets running to and from the stone building in a near frenzy.  Nobody saw smoke and there were nothing indicating a battle.

One glance at his computer interface showed him the reason.  Instead of the sedate listings of menus dedicated to various building related topics, the screen now displayed a high-speed download.  Riven knew his interface automatically downloaded an exact copy of the material so he made no effort to read it.  The screen flickered for several seconds before a series of numbers remained on display. Then the screen blanked out before the previous menus reappeared.

Riven’s anxiety came across his communicator as he contacted his squad.  “Everyone, stay alert.  The humans are somewhere nearby and they have accessed the ORB.  Locate and destroy their computer interface at all costs.  We cannot allow them a chance at analyzing any of the data they retrieved.”

X x x x

Unaware of the happenings within the stockade, Stripe lounged against the village square’s fountain.  Thanks to a favorable breeze, the waters sent a light mist his way that refreshed his aching muscles.  He observed the surrounding crowd, looking for the murderous porcupines.  This village wouldn’t allow any other morph beyond the field holding the red clay or through the inner stockade’s lone gate so he knew their quarry had to pass him.

Several youngsters approached the wolf.  The youngest wondering what kind of morph he was and pestered him with questions.  Older pups tried learning his reason for waiting there and became annoyed with his vague responses.  The more aggravating youths tried steering him to their parent’s place of business.  All were trying his patience.

Just then Stripe spied the tallest ferret he had ever seen.  The fellow also fascinated the crowd as he displayed the physique of a champion weightlifter.  Some of the females offered him a hot meal if he would stay for a while.  A contingent of other ferrets surrounding the giant tried moving through the populace, but their efforts attracted even more attention.

Since they were not porcupines, Stripe ignored their passing until the wind shifted.  All it took was a quick sniff and Stripe knew one of the killers stood nearby.  Senses alert, he tested the air and located the source of the odor.  It was the huge ferret.

Moving with alacrity, Stripe raced over to the beast.  Villagers parted way and he soon stood behind the gigantic ferret.  Stripe reached out his paw, snagging the fellow’s shirt.  He spun the giant around and stood muzzle to muzzle with the ferret.

“Last time I caught your scent, it was at the Orb of Storms Sanctuary.  Mind telling me why . . .”

A hard punch slammed into Stripe’s chest driving the wind out of him.  Having fought in many Alpha bouts where the first blow came without warning, he reacted on instinct alone.  Launching himself forward, Stripe drove his head into the stomach of his adversary and stood.  Using his momentum, he flipped the ferret over his back and spun around.

Like a seasoned warrior, the ferret jumped to his feet after his back crashed to the cobblestones.  A vicious right missed his head and Stripe responded with a quick series of hard punches to the ferret’s chest that sent his adversary reeling backward.  The ferret counterattacked.  One fist connected with his head and now it was Stripe who backpedaled as he fended off blows from a ferret as tall as him.

Nearby residents scrambled out of the path of the two combatants.  After blocking the ferret’s leg from delivering a kick to his knee, Stripe connected with a series of punches that felled his off balanced antagonist.  Once again, the ferret rose and Stripe moved in closer.  A sudden tingling sensation ran through him and in his agony, had him loosen an ear-splitting snarl.  Dropping to the ground, Stripe twitched and jerked about as painful spasms racked his body.  Foamy spittle pooled near his head as his body refused any command his mind issued.

Exhausted by what had happened, Stripe struggled to an unsteady four-paw stance.  Residents that fled earlier crowded nearer, babbling about what they witnessed.  One ferret guard pushed his way to where he knelt and asked the obvious question.  Soon every morph standing there responded in a cacophony of noise that had the guard end it with a piercing whistle.

With silence restored, Stripe told the guard where to find his friend.  A few moments later, Riven stood next to him and tried downplaying the fight.  He even called it a prelude to a scheduled athletic event between two boxers.  Though the ferrets around them grumbled, none protested too hard.  When Riven slipped the guard a few copper beads, he too withdrew.

“Not here, Stripe.  We’re getting out of this village right now.”

Once Stripe got to his feet, he swayed down the road like an inebriated pup.  Ferrets unfamiliar with the earlier ruckus pointed at those leading the drunken wolf outside of town.  Though he wanted to growl at the laughing populace, all he could do was drool, which only highlighted his comical appearance to those he passed.

Safe from prying eyes and far from inquisitive ears, the ferrets camped on the side of the road.  One of the ferrets stabbed him in the backside without warning and the others had to restrain an enraged wolf.  They told him it was done to heal him but such words didn’t help.  When Stripe regained his senses, he apologized to the one they called vet.  As strange as it seemed, he did feel much better.

Having recovered from his strange ordeal, Stripe’s eyes blazed with a renewed sense of fury as everyone went through the routine of an evening meal on the road.  Though the meal was tasty, his anger consumed him.  When nobody said more about what happened, Stripe snarled.

“When we first met, we hunted wolf bandits, then we chased murdering porcupines, and now I find myself fighting ferrets that have the same scent as those killers.  Nothing you have said to date makes sense and I’m wondering how many more lies you told.”

Riven nodded.  “Do you know what a chameleon is?”

“It’s some kind of lizard that can change his colors to match the ground or plants.  What does that have to do with your lies?”

“Our enemy has the ability to do the same thing, only he can change into any type of morph he sees.  Thank goodness they couldn’t hide their scent or we wouldn’t know they escaped.”

“What you say is not possible.  No morph can do that.”

“Nonetheless, our opponent can.  I know it seems impossible, but where we come from, such things are feasible.  Unfortunately, they have acquired the information they need and are going for the weapon we told you about.  Now we need your tracking skills more than ever.”

Stripe rose and walked over to his bedroll and scrunched under the blankets.  “Though I hate giving them any more of a lead, we’ll all do better on a good night’s sleep.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on November 05, 2018, 05:35:12 AM
Lewark approached Riven just before dawn.  “Did you learn anything from the download, Major?”

“Most of the document is coded and we have no way of deciphering it.  One of the things downloaded were the GPS coordinates for the message source and its receiving point as well as the current location of the ORB.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that after more than a thousand years the exact location has become degraded.  Best we can do is get within a two-mile radius of the transmission point and hope the laboratory is nearby.”

“How do we know which is which?”

“The first series of numbers is always where the message went and the second series of numbers indicates who sent it, lieutenant.  Since my communicator still has the coordinates of the porcupine’s settlement, I could deduce the third series of numbers must have been the ORB’s location.  By using the ancient map longitude and latitude numbers, I got an estimate of where the lab’s transmitter was located.  Based on these numbers, the site is over a hundred miles north and west of our current position.”

“Based on the distance and direction, our destination is well inside the Wildlands, Major.”  Stripe said from his bedroll.   He faced the two speaking ferrets and chuckled.  “If you two want to keep your conversations private, either move further away or speak softer, wolves have excellent hearing.”

Grumbling about the lack of privacy, the ferrets prepared a hearty breakfast.  All smiled as they talked about finding their enemy within a short time.  It made for an almost festive mood among them as each ferret anticipated a quick ending to their mission.

