"Sometimes a pecking order simply needs to be established. As a diplomat, my first instinct is to talk things out, but that is not always possible. Or to be more precise, you could come to a peaceful resolution, but it would leave behind too many questions about what could've been. Should've been. To avoid these ‘what if' feelings, it might be better to just let the contesting parties duke it out."
-High Ambassador of the Mrrroww
"The hunting party has gathered." The new Master of the Hunt reported to Selendil. He had been the second to last to arrive, and apparently, the one Dashane that had appeared after him was already serving some sort of disciplinary punishment. "The Shamans told me to inform you that we can get more if you so desire, but it will be more challenging to find hunters that fit your specifications without leaving other hunting parties without voices of reason."
A full one hundred and one Dashane had arrived on the ship. Lilly had been a bit worried about billeting them all until Selendil showed her how to create more space. Considering that the Dhar could expand the insides of their warehouses so easily, why couldn't they add rooms on their ships? Ironically, despite the vastness of space, living space and storage space were in short supply on ships. So of course the Dhar had sought an answer to that problem as soon as they were able to do so. With a simple adjustment to the controls, Lilly could add more rooms to the living quarters on the ship. Of course, the more rooms she added, the more power was drawn from the ship to maintain that spatial folding, but the drain was negligible at this level. The ship also had to grow more rooms if too many were added at once, but that would not be a problem for some time. The Enduring Symphony was initially designed to be able to house up to a few thousand crew members, and they were still within the limits of what could be called woefully undermanned on any other vessel.
"You can relay a message to the shamans that the current manpower will do for now," Selendil replied. "You said your name was Ka'aukai, correct? Is it just me, or is the name somewhat similar to the Dashane I assigned as the temporary leader until your arrival?"
"It is." The extremely tall and broad Dashane stated. "Ka'eo is what most races would call family. Whether you would call it a good thing or a bad thing, he is the son of one of my siblings."
"Good or a bad thing?" Selendil asked while expressing a questioning tone with one of her tails. Surprisingly, the Dashane could actually understand her gestures to an extent.
"Ka'eo has always been…different. He's intelligent. Sometimes a bit too intelligent for his own good. That brought him into conflict with those who had authority over him, as he could often see better solutions than those that actually made decisions. Or at least he thought he did. Sometimes intelligence is not a good replacement for experience. He has since learned, but the tendency is still there. Luckily he now also has some experience as well." Ka'aukai explained.
"I see. Those kinds of youngsters usually end up either dead or they become great leaders. I hope he will be in the latter camp." Selendil observed. "Now that you're all here, I want you to personally take part in a small exercise that might help bridge the gap between the newly arrived Dashane and the people who have been on board longer."
"Speak and I shall comply." Ka'aukai agreed easily. He knew who was in charge here. He could sense the vast gulf of power between them, and he had also seen the recording of the battle between Selendil and the Blood Hunters.
"So how does this work?" Xiaoli asked, eyeing a contraption that looked a bit like a stasis pod. The crew had been informed that they would get to see something entertaining, and they had gathered all over the ship around holographic displays. The crew was finally becoming large enough to be too much to fit into one of the hangars. If the hangar was empty, then they would fit nicely, but as it was it would a bit too tight of a squeeze. Xiaoli realized that she was going to be part of the entertainment.
She was in a large circular room with dozens of these contraptions placed on the walls. A large Dashane she had never seen before was in the room with Selendil and her. "I think we'd all like to get a chance to get a better idea of the strength of our new security forces." Selendil started. "Besides, I'm quite sure that Xiaoli would like a proper chance to test her recent advancement in a live combat situation. It would also be nice to get an idea of the relative strength of the people on board. The system I'm about to show you will be available to the use of everyone once this battle is finished."
Incidentally, the system they were about to use had required some repairs and Selendil had neglected them so far to focus on more important systems instead. She personally never used this system, but recognized its usefulness for training purposes. Now that she had enough materials, she had assigned one of the support beacons to fix this room up and add a few more pods. She expected the room to be in constant use after this demonstration.
