Barghest – Chapter 10

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Kin Selection

Hour 0700, Day 0314, Year 2126

Forty-fifth anniversary of South Pacific GMH riots. Demonstrations in Sydney spread to to other cities in the South Pacific and then escalate. U.S. and Chinese military execute joint operation to quell violence. An estimated 586 died over eight days of riots; twenty-two were identified as Genetically Modified Humans.

“Test day?” Malak’s head was turned down, executing a difficult form that would position him for a strong back kick. The older training room was empty except for the student and teacher. Despite the ragged exercise mats and outdated equipment, Malak and Bee preferred to spend their individual sessions there. The cameras had not been upgraded in years, and once taken off-line, it was sometimes months before maintenance repaired them.

“Yes,” Bee answered him, poking Malak’s hips with his practice staff to put them into a better alignment. “No,” he continued contrarily, using his own bare foot to urge Malak into a wider stance.

Malak breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth, slowly pivoting on the ball of one foot. As he turned, he shifted his weight until his right leg was free of any pressure. Bee could speak. He was intelligent, Malak knew that from experience and the test scores that Parshav had hacked from the research station’s computer system. However, Bee been designed to be much closer to their animal base code than the twenty-six or twenty-seven series. It was evident in his long tail, fangs, and abundant hair. Beyond that, his vocal cords and thought patterns weren’t intended for complex speech. He spoke the same language as everyone on the station, and understood perfectly well, but his vocabulary was limited. It was necessary, though, to express ideas outside of immediate needs or dangers.

“A test for the twenty-sevens?”  Malak pulled his right knee in close to his chest and bent at the hips, angling his body to look over his shoulder. The muscles in his stomach burned under the excruciatingly slow tempo Bee demanded for their practice.

“Some,” Bee acknowledged. “Little alpha.” A test for me only, Malak translated.

“Did you take this test?” Sweat dripped down his face, stinging his eyes, but his leg moved with precision. Foot flat. Heel leading. Pausing before over-extending the knee.

Bee put pressure on the top side of Malak’s foot, first lowering it a few inches to demonstrate the correct position, then to force Malak to support more weight on tense muscles. “Yes. Passed,” Bee smiled, the wide grin a forced expression that displayed his sharp teeth. “You pass too.” They went through three more forms in silence, while Malak’s thoughts raced. It had been four years since the day when the other groups in his series submitted to him. In that time he had learned to work well with Skoll, Giltine, and Almaut. Giltine still challenged him the most, but they all followed him without question during training exercises. He had even established a weekly meeting, among the four of them, to review what each group had done, how individuals were testing, discuss ideas. It had been easier to arrange than he had hoped, but the research staff had been ecstatic that he took initiative and organized a hierarchy. Not that they told him as much. They couldn’t, not and maintain professionalism and experiment structure. Parshav had found that information in the computer system too. That and comments questioning how well Malak’s tactic of soliciting input would work for test A-13b.

Today’s test was A-13b, Malak was pretty sure. Parshav had been working as quickly as he could without getting caught, but so far had not found out anything about the conditions or purpose of the test. Malak had the other alphas looking into it as well, but other than figuring out it was important, and that visitors had arrived on the station to watch, little information had been found.

Bee finally called an end to the training session, and they both took a seat against the wall. Malak rubbed his face dry with a towel and finished off his water before he spoke again. “What happens if I don’t pass?” It was a difficult question to ask; it put Bee in an untenable position. Technically, Bee was a research subject – one of only three from the twenty-two series to still be ‘extant non-viable’. He was alive, had survived whatever experiments were run on his genome and then after his wakingday, but he wasn’t approved for their intended purpose. Bee was a failure, as far as the military was concerned, because he couldn’t fight against the Cullers.

Malak considered his instructor while Bee struggled with an answer.  The twenty-twos had been extracted from the artificial wombs more than two decades ago, but there had been a problem with their aging processes. Bee was still fit, his chest and leg muscles were well-developed under the fine layer of brown hair on his body. His eyes were still sharp and his bones strong. He had streaks of silver though, at his temples and on the end of his tail. Around his eyes were deep lines that matched those of human technicians more than twice his age.

