The Deathworlders

Chapter 40: War on Two Worlds, Part 2—Escalation

Date Point: 14y AV
Dataspace adjacent to Hunter scout ship, orbiting planet Gao

The Entity, Instance 4

A few nanoseconds of panic gave way to a subjective eternity of relief as more information flooded in.

The Entity was still looking at a bad situation. Its host—a Matryoshka doll of itself lurking inside the digital husk of an Igraen agent, which in turn occupied the implants of a Hunter data analyst—was indeed aboard a scout ship, which was indeed cloaked in orbit around the Planet Gao, one of dozens of ships waiting for the right moment to pounce.

It was not, however, as the Entity had first believed, the entire Swarm-of-Swarms. That numbered in excess of a million ships, and for all that the Hunters lived in a perpetual state of war readiness, a fleet on that scale simply couldn’t and didn’t mobilize rapidly. It mobilized in stages, and the first stage was reconnaissance.

Still. There were dozens of ships in a loose sphere around the target world, all cloaked and all armed with sophisticated telescopes and sensors. The Hunters—and through them the Hierarchy—had a commanding intelligence advantage. They could see everything. That advantage needed to be robbed from them…but the Entity had no idea how.

It did the only thing it could—it settled in, it waited, and it watched. The right moment would come.


Date Point: 14y AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm

Master Sergeant Derek “Boss” Coombes

Safety when alone in the field was something a man built for himself, and it lay in the little details. A pebble bouncing down a slope for no apparent reason, a bush rustling in the wrong way, birds not singing when they should be…Little details were the difference between a stroll in the woods and being shot sideways in the ass out of nowhere. For Coombes, noticing the little details was as much of a challenge as suppressing his own giveaways.

He walked softly, checked his footing, kept his head on a swivel, listened, scented the air. The human nose couldn’t stack up to a dog’s or Gaoian’s, but it worked just fine regardless.

A lot of people had no idea what they could really do, thanks to a lifetime of being buried by sensory overload. Sight and smell were remarkably acute, once the buzz of civilization was left behind…and human ears were something else entirely.

The secret was in their omnidirectional acuity. A well-trained human could, once the ringing of loud noises finally cleared, hear almost everything all around them, and pinpoint exactly where that sound was. Maybe this critter or that could outperform on a specific thing, but Coombes would eat his hat if anyone could point out any species with a more complete, functional, and well-balanced sense of the aural space around them. It was so good, in fact, that a man who knew the trick to it and practiced a bit could learn how to echolocate.

He’d been doing exactly that for nearly a klick of overland travel and knew, without looking or second-guessing, that there was a very large Gaoian breathing uncomfortably about fifty yards away upwind to the north, slightly above and behind an outcropping, and making his way carefully down the side, totally oblivious to Coombes’ presence.

And to think: that messy-haired spaceman Julian was better at it.

“You okay, Tiggs?” Coombes lifted his voice in a low but strong tone he knew would carry without much risk of being detected by anyone but Daar.

He heard Daar jump slightly, gather himself, and clear his throat before he replied.

“…Been better.”

“Yeah. Skull check, bro.”

“Right. I’ll just…set all my stuff here and step twenty paces to the right. Okay?”

These were always the tense moments: In any situation where Big Hotel were active and a man was out of sight, the spectre of biodroning reared its head.

Coombes had a problem, though—Daar was a freak of a Gaoian, being bigger, stronger, and quicker than himself or even Walsh, and was armed with the kind of blunt, working claws that’d tear the bark off a tree without much effort. In any real fight, Coombes could expect to say goodbye to his throat in an eyeblink. The only option would be extreme wariness, and an approach from behind.

“We really gotta figger out a better way t’do this, Boss.” Through the brush he saw Daar sink to his knees and cross his paws behind his back. Somebody had to take the first risk that the other guy wasn’t ‘droned.

Coombes circumambulated a wide arc around him and approached from behind. “Man, I’ll write you up for a goddamned medal if you figure that one out.” He approached carefully and pressed the sensor against Daar’s skull on an outstretched arm, ready to fly at the slightest sign of trouble.

Green. Once Daar heard the ping and heard Coombes relax, he moved like a blur and had Coombes slammed to the ground in a heartbeat. His own sensor used a different color scheme—Gaoians couldn’t see red—but it made the same ping noise to indicate a head free of unexpected solid masses.

“…Sarry, Boss. You okay?”

Coombes grunted and rubbed at a spot on his shoulder where those root-ripping claws had dug into him. “…That’s even worse than when Tiny does it. Ow.”

Daar whined apologetically and backed off. A very slight wince played across his face as he moved; he was making an admirable effort to be fit and mission-ready, but Coombes knew him far too well. He could tell the big guy was hurtin’, and he said so.

“Okay. F’real now: How you feelin’? We just got nuked so I doubt it’s roses.”

“Considerin’ we just got nuked, I feel fuckin’ great,” Daar chittered so deep in the bass register it was like hearing a chipmunk nesting in a bucket. A grim laugh, by Gaoian standards.

“Your ribs okay?”

“They’re tender like Righteous just bodyslammed me, but nothin’ broken. My skin stings, my ears are still ringin’ and I still ain’t seein’ quite right, but mostly it’s just bruising. You?”

“Mild burn. Otherwise fine. You sure you’re gonna be okay?”

“Boss, it’s just overpressure. I’ll be okay…it’s the radiation got me worried. Actually,” Daar returned to his gear and dug through his survival satchel until he found his medicine box. “Gotta take my potassium iodide. But I’m not supposed t’do that without someone watching me. ‘Parrently sometimes, but not allatime, Gaoians have a really bad reaction to it. Something ‘bout our endocrine system or whatever.”

“I know the brief,” Coombes agreed, digging into his own pack. “Pills can be rough on us too.” He stuck his water sippy-tube in his mouth, got a mouthful of artificial raspberry-tasting water, lipped the pill into his mouth and raised an imaginary glass.

“Cheersh,” he mumbled. They swallowed.

At least it was pretty good artificial raspberry flavor. A solid eight out of ten, as synthetic fruit chemistry went. Coombes had no idea what flavor Daar’s was, but judging from the smell…there were fish oils in there, at least.

“How’s your radio?”

“Raised you no problem. Ain’t heard shit from Tiny or Chimp.”

“We did lose Drunk On Turkey,” Coombes reminded him. Their radios were low-powered, and had relayed to the microsats they’d seeded on approach via the ship. With the ship gone, they’d need an antenna to communicate across the narrow mountain spine between them and the village. “…Last transmission I got was from Sister. Other than that…just you.”

“We should check in, then.”

“Yeah. You good to get an antenna up that tree?”

“Yeah, Boss. Just…let’s wait an’ see if this medicine kills me first.”

Daar really was suffering, if he didn’t spring to it with rugged enthusiasm. Coombes nodded, patted him on the shoulder and took stock.

Two cases of probable radiation poisoning and a battered Gaoian aside, they were in pretty good shape, and the radiation poisoning wasn’t going to be that bad or he’d be feeling it already. They sat together, Coombes’ back against Daar’s flank, and they rested.

Daar’s instincts were right, though. A few minutes after he’d taken the dose he whined and flipped over onto all fours, shook his head, belched, hacked, retched, and made a wretched greasy yellowish puddle between his paws that stank of chicken, fish and acid.

“Better out than in, my ‘ma says,” Coombes told him, sympathetically.

“I’m sure…yer ‘ma…” Daar heaved again, “…is a classy lady. But fuck that. I ain’t felt this sick…since I drank ten liters of Naxas milk…on a dare…after I made Champion—HURFF!!”

“Shit, man…Can I do anything?”

“…Water, please.”

Coombes nodded and broke out a trick Julian had shown him. Ketta trees were full of safe water if you knew how to get at it. It was one of the reasons the People held them so sacred—wherever there were Ketta, a man couldn’t go thirsty. They didn’t even have to harm the tree, just get a knife in under the bark the right way and score downwards. Water poured out, smelling pleasantly like mint and apple juice, and he guided it into a plastic-bag canteen.

He dropped in a couple of purification tabs for good measure. The People swore that Ketta-water carried no disease, and he’d back the human immune system to prove them right every time…but Gaoians were a different matter. If he was going to rely on a half-pulverised, half-irradiated and half-blinded Daar, he was damn well not going to add dying from a deathworld disease to the list.

Daar straightened up, spat a globule of bile into the dirt, and drained the sweet-smelling sugary water by the simple expedient of tipping his head back, rolling his huge pink slab of a tongue into a kind of funnel, and pouring it all down his throat in a smooth stream.

“Better?” Coombes asked him.

“Still alive…” Daar cleared his throat. “Gimme that antenna.”

Nobody could fault his game. Those claws of his made easy work of climbing, and almost before Coombes could check his map the antenna was stuck high up in the tree with its cable dangling to the ground. His descent was more careful and less impressive, but more than serviceable.

Coombes hooked it up and gave him a brotherly slap on the shoulder to acknowledge a job well done. “Here goes nothin’…” he muttered, and keyed his mic. “Chimp, Boss. Report.”

Hoeff must have been waiting to pounce on his radio because he came back instantly.

“Boss, Chimp. Nothing new over here. Glad to hear your voice—Y’all get out okay?”

“We did, but Drunk on Turkey is destroyed. Tigger and me are at, uh…” Coombes glanced down at his map again, and reeled off the grid reference. He shot a glance at Daar, who was leaning heavily against a tree and panting, but regaining his composure and strength with every second. “…Both kinda shaken up, minor injuries, nothin’ that’ll stop us. We’ll make best speed for RV Bravo, check in when we get there. Boss out.”

“Happy trails.”

Daar grunted, snorted and spat something foul into the grass before shaking himself out from nose to tail-tip. “…How far is it to Bravo?” he asked.

“We’re here,” Coombes showed him the map. “Bravo’s…there.”

Daar’s ears angled downwards and outwards into a posture of grim resignation. “…Right behind ya, Boss.”

Coombes slapped him on the shoulder again, gathered his gear, and filled his Camelbak from another Ketta. He wanted to put a lot of ground behind him before he started to feel worse. And there was only one way to do that.

He checked his compass, checked the sun, checked his bag one last time…and ran.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
HMS Myrmidon, Cimbrean System, The Far Reaches

Admiral Sir Patrick Knight

“Nukes?”

“Yes. Drunk On Turkey declared a radiological alarm and ordered Misfit to jump out, and…well, they did. So quickly that they didn’t get any sensor data to tell us how big of a nuke it was.”

Knight twisted a pinch of his beard back and forth between his fingers as he thought. The situation on Akyawentuo added an unwelcome complication to an already complicated situation, and demanded careful thought.

Colonel Miller had taken the job of talking to Chang and Buehler. He wasn’t coming to Gao anyway, and his administrative role was temporarily on hold as the Allied war machine revved its collective engine and surged into action. He’d been at a loose end—exactly the right man for liaising with the Byron Group explorers. “If I can offer some insight, Admiral, Big Hotel don’t seem to go in for subtlety with their WMDs,” he pointed out.

“True…” Knight sighed, smoothing some neatness back into his beard. “Damn. If they hit Drunk On Turkey with anything remotely as large as we usually see from them…”

“…Then Coombes and Daar are probably KIA,” Miller finished. “And for all we know, they nuked the village immediately afterwards.”

Knight nodded solemnly. *Myrmidon*’s Fleet Intelligence Center was designed to accommodate a flag officer’s presence, and the platoon of analysts and technicians who ran the place and its fearsome supercomputers had rearranged themselves around him like a lock arranged itself around a key. He stood at the apex of a data pyramid that could deliver him practically live-action updates on every man, machine and supply crate in the fleet, and the sudden appearance of a pitch-black gap in that ocean of information was…unacceptable. It paralyzed him: He couldn’t know the correct course of action without knowing more.

He needed Daar, though. The Champion of Stoneback was far too politically important; if he was dead then they needed to know soon so there was plenty of time to adapt to his loss, and if he wasn’t then they needed to retrieve him.

He couldn’t send Misfit back to check on the planet for him. It was a civilian survey and exploration vessel, not a reconnaissance plane. If he sent a Firebird on a recon mission then that was a Firebird not lending its mass to Gao, and for want of a nail…

…But wars swung on knowledge. He had to know.

“Divert a Firebird to reconnoitre Akyawentuo,” he ordered. “Have them determine the JETS team’s status and report back. If Champion Daar turns up alive, we can make plans to retrieve him.”

“And if he doesn’t?” Miller asked.

“Then if anybody is left down there, they’re on their own until we’re done with Gao,” Knight said, grimly.

“And Misfit?”

“I leave them to your discretion. Thank you, Miller.”

“Yes, sir. Good hunting.”

Knight put the sturdy brick of a phone handset back in its cradle and returned his attention to the flow of updates coming across his desk.

The HEAT were ready. Caledonia and Racing Thunder were ready. He acknowledged Captain Bathini’s report and bade him good hunting, then sat back to rub at his eyes and gather his thoughts.

The initiative, hopefully, had been seized. He only prayed that it was enough.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Armstrong Station, Cimbrean System, The Far Reaches

Xiù Chang

Metta Bhavana was meant to be straightforward—Xiù had been doing it all her life, after all. There were five steps to it, and she’d already done the first three.

Step one: Metta for the self. Affection and warmth, forgiveness of one’s own failures and humble satisfaction in one’s own successes. Peace, calm and tranquility. Step two was to extend that emotion outwards, to encompass loved ones and good friends, and direct that energy toward them. Xiù always imagined herself glowing warmly, sending radiant pulses out to sweep across Allison, Julian, Dane, Clara, Ayma, Regaari, Yulna, Myun, her parents and brother, Yan, Vemik and all the People and make them glow as well, wishing for the glow to bring them wellness and happiness.

It would have been easy to bask there, and keep her good energies close to her heart, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to expand her kindness outwards from there again to encompass her acquaintances, her colleagues, all the passing people she’d seen and worked with. Everybody she felt neutral about. That one was abstract, but after a lifetime of practice she hoped she was finally starting to get the hang of it.

The hard one was to extend it to her enemies. Aside from one bitchy ballerina who’d called her a ‘banana’ a few times behind her back, Xiù hadn’t really had enemies as a young woman…until Trig, the Corti who’d bought her and the Gaoians as test subjects. Extending any kind of warm feelings toward him had been beyond her at first, and after years of trying she still wasn’t sure she’d ever find it in her to really send any truly positive vibes his way.

Loving kindness for the Hunters, though? Or the Hierarchy?

She tried…and failed, and wondered why she was even making the effort because it was obvious that the galaxy would be a better, happier place if only those evil sons of bitches didn’t exist and…and then she realized she was basking in anger and hatred, grew disappointed with herself and had to go back to step one. Again.

This time, her annoyed huff at herself and the way she wriggled on her cushion as she tried to reset her mind prompted Allison to finally say something.

“Babe, I can tell when your meditation isn’t going well.”

Xiù opened her eyes. Allison was lying on the couch, watching the news with her headphones on. ESNN were doing rolling coverage of the huge scale military mobilization, grounded in not many hard facts and a lot of speculation. One of the minor dramas playing out in the middle of it all was that Cimbrean Colonial Security had deployed crowd control officers to the Alien Quarter.

“I’m trying not to freak out,” she confessed.

“…C’mere.”

She was probably right. Xiù sighed, rolled her weight forward until her feet were underneath her, and stood up. Allison took her hand and guided her down into a crosswise couch cuddle with a kiss. “…Same,” she admitted. “The fuck is taking so long…?”

Xiù could only shrug, and snuggled into her to try and be patient. It took Allison a few seconds before she took a deep breath as well, gave her a squeeze and relaxed into just…waiting. Being.