However, Stripe was not so optimistic.  He conferred with Major Riven and reviewed the maps he provided.  An examination of the land’s contours and some of the more visible landmarks revealed nothing.  After the major briefed him on the location, Stripe snorted.

“Which would you prefer, an ambush or the hunt?”

The major said nothing and Stripe elaborated.  “These chameleons are predictable because they are as ignorant as you.”  Stripe held his paw up to ward off any further comment.  “They know nothing of this land and travel in a straight line, so pursuit is easy once I catch their scent.  I know the woods on this side of the Great Barrier Wall and can get you ahead of our enemy; we might be able to ambush them.”

“May I suggest a little of both?”  Lewark interjected.  “Let’s find their tracks first and be certain they travel in a straight line.  If they do, our guide can get us ahead of our enemy.”  The ferret gave Major Riven a sideward glance as he gazed at Stripe.  “Unless they get some . . . help . . . from a higher power.”

Major Riven ignored Stripe’s confused expression.  “I’m hoping they do get such help.  Thanks to our informant, we have . . . a way of intercepting their messages, even if they try . . . hiding them.”

Knowing the approximate location where the others entered the woods, the ferrets joined the wolf searching the area for a sign of their passing.  All were becoming frustrated when Stripe called to the others.  Gathered about their guide, they soon spotted the tracks leading into the woods.  At one point, Stripe pointed to the ground as he called the others closer.

“Your chameleons have done it again.  See these prints?  Those are of a ferret.  These belong to hares.  Yet if you sniff both, they are the same morph.  It took a while separating the different scents, but I’m certain we have twelve traveling together.  That’s the number of wolves Stonemarker told me about when this thing started.”

Though Stripe suggested going around, the Major insisted they follow the trail.  Grumbling to himself, he kept his nose close to the trail as he continued checking for tracks and the scents he remembered from the Orb Sanctuary.  All the ferrets donned camouflage gear and secured their weapons as they continued scanning the area for signs of their adversaries.

A nearby clearing provided the proof they needed.  Arranged around the dying ashes of a campfire were twelve spots that showed signs that something crushed the grass.  When Stripe sniffed one such depression, he let out a rumbling growl and held his paw palm down at a level even with his head.  Everyone knew he smelled the giant.

They followed a near straight line course through the forest.  As they tracked their enemy, the scent became stronger.  By the time nightfall passed, Stripe announced they were within two hours of meeting their foes.

Tonight’s camp had no fire.  When darkness deepened, one of the ferrets shimmied up a tree.  He remained there for several moments before the others heard him descending.  Judging by the way the fellow bounced from foot to foot, he had good news.

“I spotted a low fire about a mile ahead, near the crest of the hill.”

Stripe rubbed his paws together.  “We wait until the moon rises and we’ll attack.”

“No, we’ll all bed down and have a good night’s sleep.  Come morning, I’ll show you why.”  Major Riven’s voice brooked no argument.

Stripe almost demanded an explanation, but held his counsel.  He grumbled about his being with cowards but none of the ferrets took the bait.  He tucked the corners of his blanket tighter as late fall nights could be as cold as winter.  On one point he grudgingly gave Riven credit.  They moved off the forest trail and posted guards, which showed Riven feared his enemy might try the same thing he proposed, a night attack.

A short time after dawn they resumed the hunt.  They soon found the clearing where the fire had been located.  One of the scouting ferrets raised his paw and made a fist.  He pointed to the left side of the trail before making a motion even Stripe understood.  The scout spotted something he wanted them to see.

It would be easy overlooking such a slight depression dug into the ground.  About a half dozen feet to either side, they found two more similar depressions.  One of the ferrets knelt in the depression and peered over the intervening tree limbs.  Then another ferret found the same formation on the opposite side of the trail.

“They must have detected our scout climbing the tree last night and prepared a nasty reception if anyone approached their camp.  I must say, they did set an excellent crossfire ambush.  Anyone following that trail would be worm meat.”

Stripe nodded at the unknown ferret’s comment.  “I agree, they were waiting for us, but how did they know?  We used no fire and the wind is in our face.  None caused any noise that would have alerted them.  Can you tell me how they knew we were tracking them, Riven?”

“These chameleons have a device that can detect body heat from a vast distance.  A calculated risk on my part sending somebody up into that tree last night but it backfired.  Now we both know about the other.  It’s time we try your plan, wolf.”

Rubbing his paws together, Stripe turned in place.  When he finished his third turn, he moved down the hill and followed a wide gully.  At first, he kept checking the ground for signs of their prey.  By midday, Stripe had the ferrets jogging through the woods.  As evening rolled around, Stripe led them to a stony ridge.

“Our foe will travel through this clearing early tomorrow if they maintain their present course and speed.  It lies in roughly the right direction of their travels.  They will be within range of your bows as well.”

Each ferret dug a deep pit and mounded the rocks as a barrier facing the clearing.  They did several dry pulls with their bows while others poked crossbows between the rocky openings as they reviewed their line of fire.  Major Riven looked down the short hill and noted the almost perpendicular angle of the rocks.

When night came, he scanned the dark woods with his spyglasses while three others did the same.  Late into the night one ferret snapped his fingers and pointed back along their enemy’s anticipated course.  A low whistle from Riven sent everyone to their stations where they bedded down.  Even in the dark of night, Stripe saw Riven grinning and heard the excitement in his voice.

“For the first time, we have them at the disadvantage.  They’re checking behind and wondering if anyone is following.  None anticipate an ambush up ahead.  Tomorrow will be a glorious day for victory.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on November 07, 2018, 04:52:35 AM
Each ferret peered through the openings they left in the rocky barrier as they awaited their enemy.  None spoke and if any coughed or shifted position, the others would give the offending morph a scathing glare.  Even Stripe felt the tension and kept checking that his war ax could be snatched at an instant, though Riven insisted this would be a fight over distance.

The ferret on the far right flicked a pebble at the ferret on his left who did the same thing until it reached the depression where Stripe and Riven awaited the battle.  When the pebble struck the stones, its pinging sound alerted them to the approaching enemy.  It took a quick glance to ascertain where their adversaries stood.

Riven saw his trap unraveling as his enemy drew closer.  Instead of taking the easier course through the wide glade, his opponent hugged the forest boundary.  He also had his unit alert as they moved at a cautious pace, always checking the forest for any adversaries and watching their rear for possible pursuers.

Major Riven watched his enemy approach the kill zone while his unit kept their eyes on him.  When he gave the signal, those with crossbows loosened their bolt through the slits they constructed the previous day.  Those armed with longbows jumped upright and released their shafts before ducking behind the stone barrier.  All Stripe could do is finger the edge of his war ax.

At least they caught the enemy unawares.  Major Riven watched as two of the bolts found their targets, but cursed under his breath when those soldiers joined the others in the forest.  As he searched the woods for signs of their opponent, the others prepared for another volley.

Two hares exited the forest and knelt on the ground where the ambush first started.  In unison the two lifted tubes to their shoulders and scanned the stony rise.  Major Riven saw this and blanched.

“Everyone, start crawling into the woods as fast as you can.”