Malak was ten, but he was already close to his full height. Some of his packmates were done growing taller. The medical physicians expected he would still put on more weight in muscle; he had just started a new protein diet and strength program to accelerate the process. He would never have hair like Bee – none of the twenty-sevens would, but he had noticed thicker, darker growth on his jaw. The females, like Smeirc and Giltine, had already filled out and been started on a new training program as well. Some of the males, like Parshav, had been issued razors. As fast as Malak was growing though, it was nothing compared to what Bee had undergone. The twenty-two series was mature by the time they were Malak’s age, and then they kept getting older. Most had died, the rest had been labeled ‘non-viable’. However, Dr. Gillian had made those that survived valuable in other ways. Guard duty, training younger subjects. Enrolled them in a new experiment, Malak thought bitterly. That was the crux of Bee’s struggle. He was a test subject, but also a teacher. He was part of the authority that oversaw the Malak, but he was also less human than the twenty-sevens. Malak experienced a twinge of regret for making Bee wrestle with his duty. He reminded himself that the future of the pack could be dependant on the day’s test – and how prepared Malak was to perform.

Bee’s tail flicked with agitation. “Pass, good. Good for little alpha. Good for pack.” Malak nodded, trying hard not to look impatient. “No pass.” Bee paused, and blew out a hard breath, his face grimacing.  “For little alpha pack, no good, no bad.” He stopped again, screwing his eyes closed and leaning his head against the wall. An order to keep quiet, Malak thought. It was difficult for Bee to ignore direct orders from the researchers whom he had been conditioned to obey. A direct order could only be overridden by a higher authority, in Bee’s mind, regardless of what he personally felt.

Malak growled, unintentionally, slapping his sweaty towel against the floor. He usually controlled his emotions carefully, but seeing Bee struggle against doing what he thought was right and what he had been programmed, genetically and behaviorally, to do was frustrating. Infuriating. Humiliating.

Sorry. Bee’s soft whine caught Malak’s attention and his eyes snapped to the older male’s face. Although Bee had, with greater frequency in recent months, asked for Malak’s compliance rather than demanded it, the submission in his posture was new and surprising. Bee’s head tipped to the side, his shoulders hunched and his tail tucked down. Sorry, Alpha.  Malak blinked. Bee had never before used that sound. It had a different meaning than alpha, or little alpha, as he often called his favorite student.

“It’s-” Malak cleared his throat, not sure what to say. It had felt natural when the other twenty-sevens submitted to him, but having Bee, his teacher, his senior, do the same felt heavier, harder. There was a responsibility that came with it. Something more than looking out for his pack. More than leading the other one hundred subjects in his series. It had never occurred to Malak that he might have to operate in a larger framework. To gain the respect and obedience of anyone outside of his group. It was daunting and exciting and a little bit frightening. Okay. Malak found the rumbling, soothing sound that Bee would understand best, then he paused, trying to find the right emotion to calm Bee without giving up his newfound authority. He hummed, Good pack.

Bee immediately relaxed, his body un-tensing in a way that Malak had never seen before – as though years of pressure were suddenly lifted from him. “No pass – before pack..” Bee paused again, searching for the right words. The twenty-sevens, in Bee’s mind, were the now pack. The twenty-sixes were the before pack. “Alpha pass, before pack good, now pack good. No pass, now pack no good, no bad. No pass, before pack bad.” It took a moment for Malak to make sense of Bee’s words. A test only for me, that doesn’t effect the twenty-sevens. One that if I fail, will only affect the twenty-sixes. Malak’s brain was running over itself to generate possibilities, few of them good, and ways to succeed. Bee’s shoulder nudged his, and Malak met the green eyes of his instructor – so like his own. “Before pack – bad followers. Alpha make them follow, or before pack done.”

Done. It was a serious word on the research station. Done only had two meanings: either the subjects were ready for independent field work, or they were ‘non-viable, non-extant’.  Research subjects that had no value were a drain on resources. Malak closed his eyes briefly, swallowing down the anxiety and fury that were battling inside him. His stomach felt like it was being twisted in knots. His lungs were too tight. His head was pounding.