"System?" Xiaoli asked a bit skeptically.
"Well, I want you to be able to fight at your full capabilities without holding back, but it would be kind of a waste if one of you ended up dead as a result. Besides, neither of you would be able to exhibit your full abilities if you were simply placed in a ring. One of you is a hunter and the other is a special operative. Neither of you are gladiators or brawlers. So we need another way. The Dhar use a particular system for training and duels that are not to the death. It is similar to the virtual reality that some races have developed, but there are some differences.
"Before the fight, the system will scan you and use Nox's observations and databases to determine your abilities. Your abilities inside will be the ones you really possess. Yes, that includes all the enhancements you have Xiaoli, even the recent ones, and your ability to negate psionics Ka'aukai. You will find yourselves in a preparation area where you will be able to request any weapons you would like to use during the fight. After your preparations are to your satisfaction, you will be brought into a randomly selected terrain, where you will fight until one side loses, either by death or forfeit. Do note that if you receive injuries inside, they will hurt just like they really would, but they will not carry outside." Selendil explained.
"You said we could request weapons. Any weapons?" Xiaoli asked with emphasis on any.
"As expected, our special operative is already planning to cheat. The system could simulate any weapons, but you will be restricted to weapons you are able to use with your hands. So no mech suits or biological weapons with the delivery mechanism provided." Selendil pre-empted Xiaoli's ideas. Her words did leave several possibilities open though. Xiaoli knew she could request Dhar weapons for example.
‘Perhaps next time.' Xiaoli thought. ‘This is partially about our honor as the people who became part of the crew before the Dashane.'
The two entered the small pods that seemed to place the two into a sort of stasis, and soon the observers could see the two dropped into a mountainous jungle environment. "Hundred credits on Xiaoli," Amaterasu suggested as soon as she saw the terrain. The officers were all gathered in the cafeteria to discuss their observations as the fight happened. That and to exchange commentary.
"Ooh, a bold bet right from the start." Lilly made an appreciative sound.
"Do you not think the terrain will benefit the new Master of the Hunt more?" Moonshadow asked diplomatically.
"Against any Mrrroww or Illum? Yes. Against a Cybran like Xiaoli? Not so much." Amaterasu stated with a smile.
"Hush! They're beginning to get close enough for something to happen." Nochehuatl hissed, before adding his own bet. "And fifty credits on the Dashane."
Xiaoli had some trouble locating her quarry. Normally she would use her psionics to find her target, but the Master of the Hunt could nullify his psionic signature completely. Her eyes were also capable of detecting heat, seeing in the dark and applying any of a dozen filters to help her spot a target. Unfortunately, the cold-blooded Dashane could hide his heat signature and apparently had some ways to misdirect her other attempts as well. The best she could do was to track the void of psionic energy left behind by the Dashane's nullification ability that also affected the surroundings just a bit. The trace was subtle, but it was there. Unfortunately it was not exactly precise. She knew she was relatively close, but that's it.
‘I think I'm close enough that I need to start taking precautions. This time the Dashane won't be using archaic melee weapons.' Xiaoli thought to herself. The fight Selendil had taken part in was ceremonial, so the Dashane had used ceremonial weapons. But in a real fight, the Dashane were not going to be using simple melee and throwing weapons.
On the other side, Ka'aukai was equally impressed by the prey's ability to hide. He rarely hunted prey that made so little sound and didn't cause the surroundings to be disturbed by their movement. At first, he had assumed that the surroundings were simply not able to simulate these disturbances, such as spooked animals and disturbed flora, but after testing his theory he was equally impressed by the simulation. Still, the Dashane were not the best hunters for nothing. Even without the enhancements of the Cybran opponent, he was able to detect the heat from living beings, though he didn't rely on that ability too often. Too many enemies could hide their heat signature either due to a quirk of biology or mechanical means, and the same held true with the current prey.
