The first Rabit dragged away is Forne Rako.




Game, Anyone?

«Hello,» Forne marched stiffly to Rank, holding his left arm as if he was a waiter and carried a large menu in it. «I'm your torturer for today! May I interest you in today’s special? It's slow torture to death! And it will only cost your life! How can you even think to reject an offer like that? It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance!»

The Rabit around him roared with laughter. He was about to tickle Rank to tears when the door hissed open. A rather large group of Haul marched in. Silence forced its way through the room. Rabit close to the door looked at the officers who quietly shook their heads. They weren't ready for a strike, yet. Without any weapons, it would have been short, bloody, futile and blew any chance to make a successful stand later on. Since they weren't the first prisoners of war, it was very likely that the Haul knew what to expect while they knew next to nothing about these beasts besides the fact that honor and sympathy meant nothing to them.

* * *

Raor wondered about the high security around the quarters in which the Rabits were located. «There were troubling events in the past,» Rarrarar explained to her. Heavily armored guards watched their progress. On her virtual vision, she saw shield generators, shocker arrays and reinforced walls. The safety systems of the ship had to clear them with every step they took. 'It's like walking into a war zone!' The translator wondered why such an effort might be necessary. All the Rabit she knew had always been polite and courteous. That changed as soon as they stepped into the room where the Rabit lived.

Suddenly, she started to feel the distance to the guards outside build with every step she took. Silence spread in the room like some kind of disease. Rabits stared at her as if she was some kind of threat. This was so unlike the happy behavior of any Rabit she had ever met before that she wondered whether these were a different kind. 'But John told us about this,' she thought. 'Being so close to death and then being denied ...'

She hoped the Rabit wouldn't do something stupid like attacking them. It wasn't concern for her own safety, though. 'These poor creatures need professional help. Being shocked into unconsciousness by the generators in the walls is not going to improve their situation.'

Unfortunately, there was nothing she could do but tread lightly. They stopped when a group of Rabit blocked their path.

«Please excuse our intrusion,» she addressed them, carefully keeping her voice down to a mere whisper. «My name is Raor. I would like to talk to Forne Rako, please.» Since she knew she couldn't pronounce the name correctly, she offered them a pad with the picture of the Rabit and his name. For some reason, they didn't take it. Death-wish or not, she was greatly worried by their rude behavior.

* * *

Hames shot her team warning glances when the Haul marched in. All of them knew that they were supposed to keep a clear head even if the Haul started to drag someone away for whatever perverted purpose they had in mind. She also knew that her team contained more than the average amount of hot heads who just might turn a deaf ear in an inopportune moment and start a personal war that could easily kill all of them.

A group of officers stopped the advance of the Haul. Many Rabit in the room were utterly surprised when one of them opened its maws and spoke with heavy lisping but otherwise pretty clear Rabit. 'But there's no telling how long they have been watching us, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.' The voice was dark and vibrant and loud enough to be heard in the whole room. Out of a corner of her eyes, Hames saw Forne starting to panic when his name was mentioned.

* * *

The Rabit officer in the group next to the Haul nodded to her adjutant. «Call him.»

«Forne Rako came the call. «Step forward.»

* * *

Forne suddenly felt very alone. He knew it had to start with someone. 'Why me?' He probably hadn't been able to move at all if there hadn't been little signs of support from all sides around him. 'Come on, get a grip, will you? They might just want to talk, not skin you! Yeah ... fat chance.'

The distance seemed endless. It didn't help that his subconsciousness came up with free horror images of his fate with every step he took.

«Forne Rako, Second Lieutenant of the Space Force, service number 271-611-6781381,» he introduced himself. Just standing there without shaking was an effort.

Forne winced when the Haul licked his fangs as if he was a delicious treat. The black pads in the face fur gave the creature a constantly irritated, mean look. But what really sent a wave of nausea through his guts: The Haul who spoke had a cable running from a device strapped to his upper arm into the base of his skull.

* * *

'Get a grip, girl!' Raor told herself when she realized she was licking her lips nervously. She was all too aware of the steady stares of the Rabit around them and how this automatic gesture was received by this race. The lieutenant in front of her actually seemed to be disgusted to see them if she read his expression correctly. On top of all that, there were so many things she had to keep in mind. No smiling, since that usually had a devastating effect on any Rabit, keeping her voice quiet, so she wouldn't appear to yell, speak very high because the low frequencies of her language always frightened this delicate species.

Luckily, she had spent many hours with the Rabit of the embassy on Haul Prime, so most of this came automatic by now. Additionally, all of the pilots here must have seen the training video which had been prepared months ago with the members of the embassy. Despite all that, their behavior was so odd that she grew more and more worried.