Stripe didn’t understand why they retreated, but did as ordered.  They were halfway to the forest when the wolf’s ears detected a strange whooshing sound.  A second later, the stone outcropping erupted into a wall of flame.  Fire poured through the rocky barrier and filled the places where they had hidden throughout the night.

Safe within the forest, Major Riven pointed in the general direction their enemy would follow.  Nodding his head in understanding, Stripe led the group through the trees low enough that their opponent couldn’t detect them.  As they rounded a hill, Major Riven used his spyglass.  He relayed his observation regarding their enemy continuing along their original course. 

“Where did those lizards learn how to command such powers?  I know of no such weapon that can hurl fireballs from a stick.”  Stripe couldn’t hide his shock at what he had just experienced.

“We were lucky, this time.  I thought they wouldn’t use their powers here, fearing others might learn about them.  Considering the stakes, I should have anticipated them using whatever means they could.”

“What other powers do these lizards command?  It’s hard enough chasing after an enemy that can become another morph at will.  If this were a more populated area, we wouldn’t know if that was another contingent of hares or the killers we pursue until we got within sniffing range.”

Falling in place behind their adversaries, the ferrets continued their pursuit.  An examination of the tracks showed that at least two suffered injuries.  One was mild as he no longer bled though his foot dragged.  The second one appeared to be losing a lot of blood.  Stripe reported the injured were not delaying the others.

Rounding a bend in the trail, the ferrets surprised the hares.  They too appeared startled by the sudden appearance of their pursuers.  Both sides grabbed for weapons and Stripe drew his war axe.  A barking sound came from the hares and fearing another firestorm, Stripe dove for cover.  In the ensuing silence, Stripe watched the hares continue on their original course.  One by one the ferrets came out of hiding.  A quick headcount showed one was missing. 

They found his body in the middle of the trail, riddled by holes similar to those suffered by the dead at the Sanctuary.  Stripe helped bury the group’s medic, expressing his appreciation one more time for his aid after fighting the giant.  Every member of the party wore a resolute expression as they pledged vengeance for their fallen comrade.

Riven changed his strategy.  Ambushes didn’t work since the humans had modern weapons and equipment that put them at a disadvantage.  Trailing their enemy might be safer but it conceded the race to them.  They couldn’t allow that.  He had but one option available.

Instead of a direct firefight they couldn’t win, Major Riven sniped at his opponent.  Whenever the humans stopped, one soldier crept close enough for one quick shot.  Sometimes that unexpected shot came from a ferret Stripe led to an ambush spot ahead of the humans.  At night, they crept close enough that the automated alarms activated, depriving their enemy of a restful night’s sleep.

Their plan seemed to be working.  The trip should have taken no more than five days, but seven had passed and they were nearing the halfway point.  When the one ferret returned from his nightly sortie, he gave his commander some good news.

“I think those lizards are running short of ammo.  Last night I got the guard to fire a volley at me, this time he left his weapon holstered.  And that happened again when they changed guards and I crept within shooting range.  They became alert and knew where I was, but nothing else.”

Major Riven slapped the fellow on the back, congratulating him on a job well done.  It seemed the odds might have shifted into their favor.  Riven approached Stripe. 

“Can you get us to another ambush point?  This time we might have the stronger paw because our weapons are renewable.”

No words were spoken.  Stripe moved through the woods with the others trailing him on a course that led away from their enemy’s line of travel.  Once Riven said they were beyond detection range, Stripe changed course.  When Stripe called a halt, he had them crouch behind a line of rotting trees facing a wide trail.  The hard part came in awaiting the arrival of those they pursued.

Their quarry came into view.  All awaited the signal; even Stripe hoped he could get off a shot with the bow one ferret offered him.  A dozen hares approached the clearing when a strange warbling sound came from the one leading the others.  In an instant, all of the hares dove for cover.

The sudden move had Riven’s group fire a hasty volley.  The yelp of an unknown voice told them that at least one arrow or bolt scored a hit.  Then the forest became quiet.  After watching the area for several moments, one ferret slithered forward.  Seeing him stand confirmed their suspicions.  The enemy eluded them once more.

This time, they gave chase.  They were about to charge up a hill when Stripe signaled a halt.  Major Riven almost countermanded that order until the wolf gave his reason.

“Stonemarker said ‘death stalks a bald hilltop.’  Until now, every hill we crossed had trees.  There are none on that hill.  After what we experienced earlier, I’m wondering if this is the one that will be ‘crowned in fire.’”

Prudence said caution but listening to a mystic defied logic.  Major Riven sent one ferret up the hill.  All waited at the bottom watching the lone scout as he went forward.  Moments later he hastened back spooling out a long string.  Saying nothing, he reeled in the string.  Suddenly the hill erupted like a volcano in flames.

Turning to his commander the scout said one word, Claymores.  The humans must have used at least ten of those things to cover such a wide swath of land.  They already conserved ammo so this has to be a desperate attempt at trapping them.  Major Riven had to concede it almost worked too.

“Can you take us to where we need to go and not trail these hares?”

Stripe shook his head.  “A day’s travel north is the Barrier Wall.  It’s too high to climb and is too deep under the ground.  The only passage through the wall is guarded by the dog castle.  I doubt Prince would allow anyone into the Wastelands without a valid reason.”

Another reason to hate the Puritans. The Northern Nation recognized the sapience of morphs, which caused a rift with its neighbor to the south.  That led to the construction of an impenetrable wall to keep the morphs from shifting south.  Major Riven never anticipated a need to cross that barrier when he first planned for this mission.  If the humans did, they would have some contingency for crossing that wall available.

“Stripe, is there any way we can get pass that wall?”

“A year ago, Stonemarker advised communities along the wall of marauders who discovered a way through the barrier.  His warning saved the lives and property of many morphs.  We tracked them down and found out how they slipped under the wall.  Prince was advised of the breach so I’m sure it’s sealed by now.”

“Perhaps Prince is not the most diligent.”

Stripe laughed.  “I thought you knew nothing of this area, Riven.  Prince is easily distracted if something isn’t immediately important to him.  It is possible those responsible for sealing this breach might not have completed their task.”

With no other option, Stripe led them to a low-lying hill.  Riven was pleased seeing the cave unsealed and unguarded.  One by one they filed inside and followed a rocky path that meandered deeper.  When it became too dark, Riven called for torches.

Riven reached into his backpack and activated the chemical light stick.  An eerie green light soon filled the cave as each ferret held up a similar stick.  Thanks to the light, they continued downward.  The sound of rushing water drew them to an underground river.  Stripe told them the last marauder was supposedly killed as he fled downstream.

With no other option, Riven followed the water.  Their journey took time as Stripe and Lewark scouted ahead for the trail that led them to the other side.  Several times they found the remnants of burned out torches or campfires.  Those confirmed they followed the right path.  When the green sticks faded, Riven decided they would rest there.