What really helped him locate his prey were the instincts that drew him towards the target, as well as his ability to detect any disturbances in the airflow. Even cloaked targets disturbed the airflow in various ways, and shielded prey even more so. Those psionic shields were a good defense against most attacks, but they were also easy for the Dashane to sense. And now he had spotted his prey. The target was moving expertly from cover to cover without making a sound, even while covered by her cloak, which made watching your steps difficult.
‘A careful enemy this one.' He thought as he slowly aimed his sights at the head of the target. Something challenging to do considering he couldn't actually see the targets head. He was just about to pull the trigger when he sensed something wrong. This target was coming closer to his current position, although at an angle, yet his senses were telling him the prey was not getting any closer. He moved his sights back towards the thickets were the target had come from and didn't see anything. He allowed his instincts to direct the movement of the scope and finally stopped on a slight shimmer behind a large rock formation. ‘Clever girl. Using a decoy to try and draw my fire so that I would reveal my position. Too bad you're against a Master of the Hunt. An inexperienced hunter would've taken the shot.'
He waited patiently until the shimmer moved from its perch behind the rocks. His weapon could've penetrated the rock formation, but it might have changed the trajectory of the shot and it was hard to get a fatal shot on an invisible target behind cover anyway. Eventually, the target got impatient enough, realizing that the decoy had not worked, and started moving to another position. ‘Good. She knows not to stay still for too long. Even if she was hidden there, I could've been circling into a better vantage point where I could spot her and get a clean shot. Staying active in a hunt is always better, even if it can be risky.'
As soon as the shimmer came out from behind the cover, he fired at the target. The cloak was canceled as soon as the shield around the target was hit. Ka'aukai cursed silently. The ammunition his hunters used all held a bit of the nullification power their people possessed. Not a lot, but enough to disturb any psionic shields just long enough to allow the shot to penetrate. But the blasted prey was using a second shield and this one ran on some internal energy source and not psionics! These kinds of shields would not be able to take too many shots, but they didn't have to. Ka'aukai had fired a second shot immediately, just in case, but somehow the target's reactions had been quick enough to roll into cover before the second shot arrived.
Xiaoli was thanking her preparations as well as the enhancements she had gotten from the nanites, as they improved her reaction time to the point where she could almost dodge incoming fire! The first one had been too much to avoid, but the second one she had avoided thanks to her quick reflexes. She immediately used her psionic threads and the area between her and the direction the shot had come from was completely shredded by the deadly power. Her AI assistant had already allowed her to calculate the source of the shot, and she was sure to turn the whole area into nothing but ribbons and woodchips.
Unfortunately for Xiaoli, Ka'aukai was an experienced hunter and knew his position was compromised as soon as his first shot failed to take out the target. He had moved away immediately after firing the second shot, and it was still almost too late. There were several faint scratches on his scales, some even deep enough to break a few of them, and his clothes were torn. The only reason he was alive was because his nullification abilities had weakened the attack, as well as disturbed the control Xiaoli had at the very edge of the threads. The fraying psionic power had still been enough to hurt him, and he realized that his nullification abilities would not help him if he was closer to his target. As such, he would lose if he was drawn into close-quarters combat. While retreating, he fired several shots from between the trees to keep Xiaoli pinned in place, and disappeared into the jungle.
As Ka'aukai realized he would not win a fight at close range, Xiaoli realized she would not win a hide and seek match in the jungle. She had to change the game. Instead of pursuing the enemy, she ran towards the nearby mountain. She knew that the strong hunting instinct of the Dashane would draw her enemy to her, so perhaps it was time she chose a different environment.
"A good decision." Moonshadow commented. "When the current battlefield isn't to your advantage, change it."
"I still can't believe she had such trouble finding him," Amaterasu grumbled. "I thought she would have enough enhancements to see through any tricks he could use to hide."