Having a loved one to cuddle helped a lot. Xiù finally managed to go to a thoughtless place where her brain didn’t settle on anything to think about deeply or for long, and when their wait came to an end with an incoming call, she found she couldn’t tell if it had been a long time or no time at all. The clock said twenty minutes.

“God, here’s hoping it’s something…” Allison breathed, and they stood up.

Xiù put the call on speakers. “EV-11 Misfit.”

“Miss Chang, Miss Buehler, it’s Colonel Miller again. Sorry to keep you both waiting. We need your beacon sync codes, we’re sending a Firebird over to check out the situation on Akyawentuo.”

“Just the one?” Allison asked.

“That’s all we can spare, until we know more about what’s going on over there.”

“I’ll send them right over,” Allison promised, and crossed the room to grab her tablet.

“What are we doing?” Xiù asked.

“Sit tight,” Miller told her.

“…That’s it? But—”

“I know,” Miller interrupted her. “And I’m sorry. I wracked my brains for you but we just don’t have anything for you to do. We cannot guarantee your safety and cannot permit you on the field.”

“We’re deep space explorers, Colonel,” Allison told him, with the edge in her voice that Xiù knew meant she was keeping a lid on her temper. “We know and accept the risks. There has to be—”

“I respect that. But your ship doesn’t have the needed equipment and you don’t have the needed skills.”

“They took Julian—” Xiù began.

“Bluntly? He’s useful on the ground and wasn’t as valuable as the pilot and engineer for the only line of communication they had. Now when we get out there, we’ll do what we can to extract him but right now we just don’t have enough information and we can’t spare the resources until we do. Your ship is ordered to remain docked at Armstrong until I hear otherwise, and you’re to surrender your beacon codes.”

Allison stiffened. “Ordered?”

“Yes. Cimbrean is under martial law for the duration of the emergency, and that explicitly includes you…Will that be a problem?”

There was a dangerous note in that last question. Allison and Xiù looked to each other, a look they hadn’t exchanged since their training days in the Box back in Omaha. The one that agreed they both hated what they were up against but knew that they’d have to be stupid not to fold. Miller’s tone had said clearly that if they fought him on this, they’d lose swiftly and decisively and the long-term repercussions would be dire.

“…No, Colonel,” Allison told him, after a second. “I’ll transfer the codes immediately.”

“Thank you. I’ll be in touch when the situation changes.”

Miller ended the call, and Xiù made very, very certain that they weren’t transmitting anything to anybody before daring to open her mouth.

Words failed her, though. “What a…a—”

Wáng bā?” Allison suggested, managing to dredge up a tiny little bit of levity from somewhere. The little Mandarin she knew was mostly vulgarities.

“No, that’s not…” Xiù vented her frustrations with a sigh. “…He’s just doing his job. But this whole situation can go die in a hole! …There must be something we can do…?”

Allison shrugged and applied her thumb to the fingerprint reader on her tablet, then put it down. “…Codes sent. We aren’t going anywhere, babe.”

“…So that’s it? We’re stuck here?”

“Yeah. Shit, it wouldn’t surprise me if they don’t let us leave the station.”

“But—” Xiù trailed off, then gave up. She slumped dejectedly onto the couch and, completely bereft of anything more constructive to do, found herself in tears. She didn’t even notice Allison sit down next to her until she was bundled up and pulled in close, where she grabbed hold, squeezed tight and tried to find some balance again.

It took a while.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
HMS Caledonia, Cimbrean system, The Far Reaches

Champion Meereo of Clan Longear

“This is not dignified.”

It wasn’t. Being strapped to a Human was never going to be dignified, in any context. Let alone strapped to his back and shoulders like an infant cub, having to endure the overwhelming musky power of his scent and being jostled every time Baseball added another item to the already titanic mass of gear he was carrying.

“Beats walkin’,” the enormous Human told him. “You comfortable?”

“Now is not the time to worry about comfort.”

Burgess grunted, and somehow managed to convey an approving tone through something that was less than a word. “My job is to keep you alive,” he said. “This whole plan goes to shit if we don’t get you to Farthrow alive an’ whole. If that means stickin’ your ass to my back an’ usin’ me for a meat shield, then we stick your ass—”

“—to your back and use you as a meat shield,” Meereo chorused with him. “Please, allow me to be nervous. It’s all I have right now.”

Baseball nodded, but craned to look back over his shoulder.

“I ain’t gonna fuck up, bud. I promise.”

“I’m not worried for me. A lot of Gaoians are going to die today, even if this goes perfectly.”

“…I know. It fuckin’ sucks.”

“HEAT!” Burgess turned to face Lieutenant Costello, who was suited up in something that Meereo’s expert eye saw was absolutely bristling with communications equipment. Behind him, Powell was wearing something similar, and obviously already immersed in a river of data. “In the square, we go in two!”

Burgess reached out sideways and his fist slammed against Warhorse’s. The larger Protector hoisted an enormous roll of fabric up off the ground with a solid, metallic noise that suggested it was stuffed full of equipment. With that safely stowed on his back, the two men reached down and together hefted a second, even larger roll between them, which they steered into the middle of the square. In seconds, every man and Gaoian the HEAT had was shoulder-to-shoulder and back-to-back, neatly packed inside the jump array’s marked space on the deck.

Meereo took stock of his surroundings as he waited. The techs had all cleared away from the array and were watching with various tense expressions that perfectly mirrored his own mounting nerves.

Powell was the last into the square. He looked his men in the eye, one by one, and nodded.

“What are we, lads?” he asked.

“Death!”

Meereo flinched at the reply that came blasting out of a dozen Deathworlder throats at full volume and effortlessly overpowered the Whitecrests in doing so, even as they joined in.

“You’re fookin’ right.” There was an alarming edge in Powell’s voice, now. A hunger that Meereo hadn’t heard before. “Be quick, be merciful, be smart. But don’t fookin’ hesitate. We have a world to save.” Without even seeming to try very hard, he raised his voice to a thundering volume that hurt Meereo’s large, sensitive ears. “Why do we kill?”

“Protect!!”

“Aye.” Powell glanced down at his wrist to check the time, and nodded. “Let’s go show the bastards.”

The instant after the words were out of his mouth, the jump array fired. There was a moment of perfect blackness, a lurching sensation like the flow of time had just been kicked in the balls, and the first Human boots hit the ground in defense of Gao.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
Commune of Females, Wi Kao city, Gao

Brother and Claw-Leader Fiin of Stoneback

Protect and Provide

Those words weren’t only the motto of Clan Stoneback, they were its ancient lore and its purpose, distilled into something so simple that it could be burned into a young ‘Back’s brain over and over again through repetition and practical work until the words and everything they meant were written in the deepest and most essential part of him.

Protect and Provide. For society in general, and in particular for the future of that society as embodied in the Females and cubs, Stoneback’s mission was clear. Secure the three largest Communes and retrieve as many females as possible from the satellite communes, workhouses and common wards. Put up a wall of fur, fangs, claws and courage between them and whatever threat was coming, and kill anyone or anything that tried to get to them.

The Clan’s “Growl” IFVs were echoes of the Clan themselves—huge, rugged, fierce and powerful. These weren’t skittish Dominion-approved hover tanks with thick shields over flimsy hulls, these were walls of sophisticated Highmountain composite armor on an all-wheel-drive train that would happily smash through what they couldn’t roll over, and a convoy of them could go anywhere and defend anything.

Smoke was still rising from the Whitecrest enclave as First Fang barged through the deserted streets of downtown Wi Kao. The Clanless had mostly, wisely, gone to ground the moment the first bomb went off but there were a few males out on the streets anyway, and Fiin would eat his tail if they weren’t biodrones.

Fiin’s was the lead vehicle in the convoy, and the driver was under orders not to concern himself overmuch with anyone or anything that got in the way. The occasional lurch and crunch as the beveled armor on the nose flipped a parked car or van out of the way proved that he was taking that order seriously.

They had to be quick. There were twenty cubs and five Mothers onboard, wedged into every free space that wasn’t occupied by a Brother or his equipment. Every second they were on the streets was one where an unlucky attack might cost them all their lives.

Wi Kao was burning. Vehicles in the street were brutal balls of black-edge flame, buildings were burning and the air was bitter with smoke. From his turret, Fiin could see the silver needle of Lavyan Tower, ablaze up its taller side without a single Emberpelt air-tanker anywhere near it. A fire that huge should have been swarmed by firefighters, but the firefighters themselves would have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of fires even if they were free to fight fires in the first place.

As first responders—their motto was “Stand Behind Us”—they too were charged with Protecting, and on that ground their common heritage with Stoneback never wavered. The Emberpelts had their paws on the ground, facing down the biodrones without even knowing what they were up against.

Fiin admired them. Many would die today, probably. And maybe, if the Gao survived this, they could be interred with honors at High Mountain Fortress. But the fact that his Growl had already shoved aside more than one blazing fire truck showed just how truly dire things had got.

The biodrones were armed, they were agile, and they were co-ordinated. They moved more like a single organism than a hostile force, and their influence and numbers were growing with each passing minute and with each passing massacre as activated biodrones butchered their brothers without warning or mercy.

And with Clans like the Firefangs being almost universally implanted, the time was fast approaching when the Hierarchy would have uncontested air superiority, and a convoy like Fiin’s would just be a ripe target.

Things weren’t so bad out on the parkway toward the Female commune. One of the Clan’s truly heavyweight vehicles had already muscled all the abandoned vehicles off the road entirely, dumping them clear over the barricades. Fiin’s Growl showed off where it got its name as the driver hit highway speeds and climbed the hill.

The city looked worse from the hillside though. The Whitecrest compound in particular looked entirely gutted and nobody had been able to raise them at all.

The ‘Crests had a high incidence of implanted Brothers, Fiin knew—nearly a fifth. But they’d had plenty of forewarning…surely that would have been enough?

No time to worry about that now. They were entering the Clan’s killzone.

A necessary precaution—the incoming vehicles had to park where they could be obliterated on a moment’s notice if they’d been compromised. Fiin raised his paws high to make it clear they weren’t operating the Growl’s own gauss gun and stared down the barrels of the plasma cannons that tracked him as they rolled to a halt in the commune’s forecourt.

Stonebacks swarmed them in seconds, shoved a pulse rifle in Fiin’s face, ground an implant scanner against his head. They were methodically dragged from their Growls, scanned, given a clean bill of health, welcomed back into the fold. The Mothers and cubs were bustled away toward the bunker and Fiin was finally allowed to take a few moments to relax and mentally gather himself. It was inspiring, to be surrounded by so many veteran Brothers and hardened warriors, all congratulating him on the operation he had led.

The most inspiring presence of all, however, was Grandfather Garl. Rangy, white-furred but still vigorous, and as shaggy-savage as a ‘Back could be, the Grandfather of Stoneback met Fiin like he was his own breed-perfect true son.

“Good run, Brother!”

“It’s a nightmare out there, Grandfather,” Fiin told him. “The Emberpelts are being overwhelmed, and I didn’t see any Straightshields left at all.”

Garl growled and spat on the ground. “Thought so. Tyal’s out there now, getting as many as he can off that Keeda-hated battlefield before they’re all wasted. We’re going to need them.”

“Any more trouble from Mother Ayma over the imprisoned Sisters?”

Garl chittered enormously. “Ah, she’s a firework!” he boomed admiringly. “Tiritya herself! But she’s just gonna have to deal with it for now…” He gave Fiin a look up and down. “Tyal said you had concerns about them? The prisoners?”

Fiin flattened his ears to show how worried he was. “I mentioned to him that I don’t see how we can keep the commune secure so long as there are biodrones inside our own perimeter.” He gestured at the airy, beautiful architecture and parklands around them. “This isn’t a prison and we don’t have stasis equipment—this place just isn’t equipped to keep them secure. We need to move them before we can relocate the uncompromised females.”

“That’s a convoy not retrieving other females from the city, Broth—”

“It will become a problem, Grandfather,” Fiin insisted. “Soon, I think.”

“I know,” Garl growled dangerously at the interruption, but the set of his ears said he admired the much younger and smaller Fiin’s pluck. “But it’s a problem for when Tyal gets back.”

“At the very least, we should explain to this Mother Ayma why her sisters are imprisoned…” Fiin suggested. Garl shook his shaggy head.

“Now is not the time for being all diplomatic and wordy with the Females, Brother,” he declared. “This is a crisis, and they need to trust us. It’s the old covenant. Explanations and briefings come later, when we have them at a defensible location and can hold out.”

“Ayma does not strike me as the type to—” Fiin pressed, and shut up promptly when Garl aimed a proper fang-baring snarl at him.

“Enough!” the Grandfather told him. “Keeda and Fyu will walk Gao’s surface again before the Grandfather of Stoneback needs a lecture from a pup on how to handle females!”

“Yes Grandfather!” Fiin’s back straightened and his ears came forward, to the proper position of alert respect. Garl glared at him a moment longer, then relaxed and gave him an affectionate and comparatively gentle cuff on the side of the head.

“You’ve got balls, Brother…And for what it’s worth, I don’t disagree. We just cannot compromise our command of the situation yet. This is important. You’ll understand when you’re older, trust me.”

“…Yes, Grandfather.”

“Good lad. Get your Claw together. When Tyal’s back, you’ll take the prisoners to a holding facility. Figure out which one we can reasonably secure and plan your route. Go.”

Fiin duck-nodded sharply, turned and bounded away four-pawed to obey his orders. Garl wasn’t wrong, he had far more experience in such matters than Fiin himself did, and Fiin trusted his judgement…

But he still couldn’t shake the feeling that holding those drones until Tyal got back was the riskier call.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm

Champion and Stud-Prime Daar of Stoneback

The thing about Humans, was they understood pain. That was probably the most bestest thing about them, on top of everything else. They knew that pain wasn’t an enemy, but the kind of really good friend who wasn’t afraid to be honest. It sucked Keeda nuts, but a lot of the things in life that were best for a person were like that.

Right now the pain was telling Daar he was pushing it…but he still had room to keep moving.

Coombes, meanwhile, was sweating and silent but that was about it. He was in pain too; Daar could smell it. If he hadn’t occasionally run his hand across his bare scalp to scrape the moisture off and flick it away, anybody without a Gaoian’s nose wouldn’t have seen that he was suffering at all. But he wasn’t limping, he wasn’t complaining, and he wasn’t ready to rest. They had friends to protect and Humans understood Protect, too.

He was guzzling a heck of a lot of water, but that was how Humans regulated their body temperature. Water in, water out and the heat went with it. It looked kinda gross sometimes, but it was way more effective than panting. Daar’s ribs were aching already. His stomach still felt inside-out and fluttery, his whole body still stung and he was still having to squint at stuff to see clearly.

Overpressure was the worstest and it had always been a particular weakness of Daar’s. If some kind of devil had shown up and offered to deliver him straight to a good night’s sleep in a proper nest-bed for the price of one of his testicles, Daar might just have taken him up on it.

…Well, prob’ly not. But right then he’d have murdered for a nice little creek to wallow in and cool off.

His thoughts were interrupted by Coombes. How anybody could talk and run at the same time in these situations was…

“Been thinkin’.”

Daar found a deeper breath from somewhere. Enough to grunt out something like a reply. “Yuh?”

“The Abrogators’re gonna…hafta cross the mountains…at that pass, right?”

At least Coombes had to pace himself, which was a small balm to Daar’s ego. He did the same but kept to single-syllable replies.

“…Yuh?”

“Reckon we can…rig a rockfall mebbe?”

Daar paused dead in his tracks. Suddenly, things were turning much more awesomer. Coombes slowed down to halt a few seconds after he did and leant against a tree, taking the chance between breaths to snatch sips of that red chemical bullshit the Humans called a drink.