Good thing they each carried multiple sticks.  Just as their third torch waned, they heard a low rumble and felt the wind pulling them forward.  The stream exited the hillside as a small waterfall that ended in a plunge pool at the base of a sheer cliff.  Above them there was no path, but to the right of the cave, a rough trail could be seen in the setting sun.  Before night had fallen, all had scrambled down to the base of the waterfall.
As everyone went about preparing the evening meal, Major Riven felt his communicator vibrate.  Making certain that Stripe was nowhere near, he activated the device.  His brow furrowed as he noted the communication channel.  The message was from their agent among the humans.

“For the morphs to win, you must lose.  Expect no further help.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on November 09, 2018, 05:37:21 AM
The camp remained in darkness thanks to the sheer cliffs near their camp.  The sentry on duty woke Major Riven as the sky displayed the beginnings of a clear day.  Though the birds chirped within the nearby woods, none of the morphs heard their melodious calls over the continual roar of the waterfall.  A light morning breeze swirled about the steep cliffs.  A heavy mist left everyone’s fur damp.

“Not the most pleasant sensation or the nicest smell,” grumbled Stripe.

“Quit your griping, wolf.  Following that stream got us down here faster than finding out how those hares got down those cliffs and hoping we could follow them.  Anyway, we could all use a good bath.”

“Speak for yourself, Major.  We wolves don’t shed water as well as ferrets since our pelts are too fluffy.  As to ‘smell,’ tell me you have no complaints once the sun gets down here.”

Everyone went about the task of preparing the morning meal and packing their gear.  As was his habit, Riven kept an eye on their wolf guide, making sure he wasn’t watching him.  Satisfied that Stripe was occupied with the normal campsite chores, he slipped his paw inside his backpack and opened his computer. 

He reviewed the radio traffic since last night.  Thanks to the human agent, Major Riven had a way of monitoring the Hydra’s communications.  After the humans were dropped off, he learned the Hydra returned to orbit and now waited there.  Based on the timer the spy provided, the humans either missed their scheduled call to the orbital spaceship or they changed the radio frequency.  Without that radio signal, he couldn’t monitor the human ground force. 

Just then Private Lewark tapped the Major’s shoulder.  Of all the remaining members of his squad, Private Lewark had proven the most adaptable to the oddities of this world.  He had a natural way of making friends of anyone he met, which got him a lot of information at the Inn.  It also left him with a splitting headache after sampling too much of the local brew.

“I’m not questioning your commands, Major, but why not race those hairless monkeys to the finish line?  We do have the map coordinates.”

“Yeah, we could race them to the finish line, but we would still have to find the lab.  Trailing them lets the hairless monkeys do all the work.  Remember, our mission is to eliminate the lab and all traces of its existence.  That means eliminating the humans too.”

“If I were those hairless fiends, I’d take my ship back through the wormhole and get a bigger force here, especially since they know the approximate area.”

“And what if there’s no lab, lieutenant?  They have to be certain it exists and that the formula is there before they contact their ship.  If they are successful, there will be no need for a follow-up mission.  If the virus and the information necessary for its creation doesn’t exist, they haven’t wasted valuable resources on a fruitless venture.”

Major Riven pushed himself off the ground and stretched the kinks out of his back.  Giving a quick shake first, he smoothed his fur.  After connecting the solar charger, he returned his computer terminal to its place before joining the others.  Their guide pointed out the course of the stream and everyone followed the waterway.

Sunlight brightened the valley and all were in jovial spirits.  As Stripe predicted, his damp fur left a bit of a stink.  The ferrets delighted in jesting with their guide who took every opportunity at staying upwind to them.  By the time his fur dried, the sun had almost reached its zenith.
Stripe pointed to an open field bordering the stream and a small column of smoke.  A quick march brought the ferrets to the burnt remnants of a campfire and the bodies of five dogs.  Each of the morphs had a large hole in their chest.  A closer examination of the campsite found both the bodies and the ashes still warm.

“Last night’s rain has destroyed whatever scent trail we could follow.  No way of tracking your lizards that way until the ground dries, which might take a day or two.”  Stripe continued to examine the shoreline near the campfire’s ashes.

“What makes you so certain our enemy killed those dogs,” Riven asked.

“Three things.  The first is that we are in the Wildlands where most creatures are the ones not blessed with self-awareness or intelligence.  They wouldn’t know how to build or maintain a fire.  Then there are these dog tracks near the stream.  Based on the number of tracks, there should be more dogs or more bodies.  Looks like your lizards have changed their appearance.”

“You said ‘three.’  What’s the third?”

The wolf smirked.  “Stonemarker’s prophecy.  We have found the pyre, so now I have to wait until somebody else directs us since I’m no more familiar with this region than you were of the lands I knew.”

Muttering under his breath, Major Riven reached into his backpack.  A quick consultation with his computer terminal and the help of a compass gave them a general direction.  Now it was his turn to give directions.

All kept alert as they anticipated running into the humans who were no more than four hours ahead of them.  They pushed themselves hard as they tried covering the distance, hoping they might see their adversaries.

Several times along the way, Riven checked his compass.  Using it as a guide, he would locate some landmark up ahead and make for it.  Once there, he found another landmark and they continued pressing forward.  By the time nightfall came, all were footsore from the hard day’s travels.

One private scaled a tree that night and checked out their surroundings.  He felt disappointed that he spotted no fire, but then remembered that they too would go without one in fear of alerting their enemy.

Two more days passed like the first did, Major Riven using his compass and everyone following where he pointed.  As the third night started since discovering the dead dogs, Major Riven gathered everyone closer.  Even Stripe sensed something had changed since their last rest stop.

“According to my readings, we are about to enter the area where the ancient laboratory is located.  With one exception,” and here Riven stared at Stripe, “all know that whatever weapon our enemy seeks is contained in this hidden place.  Tomorrow we start searching for this place, but keep alert.  Our enemy is out there doing the same thing.”

When dawn came, the ferrets established a search pattern.  Each morph scanned his section of the area for signs that would lead them to their objective.  While the ferrets did the searching, Stripe kept watch for their enemies.  That had him muttering about becoming a shepherd to a herd of ferrets.  Every ferret took any excuse as a reason to pass their wolf sentry and bleat like a contented lamb before returning to their assigned area.

The next day started out with the same routine.  All moved out into a low field as they went to their assigned areas.  Grumbling about the slow pace and the lack of contact with the lizards, Stripe scanned the area for a good lookout perch.  As he passed the Major on his way to a stone outcropping, Riven gave a poor imitation of a sheep that left the wolf laughing.

From atop his rocky outpost, Stripe could detect any movement within the nearby trees and could scent anyone approaching from the opposite direction.  He continued his vigil as the sun first climbed and then started its descent.  Reaching for his canteen, Stripe dropped it.  As his paw grabbed the metal container, his eyes widened in surprise.

“Over here, I found something.”

When the ferrets gathered about him, he pointed down at the base of a large rock.  There, chiseled into the rock was an ancient symbol that the recent rains had revealed when the surrounding mud had been washed away.  Etched into the stone was the ancient emblem of a doctor, the caduceus.   

With a note of pride, Stripe announced “Behold the stone serpents that shall point the way.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on November 12, 2018, 06:59:03 AM
Removing his spyglass, Riven examined the area along the line suggested by Stripe.  He felt like a fool following the advice of some prophet, but so far, the porcupine’s predictions had proven valuable.  His mutterings about the search area changed when he found a cave opening to the right of the track indicated by the worn stone serpents.