«I'm honored to meet you, Second Lieutenant Rako She tried very hard to pronounce the K properly, so it wouldn't sound like a G, and inclined her head. The cable moved, applying an irritating pressure to the base of her skull. All she could do was stop herself from gripping it and ripping it out of the socket.

«Rako he corrected her impolitely.

She was shocked of his rudeness in front of so many people. His large ears, always moving like flagpoles, added to her irritation.

«Yes, Sir,» she managed. «Please, can we talk? There are some questions regarding the circumstances of the death of General Rowarl which we would like to ask you.»

* * *

Helplessly, Forne looked at the she-captain behind him. She nodded curtly. He faced the creatures again. «Uh ... okay,» he said with a coarse voice that didn't seem his own. The constant stare of the beasts made him more and more nervous.

The Haul mustered him with cold, yellow eyes. «We have prepared a conference room nearby. If you would please follow us,» it snarled, obviously angry at something, probably because he had the nerve not to bow or crouch before them.

'Or because they have to talk to me instead of having some fun with me,' Forne couldn't help to think.

Behind him, an officer yelled commands. «Miller, Vance, step forward!»

Two Rabit, one muscular and the other with sharp eyes, joined them. Forne could barely keep himself upright when the officer stepped next to him. «We're ready.»

'Get a grip, Forne!' he told himself. 'This might be our only chance to get a look beyond these doors! And you're already dead, remember?' He shot a quick glance at Vance, who nodded encouragingly. To know a friend was close helped Forne a lot.

* * *

Raor wasn't too surprised when some Rabits wanted to join them. In her experience, Rabits never liked to do anything alone, even sex was usually consumed in groups, she had been told. Sometimes, very large groups. Rarrarar would have preferred to talk to Forne alone but as she had already warned him that this was unlikely unless they used force. For some reason the old Haul had then changed the questions they were going to ask. She still couldn't see a pattern in his actions but he was renown to surprise friend and foe. Since she judged her chances slim to find out before Rarrarar wanted anyone to know, she tried to concentrate on her work. Whether it worked or not, a tiny piece of the fame would still be hers.

Behind them, the honor guard formed an alley. For some reason, the Rabits seemed to hesitate to step through it. She made a note in the security extension of her implant. Rarrarar was connected to it with an encrypted link and must have seen it but the adviser didn't comment. On their way out, she noticed two naked Rabit with wet streaks along their legs and a strong smell around them. 'They just had sex!' she realized. 'In a crowded place like this!'

'There are more,' came Rarrarar's calm voice over the link. 'I counted seven pairs and two bigger groups further back in the room.'

She was astonished to hear that he had looked around. For her, his eyes had never left the group in front of them. Only then, she realized that he must have read her thoughts from her reaction. She felt awe at the amount of detail the old adviser noticed and a rather big pang of shame not to be able to control her emotions better.

One of the Rabit snorted under his breath when they left the room and met with the guards outside. She noted this as well as her uneasy feelings about it. 'I wonder what they think.' All this became more strange by the minute. Something seemed to be utterly, completely wrong, but she just couldn't place a claw on it, even if she combined both partitions of her consciousness.

She activated a subroutine of her implant to maintain her clear head because all this was starting to wear her nerves thin. To be able to meditate about this aspect later on, she added a comment to the log about her thoughts. That helped her to focus in the current situation. While she did that, the second half of her consciousness kept an eye on the forum which was tracking their progress. Almost 100 Haul were watching them over the net, posting comments and discussing observations.

Several Haul from Warr's department were already busy to compress the text into cross-referenced reports. She was glad for the help, this part of the work always took her ages. With the new support, she could concentrate on reading and adding her own scent to everything that occurred to her.

* * *

Everything outside of their room was painted in a deep red that looked a lot like fresh blood. The contrast between the nice pastel inside and the corridor outside couldn't have been greater. Forne felt like walking into the guts of a bloody nightmare. 'It's a prison,' he agreed when he saw the heavy armored guards in the corridor outside of their room. There must have been 30 or 40 of them, he struggled to keep count.

Not all of them were in the corridor, some hid deep in rooms branching off left and right. Their hosts were walking with long strides, forcing the Rabit into a run to keep up. Forne saw a lot of combat drones and barricades. Segments which peeked out of the walls told of armored doors which could seal off this part of the ship. 'Even if we get out of that room, we'll never make it past this point without heavy arms! It's hopeless. Maybe we should try to take these two here hostage.' But he knew that a grenade which could render them unconscious would make hostages pointless. After what he had been through in the past days, it was hard to keep his desperation in check.