“…Yeah…” Daar managed, after taking twenty seconds to think about it and catch his breath. “Lotsa rocks t’move…” He panted for another long moment. “And it’ll…be good ‘fer this…overpressure kewkshit, too. Get my blood movin’.”

“…Right.” Coombes shook his head as he shifted mental tracks, then gestured at Daar’s equipment. “Got enough explosives on you?”

“Got enough,” Daar promised. “Prol’ly. Depends on what kinda rock I’m workin’ with.”

Coombes nodded thoughtfully, then looked up a tree. Rather than asking Daar to climb this time, he plucked the antenna from his back himself, gripped it between his teeth and heaved himself upwards.

He was no Chimp nor an Etsicitty, and he definitely wasn’t a Tangy-work, but Humans were still monkeys. They could get up a Ketta just fine. Daar flomped himself down in the leaf litter and tried to cool down as he waited and listened.

There was some cursing from high above, and then a radio click. Coombes’ voice echoed oddly, just a splinter of a second out of sync with his own voice in Daar’s radio.

“…Net, Boss. Makin’ good time, no hostile contact. Playboy, we had an idea about rigging a rockfall in the mountain pass. How much you know about the geology over there?”

Daar chittered to himself there. Julian hated the callsign ’Playboy,’ for some reason. It was beyond Daar why anybody would hate being named for their prowess with females, but teasing him with it was too much fun to give up on.

Humans were weird.

“Boss, uh…Playboy…” There was a pause on the line, just for a moment. “They’re, uh, young fault-block mountains, used to be ocean bed about a billion years ago. Mostly slate, with some recent igneous formations toward the summits.”

That sounded like it would be fun. Slate liked to fracture in all sorts of useful ways, assuming the grain was in the right direction…

Daar clawed his own radio. “Playboy, Tigger. I can work with that. Much obliged.”

“Boss, Chimp. A buncha the locals upped sticks and headed east. The professor’s tryin’ to keep the rest here, but with nukes in play I’m worried about bunchin’ up in one place. Please advise.”

Daar heard Coombes grunt thoughtfully to himself before replying. “Chimp, I don’t think it makes much difference. They spread out they’ll be vulnerable to drones, they bunch up they’ll be vulnerable to nukes. But I figure if Big Hotel were gonna drop a second nuke they’d’ve done it by now.”

“…Makes sense, Boss. I’ll pass that along to the Given-Men. Chimp out.”

Coombes made that thoughtful grunt again, then dropped easily down out of the tree, looking a fair bit more graceful coming down than he had going up. Daar groaned and hauled himself up on his paws.

“Guess we ain’t takin’ the pass, then?” he asked.

“Nope. Gotta climb.” Coombes got himself and his gear ready to go with brisk efficiency. “Hey. This is what we train for.”

“Ready when you are,” Daar told him, and with a sharp nod Coombes took off at the same steady pace as if he’d never stopped.

With a groan, Daar dropped to all fours and hauled his ass into gear behind him.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
En route to Lavmuy, Planet Gao.

Lieutenant Anthony “Abbott” Costello

Smuggling a Weaver dropship onto Gao had been one of those prescient moves done in the spirit of ‘we-really-hope-we-don’t-need-this’ pessimism. Allied Extrasolar Command would have preferred to seed Gao’s orbit with some jump beacon microsats, but even between allies that was maybe going a little too far. A jump beacon could be anything, up to and including a WMD if it was used for a Rod-From-God strike.

Fortunately, they had some leverage: Whitecrest had been caught red-pawed, as it were, with a small cloud of surveillance dots in Regaari’s wake from his visit to Earth. The Clan didn’t even try to deny it; if anything, they seemed pleased at their swift discovery. They treated it almost like a game, and happily conceded a point to humanity in that round.

They’d allowed AEC to send over a single Weaver tricked out with a ‘Skymaster’ ground-to-orbit gun, a weapon that married warp technology and forcefields in a way that was now almost a decade old and still proving its worth. It had trivialized the process of getting comparatively small payloads into space, for a start.

The Lads had immediately fallen in love with their new ride. Officially the transport was TOURIST-11 but they had, unanimously and without any discussion, decided as a hive mind to call it ‘The Jitney.’

Akiyama in particular was geeking out over it. “It’s like a C-17 without the loud engines!”

Firth wouldn’t have been Firth if he hadn’t found something to complain about. “I liked the loud engines. Made it easier t’sleep…”

“Ollllld….”

Costello was perfectly placed to hear every conversation, from the affectionate abuse flying lazily around between the humans, to the more earnest, tenser commentary in Gaori between Regaari and Meereo.

“[Are they always like this? Even now?]”

“[It’s their way of remaining calm. They are aliens, Champion…]”

And behind all that, the steady trickle of information coming in that had filtered through Powell. The spaceport’s layout, and that of the Farthrow facilty. Reports on biodrone activity in the area. Casualty reports, weather updates…

Timing.

For now, TOURIST-11 was unchallenged in a sky that was absolutely full of high-value assets, just one of hundreds of radar contacts. No reason to be a target, nothing suspicious at all.

But the second they fired a jump beacon into orbit, that would change. HMS Caledonia would be in-system seconds later, escorted by the Racing Thunder.

Cally was their line of communication. Without her, they were cut off from the chain of command—no messages in, no messages out except on a tightly constraining schedule. Useless for the shifting demands of a warzone. From orbit, she could provide that vital contact, the power of her supercomputers to enhance the ground team’s awareness and performance, material support via jump array, CASEVAC to her infirmary, or even something as mundane as fire support.

But the moment she showed up, Big Hotel were going to know they were made.

So: Timing. He didn’t envy Powell the massive responsibility of making that call.

It filtered into Costello’s consciousness that he’d just been addressed, and he sharpened up. “…Sorry, Master Sergeant?”

It was difficult to read expressions behind the gold nanoparticle-infused EV-MASS visors, but he got a sense of understanding and sympathy off Vandenberg. Rebar was a rock, and Costello knew he was about the luckiest lieutenant alive to have a senior NCO of that quality to rely on. “Loadmaster says go in five, sir.”

Costello nodded, and put aside any thought of being annoyed at himself. There was no reproach in the older man’s voice, but it was the sort of thing Costello shouldn’t have needed help with. He’d correct himself later, though: For now, the mission loomed.

The Jitney bounced alarmingly, to the point where even the loadmaster and his experienced crew swayed and needed to catch their balance, and Champion Meereo made an alarmed chirruping noise.

“Choppy out there,” Rebar commented, coolly.

“We’re coming in over the city,” Costello told him. “It’s—” he steadied himself as another jolt shook them, “—burning down there. We probably just hit the thermal.”

“Christ.”

“Abbott!” Costello looked up. Powell was standing at the front of the bay, holding himself up by a strap and beckoning him over. Costello hit his strap release and navigated his way up the lurching Weaver like he was climbing a ladder in an earthquake.

“Final verdict, sir?” he asked. Intel on the ground situation around Farthrow had been too limited to make a call about whether the Jitney would land, whether they’d rappel down, or whether it was going to be a low-altitude HELLNO.

“We’re goin’ in by HELLNO,” Powell declared, raising his voice over the rattling sound of gear and men bouncing around in their restraints. “It’s a bloody busy sky out there. Get the VIP saddled up and the Lads ready.”

Costello nodded sharply and turned back to relay the orders.

“Everyone on your feet! Baseball! Anubis! Saddle up!”

Everyone was out of their seat in a flash, bracing themselves and checking their gear one last time while Meereo scrambled onto Baseball’s back and Warhorse strapped him on. The red lights were on and the ramp at the back yawned open, and Costello took his spot at the front of the line.

The view was something else. Just for a moment, he thought maybe he had a sense of what his great-grandfather had gone through in 1944—the devastation was that immediate, and that grinding. Lavmuy wasn’t just burning, it was bleeding, trickles of fire along all of its major arterial highways, spreading sullen bruises of smoke in the suburbs, and a gritty gray haze that obscured the highest buildings and hid the horizon.

Behind him, he heard Powell give the order to fire off the beacon, and the Weaver lurched again, differently this time. A powerful, percussive noise hit him through the hull and one of the crew sang out. “Beacon away!”

Costello knew the moment Caledonia arrived: It was the way that his information landscape unfolded, like climbing a hill to see previously invisible vistas roll out in front of him that gave it away. *Cally*’s twin supercomputers, ALBION and CAMBRIA, were looking over his shoulder again and not a moment too soon. The ship had sensors that could pick out individual bricks from orbit, and they were sweeping the LZ, looking for any detail out of place, categorizing and predicting, mapping and highlighting.

Costello’s satisfied grin barely fit inside his helmet. They were in business.

The loadmaster knew how to raise his voice above the noise. “Ready!…Go! Go! Go!” Costello’s feet were already moving halfway through the first ‘go’ and he’d launched into space by the end of the third one. He threw his arms and legs out, lay on the wind and orientated himself, steered into his fall.

This wasn’t a high-altitude jump. This was low, and fast, and aggressive. Buildings whipped by below him and he gave one skyscraper a wide berth, drifting to his right to clear it comfortably. The damn thing was taller than the Jeddah Tower on Earth, and twice as wide.

He put aside the stab of remorse he felt at not getting to see Gao properly before all this. Now wasn’t the time for worrying about that.

He popped his fields at two thousand feet, tensing his core muscles and gritting his teeth against the sharp deceleration they caused. They could fully deploy in half the fall distance of a conventional chute, but that came with stronger and fiercer g-forces. The Gaoians pushed themselves even harder and lower, thanks to the superior tech in their suits. They had low-grade warp fields built in, just enough to take the edge off their inertia and let them go that bit further than biology would let them.

It got them to the ground first—the end of their fall curved into a pouncing four-pawed run, keeping them low and fast as they fanned out, found cover, got their weapons ready. Their suits added their own sensors to the data being crunched by ALBION and CAMBRIA, gave the human operators a little more context, guided them to land exactly where they would be needed.

The humans landed harder, but in a fighting posture from the second they touched down. Costello’s boots hit the concrete around the Farthrow facility and his rifle was already there at his shoulder, raised, ready, reflex sight snapping back and forth.

A cluster of suspicious heat signatures lurking near the facility’s back entrance turned out to be a team of Clanless custodians hiding among the bins, trying to keep their heads down while the world ended around them. They barely had time to know that they’d been caught before they were restrained, rendered helpless, scanned and declared green. A pair of security guards at the front door sensibly dropped their pulse pistols and surrendered: Both were green as well.

That set the pattern for the whole operation, in fact. Meereo and his inner circle had done a good job of sidelining their implanted Brothers or “promoting” them to management at other, less consequential projects, and the Farthrow facility was readily and swiftly secured without a single shot being fired or a single drop of blood being spilled. Quick, clean, painless and efficient.

Powell promptly set to getting his command post set up. The Defenders had a jump array going in short order, the Protectors got their own equipment unpacked and ready to distribute, and Costello wasted no time in organizing patrols and watches. Meereo vanished into the facility’s guts with a few of the clean, green technicians and started to do arcane things involving quantum field whatevers and virtual mass whatchamacallits.

The first “goodie bags” of supplies from *Caledonia*’s waiting deployment bay came through the array just as Righteous, plainly looking to burn off all that nervous energy he’d accumulated, practically sprang out of the door on patrol. He was a good man and they didn’t come much better, but Abbott couldn’t think of anyone more intimidating.

Chief among the first shipments were the parts to set up the big jump array outdoors. The one that could handle vehicles up to and including more Weavers, with their stubby wings folded up and the tail collapsed. And of course, a Weaver was big enough to bring with it a platoon of men and all their gear, or a pair of JLTVs.

The easy part was out of the way, really. Now, it was a question of how much materiel they could bring to the beachhead at Farthrow before the enemy finally got their asses in gear and fought back.

Somehow, Costello knew that it wouldn’t be long.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
HMS Caledonia, Low orbit around planet Gao

Commander Ellen McDaniel

“Jump complete.”

“ALBION and CAMBRIA have linked with HEAT One, they’re beginning their jump.”

“Helm reports Gao orbit stable, beacons away.”

“OTRACK is active, high activity.”

A working CIC wasn’t loud. The reports were clear, audible and concise certainly, but the general air was calm competence. So far, things were proceeding as intended and even if they weren’t, panic could be a lethal mistake.

Things were going wrong all over the place, that much was obvious from the sensor data that was coming in. None of it involved Cally just yet, but the ship’s sensors tracked every object they could see and built up a grim picture of the space around them.

Several Gaoian ships were drifting and venting atmosphere. Others were limping into higher orbits trailing clouds of radioactive gas and flecks of disintegrating hull. One or two were just gutted hulks, tumbling end-over-end and slowly falling apart.

The comms channels told the story why. All of the major spacer Clans—the One-Fangs, the Firefangs, the Goldpaw merchant navy and the Ironclaw asteroid miners—were heavily implanted. As many as a quarter, a third…among the fighter jockeys and pilots of Clan Firefang, the number was pushing eighty percent.

And of course, whoever ruled orbit also ruled the ground.

There would be desperate wars raging on all those ships. The implants would mostly be concentrated in the leaders, the officers and the equivalent of senior NCOs. All the people with the keys to the sensitive gear, in other words. The people with the authority to do things like vent atmosphere, lock down the internal forcefields, or turn their captured guns on other ships that had successfully resisted being taken over.

All of it would have come from nowhere, as far as thousands of dead Gaoians knew. Far too many would have gasped their last on vacuum, never knowing the whence or the why of their betrayal.

Thousands dead, without a chance. In human history, only World War II had killed so many so quickly and so pointlessly.

It was a precarious position for Caledonia. When the biodrones finished consolidating their hold on those ships, they’d quickly notice a lone human destroyer loitering vulnerably in a geosynchronous orbit. And geosynchronous was a high orbit, too. Very visible. There wasn’t a lot of the sky that was below the horizon.

So, step one was to seed the sky with beacons and communications satellites. A job for which Cally was amply equipped. Even deep in her core, behind all the internal bulkheads and the thick structural components, the noise of hundreds of satellites being thrown to the solar wind sounded like rain on the roof.

The first ship through the new beacons was the Racing Thunder. Her entire crew had recently been briefed on DEEP RELIC and their reaction on learning their new mission had been…grim. They’d taken a hefty chunk of shore leave, reportedly been the talk of the commune in the Alien Quarter for a week afterwards, and had gone back to their duties looking knife-sharp and laser-focused.

In the weeks since then, their performance in fleet exercises had improved dramatically. That ship was a lance, now: the sharp tip of the naval spear, designed to do one thing extremely well: Claim the kinetic energy advantage, and keep it.

Now, *Racing Thunder*’s arrival was practically a war horn. She saw three of the hijacked One-Fang pickets accelerate in *Caledonia*’s direction, and turned to spear toward them at a hefty 8G acceleration.

The spear’s shaft was only moments behind her. Ten V-Class destroyers, each carrying six Bulldog drones, but more importantly carrying more supercomputers, more Watson-derived cognitive computing engines. HMS Myrmidon was almost the last in, and she fit neatly into the data-crunching web like a catalyst, taking everything the other ships were producing and running them through the Fleet Intelligence Center.

A simply numbing number of petaflops went to work on every ship in the sky, sorting them by class, capability, trajectory and, most importantly, by probability of compromise…and fed every byte to the Racing Thunder.

The three ships that had turned to challenge Caledonia were clawed apart in seconds, while their return fire scrabbled feebly off *Racing Thunder*’s shields. Not because the Gaoian ship was particularly sturdy, but because of the new card in humanity’s hand: the USS San Diego.

The San Diego class was designed to do what cruisers had always done: protect the rest of the fleet. She was a hard knot of anti-missile and anti-fighter firepower, but more importantly she was a flying shield emitter, ramped up to eleven. Her heart was a rack of fusion power plants, any one of which would have comfortably kept a couple of counties fed for power, and enough refrigeration to supercool her shield circuitry. That ship could put up a wall around its friends and hold off anything, across tens of thousands of kilometers.