“We might be in luck.  There’s a cave just outside the search area, perhaps that hill buried the lab or it was built underground.  No telling how extensive it could be underground.  Maybe the transmission point wasn’t in the lab, but near it.  It’s worth the time checking.”

Having a destination put a jaunty step in the squad’s pace as the ferrets made for the low hill.  Even Stripe felt proud that it was his discovery that led them to the distant cave.  All thought the race was won and that this cave represented the finish line.

Such thoughts had the ferrets dropping their guard as they approached the hillside.  They stepped through the few trees near the cave without taking any precautions.  The distinctive barking sound of an automatic weapon erupted.  Though Stripe didn’t know the source, he remembered the sound that preceded the death of the unit’s medic and dropped to his belly.

What Stripe would later describe as “a swarm of angry hornets” whizzed overhead and bark from the trees flew off wherever the insects struck.  Stripe was no coward, but he did have the intelligence to know when his weapons were outclassed.  He might have been closer to the trees than the ferrets, but he was the last reaching the relative safety they offered.  Each time he tried moving, his size attracted the hornet’s attention.

Leaning against a tree, Riven focused his spyglass on the mouth of the cave.  There he observed several dogs guarding the entrance.  By dialing up the magnification power, he located a Great Dane that towered above the others running into the cave.  Without realizing it, Riven stepped clear of a tree and one of the dogs pointed his weapon at them.  Another dozen hornets slammed into the nearby tree just after a meaty paw yanked him onto his back in a most undignified manner.

Stars danced before his eyes and the spyglass shattered on a nearby rock.  Rolling onto his belly, Major Riven took a quick inventory of his body and found nothing damaged other than his pride.  A glance to his rear showed him the culprit responsible for his latest fall.

“Looks like I owe you one, wolf.  They almost planted me that time.”

“I’m returning the favor owed” growled Stripe.  “Last time those lizards used their weapons, it was you who pulled me down and saved my life.”

“There must be another entrance on the other side of the hill.  We would have spotted them earlier if this was the only way into the laboratory.”

One of the privates peaked around the tree he hid behind, watching their enemy’s movements.  “We have plenty of cover between us and that cave, major.  Should we try forcing our way inside?”

“No choice.  If they find what they’re looking for, they can leave by the other exit and will escape.”

Retreating deeper into the tangled mass of trees, the ferrets gathered about their commander.  He divided his force into two groups and outlined his plan.  Each group would attempt reaching the cave from a different side.  If they caught their enemy in the crossfire, they might force a way into the underground complex the hill buried.

Stripe followed Riven who moved to the left side of the cave’s mouth while the Lewark led the rest of the unit on the other side.  Several times one group sprinted across an open area while the others kept a steady stream of arrows and bolts flying at the dogs.  Once both teams reached the hill, they worked their way to a point where they could fire down at their adversaries.

When the dog guards hastened into the cave, the ferrets opposite Major Riven charged into the fray.  Both dog and ferret pulled out knives as they started a deadly sparring match.  They joined the battle, taking on the outer sentries while the rest charged into the cave.  Riven killed his opponent and prepared to join those fighting in the cave.  A great fireball erupted that filled the cave’s entrance.

In the quiet that followed, Stripe approached the cave with his senses alert.  Major Riven and Lewark soon joined him.  A quick peek inside showed them the charred remains of those who were fighting earlier.  Such was the intensity of the fireball that the three could do no more than count the charred bodies.  Based on the number of ash piles, everyone fighting in the cave mouth were exterminated.

“I’m betting these lizards believe they got all of us.  Best we go in with our ears open and our noses twitching.”

“We go in, Stripe, but I lead.  Our enemy might still have a few tricks up his sleeve and there’s too few of us left.”
“By my count, there should be four of them and three of us, makes the odds a bit more even.”

That’s when Lewark quipped, “Yeah, but their weapons are still a lot better than ours.  One of them could take on a dozen of us without a problem.”

At the end of the short tunnel they found a circular path leading downward.  After following the stone walkway twice around the central pole, the three spotted a faint light.  When they came to the new tunnel, they found two paths illuminated by dim lights that flickered.

“They must have located the control room and switched on the emergency lights.  It’s amazing that there’s still power in this place after more than a thousand years.”

“Your words are meaningless to me, but you don’t sound too surprised, major.”  Stripe gazed in awe at his surroundings.  He placed his outstretched paw close to the flashing white sun and whistled in amazement.  “This light gives off no heat.”

Lewark gave a snort as he shifted his search from one tunnel to the other.  “Back where we come from, such things are quite common.”  That elicited a sharp hiss from the major.

His inspection of the strange sun completed, Stripe dropped to a four-paw stance and checked the stony floor.  Then the two ferrets noticed how the wolf’s hackles stood on end.  The wolf pointed to the left and the three moved in that direction.

As the group worked their way deeper into the complex, they continued following a serpentine path deep underground where the only light came from the flickering light fixtures.  Alcoves created dark rooms extending no more than three paces from the central aisle they followed.  Though no evidence of the inhabitants remained, the stony chambers had piles of rotting fabrics that hinted of accommodations in a very distant past.

A quick peek into one room resulted in an even hastier retreat.  The bark of an automatic pistol sounded like thunder exploding inches from one’s ears as the sound echoed off the walls.  That was followed by a sharp tangy smell Stripe couldn’t identify, though it was the same odor as that left by the fireball at the cave’s entrance.

Working as a team, the two ferrets would draw their enemy’s fire.  Then they heard a noise they knew was the removal of an empty clip followed by cursing.  Springing into the doorway, both ferrets fired their arrows at the Doberman standing by the rear wall.  Hearing him scream had both ferrets rolling into the room.  When there was no returning gunfire, they stood.

Stripe followed Riven.  He strolled into the room, his paws close to his war axe.  Senses alert, he sniffed the stale air.

Though the chamber contained objects that dated back to the legendary time of the humans, the place itself appeared quite primitive.  Every surface remained in its natural state.  Nowhere were there signs that the chamber had ever been modified for its inhabitants’ comfort.

The Doberman leaned against the far wall with two arrows in him.  One had pierced his hip and had him using a stone shelf for support.  The second shaft protruded from his chest and stained his brown fur a crimson color.  Despite his pain, the dog laughed.

“You mangy fur balls have interfered in our affairs one time too many.”  He pulled a sealed bottle from a box and held it high.  “We couldn’t retrieve any data from the ORB and the scientists working here were too paranoid.  They even used ancient computers that relied on silicon chips and those have long since reverted into sand.  But we found half a dozen of these in a working stasis box.  The war is over and you lost!”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on November 14, 2018, 04:56:27 AM
The Doberman pulled back his arm and threw the glass object at Major Riven.  Moving faster than they expected, Stripe charged forward.  Drawing his war axe, he used it like a club.  Giving a mighty swing, he shattered the flask, which drenched the three of them with the liquid. 
As the Doberman slid to the floor, he picked off bloody glass shards driven into his body by the force of the wolf’s swing.  Still the dog continued laughing.  Riven approached the dog, an arrow at the ready.  Lewark grabbed the empty box the dog discarded.