Despite his mood, he tried to remember as much as possible. Since they moved at a good pace, he could only have a quick glance into the rooms left and right as they passed them. He used a trick from school to count the guards: The brain can count small amount of two and three automatically. He just had to add the subsets. 'Two five seven. And here ... three five eight ...'

Only a few meters after the last line of guards, a door opened. «This way please,» the Haul yelled at them. Forne just couldn't rip his eyes off the disgusting cable sticking out of the creatures head. Every time it moved, a chill ran down his spine.

He felt an odd mixture of relief and disappointment when the room really seemed to be for conferences and not a torture chamber: There was a large table in the middle with chairs around it. What surprised him was the fact that there were two big chairs for Haul and four smaller ones. 'How did they know that there would be four of us?' he wondered for a moment. 'Surveillance. They must have prepared this while we walked here. They're fast ... okay, maybe not ... they knew what would happen.'

Behind them, two soldiers took station next to the door, the others stayed outside in the corridor. Without haste, the two Haul leaders went around the table and sat down.

Patiently the large beasts waited for the Rabits to join them.

«I'm Raor of the House Haur the Haul yelled. «We welcome you on board of the RORR. It is my honor to introduce to you Adviser Rarrarar of Honorable House Haul-Hau

The other Haul inclined his head but said nothing. Forne looked from one to the other but they could have been clones. The fur of the adviser looked distinctively old while Raor's was pitch black and glistening as if oiled. But apart from that, they looked identical. They were the same height, the pads in their faces had the exact same layout. Even the uniforms were the same except for the name plates.

«She-captain Vera Boser of the Rabit Space Force, service number 271-611-1743956,» the officer introduced himself.

«Miller Boser, Lieutenant of the Rabit Space Force, service number 271-611-1746386,» the bulky Rabit said.

«Vance Bearon, Lieutenant of the Rabit Space Force, service number 271-611-2395663.» Vance seemed bored, his gaze wandered around the room.

Forne swallowed. «Forne Rako», he emphasized the K, «Second Lieutenant of the Rabit Space Force, service number 271-611-1743956.»

«Thank you for coming. As I said before,» the Haul explained, «we have some questions regarding the death of General Rowarl

«Who is that?» Forne asked. «Never heard of him. Uh ... and ... err ... can you stop yelling ... please?»

* * *

'As we expected.' Rarrarar added a comment to his files. 'They had no time to talk. What did you have in mind, old friend, when you wrote your last will?'

* * *

'How can someone be so rude? He must really taking this very badly.' Raor calmed herself and reduced her voice to a mere whisper. «Didn't you know that the injured Haul in the rescue capsule was General Rowarl, head of Honorable House Haul-Hau

The words got her a very strong reaction from all the Rabits.

* * *

'We killed one of the Haul leaders!' Forne almost jumped up and cried from joy. 'Yes! Yes! Direct hit where it really hurts!'

She-captain Boser was already ahead of him. «Why was he in a rescue capsule on the planet?»

«There was an explosion which destroyed most of his ship,» the Haul answered. «Only two thirds of the crew managed to escape.»

'The new prototypes work!' Forne realized. 'Now, we can pay you bastards back what you did to us! You will curse the day you came to Pantero!' But he was also sad. 'So one of us is dead ... I wonder who it is ... Vance is here. Morry?' Boser was again talking, ripping him out of his thoughts.

The woman besides him carefully suppressed her expression of satisfaction. «I understand.»

The Haul's attention returned to Forne. «How did you find the rescue capsule of the general?»

«Uh, well.» Forne had to force his raging emotions down to concentrate on the here and now. «You see, my ship was ... er ... I had to land ... it was an emergency, see? It was pure chance that I hit ... stumbled over this capsule.»

* * *

'Insane or on the brink of it,' Raor noted. She knew Haul teeth could make Rabit very nervous, so she suppressed the urge to smile encouragingly. «So you landed close by. Is your ship still on the planet? Shall we pick it up?»

«It's a landmark,» came the odd reply. «I mean, it's not meant to land on a planet and I couldn't see a thing. When it crashed in some mountain, I barely had time to eject. You can look for it but you'll probably only find a crater. With some metal mixed with molten stone or whatever that world is made of.»

Before Raor could ask the next question, he went on: «I accidentally landed in a hidden lake. From the air, it looked like a clearing but it was just a thin layer of vegetation, see? What a mess! Took me an hour to get out of it with the roots and the ropes from my parachute. I went to see if there was anything left of my ship. Not that I had any hopes but what else could I do? That's when I stumbled over the capsule.»