The biodrones, in their damaged and imperfectly controlled fleet, didn’t stand a chance. What the V-types and Bulldogs didn’t blind, the Racing Thunder eviscerated and the San Diego thwarted.

The battle was practically over even before the Firebirds arrived. Total orbital superiority, delivered in a single overwhelming blow.

McDaniel smiled grimly to herself, and raised the bridge. Their part in the space battle was already done.

“Captain, geosynchronous orbit is no longer necessary. We’re clear to descend.”

However bad things were on the ground, they were there to help. Gao would live.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
Commune of Females, Wi Kao City, Gao

Ayma

The world was upside-down and falling apart. Everything was wrong—the fires, the explosions, the armed and armored vehicles leaving muddy gouges in the commune lawns, they were just symptoms.

Males were rounding up Females and stealing them away. Worse, Stonebacks were rounding up Females and stealing them away, and icily refusing to explain why. How had they missed this? The entirety of Maledom couldn’t possibly have conspired to something like that without Yulna learning of it…could they?

Most of the females were huddled with the cubs in the commune’s main concourse, doing their best to soothe their fears and not dwell on their own. The sound of worried keening drifted like mist behind every conversation and over every warily twitching ear.

Ayma was the only one daring to raise her voice. She’d been a prisoner before: Never again.

“This isn’t right!”

The young Brother called Fiin was a mystery himself. There was simply no way an earnest, honest, intelligent young male like him would go along with anything nefarious, even if Ayma couldn’t have smelled the desperate sincerity wafting off him.

But he was as unyielding as his Clan’s name suggested.

“I am sorry, Mother. I have my orders.”

“I don’t give a castrated Naxas for your orders!” Ayma snarled. “These are my sisters and I will not let you—”

“Mother, I promise you that we will explain as soon as—”

“Fiin!”

Ayma and Fiin both turned at the sharp bark from the main doors. She recognized this one—Tyal, the so-called ‘Champion-in-Stead’ standing in for Daar. Everything he shared with Daar in terms of size and ferocity he entirely lacked in terms of raw boisterous charisma, and Ayma was quite sure that the sun would freeze and the seas would boil before she let him get within sniffing distance of a mating contract with any sister she knew after this.

“What’s taking so long?” he asked.

“The first group just radioed up, Brother,” Fiin told him. “They’re coming.”

Tyal grunted, and turned his attention to Ayma. “Mother.”

“I will get an explanation for this, Tyal,” Ayma told him, pulling herself up to her full height. She wasn’t from anything resembling Stoneback’s preferred stock, however—her full height just about got her level with Tyal’s chest.

Tyal growled dangerously. “We remember our Contract, Mother, and we will fulfill it whether you cooperate or not.”

“Abducting my sisters, Stoneback? With no explanation?”

“These sisters need to be isolated to protect—” Fiin began.

He didn’t finished the sentence. His radio crackled alarmingly at the same time as the distinctive deep thumping of gauss rifle fire resonated through the floor under Ayma’s paws. “Containment failure! The prisoners are—!”

There was an ear-biting electronic howl and the radio fell silent again. The weapons fire did not.

Fiin and Tyal didn’t even need to speak or glance at each other—Ayma was barged aside almost as an afterthought as they leapt into action, alongside all their Brothers, who promptly moved to interpose themselves between cubs and females, and the doors that led down to the lower levels.

“SHIELD!” Fiin barked, and a semicircular wall of portable defensive shieldsticks sprang up around the doors in the instant before they burst open. Terrified keening erupted around the hall as the imprisoned sisters pounced into the room through the large doors at the back, armed with stolen rifles and fusion blades.

The first ones through staggered and fell as gauss fire hammered through their stolen shield harnesses and exploded through their flesh, crushing their bones and making them cough blood, but there were too many—fully a tenth of the commune had been imprisoned in the cellars, and now it seemed like all of them had gone berserk: they charged without seeming to care about their lives, and the handful of Brothers arrayed against them just couldn’t shoot enough of them before the enraged prisoners descended on them in a clawed frenzy.

Tyal narrowly danced around a fusion spear, grabbed it behind its searing tip and wrenched it through a full circle with such force that the spear’s haft bent around its former wielder’s head, knocking the lifeless female to the floor.

Mothers, Sisters and cubs stampeded for the main doors, and Ayma was knocked over when one sister barged into her. Black stars burst behind her eyes as the back of her head hit the stone tiles hard, but the keening sister didn’t even notice her; she just bolted on four-paws for the exit without stopping.

The Stonebacks barked orders at each other in some kind of cant that Ayma didn’t recognize, or maybe it was just being dazed and stunned from hitting her head. She used her claws to get traction on a stone pillar as she hauled herself to her feet.

“But…Sisters…!”

Dazed and disoriented, all she could see was that her Clan was being massacred by the very males who had sworn to protect them. She stumbled forward a few steps, trying to tell them to stop, trying to end the madness before it went any further. Tyal. If she just reached Tyal, she could stop this.

Tyal was holding the left flank almost by himself. Two of his brothers were down, their throats torn out by female claws, and a third was limping badly from a gauss shot that had nicked his leg. On the right, Fiin was holding his brothers together better, retreating in a disciplined pattern behind successive new shieldstick barricades.

Ayma’s legs wobbled and gave out under her for a second. She felt sick, turned around, fuzzy, but she forced herself back to her feet and stumbled forward. One of the prisoners was Guard-Sister Layra, almost as accomplished with her fusion-spear as Myun, and it was all Tyal could do to avoid evisceration as she lanced at him again and again, too quick to retaliate, too canny to overwhelm.

Layra was…a friend. She’d see reason.

“Layra—!”

Tyal twisted aside from another blow, and rather than chasing him Layra stepped past and—

It didn’t hurt. There was just a sudden and still moment where Ayma looked down and realized that one of her own sisters had stabbed her, right in the belly. She didn’t even really feel it, or notice the hiss and the whisp of steam and smoke.

Then Layra yanked the spear out of her guts and spun back to lance it at the enraged Tyal, who bowled toward her with an enraged roar. Ayma didn’t see what happened next. She just saw…gray. There were things happening at the edge of her vision, but the middle somehow seemed to be getting closer and further away at the same time.

And why wouldn’t her legs work any more? So hard to think, and getting harder. She felt something or…somebody…grab her. Felt herself being carried. …Or was she floating?

Maybe it would all make sense after a nap…She’d always liked to doze in the commune, when the flowers were in bloom. They were blooming now, in yellows and blues and whites. She could smell their scent, the same scent she’d loved as a cub.

Yes. She’d just…

…Sleep…


Date Point: 14y1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm

Master Sergeant Derek Coombes

“…So that’s an Abrogator.”

Coombes glanced left. Daar was crouched low like a stalking cat, watching the machines pick their way toward the choke point below them, with his huge muscles tensed and ready and his big ears up and forward. Or more like a gun-dog maybe, quivering on the edge of a pounce.

Fuck that. More like a Gaoian ready to add a couple notches to his belt. He could have sworn the big bearcoon was giggling while deploying the explosives.

“Mhmm,” was the only comment he gave to Daar’s observation.

‘Fault-block mountain’ apparently meant huge geological forces had broken the rock along fault lines and shoved the blocks up and down like piano keys, and the unnamed pass was basically just a crack between two of them. It was as jagged as bad dentistry, deep enough to BASE jump into and its narrowest point was barely twenty yards across. And the wind tunnel effect down there was something else—even from up on the clifftop high above, the eddies and updrafts plucked at Daar’s whiskers and Coombes’ clothing.

The Abrogators were ignoring it. They looked kinda like a scorpion and an earwig got drunk and had a nightmare accident-baby, and they were obviously built to handle any terrain that wasn’t actually vertical. Low center of gravity, multiple agile legs, exquisite balance and coordination. Everything had a price, though, and that all-terrain agility obviously came at the cost of having to keep the weight down: those armor plates didn’t look like they’d stop any kind of serious anti-materiel firepower.

“I ask again, the fuck kinda war did they ever win with weak-ass tools like these?” Daar asked.

“They didn’t,” Coombes told him, and turned his binoculars back on the convoy. There were three Abrogators below, and they were covering the ground with alarming speed for their size. A tank could’ve hit those kinds of speeds on relatively clear ground, but an uneven, boulder-strewn, treacherous rocky obstacle course like that? Not a chance.

Daar eyed them warily. “Seems like a lotta engineering effort ‘fer somethin’ that wouldn’t survive much above small arms fire.”

Coombes shrugged. “First entry in the Big Hotel playbook is, ‘never pick on someone your own size.’ These things are for scouring the countryside and picking off the civilian survivors, not for warfare. They use biodrones and the victim’s own assets for the actual war…Kinda like a big game of stop hitting yourself, y’know?”

Daar quirked an ear at him. “…Don’t know that one, Boss.”

“You don’t? It’s where you grab a dude’s wrist and make him punch himself in the…” Coombes saw Daar’s expression and faltered. “…The face. Like this.” He mimed awkwardly for a few seconds.

Daar stared at him for a moment, then flicked his ears and turned his attention back to the Abrogators. “Humans are weird, Boss.”

Coombes cleared his throat and raised his binoculars again. “…Whaddya think? About…two minutes? Three?”

“‘Bout that,” Daar agreed. He plucked the detonator from his webbing and wired it up.

Neither of them spoke for a minute or so, until a flash of out-of-place movement caught Coombes’ eye. He focused the binoculars, tried to track it, and groaned.

“Fuck. Drones.”

“How many?” Daar asked.

“If the Misfit intel’s right, each Abrogator carries six, and these ones just launched their full complement…stay still.”

The drones never rose as high as the clifftop, but they zipped through the choke point too quickly and too far ahead of the Abrogators to catch them in the landslide. Coombes watched them go.

“Well…maybe if we’re lucky they’ll be disabled when we smush the ‘bots?” Daar suggested.

“Either that or they turn around and fuck us in the ass…” Coombes muttered to himself. “They’ll be in position in…twenty seconds, I reckon.”

“Yuh…Hey, Boss?”

“Yeah?”

“If they do turn around an’ fuck us…it’s been an honor.”

Coombes reached out and bumped a fist against his alien comrade’s paw. “Dude. You too…Blow it.”

Daar duck-nodded, wrapped his paw around the plunger, pulled it up firmly, then slammed it down hard.

For the second time in a handful of hours, Coombes felt an explosion drum on his rib cage. Daar had planted three charges, hanging his ass precariously out in the air on a rope to plant them in a looming swell of dark shale just beyond the choke point. When they went off, the whole mountain seemed to shiver like a horse with a fly on its back, and then an unbelievably large chunk of hillside just started to slide inexorably downwards. It didn’t even change for the first few seconds, just serenely sank off the hillside, until something jolted and it disintegrated into a meteoric fist of rubble and dust.

Coombes had never seen cool rock flow like water before. A wave of rubble and stone dust crashed down the mountainside, and if the Abrogators even noticed it coming they didn’t respond in time before it flattened them. The blast and the rolling, seething noise of stone in motion cracked and rattled off the surrounding terrain, and the howling wind down in the pass picked up the stone dust and began to carry it away west.

Daar was immensely pleased with himself, and had the creamy look of satisfaction that any man did after he’d just nailed the hottest girl at the dance.

Coombes snorted. “Was it good for you, Tiggs?”

“…Mhmm. Need a change’a shorts.”

Coombes chuckled, and aimed his binoculars out east, tracking the drones. “Daar, you’re not wearing shorts,” he pointed out.

“Shaddup, Boss. Drones?”

“…Dunno. They’re still flyin’, but not this way.”

“What’re they on autopilot, or…?”

“Fuck if I know.” Coombes handed him the binos. “I think they’re still going for the village.”

Daar scowled at them through the lenses, then handed them back. “…Think they can handle that many?” he asked.

“They’ll have to,” Coombes replied. He retreated from the cliff edge and stood up. “Come on. We better follow them.”

“Right behind you,” Daar promised. Coombes nodded and grabbed his radio. From this high up and on this side of the mountains they were back in contact again. He just wished he had better news.

“Net, Boss,” he said. “Splash three Abrogators, you got incoming drones. Count of one-eight.”

“Boss, Chimp. Say again?”

“I say again, count of one-eight.”

“Well…fuck. We’ll have to deal. Too scattered to engage, not enough firepower to win anyway.”

“Plan?”

“Scatter and hide. Only defense is mobility. Maybe…as you were, we have an idea.” There was a brief sound of probably Yan grunting for attention, then a painfully long silence that lasted long enough for Coombes and Daar to be a quarter of the way down the steepest part of the mountain before Hoeff got back to them.

“…Okay. Boss, here’s our proposed mission: We’re gonna peel off into multiple aggressive hunting parties while the women and children head east. One man with a radio and a rifle per party. You and Tigger would head for RV Delta, where Playboy will meet you. He’ll have the biggest group with him with extra radios and the biggest Given-Men. That should be enough for us to draw the drones in some favorable terrain.”

Coombes nodded along as he listened, appreciating the logic of it. As answers to a bad situation went it was almost elegant, and if the drones were too overwhelmed chasing the hunting parties then the actual heart and soul of the tribes were in with a chance. And it wasn’t like he had a better idea himself.

“Chimp, that sounds like a plan. Go ahead and enact it, Tigger and I will proceed to RV Delta.”

Beside him, Daar duck-nodded and got his ass in gear. Coombes had to give him credit, considering that humans were allegedly the galactic champion endurance athletes, Daar was doing a heck of a job keeping up the pace.

Then again he just got to blow up half a mountain. That’d put a spring in anyone’s step. Hopefully he wouldn’t pay too hard for it later—they were going to need him.

Assuming, of course, that the warning made any difference. Three Abrogators down was good going—but there were a lot more coming, a day behind them.

Coombes hauled himself up to a jogging pace again and began to plan. They had a lot of work to do if they were going to survive until the cavalry came.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
Farthrow Facility, Lavmuy, Planet Gao

Lieutenant Anthony “Abbott” Costello

“Abbott, Rebar. Activity, East perimeter, possibly…uh, hostile.” Rebar finished calling it in with a slight hitch as Costello joined him with his binoculars already up and searching. “Hello, sir.”

Costello had seen the incoming heat signature via the real-time satellite feed nearly a minute earlier. Deep in the facility, Akiyama was helping Meereo and a pack of implant-free technicians modify the experimental Farthrow wormhole generator into a giant suppressor, and they were making good time. Not fast enough by Abbott’s reckoning, but fast nonetheless.

“FIC says it’s a biodrone mob,” he said, watching movement among the discarded planes and shuttles far away across a sea of coverless concrete. Pretty much the first thing the Defenders and Protectors had done on landing had been to clear out what little cover the spaceport’s apron provided and Farthrow was now an island of protection in an otherwise open field, perfect for mowing down anything that tried to assault them.

The biodrones obviously knew that. It was almost certainly the only reason they weren’t already attacking. Costello didn’t know if the Gaoians or Hierarchy had a historical equivalent of Thermopylae, but only a drooling moron could have failed to see the massive tactical imbalance in his team’s favor.

“So many?” Blaczynski sited down his rifle to survey the foe himself. “Damn. Kinda drives home how big five percent is, huh?”

“This city has a population of nearly seven million,” Faarek told him. The Whitecrests were being even terser than usual today, not that Costello could blame them. If this had been Costello’s native Toronto…

“So that’s…what, about three hunnerd-something thousand biodrones,” Blaczynski finished.