If he failed the test, the twenty-sixes would die.

ooo

Dr. Wendy Gillian watched through the video feed as Lupe ushered the VIP guests into the observation room. Representative Soledad Venegas was with them, which was expected as he was the Chair of the Oversight Committee. There was a scientist from the Earth defense research team, and two staffers. The Sol Coalition military liaison was there as well, and she had brought another officer with her that Gillian didn’t recognize. Her hand shook as she reached for her cane, and Gillian frowned. Nerves were not unsurprising, but she didn’t want them to ruin the presentation. She had enough to deal with keeping her aging body under control.

Eighty-two years old, and the stresses that had been put on her were beginning to show. Thirty years on a space station that wasn’t quite earth gravity combined with injuries sustained early in her career resulted in weak joints. Of course, she could have undergone procedures to correct the osteoporosis hollowing her bones. But it would have required a long period away from work that Gillian didn’t feel she could afford. Not with all that still needed to be accomplished. Her career, her life’s work, would be tested in front of the visitors from Congress and the Coalition – bureaucrats and politicians that had no idea how much work had gone into the final product. The twenty-sevens were a miracle of science, the perfect combination of genetic research and applied psychology. The lessons learned from them had already been refined and applied to three more series that were in various stages of  production and training.

Gillian and her team had created a designer species to exacting specifications. Project Hellhound would do for war what robotics had done for industry. Faster, cleaner results with fewer human losses. It would revolutionize society in the same way. Where low-skill laborers were a thing for history books, so too would become human soldiers. Gillian’s subjects would free humanity from the need to fight and die for their security. Free them to explore their minds and the universe around them.

She took in a deep breath and stood, using her cane to take pressure off of her knee. Perhaps once the twenty-seven series had proved themselves, then she could take a break. Gillian smiled to herself as she hit the door control and walked to the observation room. Unlikely, she thought, always another deadline. Another project.

All eyes looked up when she entered, and Gillian acknowledged them coolly. “Ladies, Gentlemen, welcome to Erasmus Station. I am Dr. Wendy Gillian, Head of Research for Project Hellhound. It has been noted that my presentation technique is rather dry,” she smiled, and as expected they all smiled back. Ingrained behavior, Gillian thought, exists in every species. Her knee was aching. “I won’t bore you with the technical details of this project. You have all received the briefing, but please indulge me, and allow Dr. Lupe Martinez to provide an introduction.”

Lupe stood and walked to the front of the room while Gillian took her seat at one end of a curved table. She watched the faces of the visitors as her former assistant began to speak, “As you are aware, Project Hellhound was first approved as Project Reform in 2091 with the intent to create a supplemental or substitute force for the Sol Coalition’s engagements against aggressive species.  Although research and initial genetic trials exceeded expectations, and significantly furthered our understanding of theories of cross-system evolution, subjects were deemed non-viable for the proposed purpose.”

“That is a rather couched term, Dr. Martinez,” Venegas said with an arched eyebrow, “given the loss of life and property during the previous administration here. They were a waste of money.”

“You are correct, of course, Representative.” Lupe nodded her head and swiped data from her tablet onto the wall. “As you can see here, as a percentage of funding spent, positive milestones towards the goal were limited. Although,” another chart came to the forefront, “ancillary developments and applied research have resulted in significant benefits, both monetary and tangible, for the Defense Department.”

“We are not here to discuss your bank statement, Dr. Martinez,” the military liaison scowled and leaned forward in her chair. “We are here to see soldiers.”

“You bring me to my next point,” Lupe smiled charmingly, but Gillian could see the tension in her shoulders. Her assistant and the liaison had never gotten along, and it was only the audience that kept Lupe from telling the female officer exactly what she could do with her opinion. Lupe’s fingers danced on her tablet and the data slid off to one side of the wall, minimizing into a narrow column. The majority of the space became transparent as the plexiglass was activated. The viewing window looked down on a four-acre training arena that had been designed to reflect the natural landscape on many of the breathable planets encountered in the Orion-Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way. Fine dirt, the color of almonds, was sparsely dotted with clumps of dark sedges. Three rocky outcroppings mimicked hills or canyon openings, and those were covered with lichen and moss in oranges and greens. The lighting in the ceiling some hundred feet overhead had been set to mimic mid-day under a dwarf-red star.