* * *

Forne felt he was slowly coming down from his panic. Despite his great fears, the Haul really seemed to just want to ask some questions. Dangerous ones at that but he felt he could handle that. Storytelling was a skill he had honed to perfection at school. It had saved his ears more then once to be able to come up with a believable explanation why some disaster was not at all related to the fact that he had been close.

«In what state was the general when you found him?»

«Uh, can't really say,» Forne replied. «I mean that guy was a mess! His whole back was burned down to the bones. I could see his guts move below the spine! At first, I was sure was dead but there was still life in him. By Tar, the pain must have been killing him but he never said a word!»

He was quite proud of himself for the idea to tell them how great their general was. «When I saw he was still alive,» he omitted the part where he had almost jumped out of his skin, «I searched the capsule for some medicine and tried to treat him. But it was too late, I guess.» When the silent Haul suddenly barked something, he jumped.

«Adviser Rarrarar would like to know how you knew which medicine to use,» Raor translated.

«Er, well, I just held each in front of his face, okay? Eventually, he said ... uhm ... ar? Yeah, ar, it was. With all the others, he had said ... urrr? So I figured that must be it,» Forne explained.

* * *

'So he does not even know the most simple words in Haul,' Rarrarar thought. 'He is smart enough to figure out how to find the right medicine, so I think we can assume the reason is he never had any lessons. Why not? They knew they would meet with us. Why would someone come completely unprepared to a challenge? How did he pass the tests on the Rabit side?' When Raor had added her comment how odd the situation was, he had felt compelled to tell her that we had been concerned even before they had left Haul Prime. He didn't to avoid putting any further pressure on her. Her nerves were already bad enough as it was.

* * *

Raor also wondered why the Rabit didn't even knew yes or no. «That is correct,» she told him. «Ar means yes and urr is no. Why didn't you wait when you saw the rescue team come down to pick you up?»

* * *

Forne stared at the Haul. 'What's this, a trick question?' His thoughts raced. «Didn't feel like it,» he finally managed.

The Haul flicked with the ears. It was the only thing on the mass of muscles that moved. A clear threat that any mistake would have dire consequences. «Why not?» the beast snapped.

'Don't blow it, Forne! It's been going so well!' He thought frantically. «I ... er ... didn't want to get in the way of your ... rescue team?»

The second Haul was growling. Forne couldn't stop himself from wincing again.

«Did you feel threatened by the rescue team?» Raor asked.

Forne remembered the ship just hanging in the air. «Well, er, I just heard this sound and then that ship came down ... pretty fast ... so, er, ... I guess I thought it would just crash down, right? I mean, it wasn't that I had an hour to ponder what to do, see?»

«What did you try to achieve by firing combat ammunition?»

«Just making sure your guys weren't sleeping down there.» Forne felt more and more in control of the situation.

* * *

Raor paused. She had experiences misunderstandings before. «They were not my guys.»


«You said, "your guys weren't sleeping" she explained. «The soldiers on the surface were not "my guys."»

That brought a wide grin on the face of Forne. «Really?»

She was happy that he finally seemed to relax. «Yes. Did it not occur to you that you might have hurt someone?»

«They ought to keep their shields up all the time, don't they? No mercy for slackers.»

Her strategy really seemed to work. «I beg your pardon? What is a slacker?»

«Someone who sleeps on the job. A cop-out, a quitter, a funk, a dozer! Geez, you sound as if you hadn't had your dose of slang, yet!»

«That is correct, I had not.»

Forne started to laugh. «"That is correct!" That ain't no way to talk! Repeat after me: "Nah, I ain't!"»

Now, he was overdoing it, Raor felt. «No, thank you. Why did you tie down the General?»

«Err ... didn't want him to move too much? With his wound and all, you know? He might have jerked while I applied the meds, killing himself. Can't have that, can we?»

Raor stopped herself from licking her teeth. «Why did you say this?»

Forne's muffled voice filled the room: «Why are you doing this? Isn't space big enough for you murderers? Why can't you simply leave us alone! We never did anything to you! But you ... you ... Oh, you don't understand? You're just lucky that you're already wounded like that or I'd beat some understanding into your stupid skull! Do you have ... Damn! After all I've been through! How can you stupid bastard die, now?»

The Rabit sighed. «Lady, I've been carrying my ears around for more than 30 hours when I said that. I hadn't had a good night's sleep for the more than a week. Nightmares and such. When I got the call in the morning, I was ready to call in sick.»