“I believe they call that a target-rich environment,” Costello mused. He reached behind his back and tugged a tablet in its thick reinforced case out from the pocket above his suit’s life support pack. Somewhere high above them was Blaczynski’s pet ‘Flycatcher’ UAV. It was all part of the same intel network, but he wanted to get a closer look to compare with the evidence of his own eyes.

He opened the app, selected the drone and was in the middle of figuring out what he was looking at when God punched him in the head.

It made for a heck of a wake-up call. All four of them immediately got their asses behind something sturdy and the tablet bounced forgotten to the ground.

“Sniper!” Blaczynski declared, late but better than never.

“I figured that part out, thank you,” Costello managed. His ears were ringing and his neck felt like he’d just been used as a punching bag, but EV-MASS was the best body armor ever made by a country mile. The bullet hadn’t penetrated.

“That wasn’t KP, they’ve got real rifles out there somewhere,” Rebar mused, he shifted his weight to aim his own rifle back over the barricade, using the camera scope connection to his visor rather than stick his head out. “Should ‘prolly keep ‘yer head down, LT.”

Costello smirked inside his mask. “Thank you, Master Sergeant. I’ll do that.”

There was the heavy floor-shaking sound of a Protector joining them. Warhorse. “Somebody said sniper?”

“LT got hit in the brain bucket,” Faarek told him.

“Shouldn’t do that, LT.”

“I’m glad you’re all here to tell me these things,” Costello snarked. He gestured at the tablet, and Faarek kicked it over.

“Could be worse,” ‘Horse rumbled as he fetched his pen light and inspected the helmet. “Coulda been punched in the head by Righteous.”

Costello sat back and let him shine a light in his eyes. “Or you,” he pointed out.

“You’d be dead, then,” ‘Horse was obviously grinning behind his mask. “…Good pupil response but take an aspirin and a dose of Crude.”

“You got it, doc.” Painkillers and other sundries were on a dispenser inside the mask. There was a trick to getting at them—he had to toss his head and snatch with his lip just so to grab it—but better that than breaking seal. Even if they weren’t in space, HEAT treated any air that wasn’t supplied by their suit as if it was a deadly nerve agent on the grounds that one day, it might be.

“Where’d he hit you from, LT?” Blaczynski asked, sneaking his weapon back over the barricade.

“I think…” Costello risked a peek over the barricade for just a second. “Somewhere near those baggage-handling vehicles, two o’clock.”

“Okay….”

There was a pause, which Costello used to chase the pill down with a sip of water and give himself a low-dose Crue-D shot with one hand while calling up the drone footage on his tablet with the other, then the heavy slam of a long-barrel GR1-d firing.

“Target down,” Blaczynski relaxed back with the dispassionately satisfied air of a craftsman pleased with his own handiwork.

Costello nodded as he examined the drone feed. “Appreciated. I don’t feel like getting shot in the head a second time today.”

Blaczynski nodded. “Snipin’s almost too easy with these hypervelocity flechettes,” he said, in the conversational tones of a hobbyist discussing his tools. “Almost no delay, hardly have to adjust windage, ballistics are almost totally flat…”

“Save that hardon for the ladies, Starfall,” Rebar reminded him. Blaczynski chuckled, nodded, and kept his aim firmly down-range, hunting for something new to shoot.

“…How’s the field array comin’?” Costello asked, quietly. He didn’t like what he was looking at on his tablet one bit.

“Built, and charging,” Rebar replied.

“Right…” Costello thought for a moment, then hit his radio again. “Stainless, Abbott. I see vehicles approaching from the East, and that crowd of biodrones is growing. Suggest we should receive package MARS first.”

MARS, MERCURY and VENUS were the payloads waiting to come through the big jump array first. Ideally, they’d have preferred to bring through VENUS first—that was a fusion power plant and capacitor bank on the back of a HEMTT, that could power the jump array and cut its charge time by an order of magnitude. It would have made bringing in the other two packages the work of moments. MERCURY, meanwhile, was the recon, communications and sensors package that would be essential to coordinating the operation as they tore down Gao’s own communications infrastructure.

MARS was men, weapons and vehicles.

“Abbott, Stainless.” Powell was keeping whole cupboards’-worth of plates spinning for the moment, and sounded even gruffer than usual. “Copy. Package MARS.”

“Think they’re makin’ a move, LT…” Blaczynski said, shifting his weight.

Costello glanced at him, then turned round and checked over the barricade for himself. He was right, there was plenty of activity going on over among the spaceport buildings and facilities. Gao was a mercifully cool planet, and Lavmuy wasn’t built in a warm climate even by local standards. The air was cold, clear and still, unmarred by heat haze, and he could see what the biodrones were doing fairly well, considering the distance involved.

“I can drop a Rod on ‘em,” Blaczynski suggested.

Authorizing that was above Costello’s grade, but he knew the answer anyway. “No. Can’t risk damage to Farthrow,” he said, and Rebar nodded vigorously. “A broken pipe, a cracked foundation…If we can’t turn that thing on, the whole operation’s a bust.”

“That don’t leave us with a lotta options. That many drones, they’ll eventually just Zerg their way through. We need air support or indirect fire.”

“MARS will have mortars. In any case, they don’t have the numbers to attack us just—” Costello shut up and flinched downwards as a line of bullet holes sewed itself into the concrete wall above him. Unmistakable suppressing fire.

“Think they heard you, LT,” Blaczynski commented, and returned fire.

“Contact!” Costello reported to the net, ignoring him. “Contact, east side.”

Arés grunted and popped his SAW’s bipod to rest it on the barricade in one easy move, with the snappy efficiency that spoke to endless training: no spare movements, no energy wasted. He instantly had it barking death back toward the biodrones in sharp, short, economical bursts.

There was little for Costello to do in terms of decision-making. Their position was fixed and their opportunity to maneuver, nil. Blaczynski was right that they needed fire support, but there was none to call in yet.

He got his own rifle up and weighed in as well.

The biodrones didn’t have much real firepower. A lot of what was coming their way was still kinetic pulse, utterly harmless. HEAT operators in EV-MASS took harder hits just saying good morning to each other every day, and a lot of the enemy force didn’t even have that.

Somewhere, though, a few of them had picked up the real deal. Gaoian mercenaries, the Clanless and some of the Clans had all seen the value in an actual projectile-launching firearm, and it wasn’t like the basic design and chemistry of a rifle was difficult. Human patent law wasn’t worth the ink it was printed in off of Earth and Cimbrean, either: Any asshole with a machine shop could make one, and the Gaoians had much better than machine shops.

The average Gaoian’s abysmal strength didn’t matter for shit, either. An AR-15 was so manageable that a ten-year-old girl could handle one just fine, so an adult male Gaoian’s worst difficulty with them would probably be the shoulders. Tweak a few things here and there, and humanity’s own weapons were easily turned into the enemy’s weapons.

Still. There weren’t many. Just enough to put some actual metal in the air, and the HEAT sent far more back, especially as Firth, Murray, the Whitecrests, Butler, Burgess, Newman and Parata charged in to lend their weight. What had started as a trickle of desultory shots became a crackling torrent that first stalled and then deflected the biodrone charge, forcing the poor doomed Gaoian hosts to sprint sideways around the worst of the firepower.

If there had been mere hundreds, the fight wouldn’t have even deserved the word. If there had been a few thousand more, sheer quantity would have done all the work and the pinnacle of deathworlder and Gaoian biology and training simply wouldn’t have sufficed.

As it was, the biodrones had attacked right at the moment when their victory was possible but by no means certain, and that flew right in the face of basic military sense—Nobody in their right mind picked a fair fight. Costello surrendered his spot on the barricade to Sikes and stepped back to check the intelligence again.

Those vehicles were still coming, and the fact that the biodrones had attacked without waiting for them told him instantly whose side they were on.

The computers and specialists in orbit had been working hard on the question of who the incoming vehicle convoy belonged to, but the analysts hadn’t been able to put a definitive answer either way on it. The sixty-forty split said that the convoy belonged to Clan Stoneback. That probability shot up to near-certainty when the feedback from the Flycatcher, the suits, the gun cams and the orbiting satellites all clearly showed the convoy crash into the horde’s rear without slowing.

In fact, those IFVs weren’t stopping for anything short of a missile and they got through the starport’s perimeter gate by simply ignoring it. Steel wire and galvanized aluminium poles were no obstacle to them whatsoever, nor were the luckless biodrones whose most effective contribution was to make the concrete treacherous and slippery.

The heavy vehicles and their occupants made all the difference. With room to maneuver and agility in the mix, the Fang—whichever one it was—spread out and headed off the flanking biodrones.

No force could possibly stand up to a crossfire that brutal. Burned, crushed and badly depleted, the Hierarchy agent controlling that mob clearly decided to salvage what it could and the flayed remnants of the horde withdrew into the relative safety provided by the spaceport. Clearing that was going to be a priority in the near future, but the important work was done—Farthrow was secure.

The IFVs left crimson tyre tracks behind them as they circled around and pulled up around the Farthrow building, already dropping their rear hatches. Stonebacks piled out, most of them healthy, a few…not.

“Medics!”

Thurrsto was the first over the barricade, with the Protectors on his heels.

One unusually small Stoneback—small, that was, only by Stoneback standards—was propping up an unusually large one, who sagged into Burgess’ arms plainly on the verge of passing out, and was promptly lowered to the concrete for triage. The fur and flesh under his arms looked to Costello like he’d taken a fusion blade right through the ribs, which made it a minor act of God that he’d even lived this far.

He recognized them both, from First Fang training exercises on Cimbrean. The big one was Tyal, Daar’s second and presumably the Champion-in-Stead. The other…Fiin, he recalled after a moment’s thought. A young up-and-comer. The Gaoians had less granularity, procedure and mechanics to their career progression so the young gun had been something equivalent to a sergeant the last Costello saw of him.

Now, it looked like he’d probably just inherited some extra rank the hard way.

Costello hopped the barricade and kept his head down as he dashed to the cover provided by one of the IFVs. “Lieutenant Costello, Spaceborne Operations,” he reintroduced himself. “Think we’ve met before.”

“Fiin, Champion-in-Stead and warleader of First Fang.” The Stoneback thrust out a paw, and Costello gave it a firm shake. Stonebacks could take a little more force than the average Gaoian. “Yes. In better circumstances.”

“Need to skull check you, Fiin.”

The Gaoian duck-nodded and pressed his paws to the vehicle, turning his head awkwardly to watch Burgess work on his much larger brother. Costello’s scan for implants promptly came up green.

“You’re clear. We’re gonna need to check all your Brothers.”

Fiin duck-nodded. “Do it.” He looked around as Costello gestured urgently for the Lads to conduct brain scans, and they split up to bully the newly-arrived Stonebacks into formation and get them cleared. “Are you the senior Brother here?” he asked.

“Second. You’ll meet my CO in a minute…I thought Tyal was Champion-in-Stead?”

Fiin simply gestured toward Burgess’ patient, his expression unreadable.

“…He’s in good hands,” Costello assured him, but Burgess was already standing up.

“…Done all I can for him,” the Protector said. “He ain’t in pain, but…” He gestured at the remaining Stoneback wounded. “I gotta triage, LT.”

Tyal wheezed weakly, and spoke in labored Gaori. [“Is…okay,”] he managed. [“Save my…Brothers.”] Burgess nodded stoically and hurried off to attend the wounded.

Fiin knelt down at Tyal’s side and laid a paw on his head. [“You did well, Brother. Rest.”]

Tyal coughed again. [“No…I failed. I…”] He looked toward one of the vehicles, coughed once more, then relaxed just a little too much. The subtle cues of warmth and motion that told a living man apart from a dead one faded out of him, and he was gone.

Fiin keened quietly to himself and said something in a language that neither the translator nor Costello were familiar with. He closed Tyal’s eyes, gently tidied the body into a dignified posture, then stood up with a resigned, toughened air.

“…We lost good people at the Wi Kao commune,” he said, softly. “The biodroned females broke containment.”

“Turns out the pup was right,” a new voice said. A rangy wendigo of a Gaoian, white from tail to tip, limped up with his arm in a sling and red staining his snowy fur all down his left leg. He had the scars and attitude of a lifelong warrior.

“Now isn’t the time for recrimination, Grandfather,” Fiin replied. “Lieutenant Costello, this is Grandfather Garl of Stoneback.”

“Sir,” Costello shook the venerable hulk’s paw, and offered his head-scanner. The big brute let him press it between his ears without comment, and came up green. “I—”

They were interrupted by the sound of distraught keening from one of the vehicles, and to Costello’s shock the Gaoian responsible, of all people, was Regaari. Ears pricked up and eyes turned his way as the usually unflappable Whitecrest dropped his weapon, knelt on the ramp and scooped up a limp bundle of gray fur in his arms, whining so loud and so high it hurt Costello’s ears. A human would have been wailing his grief—Regaari just buried his nose in the body’s fur and held tight, whimpering and keening.

Warhorse was at his side in a heartbeat.

“What—?” Costello began.

“Mother Ayma. Tyal tried to save her…” Garl spat on the ground. “At least she can be given a proper funeral. Not forgotten in some Biodrone mass grave.”

“…My commander will want to debrief,” Costello managed. He knew of Ayma, of course, and he could see the shock of her death hit Warhorse and Baseball, too. That was going to need careful management, soon. Best to get the two senior ‘Backs handed off to Powell to discuss the big-picture stuff and he could focus on keeping his men mission-ready. “Highland!”

The taciturn Scot peeled off from the barricade and joined them. “Sir?”

“This is Grandfather Garl, Clan Stoneback. You remember Champion-in-Stead Fiin. They’re both green in the head, get ‘em to Stainless.”

“Aye,” Murray nodded, and gestured for the pair to follow him.

Costello turned away and got on the radio to warn Powell they were coming. “Stainless, Abbott. Situation is stable out here, First Fang reinforcements are manning the perimeter, their leaders are headed your way. We can go back to calling in VENUS.”

“Copy that, Abbott,” Powell still sounded distracted. “Do you have enough to sweep and clear the closest buildings?”

“Biodrone forces are depleted, but they’ll recover soon. Now would be the time to seize the initiative,” Costello agreed.

“Do it. We don’t have long before we’re suit-exhausted. Make it count.”

Costello clicked his radio to acknowledge, and took a moment to study the small mourning circle around the transports. The dead Gaoians—and there were more than just Tyal and Ayma—were being respectfully lined up, covered. It wasn’t a good time…but there just wasn’t going to be a good time, and they had a mission.

He took a deep breath and joined them.

“…Lads.”

“…LT.” Arés had a flatness in his voice that Costello had never heard there before. The man was usually so bouncy-cheerful that hearing him sound so desolate was a jolt to the core of the world. But he’d known Ayma personally—Costello could hardly expect him not to be torn up by a friend’s death.

Regaari had recovered some, but even through his suit everything about his body language said ‘inconsolable.’ Costello didn’t need to see his face to see the lost expression there.

“…We need to aggressively sweep and clear the perimeter. I need every man I’ve got if we’re to keep this installation secure before reinforcements get here. Gao needs us, boys. You too, Dexter.”

Regaari’s ears pricked up, not in an alert way but more in the way it did when he was dragging himself through a necessary torment.

“Sir…I…Yes.”

He needed a little more. “Dexter. Buddy. We’re gonna go out there, and we’re gonna murder an army of those fucks for her. And when we’re done, we’ll throw a party that’d knock Keeda on his ass,” Costello told him. “So grab your weapon and get us a driver for one of these vehicles. We go ASAP.”

His reward, after a long and pained second, was that Regaari picked himself up, straightened, duck-nodded and flexed his claws. He still paused for a moment, but when that moment passed he spun away and bounded away four-pawed after the Stonebacks, looking for a driver. It was the first rock that started a landslide—the Lads to a man jumped into action, blitzing off on their individual errands to grab what they needed.