“This room is packed with enough C4 explosives to collapse this whole cave system.  There’s no way of deactivating the bomb before it goes off and I wouldn’t if I could.  At least I’ll take you filthy animals with me.”

Major Riven understood everything this human said.  The word bomb told him he had to act.  He turned towards the room’s doorway.
“We have got to leave.  Now!” 

Time was running out for them.  They raced down one of the tunnels, urged onward by the dog’s maniacal tirade.  A cross tunnel had him hesitate as he searched for the exit.  Stripe dropped to all fours as he sniffed the ground.  He didn’t need to say a word when he raced down one hallway.  He and Lewark followed the wolf as he ran down the tunnel.

Stripe led them down several twisting passages until he made a sudden sharp turn off the lit tunnel.  Once more they found themselves in the circular room.  This time they climbed.  At the final turn the racing trio spotted daylight up ahead and everyone made a mad dash.  Then there came a deep rumbling noise that rolled closer with each passing second.

Like lava from a volcano, the three were vomited from the cave by the preceding shockwave.  The cave filled with flames followed by debris as the entire region reacted to the explosive powers unleashed.  The ground shook and trees that had grown for more than a hundred winters jumped into the air as if they were frogs.  Boulders shattered and a brownish fog blotted out the sun.  All three morphs hacked as they breathed in the grit.

And then a peaceful calm.  They stood battered, bruised, and exhausted by their ordeal.  The three morphs surveyed the extent of the calamity, too numb for any reaction.  That was the moment when Stripe gave an impressive shake that showered the area with the wet grit still clinging to his fur.  Even the ferrets sprayed the immediate vicinity with remnants of whatever liquid had been in the flask as they duplicated the wolf’s latest action.

“We can . . . we can give . . . give chase after a short rest.  Those lizards will never get to use that weapon.”

“It’s too late, Stripe.  Listen.”  Major Riven said.

The wolf did as Major Riven directed.  A loud whining noise could be heard coming from the other side of the demolished hill.  Then the noise became a thunderous roar that soon dissipated.  Shaking his head, Stripe stared at Major Riven.

“Our enemy is using a ship that goes through the sky.  Now we have to depend on others to win this battle or that Doberman will be right, the war is lost.”

“It’s regrettable I never got to finish my fight with the golden-eyed one but if all is done, I’m going home.  My pack needs me,” said Stripe.
Major Riven raised his bow and aimed it at Stripe.  “The three of us are infected with a plague that will kill every living morph.  If we stay here, we’ll die, but others might live.  That was the weapon our enemy sought, and it’s what was in that flask you shattered.”

Stripe stood there deep in thought.  Hanging his head down, he faced the two ferrets.  A simple nod had Riven lower his bow as the three proceeded deeper into the Wildlands.

Over the ensuing six months, the ferrets honed their hunting skills thanks to Stripe.  Though Stripe pestered them about their homeland, neither ferret offered any stories.  However, the two ferrets remained mesmerized by the tales Stripe recounted about life in his homeland.

They all avoided talk about their illness.  At first, they suffered a severe flu that left them as helpless as a newborn pup.  Four days later, their health improved.  Their stomachs no longer rebelled whenever they ate.  It didn’t stop each of them from scrutinizing the other two as they awaited the first symptom of the unknown fatal disease.  But as the days passed, all marveled at the apparent health of themselves and their two companions.

This night was no different from the others that preceded it.  At least it was until a strange warbling noise came from Riven’s backpack.  Although he still had the communicator he appropriated from Lewark connected to the solar panel on his backpack, Riven never used it since all the rest were destroyed at the cave.  He should have discarded the thing as excess weight but feared some native might find it.

“No use hiding this.” 

Riven withdrew his communicator and was about to punch the on button when he realized the device’s off switch had been overridden by an unknown transmitter.  Riven looked at his two companions and held his finger before his nose in the universal sign for silence.  He then punched the speaker button.

“Major Riven, please respond . . .. I say again, Major Riven, please respond . . ..” 

The unknown female voice continued its message without ever breaking.  No doubt the message was an automated one and would continue transmitting until disconnected at the other end.  Riven hit the transmit button and gave his name.  The recording stopped and he could hear static crackle over the channel. 

A male voice came over the comm link.  “Thank goodness you’re alive.  The war is over and we won.  We’re using your signal as a homing beacon and can be there shortly.”

Major Riven almost dropped his communicator.  “Confirm last transmission.  Did you say the war is over?  It sounds too incredible to believe.”

“Affirmative, Major; the war is over.  Everything will be clarified after debriefing.  We have confirmed that the weapon you lost is inert.  I say again, the plague is inert.”

“I know there’s one here who will be happy to know that.”

“Major, are there any indigenous life forms with you?”  Even over the communicator, the metallic voice sounded agitated.

The wolf almost laughed when Riven answered in the affirmative.  When the unknown voice asked if the indigenous life form could overhear them, Major Riven gave an emphatic no.  Stripe flashed the shame-shame sign.  Major Riven promised to call back as soon as he removed the problem.  He turned the communicator off.

Standing tall, Stripe sauntered over to the lean-to they had called home.  After snagging his backpack, he studied the heavens.  Stripe turned and hugged the two ferrets and shouldered his backpack.

“That porcupine was right again.  I’m going home.  But I’ll also remember his words until I find that cave we used through the Barrier Mountains.  ‘Look not to the sky for it is there that secrets best not known are revealed.’  It’s been a pleasure, Major.  Perhaps we shall cross paths in the future?”

Riven said nothing.  Once more Stripe looked skyward as he pointed out the stars forming the Great Ladle.  With the Northern Star on his left, the wolf marched out of the camp without a further word spoken. 

Another hour passed before Major Riven activated his communicator.  After several exchanges, the two castaways broke camp and walked westward until they reached a wide glade.  A quick word with the unknown voice confirmed the viability of the field as a landing strip.

Soon the night sky filled with the shriek of a madden beast.  As it reached its crescendo, the glade exploded in bright lights.  Riven and Lewark waited in the trees until the vessel landed.  The Mongoose, a cargo spaceship smaller than the one that brought them here, hovered above the ground before it settled.  Even as its ramp dropped, they sprinted for the doorway.  In less than five minutes, the ship’s engines roared to life once more.  Home beckoned.

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on November 16, 2018, 04:55:27 AM
They anticipated a hero’s welcome.  Instead, each was taken to a private cabin and locked in their quarters.  Based on the ship’s chronometer, nobody communicated with them while they traveled to the wormhole.  Major Riven found himself a virtual prisoner and was willing to bet they did the same to Lieutenant Lewark. 

A paw written message next to the computer terminal asked him to provide as detailed a report regarding his experience on Earth as soon as possible.  Since the computer had no connection to the ship’s network, he had to use the memory stick an unknown crewmember left in the room prior to their rescue.  Major Riven laughed at the extreme security measures they used to isolate them and whatever information they provided.