“In 2102 it was determined that genetic advances alone would not be adequate to ensure success. Under the leadership of Dr. Gillian,  the project was renamed and Erasmus Station began a heavy emphasis on psychology and nurture, not just nature. The results have been tremendous. Over the last twenty years we have refined our techniques to produce the last two series of subjects. The individuals entering now are the leaders of the twenty-six series.” A panel opened on the left and three figures stepped forward. They were too far away to make out easily, but Gillian did not need the zooming camera view that Lupe provided. Kapziel was the alpha for the entire series, but his domination had come at a high price. The twenty-sixes were no more aggressively designed than the twenty-sevens, but hierarchy had been established through brute force  just after adolescence. Kapziel had killed the leaders for groups two and three, leaving himself with his original beta and the former leader from group one. Lessons had been learned from that situation, primarily that groups should be introduced slowly to each other at a younger age, before maturity.

“Kapziel, here,” Lupe centered his face on the screen, “leads the twenty-sixes. They have met or surpassed all of the benchmarks for-”

Lupe’s recitation and the various charts and graphs she displayed on the screen was interrupted by the new officer. His security badge read, Thomas. “What do you mean by leader?” His sandy-blonde hair was cut to regulation standards, his uniform crisp and perfectly tailored.

“Exactly that. Kapziel is the commanding officer for his series.”

Before she could get back to her presentation, Thomas spoke again, “Commander? Your packet,” he gestured toward the tablet in front of him, “refers to them as subjects, not soldiers.”

“My language choice is first and foremost intended to help you understand the dynamics involved, and secondly to label these individuals, sir,” Lupe smiled, showing most of her teeth. Gillian reflected, not for the first time, that the woman had spent too much time with Bee. She looked nearly feral. “They have been engineered and conditioned to act as a cohesive military unit. It is, in part, why their base code contains the portions of alien DNA that were selected. Project Hellhound subjects have a deep – gene deep – loyalty to their groups. These groups will form the actionable units that will be put into the field. It is a reflection of the priority needs expressed by the Committee when the parameters were first designed.  They thrive in strong hierarchies and, unlike most humans, find a measure of self-actualization in successfully carrying out orders and contributing to the survival of their group.”

“Isn’t that counterproductive?” He argued, “if they are so focused on survival, how can they successful risk their lives in the place of human soldiers?”

“Group dynamics and altruistic behavior,” Lupe answered simply. “Sacrifice by one makes a group stronger. In early humans, this might mean one man taking the lead in a mammoth hunt – risking being gored – in order to bring rewards to his group.  Humans still have this instinct, but it has been dulled over time. The military enforces it though training exercises.” She waited a beat for further questions. “We have advanced both the instinct and the training. Project Hellhound subjects are dedicated, their purpose is to defeat the enemies set before their groups.”

“And who determines the enemy, Dr. Martinez?”

“We do,” she responded. Three flags appeared on the training ground, each marking a black box. Kapziel and his followers immediately crouched, waiting and assessing the situation.

“Forgive the interruption,” Venegas interjected, “but your reports indicate that the twenty-six series are hesitant, even aggressively opposed, to taking orders from human staff. Do you mean to tell me that you have corrected this flaw?”

“The flaw, as you phrase it, is a genetic one, so it could not be corrected after extraction. However,” Lupe tapped her screen and another panel in the arena, at the far end of the space, opened. “We have worked around it.”

Gillian watched the close-up camera as Malak walked into the training area. In comparison to Kapziel, he looked painfully young. The twenty-sixes had already reached physical maturity. They were in the tallest 1% of the human population, and their bulk was obvious. Musculature made thick by design and careful training made for impressive soldiers. Even on the zoomed in view, the differences from a human were minor, but unmistakable. Heavier jaws and brows, slightly pointed ears. Thick stubble and chest hair on the males. Gillian knew too, although she never mentioned it specifically in her reports, that both genders had incisors that were too sharp to be passed off as human.