The last to move was Rebar, who caught Costello’s eye and gave him a single, firm nod to acknowledge a job well done.

It made him feel a little better.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm

The Singer

“…Your ring?”

Singer nodded, and pressed it into Vemik’s hand. That ring was the first steel thing she’d ever made, and there had to be magic in something like that even if it was ‘alien’ magic.

If nothing else, it was precious to her. Giving it was powerful magic.

“I can taste the wind, Sky-Thinker,” she told him. “The Sky-People are tense and the Given-Men are nervous. I think this is the ending of a story, one way or another.”

Vemik stared at the ring for a while, then slipped it onto one of his fingers. “I think so,” he agreed.

“Make it a good story,” Singer told him. “And…look after Jooyun.”

“Jooyun?” Vemik turned around. Jooyun was sat between two Ketta roots, sharpening his steel hatchet and staring at something far away on the other side of the ground.

Singer nodded. “He’s not as strong as he looks, Sky-Thinker. He’s told you about the time he spent alone.”

“Yes…he learned much.”

“And some of what he learned scarred him.” The Singer sighed. “He needs someone to Give him strength.”

“…I know you are right about these things, but…” Vemik glanced up at his ‘Human’ friend again. “He seems well, now.”

“Does he?” The Singer shook her head. “The Songs say to watch out for men who seem well outside, but are hurting within.”

“…What should I do?”

The singer patted his hand sadly. “I can’t see the future, Sky-Thinker. Be at his side, be strong and think fast.”

Vemik nodded, then turned around as Jooyun stood up and marched sharply toward the strange latrine the Humans had made. She saw Vemik see the change in him, now—the lack of an expression, and Human faces were so expressive, so emotional. They always moved in little ways, raising the odd lines of hair above their eyes, twitching their mouths, creasing the skin of their foreheads or shifting their head to look at somebody not-quite-straight in ways that spoke without words. No matter what they were feeling, their faces moved.

Now, Jooyun’s could have been a bark carving.

“…Should I talk to him?” Vemik asked. The Singer could only toss her head lightly to show that she had no idea.

“Not yet. Maybe never. Maybe soon. Think fast and trust your branch.”

“Sky-Thinker!”

Yan was calling. He gestured sharply, beckoning Vemik to come to him. Vemik raised his hand to acknowledge the command, and turned back to the Singer. He took her hand and lowered his head.

“…Look after our son,” he said.

“Come back and help me,” she dared him, and played with the ring on his finger. “You’ll have quite a story to tell him. Come back and tell it.”

Vemik nodded, pressed his forehead against her own for a second and they tasted each other’s scent before he spun and left. The Singer turned away too, and returned to the camp’s edge where the rest of the villagers were ready to move on.

She had the future to plan for, and she believed in her breath that the People still had one.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
Dataspace adjacent to Hunter scout ship, orbiting planet Gao

The Entity, Instance 4

The Entity had a plan.

It was not an ideal plan—It involved a considerable degree of sacrifice. But the Entity had spent the last several hours carrying out a kind of callous accountancy, and the metaphorical books were better than balanced: They promised a considerable profit, for the right investment.

Spend lives, to save lives. Spend resources, to protect civilizations. Wasn’t that the calculus of command anyway? And from its commanding position near the hub of the Swarm’s data-gathering apparatus, the Entity was better placed than anybody to make such judgement calls.

But it wouldn’t have had any humanity in it at all—and it was deeply fond and proud of what humanity it had—if the ruthless pragmatism of its plan hadn’t caused it to hesitate for just a moment.

The key was to goad the Hunters into thinking they had no strategically viable option but to attack immediately. Despite their reputation for madness and their occasionally overconfident slapdash methods, the Hunters were still canny predators who had terrorized the galaxy for generations—The last fourteen years of repeated humiliation at humanity’s hands had only sharpened their caution and their patience.

So long as they were content to bide their time and strike when the moment was perfect, the whole operation here was doomed. Any system defence field the Allied forces deployed would simply be torn apart from the inside, and meanwhile the cloaked scouts could safely relay intelligence on ground movements to the Hierarchy.

All of which necessitated inciting them to decloak and attack…something. Something that would persuade the Hunters to sacrifice their enormous strategic advantage. Something important, something irresistible, something…juicy.

Something like a salvaged Hierarchy multirole combat ship that had been repurposed into a transport vessel and field hospital, wallowing deep in the gravity well in a low, fast trajectory where it could deliver support to the ground forces on short notice. Full of blameless crew, but they had escape pods…and were a couple of thousand human lives worth more than billions of Gaoians?

The trick was persuading the Hunters that it needed destroying, and here the Entity’s long experience at deception, misdirection and guile served it well.

The best lies were always built around the truth.

It watched Caledonia intently, focusing all the tools at its host’s hideous, misshapen fingertips on picking apart an apparent mystery, and advertised the fact too—the Hunter’s overseeing Beta couldn’t help but notice the intense scrutiny being directed at a single ship. Bait, dangling in the water. Irresistible, to a bored Hunter.

+Strange One. There had better be a good reason why you are devoting so many resources to monitoring a single ship.+

Perfect. The prey was nibbling at the bait. The Entity sequenced the information it wished for its host to convey and metaphorically crossed its fingers for luck. It was trusting on the double filter of an Igraen host infesting a Hunter biodrone to pass on its intent accurately, meaning that the fate of Gao might be hanging on a game of Telephone.

Its hope was rewarded.

+It seems to be especially important to the enemy, Beta.+

The Beta stood up from its command throne and made an elaborate show of not being interested in the affairs of lowly things like the Strange One by stretching and taking its time as it swaggered down into the intel pits. It was comical to watch a being that was so plainly desperate for stimulation fight to keep up appearances, and the Entity had to be very careful not to allow its scorn and amusement filter out through its host.

+Elaborate.+

The Entity stepped aside and called up its data. It was all true…but here and there among the facts were a few subtle embellishments, molded into the hard truths in the seamless way that only a digital sapient could achieve.

Enough to paint that ship as the linchpin not only of the entire human operation, but of their spaceborne capacity. A lie that was the younger twin of the truth.

It watched the Beta read, think…and bite.

+If we were to cripple or destroy that ship…+

The Entity didn’t dare to actually communicate anything beyond the emotional context. An actual thought might have burst the bubble.

The Beta lurched up from the console and spun away, radiating hungry savagery.

+Wake the Alpha!+


Date Point: 14y1d AV
HMS Caledonia, Low orbit over planet Gao

Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač

Suit technicians knew that their job only really started once the Hazardous Environment Assault Team and their suits were in action.

In practical terms, the EV-MASS almost came with a power cable dangling out of its ass. Those suits were massively sophisticated warfare platforms, and like all high-performance equipment they worked best with some fine-tuning and oversight. The Operators mostly didn’t know just how closely their suits were watched while they were in the fire.

Life support, vital signs, temperature regulation, noninvasive blood chemistry monitoring, power management, forcefield control, the helmet cam, the comms and intel package, armor integrity, the Heads-Up Display and more were all mostly handled automatically. Mostly…but with supervision.

So the technicians were far from idle when the HEAT were in action, and It made for tough watching. The helmet cams didn’t flinch at showing what the Lads did, and what the Lads did best was violence.

Marty had come to terms with their ultra-aggressive, limb-ripping savagery long ago, and knew better than to raise it with them. As far as the Lads were concerned, the immense brutality they dished out on an op was their cross to bear, privately and among themselves. Marty made sure all the techs knew and respected that.

But…God. Operation EMPTY BELL had been hardcore enough, and the biodrones involved on that occasion had been human. But after working with the Whitecrests and the Stonebacks for so long, they’d allowed themselves to forget that the gulf between human biology and the next-best thing could be…large.

Humans were Deathworlders, and Gaoians weren’t. Specimens like Daar and other elite Clan aside, the average Gaoian massed about what Kovač did—and Kovač was decidedly petite even if life as Adam’s fiancée inevitably meant being made as strong as she could possibly be—but wasn’t nearly so robust. Watching Newman punch one so hard that he flattened the poor thing’s rib cage and made it literally cough up its own lungs was all the evidence a person could ever need of that.

Watching that feed was brutalizing, an adrenaline rush. It left the body surging with fight-or-flight hormones and stress chemistry even at a distant reserve, which was why the SOR’s techs were the first to react when *Caledonia*’s proximity alarm wailed at them to brace for impact.

Something hit them. Hard. The whole ship rang like a bell then groaned the long, deep, agonizing groan of steel straining, stretching and bending.

Deacon and Hargreaves leapt to check the pressure doors were properly sealed. Matthews, Cowen and Green pounced for the emergency depressurization lockers hidden under the deck and wrenched them open, ready for everybody to pile into at the first hint that their air wasn’t going to stay where it should.

Kovač locked down all the sensitive stuff and hit the weapon rack to start handing out their carbines. They were all armed with pistols anyway, but SOP was to treat any proximity alarm as a possible Hunter ship decloaking to latch on and board. Nobody wanted to face Hunters with just pistols.

She’d just handed one to Doyle when the wisdom of that policy made itself known. A different alarm hooted through the ship, followed by Commander McDaniel’s clipped voice, sounding more stressed than Kovač had ever heard her, even on the day when Cally had literally caught fire and nearly exploded.

“All hands, prepare to repel boarders. Repeat, all hands repel boarders.”

One advantage in the SOR’s toolkit was limited access to Gaoian tech like shieldsticks. Marty promptly grabbed a handful and handed them out while everyone charged their weapons and fanned out to their planned spots all over the deck. In efficient seconds, the whole bay was one big killbox, and not a moment too soon—something else hit them, and Cally groaned like a harpooned whale.

This time, the impact was followed up by a distant heavy grinding rumble. Martina gritted her teeth and fought to keep her hands from trembling too badly. She was already soaked with anxious sweat, except for her throat which had gone completely bone dry.

Every sailor was a firefighter, every marine a rifleman and Marty, like every airman, was trained as a base defender. The HEAT had made sure all their techs knew how to work together and hold the fort if necessary, and anybody who got combat training from the likes of Firth or Vandenberg was probably decently equipped to handle a fight… But that didn’t change the fact she’d never been in a real fight before. Ever. None of them had.

Another impact, this one closer. The lights flickered and there was the unmistakable slamming sound of a compartment decompressing. On a ship as densely packed as Caledonia, that meant people were dead.

She didn’t dare shut her eyes, but she prayed anyway in the second before a real impact hit them, a heavy slam right on the other side of the external pressure doors that covered where the ship’s original masters had relied on only a forcefield to keep the air in. There was an ear-mangling metallic squeal, a seething howl, and a four meter ring of fire bloomed on the external door.

A fusion-cutting Hunter boarding proboscis thrust obscenely through the wounded hull and pushed in a two-tonne coin of the outer hull. The Hunters were only an inch behind it.

Thank fuck for hologram-enhanced training on Firth’s tactical assault course. They were even more disgusting in real life than in the simulation, but rather than being stunned by the repulsively creepy horrors that tried to barge into the room, Marty gritted her teeth and opened fire.

To her supreme satisfaction, her shots tore through the first one through the breech and it collapsed to the deck with its too-many limbs convulsing like a poisoned spider’s. Its nervejam grenade launcher clattered across the floor, unused.

Doyle, Hargreaves, Deacon, Cowen, Green and all the rest poured in their own fire, and the training showed. They weren’t firing wildly or wastefully, they laid down a disciplined volley and the Hunters bogged down on their own fallen, were cut down, and recoiled like burned fingers.

Marty used the break to reload and get on her radio. “Contact, Starboard hangar bay!”

“Copy starboard hangar, marines en route.”

‘En route’ was almost an understatement. Marty barely had time to understand the reply before five Royal Marines bowled in through the inner airlock, geared up in the latest-gen body armor that had borrowed heavily from EV-MASS to provide far more protection per kilogram than older systems. They looked ready and able to stroll casually up to Hell’s front door.

Their squad leader, Corporal Wilde, joined Marty behind her shieldstick barrier. “Nice one,” he commented.

“Thanks. Plan?”

“You lot hold the fort, we go in there an’ clean the bastards out. Wish us luck.”

Holy shit. “Godspeed,” Marty told him, and meant it.

Wilde nodded and sprang to his feet. “Come on, lads!” he roared, “Last one in buys the first round!”

The five of them surged forward with their weapons up, bowled over the dead Hunter boarding party and stormed back up the boarding proboscis. Marty steeled herself and listened to the gunfire, both rattling back down from inside the Hunter ship and from elsewhere on the ship. There was another ringing slam as another Hunter latched on to another part of *Cally*’s hull, and she whispered a desperate prayer under her breath.

They weren’t out of the woods yet. They were barely in.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
HMS Caledonia, Low orbit over planet Gao

Commander Ellen McDaniel

McDaniel was juggling two battles at once. Of course there were the Hunters to worry about, as a seventh boarding ship decloaked barely ten meters from their hull. The first had been too close to avoid even if it hadn’t then turned on a gravity spike and wormhole suppressor, pinning Cally in place. They were confined to kinetic acceleration only, which put them in a bad place, defensively. Any of the biodrone ships higher up in the gravity well could pick them off, and the rest of the fleet was scrambling to shield them, but were confined to sublight themselves thanks to the gravity spike. Even the Firebirds were minutes away at best.

All of that demanded her attention, but seven—no, eight—boarding craft was by far the more immediate problem. How many could there be?

Too many. They needed clear space around them, now.

“Cap charge?” she demanded.

“Eighty-seven percent!”

McDaniel grabbed her radio. “XO to Captain.”

Bathini sounded perfectly, inhumanly unruffled somehow. “Go ahead.”

“The bastards keep coming, sir. There could be hundreds of them cloaked just feet from the hull. Suggest we dump cap.”

“Do it. Keep us above the green line.”

“Aye aye,” a quick change of channel put her through to reactor control. “XO to reactor chief.”

There was a pause, and Chief Andow’s voice came back sounding tense. “Reactor here.”

“Chief, we’re dumping cap, down to the green line.”

“Aye aye…” Andow must have been a step ahead of her, and forgot to let go of his call button, because she clearly heard him shout “Hooky! She called it! Dump prep? Okay!” His voice came back to the radio clearer and more audibly. “Dump ready, XO.”

“Dump it!”

There was a slamming noise, quite different from the physical, ringing impacts made by Hunter ships raping their skin. This one was the sound made when the supercooled ultra-high-capacity power buses to the ship’s shield emitters were called upon to direct and handle energies equivalent to a nuclear explosion. Vats of liquid nitrogen would be boiling furiously around white-hot superconductors, fighting to bring them back down to a more reasonable temperature, and that was just the beautifully controlled waste heat.

Outside, *Caledonia*’s sensors tracked no fewer than twelve more Hunter ships as they briefly did a convincing moth-in-a-campfire impression.

One of her warfare officers made a save, triumphant sound that perfectly echoed McDaniel’s own sentiments.

“Damage report!” she demanded, keeping everything on track. Now was too early to celebrate.

“Hull breaches E deck forward, C deck forward, A deck midships, Starboard hangar, Hospital deck, B deck aft, F deck ventral. Total pressure failure between bulkheads two and three. Emergency disconnect of capacitor bank C, emergency shutdown of Reactor Two. Casualties reported A deck midships—”

It was obviously a long list, but it was cut off by the way the whole deck lurched and Caledonia screamed the long, tearing sound of her pressure hull failing in a big way. McDaniel gritted her teeth and braced herself against the bulkhead as her sense of balance went completely awry for a minute. A sure sign that the artificial gravity plating was fighting against some violent G-forces. Alarms of every conceivable type all went off at once.

“What was that?!”

“One of the Hunters just…blew itself up!”