The crew never released them from their cabins.  A ship-wide announcement alerted them to the vessel’s final orbital approach on Terratwo.  The ship’s captain issued his order that all personnel secure themselves as he alerted his crew to the time remaining before reentry.  They had just enough time to secure themselves before the Mongoose entered the atmosphere.

It seemed the High Command’s sense of paranoia didn’t end when they landed.  The crew remained on the ship but both of them were ordered off the ship.  Armed soldiers in full assault armor formed two security rings around them as they left the Mongoose.  The soldiers escorted them from the landing zone to a distant hanger, their weapons continually sweeping the area.  Three gunships hovered over the spaceport as they were loaded into one of five armored carriers.

Their unseen driver reminded Riven of a certain wildcat.  The two of them held onto a support post as the vehicle raced to its destination. Based on nothing more than the time in transit, they must be a great distance from where they landed.  Riven would have sold his soul for a window.  After more than a year, he wanted to see the surrounding countryside of his home world.

One moment the driver’s actions threatened to throw them around like dice in a cup and the next it slowed to a pleasant pace.  At such a sedate speed, Major Riven could hear the distinctive sound of a gunship hovering overhead and wondered if it followed them from the spaceport.  Another thirty minutes passed before their carrier stopped.  As they emerged from the vehicle, either the same contingent of guards or another security detail established a defensive perimeter. 

Riven wanted to see the sky.  None existed within the underground parking facility.  He tried reading some of the signs, hoping to discover if he was inside a military or government facility.  Even knowing the where would relieve his sense of anxiety.  That too defied his powers of observation. 

The guards gave them no choice but to go where they led.  They marched to the far end of the underground facility to a bank of elevators.  The guard’s commanding officer motioned them inside the one open car.  As soon as they entered, the commanding officer joined them.  The security officer punched a few keys and they went down.

The doors opened.  All about them they saw heavy security as guards in their best dress uniforms maintaining a constant vigil.  One pair of guards marched up to them and after exchanging papers with the commanding officer that accompanied them, ordered them to follow him.  Those were the first words spoken to them since their rescue.

In silence they followed these uniformed soldiers deep within the facility.  Coming to what appeared as a blank wall; the guard placed his paw on a scanner and a door materialized.  Using their rifles as pointers, their chaperons directed them inside and the door disappeared, leaving a solid wall.

Within the room, the two ferrets found a conference table and several comfortable chairs.  The two had not been seated more than a moment when the door materialized.  Seeing who entered, they snapped off their best salute and remain standing even after the wildcat general motioned them to sit.  Not until the heavyset rat who preceded the general gave his permission did they return to their chair.

“You are no doubt wondering about all this elaborate security?”  The rat inquired.

“Chancellor Pica, we expected to be debriefed, but not by the Morph Supreme Ruler.”  Major Riven stuttered.  “Nor did we anticipate such a reception when our mission failed.”

That got the rat laughing.  “Didn’t the crew tell you we won the war?”

Major Riven maintained his silence.  Chancellor Pica turned to the general that accompanied him and asked for two folders.  After the general placed the packaged documents onto the table, Chancellor Pica dismissed him.  The rat pushed one folder at each of them and waited until they opened it. 

Just reading the first page had the lieutenant whistling and him staring at the rat. 

“Talk about a problem in translation,” snickered Lewark.  “That plague we were sent to destroy was created by morphs.  Somehow the original document omitted who designed this biological weapon.”

“Not quite correct,” said the rat.  “The original memo never mentioned the scientist or their intended target.  All it did is give a lot of technical information alluding to its purpose.  Back when this document was created, morphs didn’t have access to an ORB so we thought this originated with humans.  We now believe this item to be a piece of military intelligence and not a scientific journal or research paper.  Until Major Riven copied the ORB’s data, we didn’t have the full intelligence report, just a random page.”

“The document had a point of origin, shouldn’t that have alerted somebody as to who originated this paper?”  Major Riven couldn’t believe the humans that inept.

“Back when this was first transmitted, humans and morph communities were intermixed north of the Great Barrier Wall.  We now believe the morph scientists developed this weapon in secret.  For reasons none will never know, the humans didn’t destroy the lab or failed to determine if anything related to the research still existed.  Instead, they transmitted their information from a nearby location to a well-known human biological warfare facility on the eastern coast.”

“And we made the same assumption the humans did.  We both thought the research done by humans based on the exclusive human use of ORBs and the reception point, not its point of origin.”  Major Riven gave a snort.  “If the humans had transmitted that document from a more distant site, that lab’s location would still be lost.”

“Indeed,” the Chancellor responded.  “Our agent said the initial discovery came from a recovered computer anomaly.  During the voyage from Earth, somebody tried to delete an inbound priority transmission, which explains how one random page survived.  If some computer tech hadn’t searched the root directory of the generation ship’s original computer, nobody would even know of its existence.”

Riven nodded at Chancellor Pica’s assessment of the events leading to the document’s discovery.  Without the full intelligence file, its original intent remained too vague.  For reasons known only to the humans, they never used the copy of the military codes provided as part of the ORB download to decipher the full report. 

They knew, or had the means to know, the bioweapon affected humans only.  It begged the question why the dog / human back at the cave believed the weapon the golden grail for eliminating the morphs.  Major Riven couldn’t fathom how such a monumental blunder eluded them.

“The Mongoose’s Captain transmitted everything you recorded on the computer you used on Earth, Major.  That included the ORB download of the human military code.  Once we translated the original report, our analysis showed the lab communicated with a morph reservation in ancient Ohio.  Apparently, knowledge of the weapon became lost after the detonation of a nuclear device over Canton.”

“Did we ever learn who supplied us the information,” inquired Lieutenant Lewark.

Chancellor Pica drummed his fingers on the table.  “No, we never did find out who supplied us the data.  He stopped transmitting the day the Hydra entered the wormhole.”

“So how did the war end?”  Major Riven was glad Lieutenant Lewark asked the obvious question.

Without saying a word, the rat pointed to their folders.  Both Major Riven and Private Lewark scanned the pages.  According to captured documents, the Hydra suffered major damage while running the morph gauntlet when they reentered the Terratwo star system.  Morph scientist theorized several of the beakers shattered and their contents leaked into the atmosphere prior to their landing.

Three weeks after the ship’s return, the humans suffered a severe flu epidemic.  Within another week, the true nature of the plague manifested itself.  Humans died at an alarming rate.  Health officials tried containing the epidemic but it already infected humans on every continent.  They had no way of isolating all of the known plague victims.

The human scientists learned the plague consisted of not one, but five variants, each with a lethal potential of seventy percent.  By the time it had run its course, approximately twenty-four hundred people survived out of every million inhabitants.  Other deaths indirectly related to the plague reduced that number even further.

The war of extermination with the morphs made recovery difficult.  Viable births dropped as the number of humans capable of reproducing fell below five percent.  Without the manpower to maintain a social structure or their technological achievements, anarchy followed as basic survival needs overrode everything.  War production on the human controlled continents stopped.

Soldiers at the front lost all logistical support.  Ammo, fuel, and food dwindled while military discipline deteriorated.  With the morphs pressing them along all fronts, the soldiers fell back, which led to their inevitable exposure to the plague.  Those behind the front lines died, which denied the humans the replacements they needed.

