Day 33. 112 pages, 53,104 words.
It was widely agreed that, with the exception of the aki’Drednanth who killed with their minds – and this was a disputed fact so it didn’t really count – there were few sentient beings more dangerous than a Fergunakil alpha. The great shark commanded a school of hundreds, often thousands, and had at its cartilaginous fingertips a raw computing power that rivalled many large-scale synthetic intelligence installations. It was fuelled by an electricity-scorched psychosis capable of terrorising every other Fergunakil in its school, and was the absolute pinnacle of hundreds of millions of years of predatory evolution. Whether male or female, a Fergunakil alpha was smart, and ruthless, and tough, and murderously aggressive.
There was, however, a creature more dangerous. And that was a Fergunakil alpha that had been overthrown, but was still alive.
Almost invariably, the only way a school’s alpha could be replaced by fresh blood was by combat. Awful, threshing, physical and cyber-combat that left the victor almost as shredded as the defeated. An alpha not only had to survive the battle, but also the aftermath – when other Fergunak, proscribed from the contest and yet permitted to prey upon the injured, would churn the bloodied water and feast on anything weak or foolish enough to leave itself exposed. The overwhelming majority of challenges resulted in challenger and defender alike being slain, after which the school remained leaderless until such time as another approach produced an alpha. The Fergunak were an ancient and, despite appearances, highly-developed species, and did not depend entirely on the natural order to decide their societies’ structure.
Of the remaining few cases, the overwhelming majority of challenges resulted in the victor living and the defeated being devoured, whether the incumbent alpha continued its reign or the new challenger took over. In every case, as far back as Fergunakil memory extended – and that was an unknown but presumably vast stretch of time, given the mechanical nature of their minds – if a defending alpha was victorious, the would-be usurper was killed, and eaten.
Sometimes, however, vanishingly rarely, the new challenger would be victorious, but unable to kill the former ruler of the school. Torn, half-eaten, its cybernetic implants mangled and its connection to the school’s gridnet scrambled beyond madness, the old alpha was cast out. And yet, by dint of sheer, awful resolve and toughness, it lived. The new alpha failed to kill it, the scavenging school-members failed to kill it, and the Ocean Goddesses Themselves spat it back into the soft belly of the world.
This was the creature more dangerous than an alpha.
Deadflesh was one such scarred and ancient monster. Overthrown as alpha of the Thousand Cold Fathoms school, he was left drifting in tatters after two marauding beta males had dragged him from the crimson waters of his defeat. He’d killed them both with tooth and raw circuitry and tough, eye-gouging fingers, but had been assumed dead by the rest of the school when his gridnet link flared and vanished in a supernova of white signal. And so he had drifted, for days and then weeks, while his hideously-injured body had rotted and wasted away.
He had lived, though, and had gradually recovered at least some semblance of his bodily functions. He never worked quite properly again, but he could hunt, and feed, and above all, he could think. And very little in the great dry galaxy was as terrible as a thinking Fergunakil.
Painstakingly, unaided and in mind-burning agony, he rebuilt his own cybernetic enhancements almost from scratch. And then he set about finding more of his own kind.
He wasn’t thinking about Fergunak. He had decided that mere Fergunak were lesser beings, unworthy. They were missing something, something important. He hunted on the edges of schools, sometimes eating, sometimes maiming, sometimes dragging away specimens to experiment on. Several schools set out to put an end to him once and for all. They failed. One such school ceased to exist altogether, under circumstances the Fergunak refused to talk about.
Deadflesh became the Fergunakil equivalent of a folk hero, admired and hated in equal measure. It was the closest the great sharks came to the concept of religion, the elemental Goddess-forces of their homeworld notwithstanding. He continued to kill, and continued to linger, and he travelled the length and breadth of Six Species space, and one by one he gathered more of the most dreadful Fergunak in the galaxy around him.
If the Glorious Flawed were a school – which they weren’t – and if they had an alpha – which they didn’t – it would be Deadflesh.