McDaniel turned around to see for herself and at exactly the wrong moment a second Hunter self-destructed and took part of Cally with it. The gravity plating failed. Not for long…but for long enough. She completely lost her balance, tipped over, and when the gravity came back on the last thing she saw was the corner of a desk coming up to meet h—


Date Point: 14y1d AV
HMS Myrmidon, High orbit over planet Gao

Admiral Sir Patrick Knight

“Mayday! Mayday! HMS Caledonia declaring an emergency, we are sinking! Repeat, HMS Caledonia is sinking!”

The navy had kept the word ‘sinking’ even though it couldn’t possibly apply to a ship in space. There was nothing to sink in. But if a ship was totally wrecked, had suffered a catastrophic loss of its ability to retain atmosphere and life support, to maneuver…in short, to function as a ship, then it was pretty much definitively sunk.

The telemetry coming through the FIC was a knife in the gut. The half-dozen Hunter boarding ships that had buried into Caledonia like ticks had turned suicide bomb, obliterating segments of the hull, breaking her back. In seconds she had gone from a damaged but functioning warship to a tumbling, burning hulk at the heart of a cloud of condensing air and glittering metal shrapnel.

And there was absolutely nothing that Knight could do about it. The biodrones were winning the war to control the Gaoian fleets, and they had learned more than a few of humanity’s tricks in the last few years. It was taking every trick of maneuver that Knight and Caruthers could devise between them to stay ahead of the fight, and sometimes the only things tipping the balance were the nukes.

He had his plate full with the battle, he didn’t have time to worry about Caledonia’s crew. All he could do for them was pray and carry the day for them, and that would have to be enough.

Even so…His own daughter was on that ship. Not a perfect daughter, nor he a perfect father, and their relationship could hardly be described as close…But still: his daughter.

He tried his best to put Ellen’s fate out of his mind, and focused on the task at hand. There was a war to win.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc ARm

Master Sergeant Derek “Boss” Coombes

“Boss…Playboy. I can see you. Slow down and stop for a skull check. You too, Tigger.”

Coombes slowed from his cross-country jog and paused next to a Ketta, utterly bewildered. There was absolutely no sign at all of anybody besides himself and Daar in the area. Not a stray sound, not a whiff of scent, nothing.

He knew Etsicitty was supposed to be skilled. And he’d worked with some stealthy motherfuckers in his time, snipers mostly. But there was nothing, not even the wary silence of disturbed forest animals. The birds were still trilling in the trees above—

They weren’t birds. A Given-Man landed on Coombes’ back and crushed him to the ground. Two landed on Daar. Coombes got a mouthful of leaf litter, and had to endure the indignity of having somebody pin his hands behind his back by holding his wrists with their foot.

One tanned brown bare foot and one unnatural white plastic one encroached on his peripheral vision as Etsicitty pressed the scanner to his head, then swept away to do the same for Daar. After the second beep he made a satisfied grunt and dropped a black tomahawk on the ground.

“Let ‘em go,” he said. The enormous weight keeping Coombes belly-down in the dirt lifted off him and he was hoisted to his feet. Yan grinned toothily at him, and brushed the leaves off his chest and belly.

“Lucky you we not en’mee!” he declared, patted Coombes on the head and stepped back.

“Yeah, well. What’s a broken back between friends?” Coombes replied, trying to massage some feelings back into his kidneys. The joke earned a jolly trill.

“You look in our heads now, yes?”

“…Yes.”

It was definitely a formality as far as Coombes could tell. If the hunting party had been ‘droned then he and Daar would already be dead or ‘droned themselves and they wouldn’t have seen it coming. But procedure was procedure. He pressed his scanner firmly to the Given-Man’s flat forehead and nodded at the expected green ping.

Etsicitty was waiting for him with his arms spread, looking quiet, patient and focused. Sure enough, his head was green too, and he stooped to retrieve his tomahawk the second it was confirmed.

“Where’s the Professor?” Coombes asked him.

“Went east with the women, children and old men,” Julian said. “Chimp and Tiny are playin’ chicken with the drones. They seem to be running on automatic.”

“Automatic?”

Etsicitty shrugged. “They’re about as sharp as a sack of Dizi Rats. Just go after whatever they see. I dunno what’s goin’ on, but nobody with a working brain is controlling those things.”

“Like angry Werne’gok,” Yan supplied. “Charge, not think. Easy to lead!”

“A bull,” Julian translated.

He was in an unusually silent mood, Coombes judged. He hadn’t got the chance to know Julian much, but the impression he’d got was of a man who was quiet and calm out of simply being comfortable and happy with life, or maybe wanting to spread some more.

Not terse. But then again, he wasn’t military. He’d been dragged into this, and he didn’t really have any formal training. Coombes wasn’t about to fault him if that put him in an uncomfortable place in his head, so long as he held it together.

He certainly had the experience, according to his file. He’d probably do better than he thought.

Not that Coombes was feeling much better himself. He’d run all day over rough terrain, including climbing a mountain and moving some heavy rocks at the top of that mountain. Right now most of his body and soul were singing wistfully about bed, and Daar had it even worse between their heavy gear and the lingering effects of the blast and medicine. Even his permanent unquenchable boisterousness was, if not quenched then at least soaking wet.

“So. We lure them into a trap and take them down hard,” he summarized.

“Too bad we don’t have another mountain to drop on ‘em,” Daar grumbled. Yan gave him an incredulous look.

“Drop…mountain? I have wrong words?”

“We’ll explain later, I promise. It’s one of those steel secrets.”

A voice above Coombes made him flinch. Ten’Gewek were quiet in the trees.

“Daar tell me of these.” Sky-Thinker was hanging upside down by his feet and tail, chewing on a fruit of some kind. “He say, some stones go…” he gestured and made an explosive sound effect with his mouth. “Smash rock, break tree. Big taking-magic, yes?”

“Well, in that case,” rumbled Daar, “If you know how to read a rock face ‘fer cracks and stuff, you can blow up a small part and make the whole thing slide down and kill everyone at the bottom of the valley.”

The young alien was definitely a nerd after Coombes’ own heart. Nobody but the geekiest geeks got quite such a gleeful look in their eyes when somebody described things like that. Everybody else needed to see it to get the effect, but for those truly gifted with a vivid imagination…

Julian flashed a quick chuckle and scratched at his bare chest, but his mirth didn’t survive for long. “We can’t play cat-and-mouse with these things forever,” he said. “I don’t know shit about Big Hotel power supplies, but no way those things run outta gas.”

Yan and the Given-Men nodded vigorously. “We need sleep, food. Steel birds, not.”

“We gotta keep moving, boss.” Daar seemed resolved to it. Which meant he considered their situation dire; he was so tired that he hadn’t even tried to tussle with the Given-Men who had tackled him.

“Yup.” Coombes shrugged at his ruck more for mental comfort than physical. “We’re the anvil. Tiny and Chimp need to bring ‘em to us, in favorable terrain. We need something to smash them against.”

Vemik, still upside-down, raised a juice-stained hand.

“Forestfather,” he said.

“What about ‘em?” Coombes asked him.

“First steel bird I find, shoot blue fire at me. I run, dodge. It not see through forestfather vines, run into cwiff. Cer-riff.” He paused and snarled at himself. “Cliff.…Maybe Daar Stone-Back drop mountain?”

Daar scratched his ear in the complicated way he did when he was thinking uncomfortable thoughts, and then looked at Yan. The two seemed to understand each other instantly and Yan sidled up alongside him. “I hunt with Daar. Help climb and carry.”

Julian was checking the topographical survey from *Misfit*’s legion of microsatellites. “…Those cliffs look like a hard climb,” he warned. “And Daar ain’t light and neither is his gear.”

Which was a concern, because Gaoians climbed like the quadrupeds they were. Yan would more or less have to carry the big oaf and all his stuff up the cliff.

Yan, however, was enthusiastically confident. He grinned smugly in reply and slapped his arms. “Daar, ‘gear,’ no trouble. Will be good climb, make us strong!”

Vemet, who had hitherto been silent, chose that moment to chime in with his usual quietly pertinent observation.

“If we do or we killed, we do,” he said simply. “Hard climb, good climb, no matter. Do, or death.”

That settled that, and there were nods all round..

“We got a Plan, then,” Coombes declared. He shrugged his ruck to focus himself again, got his bearings, and took point. “Come on. Sooner we quit wastin’ time an’ make it happen, the sooner we get a smoke break.”

“…Break smoke? How? And why?” Vemik asked.

“…We’ll explain later.”


Date Point: 14y1d AV
Dataspace adjacent to planet Gao

The Entity, Instance 4

Success.

A costly success, but success nonetheless. The Entity had honestly hoped that the Caledonia would fend off its attackers and come through the battle scathed, but afloat.

As it was…

Its body had been crushed, killing it almost instantly. Even knowing what was coming, the Entity had barely escaped from the host’s implants in time. It could remember being human, though. Could remember the subjective sense of having a human body. A Hunter’s sense of its own body was very similar—they felt, to themselves, just as strong.

Even from the Entity’s removed perspective, a first-hand lesson in just how different humans really were had been…shocking. As far as the body’s own kinesthetic instincts were concerned, that much power simply shouldn’t fit in that small a creature. Had the Entity’s biodroned host been free to form its own thoughts, its short-lived last experience would have been awed disbelief.

The important point was, the swarm’s scouts were gone. Vaporized by *Caledonia*’s huge energy discharge, or self-destructed. They and the Hierarchy had been robbed of a critical intelligence advantage. It had won, if not the whole war then certainly an important battle.

But deep in its core, several of the subroutines that had once been Ava Ríos were in agony. When Adam found out…

It deleted the thought. There were other battles to win before it could afford the luxury of .

It flashed away into the dataspace to go fight them.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
Farthrow Facility, Lavmuy, Planet Gao

Lt. Col. Owen “Stainless” Powell

After several hours on the ground, the suit fatigue was setting in hard. The only countermeasures were electrolytes, painkillers and Crue-D, and Powell knew he was feeling it less than the other HEAT operators due to spending most of his time doing comparatively steady work, saving his strength.

Akiyama was in a similar boat. He’d spent most of his time on the ground so far working with Meereo on modifying the Farthrow generator.

The rest of them had worked hard, fought hard, run hard and were burning through their energy hard.

But it was all coming together. VENUS, MARS and MERCURY were through and deployed. Farthrow, which had started life as a former aerospace hangar full of prefab “rooms” was rapidly becoming a fortress thanks to a battalion of combat engineers and their unlimited supply of HESCO gabions. The walls were manned, the second jump array was up, and a master sergeant out on the front lot was colourfully educating his unit on exactly why latrine detail was so important in this case and the reason it was so high up on the list of shit-to-get-done-immediately.

Another thump through the floor heralded the arrival of another element of the brigade combat team, and punctuated the moment before Costello’s long-awaited call came in.

“Stainless, Abbott. The passenger terminal is secure, our sweep is complete. Suit fatigue’s biting pretty hard.”

Powell made a ‘hmmph’ noise to himself before replying.

“Abbott, Stainless. Return to Farthrow. Be aware, suit technicians aren’t available. All HEAT to report for a debrief before de-suit.”

A click on the line signalled Costello’s understanding and acknowledgement, and Powell returned his attention to the report from MERCURY’s operators and the FIC.

Caledonia debris—some of which they were fairly sure was lifeboats—had been tracked describing a three hundred kilometer field across Gao’s equator, and a lot of it was over water. The majority of the stricken ship’s hull was still up there and possibly salvageable, but the SOR technicians on board had all been out of contact for a long time now.

Hopefully, that would change. Re-entry was a bitch for communications at the best of times thanks to all that opaque plasma. Bailing out of a burning, disintegrating spaceship in low orbit had to add all kinds of complications.

Still. The techs were trained for it, and their continued silence was deeply unwelcome.

“Titan.”

Akiyama looked up from his work and stood. “Sir?”

“How’s it holdin’ up?”

“Meereo’s debugging the new scripts now, and I’ve checked everything I can. We think it’s solid.”

“You aren’t gonna need to shut it down for a software update, are you?”

Akiyama winced almost imperceptibly and shook his head. Apparently he’d inadvertently asked a dumb question. “…No sir.”

“Champion,” Powell nodded, glad that that had gone right at least. They had wormhole suppression across an entire planet, and more importantly they could open timed exceptions in that suppression to admit their own logistics train. They had orbital superiority, ground defences and interceptors in place to keep Farthrow alive and running, and they had an army literally marching off one planet and onto another as fast as the jump arrays could cycle, ready to be shouted at by the MPs.

And all it had cost them was an invaluable warship. Even if Caledonia was salvageable, she would be out of the war for…years, probably, severely curtailing the SOR’s operating capacity.

And those were just the practical concerns. On a personal level, Powell was scared for his people. Badly scared for them. And he hated the impotence that came with knowing that, no matter what, the HEAT was a minimum of two days of recharge and rejuvenation time away from its next operation, assuming they cut corners and pushed too hard.

Heavy footsteps at the door heralded the Lads’ return. They filed in, and several bystanders both Gaoian and human alike immediately got the hell out of their way—every last one of them was splattered with gore. Even Costello was sporting a smear of the stuff across his chestplate, and both Firth and Arés were basically red from head to toe. Only the Gaoians were clean, and Powell was certain that was only thanks to the surface properties of their suits.

He shook his head, slightly awed. “In the wise words of her majesty Queen Elizabeth…Fookin’ ‘ell, lads.”

“It got interesting,” Costello summarized.

“Aye, well. We’ll go over it in a moment. Right now, I’m afraid I have bad news. Fall in.”

They formed an attentive half-circle around him.

“Turns out there’re already Hunters inside the shield and suppression perimeter,” Powell revealed. “A couple hundred scout ships. They mobbed Caledonia an’ sunk her. Our people are currently unaccounted-for.”

There was a long, sick silence.

“…Escape pods?” Vandenberg asked, eventually.

“Intel’s havin’ a hard time pickin’ them out from debris. We don’t expect to be in touch just yet, if there are any pods out there they’re prob’ly still comin’ down. Don’t lose faith, Lads. For now…get outta yer suits, clean ‘em up, do your therapy. I want us all suit-ready and mission-capable on emergency turnaround. You never know, it might be us they send to get our techs back. You have one hour, and then it’s debrief. Dismissed. Costello, a word.”

The lieutenant hung around and watched the team stumble out of the room, literally in Warhorse’s case—Arés looked like he’d just gone completely numb. Powell waited until they were well out of even the sharpest conceivable earshot before commenting.

“…Regaari and Arés,” he said, needing neither preamble nor elaboration.

“Reeling,” Costello said immediately. “I trust Vandenberg to keep them busy but they’re only human…or, uh, Gaoian.”

“Aye. Put all your weight behind him too. Hold it together.”

Costello cleared his throat. “Sir…if the techs are dead…especially Kovač…”

“Then this unit’s holed below the bloody waterline,” Powell finished. “Hold. Them. Together, Costello. I’m doin’ every damn thing I can to find out what the fook’s goin’ on and bring our people home, but I need time.”

“Yes sir.”

“Good man. Carry on.”

Costello nodded briskly and departed, clearly eager to get out of his suit and do his part. Powell grimaced to himself and returned to combing through all the information that was flowing past him.

It helped to have something to do.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm

Champion and Stud-Prime Daar of Clan Stoneback

If Yan was anything to go by, Daar and the other Champions would need to carefully cultivate a strong relationship between the Ten’Gewek and the Gao. Theirs was a formidable species. Daar found himself especially liking Yan a whole lot ‘cuz they were alike in a lot of ways, but the most importantest way was how Yan was a lot smarter than he generally let on.