"And you would be right if the terrain was a bit more open or she got a bit closer. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case and the foliage hid him too well from most of her detection abilities. On the other hand, in a more open terrain Ka'aukai's field of fire would also become more open." Moonshadow analyzed.
"Wouldn't matter." Nochehuatl countered. "At longer range, it would be easier for her to avoid the shots as well. She already dodged the second shot at this range. At longer ranges it would be significantly easier. Besides, even though she would have trouble returning fire effectively while under fire, it's not like she's incapable of long-range sniping. She just had trouble with spotting."
"Well, look at you!" Lilly tapped with her paws together in a sort of applause. "I didn't know you had that in you."
"Just because I'm not any good at military matters, doesn't mean I'm not interested." The Coatl male smiled. The Coatl, in general, were rather bad in personal combat, and Nochehuatl didn't have the sort of snap decision-making ability combat required either. He much preferred thorough analysis.
"They're getting to it again." Moonshadow gestured towards the display.
Xiaoli had found a cave at the base of the mountain and sought refuge inside. The narrow and winding corridor would force the Dashane into close combat, assuming he would follow her inside. If he didn't? Well, she had other plans as well. Ka'aukai found one of those plans in the form of a trap near the mouth of the cave. He spotted it in time to avoid it though. ‘Seeking shelter in a cave? This is like a classic case of a hunter driving a beast into its cave to make a last stand.' He thought with some amusement. The Dashane had long ago developed methods for these kinds of situations. The easiest way to handle it was to smoke the beast out!
With an arcing throw, several grenades landed inside the cave. Some of the toxic gas of course came out of the cave's mouth, but enough went inside as the cave worked almost like a chimney, leading deeper and higher inside the mountain. The idea was a good one and once again would've worked against most opponents. Unfortunately, Xiaoli's enhancements and nanites made the toxic smoke a non-issue. This was a case of enemies not being aware of the other's capabilities as the entire fight had been.
At this point, Xiaoli's experience with Selendil and Dhar technology became a deciding factor. While preparing, she had requested Nox to provide her with something like a personal warp marker that could be dropped and later reactivated. Nox had explained that a design like that didn't really exist as all warping required a Dhar to function, but had finally rigged one for Xiaoli purely based on the fact that the Cybran woman had been able to describe how one would work.
Xiaoli suddenly appeared from within the cave, right on top of what Ka'aukai had assumed to be a trap, and lashed at her surroundings while simultaneously firing her two plasma pistol at the stunned Dashane. Ka'aukai had been far enough to avoid the worst storm of psionic energy, but he still wasn't far enough to avoid it fully. He had been aware of the possibility of the trap being an explosive that could be remotely triggered, but had underestimated the risk due to practical necessities. Still, he got his revenge as he had also made a request during the preparation. He had simply wished for a Dhar explosive with a wide range of effect that was easy to throw. The explosion from the device consumed both participants, ending the fight in a tie.
"Hey! What is this?! This isn't an acceptable ending! I demand a rematch!" Lilly shouted in the middle of the cafeteria.
"Agreed. That was not a proper ending for such an interesting fight. I demand a rematch as well." Amaterasu confirmed.
Apparently many of the other crew members agreed, and so did the two participants. They agreed to a re-match, but they would both be limited to technology their own races had access to, and no large explosive that would force a tie. Nox and Selendil, on the other hand, were quite pleased. A simple fight where one side was victorious wasn't nearly as effective at uniting the parties involved as an unsatisfactory ending that caused everyone to demand a rematch. Their plan had worked better than they had hoped. It had been a good idea to suggest the explosive to Ka'aukai. The warp marker had been a slight surprise but had worked out in the end. The display had also caused everyone else to become eager to try the system.
"Good job Nox. Make sure we'll have enough pods. Sooner or later they will figure out the possibilities with group fights." Selendil ordered. On-board entertainment was always a necessary factor and this one also happened to double as a training and gambling opportunity.