Malak was almost as tall as Kapziel, only three centimeters shorter, but he had only recently entered puberty. His face was more peach fuzz than stubble, his figure more lanky than bulky. For all of his youth, chronological and physical, mentally he was far more mature than any of the twenty-sixes. Gillian suspected he exceeded most humans of any age as well. His green eyes were cold, his mouth flat and jaw set. He scanned his surroundings and the distant twenty-sixes as though taking in the play on an uninteresting board game. He wore the same day uniform as all of the subjects: a long-sleeved undershirt and light armor jacket, durable cargo pants, and boots. The twenty-sevens wore black. The twenty-sixes wore blue.

Skoll stood on Malak’s left, his height and thick chest overshadowing his leader. Almaut was similar in Malak to build, but his pale hair and skin stood out sharply against the brown backdrop and coloring of his companions. Giltine walked just in front of Malak. At first, the researchers had worried that the female did not fully accept her position below Malak in the hierarchy. It had become apparent during training, however, that she had become a forward scout and quick strike weapon for the group. It often seemed to be Malak’s intention, too, to mislead others regarding his position.

“The twenty-sixes have repeatedly proven that they will follow orders only from an individual they feel is worthy of their loyalty – which does not seem to include any humans. The twenty-sevens were designed differently, and so don’t have that issue. We intend to create a new unit, composed of both series, with a single leader that will act as the control factor – accepting commands from a military handler or commanding officer and enforcing them with the rest of the subjects.”

“The conclusion?” Venegas asked.

“We will see it today,” Gillian interjected. “Lupe, ready the communication implants, please.” Gillian turned toward the rest of the table while Lupe typed commands. “Each of the leaders will be given an objective and instructed to work with the other group to capture their flag. The twenty-sixes will target the blue flag, the twenty-sevens the black flag.”

“What’s the red flag for?” A staffer at the back of the room blurted, then blushed.

“Outliers,” Lupe responded absently.

“One group will have to be dominate to succeed. Both series will then be ready for the final stage of training and deployment  – as the military sees fit.”

“If this one,” Venegas paused and scrolled through his notes, “27-2-Malak, can’t bring the others to heel?”

“Then we will have wasted our afternoon, but the data collected from the twenty-six series will still benefit us as we move forward, and the twenty-sevens will still be viable and extant.” I hope, Gillian added silently. There was always the possibility that Kapziel would kill Malak and the entire project would be cancelled. She nodded to Lupe, and the communication feeds for each of the seven subjects appeared at the bottom of the viewing window. An eighth feed popped up in the corner for Bee, labeled ‘instructor’.

“Go,” Bee’s gravelly voice was loud in the observation room.  Kapziel immediately sprang into action, ignoring the twenty-sevens and racing toward the blue flag. Malak, conversely, scaled the nearest rock formation with Giltine behind him while Almaut and Skoll took up defensive positions at its base.

“Your golden boy isn’t off to a great start, Gillian,” Venegas noted dryly.

***

“Thoughts?” Giltine asked him quietly. Despite the distance, she seemed concerned that the other team might hear her. She knew about the twenty-six series, Malak had compiled a large amount of information on them from various sources and required his pack to memorize it, but he knew she wasn’t going to risk their senses being stronger than her own.

“Assess first,” Almaut responded through the new subdermal transceivers they had been implanted with. The faint vibration of the technology irritated everyone’s skin, but Malak ignored it.

“Act second,” Skoll added in his much deeper voice. Giltine scanned the area around the black flag. It was subtle, but they had all played similar games and knew what to look for. Faint depressions, no more than dust that was laying differently than the surrounding area.

“Pressure plates,” Giltine confirmed what Malak had already noted. “Grid. Rough Delta pattern. Reverse on 2B, 15K, and-” the rest of her words were cut off as an explosion sounded from the opposite side of the arena.

Malak depended on Giltine to keep her eyes on the flag while he turned his attention to the twenty-sixes. They had apparently discovered the same defense system around their flag, and determined to simply set it off rather than move around it. Clumps of vegetation, thrown with enough force, could set off the pressure plates and allow them to move unimpeded. The system that monitored the defenses could not reset quick enough to stop the other team from making progress.  It was a risky tactic, but it provided the greatest potential for speed. Malak’s stomach was knotted so tightly it cramped. He ignored the anxiety and focused instead on forming a plan.

“Skoll,” he ordered. His beta bent at the knees, breathing deeply and evenly while he scented the air.