Two months after the Hydra’s return, the morph’s probing sorties became an all-out offensive.  The human forces remaining on the contested continents of Sagittarius, Pisces, and Taurus were overwhelmed.  Human naval forces were found drifting at sea, their crew dead or dying.  Even the lunar bases suffered as reinforcements carried the disease there before the humans realized what had happened.  If any human force survived, they could do nothing more than await the exhaustion of their supplies.

Then the morphs invaded the largest human controlled continent of Primary.  The invasion fleet entered the naval command port city of Australia without meeting any organized resistance.  Morph soldiers searched the region for humans and found rotting bodies lying everywhere.  Those few humans discovered alive did not live long as the invaders carried out their orders to exterminate humanity. 
Morphs could not allow the humans a chance to repopulate the world.  The next generation would be immune to the plague that destroyed their elders.  If the humans grew in sufficient numbers, the war of extermination would begin anew.

That was when Morph High Command remembered the mission to Earth.  A high priority was set on sending a ship through the wormhole to investigate.  The day after the Supreme Military Commander declared victory, a morph ship launched for Earth.

“I’m pleased the war is over, but I do have a question.”  When the rat indicated his approval, Major Riven asked about their secondary mission, the investigation of Earth’s morphs.

“Our scientists believe your wolf companion, Stripe, will infect his pack and any other morph he meets.  For them, it will be an inconvenience of a few days with no lasting impact.  In less than a year, every morph residing within a hundred miles of that wolf pack will carry the plague.  It will take a few years, but eventually every morph on Earth will become carriers.  If humanity ever returns to Earth, the virus will destroy them as it did the humans of our world.”

Leaning back, Chancellor Pica continued his summation.  “We intend limiting contact with Earth to a very select group of scientists.  Their culture is too primitive and would suffer too great a shock if we revealed ourselves.  For now, the keyword is caution.”

The rat stood up, which effectively ended the meeting.  Major Riven and Lieutenant Lewark saluted the Chancellor before following him out the door.  When they reached the streets, the Chancellor dismissed them and suggested they enjoy an evening in town before returning to base.  He assured them that by this time tomorrow, both would be mustered out of the military as honored heroes.  The war was over and the only thing left to do was hunt down the last remnants of humanity.

Major Riven watched the Chancellor’s entourage depart before he relaxed his rigid military posture.  He then raised his muzzle and took in the familiar sky of his home world.  Ying appeared full, just below the constellation of the Great Pagoda while Yang hugged the northern horizon.  A paw tapped his shoulder and a discrete cough reminded him that another morph stood next to him.

“I was just thinking,” said a wistful Major Riven.  “We stand here looking upon the night sky and the downfall of humanity.  Will we enter a dark age similar to the long night we faced if humanity won or will we witness the dawn to a new era of enlightenment?  Have we learned enough from our creators to not repeat their mistakes?”

“No way to know for sure, Major.  I do know we have the time to explore all our potential.  Let’s do as the Chancellor said and enjoy the possibilities.”

Title: Re: Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version
Post by: cairn destop on November 19, 2018, 07:15:34 AM

To:  Chancellor Pica

From: Special Agent Gamma 19

Re: Human Court Martial Transcript

Classified as High Command Security Level Four (Number authorized to read this document currently stands at three.)

Background:  I discovered this transcript while searching the city of Australia.  Once I realized what I had, the material was reclassified “Eyes Only, pending final security disposition.”  Based on my examination of earlier testimony, I am certain the accused, Lieutenant EP Selon, was the human agent feeding us information.

Judge:  You admit to commandeering the spaceship once it reached Earth orbit by murdering the pilot and then shooting the two surviving members of your unit, Privates Purser and Sink.  You then humidified the ship, locked yourself in an escape pod, pressurized the ship to seven atmospheres, and allowed us to recover the ship via remote control after it entered Terratwo’s atmosphere.  You abandoned the ship with two flasks of the plague via the escape pod after activating the pod’s stealth unit.  You poured one beaker out at 25,000 meters over an active storm front.  You dumped the other flask in the Hamburg City Reservoir before your surrender to military authorities, a fact you did not reveal for five days.  You also sabotaged the spaceship to have a minor accident upon landing that released the pressurized atmosphere before we could initiate quarantine procedures.  Is this a fair summation of your crimes?

Selon:  Yes sir, though you forgot to note a warrant for my arrest was issued after the shuttle landed and you discovered the bodies.

Judge:  Did you know what those beakers held?

:  It held the viable contents of a plague developed by Earth morphs to eliminate all primate life forms.  I learned the true nature of the bioweapon after I translated the intelligence files downloaded from the ORB.  This virus thrives in fresh water and can remain viable as water vapor while aloft for a period of four weeks. 

Judge:  Nobody on your team knew the true nature of this bioweapon?

Selon:  I confirmed their wish that it would destroy all morph lifeforms.  They believed what I said since they thought the bioengineered safeguards against deceiving those in authority still affected me.  Their faith in that allowed me to hide the truth until the material reached my superiors.  They didn’t translate the document for almost two weeks.  By that time, too many carried the infection.

Prosecutor:  If I may summarize our medical witness, your honor.  In two days, the disease becomes contagious.  However, it doesn’t manifest itself for three weeks.  During this contagion stage, the plague spreads via perspiration through any form of personal contact.  At week four, those with the weakest immune systems manifested the first signs of the plague.  Health individuals took up to a week more to show signs of an illness.  None realized the danger until the number of casualties exceeded a thousand per day.  By that time, we believe too many contracted the illness.  We had no way of containing or curing the disease.  In less than six months, humanity will face the real possibility of extinction.

:  You realize what you have done to your own race?

Selon:  I liberated them, sir.  I’m a humanized morph, genetically bred as an intelligence officer with a life expectancy of seven years.  Our scientists considered the shorter lifespan a reasonable trade for a memory capability greater than many computers and the ability to make intuitive leaps.  You considered us a disposable commodity.  I am essentially a representative of a race of slaves bred for submission to your will.

Judge:  You’re still one of us, a human.

Selon:   Don’t you get the joke my creators made when they named every male “Ep Selon” and every female “Eppi Selon?”  Say it fast and the names becomes “epsilon,” the letter designating us as belonging to the fifth generation of a genetically created human.  We feared creating another morph slave race, knowing what happened.  Scientist developed a race of subhuman entities designed for specific purposes.  In your folly, you believed this race had no self-awareness.

:  Your timing was a little off if you intended destroying humanity.  Two days after your departure our scientists discovered a viable world.  One of our generation ships containing a crew of three hundred and sufficient genetic material to remain a viable species launched three weeks later. 

Selon:  I don’t care.  At least this world and Earth will be safe for the morphs.  The virus will contaminate them and they will become carriers.  If ever humanity tries enslaving morphs again, it will result in your extermination.

Judge:  And you are proud of this genocide?

Selon:  An ancient human once said “Give me liberty or give me death.”  Since you have denied my kindred the first, I have given yours the second.

(Transcript pages 1374 through 1376)