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 21 
 on: November 07, 2018, 04:52:35 AM 
Started by cairn destop - Last post by cairn destop
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.”

 22 
 on: November 05, 2018, 05:35:12 AM 
Started by cairn destop - Last post by cairn destop
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.”

 23 
 on: November 02, 2018, 04:51:19 AM 
Started by cairn destop - Last post by cairn destop
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.”

 24 
 on: October 31, 2018, 06:41:26 AM 
Started by cairn destop - Last post by cairn destop
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.”

 25 
 on: October 29, 2018, 06:55:38 AM 
Started by cairn destop - Last post by cairn destop
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.”

 26 
 on: October 26, 2018, 09:01:54 AM 
Started by cairn destop - Last post by cairn destop
The latest story thread had me thinking.  If it came out earlier, this revision would be illogical.  However, I can see how it might fit into the comic.  One reason why is the comic about Rhene and her encounter with Prince.  There is also the content of that message, which hints at events yet to unfold.  For that reason, I give you a short outtake to the current comic thread.  As always, comments welcomed.

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The old hare stood outside the closed door, reluctant to disturb the room’s occupant.  Than he remembered it was that very morph who insisted they meet at this time when most others slept.  He raised his fist and rapped on the doorframe.  He prepared to hit it a bit harder when Elara’s muffled voice spoke.  Though he couldn’t tell what the wildcat said, he took it as permission to enter.

“You wished to see me, High Priestess?”

She stood at the far end of the room besides the lit fireplace.  Her desk stood between them, clean and organized as always.  Elara turned and took her accustomed place behind the desk.  Her paw waved him inside and she pointed to the chair offered to dignitaries.

“We can no longer deny facts.  When leverets come to our sanctuary with replacement Orbs, it is time to acknowledge that we no longer have the Orb of Storms.”

The hare nodded.  “It was inevitable, though I see no reason for such a clandestine meeting.  It changes nothing, High Priestess.”

Elara stared at the old hare.  Though she was selected to lead the Sanctuary, its daily operations fell under the purview of the hares.  This fellow led the hares and gained that position early in the reign of her predecessor. 

“You cannot be that blind.  Don’t you know what has happened over the last two weeks?”

The hare maintained his composure.  He didn’t want to give any credence to the latest events and had hoped to forestall this confrontation.  It seemed Elara was more aware than he knew.  The fellow remained silent.

“I have read the letters,” she said.  “I know the boars and elk have delayed delivery of the wood while the rats and river otters withhold the stone need to build the Sanctuary.  Our ferret construction consultants have returned home due to what their leader calls other priorities.  And need I remind you what happened to our emissary when she visited Prince?  Such things never happened in the past.”

“Elara, you make minor things seem monumental.  Step back and seek perspective.”

“This Sanctuary has held the power to control kings.  None dared to do anything without our permission.  Armies could not fight in quagmires we unleashed.  Everyone feared a poor harvest or the destructive forces we commanded.  The missing Orb of Storms changed everything.  We are losing our diplomatic leadership now that we have no means of backing our power plays.”

The old hare was taken aback.  Their High Priestess was more aware than he thought.  How she got to see those letters baffled him.  He always intercepted any communications from the major morph kingdoms and read them before passing them to her.  When he read them, they didn’t seem so dire.  Perhaps he was getting too old for this game of kings.

Elara picked up a thick envelope.  “This came today by special currier from the porcupine Chairwoman.”

The hare snorted.  “That ancient relic holds no importance in royal matters.  Her clan handles business deals and her arbitrators act as a civil court.  We have ignored such a minor clan since our founding as unworthy of our time.  True, they serve a valid purpose but not when it comes to policy.”

“You’re right,” said Elara.  “Before now, none ever opened their letters.  We used any message from their leader as nothing more than kindling for the night’s fire.”

Elara picked up the dagger sitting on the corner of her desk.  With a deft paw, she slid the blade under the waxy seal and twisted it.  Parts of the shattered seal dropped on her desk.  She ignored the mess as she opened the letter.


 27 
 on: October 26, 2018, 05:02:31 AM 
Started by cairn destop - Last post by cairn destop
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.”

 28 
 on: October 24, 2018, 04:54:38 AM 
Started by cairn destop - Last post by cairn destop
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.”

 29 
 on: October 22, 2018, 06:53:55 AM 
Started by cairn destop - Last post by cairn destop
Zero.

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.”

 30 
 on: October 19, 2018, 04:54:17 AM 
Started by cairn destop - Last post by cairn destop
“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.

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