“New obstacle,” Skoll reported. “Four – correction, five Cullers.” Malak felt his jaw harden. They had faced the enemy before, but never with those odds. It was a clear indication of how serious the test was. “Interior holding cell, blood scent.” At least one was injured, giving off the bitter smell of their internal fluids, but that only tended to make Cullers more violent. The twenty-sixes were approximately one-quarter of the way through their minefield, but one of them was moving awkwardly, as though injured.

“Changing targets,” Giltine reported. Malak watched as the flags changed color, rotating in a clockwise pattern. There was a sharp snarl of frustration from the twenty-sixes, and then they raced across the arena to the new blue flag. The injured member of their group lagged behind and waited while the others began setting off pressure plates near the new target – this time at twice the speed. There was a screaming, grating sound, and then the first of the Cullers emerged from within one of the rock formations. Malak’s mind was working through contingencies at a furious pace. Each of his team was armed only with a service knife; he watched as the injured twenty-six pulled one as well. A second Culler was released, and the two aliens paused for a moment before leaping down from the rocks to make room for a third.

“Almaut,” Malak said shortly.

“Wait,” he was whispering under his breath, watching the timing of the pressure plates and the flags, “wait…”

“Almaut,” Malak demanded.

“Thirty-two seconds, plus or minus 3 seconds per engaged plate,” Almaut answered quickly.  The entire exercise was designed to require both groups to select a single target and work together. Even then, they still stood a good chance of taking losses. The Cullers were splitting off; the first three turned and began their bounding step toward the twenty-sixes. The next one did not hesitate but turned toward Malak’s group.

“Giltine, Skoll – play tag. Almaut, with me.” Malak didn’t have to waste any time looking to make sure his orders were followed. Giltine was on the ground before he could even move, following Skoll across the dirt. She made a sound, high in the back of her throat, that immediately grabbed the attention of the Cullers.

Chase.

The sound and meaning of her call sent a tingle down Malak’s spine, but he ignored that as well and jumped down to run in the opposite direction. “Can you disarm and rearm one of those?” He asked Almaut. The paler boy in his peripheral vision nodded. “Good. Requisition the injured one and get it done.” The first three Cullers had already reached the pressure defense system. Two had taken leaps over the traps and were nearly upon the tall leader. The last one had triggered a release and been thrown backward. It was oozing fluid, but still deadly. As they drew closer, Malak could clearly make out the expression of fear on the reddish skin of the male standing outside the defense zone. His knife was drawn and ready, but his left leg was twisted strangely and his pants were wicking blood.

Malak sheathed his own knife and directed his path to intercept the downed Culler. He didn’t stop to engage, but set one hard boot against the chitinous rear leg of the alien. With his other, he stepped up and slammed the reinforced toe into the shoulder joint. It cried out, the scream painful to his ears, and swiped at him with its free arm.  Malak had planned for the counter-attack, and never slowed down. The serrated edge of the claw caught the back of his jacket, slicing through the armored material and drawing a shallow line of pain on his back. The leaping kick carried him over the creature and past the first line of pressure plates, which had already reset. Malak trusted his team to carry out their orders and focused on his own task.

Dodging the plates wasn’t difficult, given that he knew the pattern. It was made more challenging by attempting it at a dead sprint. He could feel the sweat dripping down his back, stinging where it met the open flesh of his wound.  He counted out the grid while he ran and tracked the movements of the enemy in front of him. One Culler was slightly paler than the other, and it reached the twenty-sixes first. The alpha twenty-six, taller and more muscular than his female beta, turned and crouched into a fighting position, waiting for attack. Malak would have cursed, if he hadn’t needed the oxygen to keep up his pace. The Cullers were clicking back and forth at each other. Although Malak did not have an ear for it, he could guess that they were planning a rush. Sheer size, speed, and available cutting edges would give them the advantage. The older alpha didn’t seem to recognize that, or he wasn’t willing to allow for  the possibility of failure.