«You mean,» Raor interrupted him before he could loose her completely with his strange words, «you were feeling sick and were considering skipping the challenge?» Even when she joined the partitions of her conscience, she could not keep up with translating. Without the constant support from a couple of Haul from Warrs department, she would have been lost.

His mouth tightened as if she had spoken an insult. «Yeah. Then, during the ... the challenge ...»

Raor wondered why he said the word in such a strange voice as if it was more important than the rest. She marked the position in the recording for later analysis.

«... my ship was hit early on. I still don't know what hit me but it was bad. IIRC, the only things I had left ...»

She had to interrupt him again. «Aiaiarc?»

He broke off, stared at her for a moment. «If I remember correctly.»

'Fascinating,' Raor thought. 'It's like a language of its own!' Before she could get lost in a stray excursion, she added a point to her todo-list. «Thank you. Please go on.»

«Okay. Where was I? Oh, yeah, my ship was a wreck. The only things left were parts of the main computer, my eject seat, and life support. At that time, I thought I was dead. Hours later, I realized that the planet was pulling me in. Do you know the chances to hit the right entry angle?» He pressed middle finger and thumb together. «About that big.» He pulled at the tip of his right ear. «But I'm always lucky, you know. The last remaining bits of the main computer brought me through the atmosphere in one piece. I still can't believe it. How many impossible things were that already? One or two more, and I can order breakfast at Milliways.»

Since he was talking so eagerly, Raor decided to just file her questions. He was so unlike any other Rabit she had met. There were glimpses, short moments when his strange behavior melted away, revealing the fresh and enthusiastic mood she had noticed so often with this young race. Only, there was something else, something in the back, that loomed over him. 'The death wish.'

«When I hit the clouds, they were blown away, creating a cool tunnel effect. It was like racing on rails through a tube. The only problem were those fucking mountains I've seen from orbit. I barely had time to eject before my fighter smashed into one. Do you have any idea how it feels to have to eject at speeds like that? I wished I'd die! Every hair on my body screamed bloody hell! Then I splashed into that lake. Then I had to whack my path through the damn jungle! And then I ran into your general. I won't ever be able to forget the sight. Had to struggle not to vomit in my suit. That'd've been the icing on the cake! Self-cleaning my ass! The shit they are selling us today! Can you believe it?»

«Thank you, Lieutenant,» interrupted She-captain Boser.

The stream of words broke off, much to the disappointment of Raor. «Yeah ... right. So there I was ... with a broken rescue capsule that would leave it's charge die. We tried to fix it but, yeah, well ... communication barrier and stuff.»

Raor tried to compress what she had just heard into something that would answer her question. «So you were confused? Is that why you said it?»

«Yeah.» Forne nodded, his ears wobbling. «I mean, I talk a lot and not everything I say makes sense all the time. Right? It was long day and I wasn't really coherent at the end of it. ... If your guy hadn't taken me out, Tar knew what might have happened.»

* * *

Rarrarar was sure they had something. 'So he was already sure he was dead but he didn't use his gun to put an end to his life. Or simply opened his helmet. Maybe he really is insane. Or just too afraid to talk. Well, there are other ways to make someone talk.'

«Thank you for your cooperation,» he said calmly. This time, the Rabit seemed to have adjusted to his voice because they didn't jump. «We would like to express our gratitude for your attempts to save General Rowarls life.»

* * *

That had went much better than Forne had hoped for. He wondered if the Haul were really that stupid or if they just gave the impression of swallowing his story. 'Now or never,' he told himself when the old Haul talked about gratitude. «How about a tour of the ship?»

The Haul stared at him.

«I mean, hey, it's a big ... great ship, isn't it? I've never seen one from the inside and ... er ... maybe you could give us a tour of it? Kind of showing your ... gratitude?» Nervously, he waited for their answer.

* * *

Rarrarar's ears didn't betray his satisfaction when he told them he would ask the ship's captain to grant the request. He already had some specific ideas how to test his theory. When the Rabit walked out, he watched Forne Rako closely, took in the movement of the muscles, the ears, the strange patterns on them. 'I wonder what his plans are ... does he know about General Rowarl's decision?' He came to the conclusion that this was unlikely. 'If that was the case, we would have found something in the recordings. Furthermore, he would have mentioned it by now ... unless he is too afraid for some reason. Maybe he fears the reaction of his companions? Or he does not want to accept. But then, he could have simply said so ... even if he knows nothing about us, he should know that ... but is that not the core of the issue at hand?'


The title of this scene is a play on words: "Game, anyone?" means that someone wants to play with you but "game" also means prey.


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