Obey. Malek growled as soon as he was close enough. Wait. Listen. Ambush. The twenty-six alpha began to snarl, diverting his attention from the pale Culler, who reached out one long appendage and swiped at the male. He took the blow on the leg, which quickly spurted blood. Obey, Malak snarled. Obey or die. Then he turned his head toward the enemies and whistled. The high-pitch caught their attention, just in time for Malak to draw his knife and slide to the ground. His momentum carried him under the alien at the rear, and the reinforced blade sank between the hardened plates of the thigh and body. He could feel resistance as he hit the fibrous tendons, then they gave way and the Culler shrieked.  It stabbed down into the dirt after him, barely missing his head. Malak rolled, just short of a pressure plate and took off back the way he had come. He could scent the bitter odor of the Culler behind him, its broken gait slowing it significantly. There was another scream, and a bark of victory. The air around him flooded with adrenaline and the fluid of his enemy. Two down, he counted to himself. He jumped over the last line of defense systems to find the injured twenty-seven tearing off the head of his Culler opponent. Almaut, covered in ichor from the waist down, had a dusty pressure plate in his hands, using his knife like a screwdriver.

“Forty-seconds,” he yelled without being questioned.

Malak compared that to his internal countdown for the flag change. Three, two, one. A yell of frustration behind him signaled that his count had been correct. The flags changed again and he could hear the twenty-sixes behind him making their way out of the pressure field. The timing would be close. Giltine and Skoll were rounding the far end of the arena, only two of the enemy behind them. A third body was piled in a heap at the base of a rock formation, fluid coated the surface with shiny steam. “Home run,” he rasped, lungs heaving, but his transmitter picked it up. Skoll grabbed Giltine by the arm, sling-shotting her over a low ravine before following with a powerful leap. The ten-foot wide fissure was nothing to the Cullers, who crossed it with only a screech of irritation.

“Thirty,” Almaut called. From the corner of his eye, Malak watched the injured twenty-six stand and bare his throat. Malak braced his feet. There was only the faint crunch of a boot on vegetation to warn him, but he was ready. Just as he had practiced a million times with Bee, he ducked and pivoted, sweeping out with his leg. The other alpha knew the move, and changed tactics quickly. He snarled, reached down and grabbed Malak’s collar as he jumped over him. The two tumbled together, and Malak was at a disadvantage for weight and reach. A knife buried itself in his shoulder, and Malak had to grit his teeth against the pain.

My kill, the other alpha snarled, his dark skin twisted with fury and determination.

Malak didn’t respond, but threw himself forward, further onto the blade. A brief moment of surprise flashed across his opponent’s face, and then Malak’s legs were free and he kicked back and over the other alpha’s back, taking the knife with him. He quickly turned and got to his feet, and they slowly circled each other. Malak pulled the weapon out of his shoulder, clenching his jaw to keep from grimacing. He held one knife in each hand. His right dripped with Culler ichor. His left with his own blood. He bared his teeth and roared.

“Twenty,” Almaut yelled. “Ready to deploy!”

“Skoll, Giltine,” Malak growled into his transmitter. “At your mark.” He kept his eyes on the other alpha, but his ears were tuned to the sounds of his team. Almaut grunted as he set up the pressure plate. Giltine made her high-pitched sound again, egging on the Cullers. Skoll counted.

“Five. Four. Three. Two. Now!” A cloud of dust rose around Almaut and then there was an explosion. The screams of one Culler cut off abruptly, while the other continued to whine and thrash in the dirt.

“Report,” Malak ordered.

“Good to go,” said Skoll and Giltine at nearly the same time.

“Peachy,” gasped Almaut with a cough. Malak couldn’t spare him a glance, his eyes still locked on a potential threat.

Obey, Malak growled again. His voice was lower than he was used to, but his head was also getting a little light from blood loss.

“Get the flag,” the other alpha countered. It was a challenge, a request that Malak prove himself before he would be accepted as dominate.

“Giltine,” Malak immediately called out. She was at his side in an instant, Skoll a moment behind her. “You,” he pointed at the other twenty-six, the female beta, “run.” He yelled over his shoulder as he sprinted toward the flag that had started out black, then became blue. Its current red color was sharp and bright against the artificial background. “Count?”

“Twelve,” came Almaut’s reply.

“Step where I step,” he ordered the beta and began a breakneck race through the pressure plates. There were only two rows left, and the beta was right behind him, when Almaut screamed out a warning. The flag changed colors turning black, and the pressure plates all reset. “Hand,” he yelled. Her eyes were wide, her mouth dry and gasping, but she stuck out her arm. Malak dug in his heel and rotated, launching her across the last twenty feet. She ducked and rolled, but was still covered in scratches and dirt when she finally stood. Her hand touched the box at the base of the flag, and a tone sounded in the arena, signaling the training sequence was over. He waited, bleeding and breathing heavily through his nose, while she brought him the box. Her green eyes were downcast as she handed it over, tilting her head slightly.

She walked behind him back to the others, where Giltine and Skoll were watching over the other alpha and Almaut was still rubbing his chest where he had impacted with the pressure plate. The other member of the twenty-six series stood to the side, glancing between the two alphas. The twisting feeling in Malak’s stomach was gone. Perhaps he had overcome his anxiety, or perhaps the blood loss and sudden drain of adrenaline was making him delirious. Either way, he was ready to accept submission and get back to the barracks. He had no desire to waste time on posturing for the sake of the twenty-six’s ego.

“Obey,” he said clearly. The twenty-seven puffed up his chest and opened his mouth. Malak’s expression didn’t change. He was too tired to react. “Obey,” he repeated. The twenty-six paused again, sniffing, then lowered his head.

“Great,” said Skoll clapping his hands together with a smile. The friendly action was made slightly less appealing by the gash over his eyebrow and the wet, sticky sound his ichor covered palms made. “Anyone hungry?”

***

Kapziel and his two betas had gone with him to the infirmary, and then later to the mess hall. They had sat down, interspersed with Giltine, Skoll, and a severely bruised Almaut, and eaten with no incidence. Malak had even found a moment to submit a request to Dr. Gillian that the three twenty-sixes be granted permission to join his weekly meetings, as well as combining some of their training sessions. He didn’t expect any problems with the research staff, but it was always better to be prepared for the unexpected. Which was why he had assigned Parshav to monitor anything strange on the Station.  Several hours after the test, Malak listened carefully to the audio feed that Parshav had been monitoring while Smierc kept the barracks guards busy with a minor distraction.

“-impressive. Imagine what they could do with body armor and weapons from this century,” a woman’s voice said with admiration.

“It doesn’t even give you a moment’s pause, does it?” A man, cooler and far less impressed, spoke.

“Why should it? This is what we have been looking for – a new weapon. And finally I get to report something other than resource losses and budgets thrown down the toilet.”

“There is a difference between a rifle and a high-yield drone. You-”

The voice faded out and Parshav fiddled with several settings on his tablet.

“Where is this coming from?” Malak asked quickly.

“Section C, distal access corridor,” Parshav responded while he tried to find his quarry. “I’ve been tracking them using a piggyback on the security cameras, but I could only get audio – so far. I think they are headed to- ah, there.”

“-take it?” The woman’s voice sounded clearer than before, and after a second Parshav held up his tablet, displaying the live video footage.

“Would you?” The man wore the insignia of a colonel on his shoulder. He was tall, for a human, and his hair was yellow. Malak recognized the woman from previous observations she had made, although she looked slightly more appealing without an expression of disgust and superiority on her face.

“A personal request from the General?” She snorted, “If someone with that kind of power asks you to walk their dog, you do it.”

“Bantan didn’t call me personally, and you would be wise not to bring it up again. Those kind of requests have a way of being forgotten on a black book project.” He stressed the word, requests, and the woman blanched. “And these are no dogs.” The man pressed his hand against a security pad, and there was a tone notifying them that the lift was on its way. “I’d sooner handcuff myself to a feral Rottweiler than share a ship with the tubers they have cooked up here. At least I could trust the Rottweiler wouldn’t shoot me.”

“I would have never thought you, of all people, would be afraid of a few kids.”

“Were you watching some other demonstration? Those aren’t kids, they are killing machines. And if we are very, very lucky, they’ll be somewhere deep, deep in Culler territory when they figure out what we have done to them.”

A tone sounded as the lift arrived. “What’s that? Make them soldiers?”

The two officers stepped into the lift. As the doors were closing, Malak heard the man’s response, “Make them slaves.”

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