The Ten’Gewek were like that: Keeda take their super-strong high-gravity cavemonkey bodies, the whole species’ real strength was in how stupid-quick on the uptake they were. Gaoians were smart too but it was different, somehow; most Gaoians were task-oriented and efficient, natural followers that worked best on teams. They were intelligent, but…reserved. Personally brave yet reluctant to lead. That meant the genuinely brilliant Gaoians were almost all Clan, or sometimes they were overlooked diamonds quietly leading amongst the Clanless. Centuries of Hierarchy tampering was probably to blame for that…

The Ten’Gewek, on the other hand, were all razor-sharp and fiercely independent with a strong sense of tribe. Within that tribe there was an easy flow between leading and following that Gaoians simply didn’t have and which Daar openly admired. They were rational, perceptive, experimental, and smart risk-takers who were quick on their feet and clever with their hands. Between them and the Humans it was hard to say which were the more intimidating.

For Daar’s money, it might still be the Humans: They felt so strongly that their emotions were contagious, but then they used that feeling rather than being ruled by it. Ten’Gewek were more…Vulcan. Calculating, logical, guarded. Not dispassionate, but slower-passionate. It was only by a little bit but it took more provocation to arouse them, and that extra degree of intensity made all the difference when it came to motivation. Humans could be just as rational, but they got fired up so much more easily that it honed their minds into hair-trigger weapons.

The Given-Men seemed to be the big exception to that. They got mad, quick, and they rode it like practiced athletes. Threaten their tribe and a Given-Man became about the canniest, deadliest foe you’d ever hate to have. And explosives really caught their imagination, especially Yan, who like Daar or Warhorse was arguably the most bestest of his species.

Yan had come along as a safety man, climbing behind Daar as he picked his way up and down the cliff. He watched everything Daar did very carefully, those big, bright eyes hardly blinking and focused intently on wherever Daar’s paws happened to be at any given moment.

The two of them were back at the bottom of the cliff again, taking a quick moment to catch their breath.

“We knapping big flint, yes? Just with sky-magic?” He’d figured Daar’s strategy out without even being told.

“Yeah!” Daar thumped his tail while he laid exhausted in the dirt, panting heavily and nursing his ‘juggernog’ energy-drink-and-protein cocktail. And his ibuprofen, a full eight hundred milligrams of the stuff. It worked wonders but any more would be dangerous maybe.

Yan trilled and laid down a spell next to Daar, stretching out his heavy limbs and recovering his strength. It hadn’t taken long for the big cavemonkey to figger out exactly what Daar was looking for; exposed fault lines in the rock, things that could be ‘nudged’ into letting go and sliding down the cliff, and of course he had a lifetime of working with stone. He’d found the perfect patches, right at the top of a cliff overlooking a horseshoe bend in the river.

Which meant a whole lot of climbing, and if Daar was being perfectly honest, he was pretty much out of gas. The long loping pace he’d used to keep up with Coombes was effective, but in the high gravity his timing was slightly off and it had slowly sapped all the energy out of him. He’d never properly recovered before climbing to the top of the cliff twice now and his every muscle was vibrating from pure exhaustion. Even rising to his paws while wearing his pack made him visibly strain.

Yan didn’t fail to notice.

“You…need more rest, yes?”

“Yeah. And food, but we ain’t got time. We got at least four more charges to plant. Can you see where?”

Yan scratched at his crest and thought for a moment before speaking. “If hill was big flint, I would hit…there, there, there and there.”

Top score! But now for the real test. “There’s two other good places we might look at. See them? Look for where the rock face changes ‘direction,’ or where there’s weird boulders.”

Yan frowned at him, then back at the rock. One of his stubby fingernail-claws excavated a shred of meat from between his teeth as he thought. “…There. Would be bad place to hit if making knife—break in two. But we not make knife.”

Daar gave him his most biggest pant-grin. “See? Sky-Magic is easy!”

“Is small-magic, but bigger,” Yan agreed.

“Yup! It’s all little things building on top of everything else, over and over again.” He flopped over, dug out an explosive charge, and waggled it in his paw. “This is just fire, but bigger. Anyway…Sky-Magic’ll prol’ly go a lot quicker ‘fer y’all, ‘cuz Daniel can point out where to look.”

“If we live.”

“Ayup. We better get on that.”

Yan looked at the locations they’d mapped out. They were all of course hugely spread out from each other, and Daar just…didn’t have the energy. He was done like only truly tiring work could do. More, even.

Yan noticed that, too.

“Maybe…I carry pack?” he offered.

“Won’t fit, it’s the wrong shape. Too long for ‘yer back.”

“Then I carry Daar.”

Daar was skeptical. “…Not even you’re that strong, Yan. I’m big. Bigger than almost anyone, Human or Ten’Gewek.”

“Yan bigger!” He hooted smugly. “What is words?” Yan asked, thought for a second, then grinned. His huge fangs glinted ferally in the sunset. “…‘Challenge accepted’.”

He stood and swaggered over toward the cliff in the thick-thighed, almost bow-legged way the bigger Ten’Gewek males walked about. He bounced the last few steps, gave the cliff a quick look, then beckoned Daar over. He groaned and rose to his paws, then to his feet, stretched, and plodded over alongside.

Daar looked up. It was a very tall cliff face.

Yan seemed undeterred. “Is not too high, Yan do.”

Daar begged to differ but he didn’t have much choice if they were going to get it done, so he duck-nodded warily and mentally prepared himself. Yan trilled, leaped up and onto the cliff—clear over Daar’s head, amazingly—and wrapped his tail under Daar’s arms.

“You hug around belly, yes?”

Daar did and locked his arms around Yan’s teak-hard middle as best as he could while that tail tightened and lifted him easily off the ground. A little wiggling, a better grip around Yan’s thick waist, and up the cliff they went. Quickly. Yan didn’t even seem to be trying.

Daar had seen a Burmese Python in a zoo on Earth one time, and after much plaintive diplomacy had persuaded them to let him hold it. He’d been struck by its dense muscular weight, and the sense of incredible power. Those things crushed Gaoian-sized critters to death in the wild and swallowed them whole.

Yan’s tail was both thicker and stronger, and just as flexible. He was very careful but every now and then an accidental little twitch in his tail would send a sharp pain through Daar’s chest and elicit an undignified yelp, and a grunted apology from Yan. It was easy to forget sometimes that Ten’Gewek effectively had five limbs, and used all five of them when climbing.

They climbed. Or rather, Yan climbed like he was crawling straight up the cliff without a care in the world. All four of his hands found every little crevice, the tiniest little bump to grip onto. Where he couldn’t quite fit his fingers into a crack, he’d grunt and make them fit, his sheer strength and those thick hoary nails breaking the rock to his will. Daar mostly just held on and did his best to help, or at least not make the climb worse.

Daar was always one to notice details. It was the secret to being good at anything really, and the way Yan tackled the sheer cliff and the lazy, effortless power he showed while doing it…that was prol’ly the scariest thing Daar had seen in a very, very long time. The last time he’d felt so unexpectedly overpowered had been his first ever meeting with Murray.

He hadn’t made that mistake since. The only way around it was trust and right now, Daar was utterly helpless, high up a cliff, and had no way out. He had to trust Yan, and so he did.

They must have looked ridiculous, though. By height and sheer volume Daar was easily the larger of the two, so for him to dangle from Yan’s tail must have been especially cartoonish…but Yan was Warhorse dense and considerably heavier than Daar. In any case it worked. It was dumb, but it worked, and therefore wasn’t dumb. Good mantra even if it felt dumb.

Fortunately the first spot had a little outcropping they could both stand on. There was barely enough room to move so Yan kept himself firmly anchored to the cliff face and his tail solidly in place. Daar swung his pack around, shaped a long, thin but substantial charge, and stuck it onto the face.

That done, Yan was scrambling crosswise across the rock when their time really started to get limited. There was a crackle and flash some distance away among the trees.

“Net, Tiny. My guys are really startin’ to slow down here. Dunno how long we can keep playin’ keep-away with these assholes.”

Daar growled to himself thoughtfully, then asked a question he was dreading. “We’re outta time, Yan. Can you go faster?”

Yan gave him a sympathetic look. “Yes, but…will hurt you, I think.”

“I only heard ‘yes.’ Let’s do it.”

Yan grunted in acknowledgement, and Daar suddenly found that he’d been wrong about the most scariest thing. Yan stopped climbing and started flying across the rockface like he was swinging through the trees. Every landing was another slamming impact that drove some of the air out of Daar’s chest before he bounced along the surface to the next tiny crack, then a flying leap across the surface, more bouncing, more speed. After the first crunch Daar learned how to brace himself and use his limbs, but he was sure he had a bruised rib or two, and he definitely would need a Crude recovery after the Yan-ride was over.

The second stop was easy. Yan let go and Daar took a moment to recover before quickly deploying a charge. It was small and Yan had some pointed questions about that, which Daar didn’t have the time to answer. He promised they could play later, though, and Yan seemed happy with that.

Daar wasn’t too keen on annoying Yan at the moment.

Onward. The third and fourth flew by in a few rib-crushing moments, and the fifth—Yan’s “break-knife-in-two” spot—got the special treatment. He’d been saving up for it, on the grounds that the more explosives he planted there, the more stuff would fall. Nice and simple.

The sixth was in the worst spot. There wasn’t any way to get to it without a huge leap across an open space at the top, and that meant Daar had a decision to make. He was mostly sure he had the strength to make the jump and jump back—Gaoians were quadrupeds after all and could leap pretty far—but he was in a lot of pain, his energy was dangerously low…

Risky. Alternatively, he could tell Yan exactly what to do and send him over. That was risky too, because the placement was critical and had to be exactly right or the thing might fizzle. It’d be the difference between a shower of rocks and a geological hammer.

Yan sensed the problem, too. “I can make jump, no problem. Maybe not make with you, though. But I jump, hold, you jump, I catch. Easy.”

Daar resisted the urge to flinch. The humans had a mild superstition about using the word ‘easy’ in these circumstances, and like so many other Human things their superstitions were contagious. Instead he duck-nodded. “Makes sense.”

Yan grinned at him then turned and jumped the gap without a moment’s hesitation. He flung himself across it with all the assured confidence of a lifelong brachiator, slammed into the far wall and stuck like his hands were made of glue. He turned and beckoned Daar over.

There was nothing to do but trust him. The sporadic chatter of rifles and the occasional thump and flare of a plasma weapon among the trees was definitely getting closer. Daar dropped to four paws, took three paces back, then pounced forward with his claws gouging at the scree. Three strides took him to the edge, he bunched his back muscles, leapt—

Four or five confusing, terrifying seconds later they finally came to a rest halfway down the slope, swaying perilously from only one of Yan’s hands. The Given-Man grunted powerfully, worked the fingers of his free hand into a fault in the rock, and hauled Daar upwards with his feet.

“…Maybe not as easy as I think,” he admitted after a second.

Daar unclenched every muscle he had. Suddenly, he understood what the human expression about life flashing before one’s eyes was all about. Not that he’d been risk-averse in his past, but something about swinging above a terminal drop on an alien world under supergravity amplified the pucker factor by an order of magnitude. Heights were generally among his least favoritest things.

Also, his abused bones were really starting to complain.

“…You okay Stone-Back?”

Not really. “Ow.”

Yar trilled in sympathetic humor. “Hurt is not dead!”

“Yeah,” Daar managed, still not quite able to tear his eyes away from the hungry drop below him, “we got that goin’ for us. Which is nice.”

Yan got his tail re-seated around Daar’s chest and ascended the cliff at his usual absurd pace. “We plant magic knapping clay now. Then I climb down slow. Easy, you see.”

“Please stop saying easy,” Daar requested, giving in to the superstition. “Bad things happen.”

Yan trilled again, and heaved him up to the blasting spot. The gunfire was close now. “You hurry,” he said.

In fact, Daar was only about half done planting the charge when the gunfire arrived in the form of Walsh, who seemed to be enjoying himself. At least, he was hollering like the crowd at a prize fight as he backed into the open ground, firing back the way he had come. Ten’Gewek hunters and Given-Men burst from the trees around him and scrambled over the rocky ground and dried stream bed to get away from the drones pursuing them.

As soon as they were past him, Walsh turned and put his head down. He charged for the cover of a rounded boulder and dropped into a feet-first skid as a Hierarchy drone burst out of the woods. A blue plasma bolt lit the twilight and threw deadly shadows across the cliff and trees as it flashed over his head and burst harmlessly against the cliff face.

There was the whip-crack sound of Etsicitty’s rifle from somewhere hidden at the gulley’s end, and the drone flipped out-of-control in a shower of sparks.

Daar got the charge set as he heard the whine of more drones climbing in pitch back among the trees. They were on the hunt now, and their quarry was in the open.

“Go!” he barked. “Now!”

Yan needed no more encouragement. He grabbed Daar hard enough that Daar felt something go click painfully in his shoulder, and practically threw them both down the rock face. Keeda only knew what the skin of his palms was made of, but it must have been tough as motorcycle leathers, ‘cuz their rapid skidding descent didn’t seem to trouble or harm him one bit.

Daar was still dizzy from that effortless display of superior cavemonkey athleticism when they reached the bottom, where they charged away from the killzone and towards the safety of the forest. Daar recovered some dignity there; even in his weakened state he was still the fastest thing in the Forest, and he made it to the root-hollows of an especially huge Forestfather before Yan came bounding to a halt along with him, desperately gulping air with his big hand clutching at his chest.

He was grinning like a maniac.

Daar keyed his radio. “All, Tigger. Charges set!”

“Tigger, Chimp. That’s my cue…”

There was a burst of gunfire in the woods, a fireworks show of blue flashes between the trees. More of the hunting parties burst from the brush, dashing for the safety of the far end of the gulley where Coombes and Julian were set up. A blue blast skewered one of them out in the open and he went sprawling, definitely dead. Plasma didn’t fuck around, there. Daar grimaced at the stench of burnt hair and flash-charred flesh on the breeze.

Hoeff was last out. He threw a grenade behind him as he ran with his head down, and got the timing about perfect because the first drone out of the woods behind him was just in time to be pulverized by the detonation. He helped one of the slowest Given-Men make it to safety, and the group dug into cover with their rifles aimed and their bows drawn.

A dozen strained heartbeats later, the ten or so remaining drones swarmed out of the woods as an angry ball of fusion blades and plasma fire, marching a disciplined pattern of fire up the gully that kept everybody’s heads down.

Fortunately, they were much too dumb to see the trap coming.

Daar held his detonator, held his nerve, waited until the perfect moment when all ten drones had just entered the killzone…and fired.

For the second time in a day, he made it rain stone.

The drones saw the danger coming, of course. They were smart enough to recognize hurtling rocks as a threat and tried to take evasive action but it was too little, too late. The mountain fell apart and slid down its own cliffs, with boulders bouncing like rubber balls and a sound so loud it was physically painful.

Eventually, the noise died down. Then it stopped, leaving only the bounce and clatter of a few last stray pebbles. Nobody moved for a long while, long after the pebbles had stopped, until even the inaudible hiss of the settling dust was gone on the breeze.

Very, very slowly, Daar lowered his detonator, and remembered how to breathe. It seemed to break the spell. Walsh thrust his fist into the air and whooped long and loud, Coombes sat back on his butt and rubbed at his stubbled jaw, Hoeff crossed himself and glanced skywards mouthing the word ‘thankyou.’ Around them, the hunters and Given-Men celebrated in their own ways.

Yan eyed Daar warily. “Small-magic, but bigger,” he grunted, and shook his head. “Godshit.”

“Yup.”

Yan sighed and stood up. He stalked out into the open, shaking his head. “Nearly, we save everyone,” he said, and trudged toward the fallen hunter. “So close…”

Daar followed him. “Who did we lose?”

Yan stopped by the body, knelt, and turned it over. He made a long, low, pained sound and hung his head.

“…Yan?”

“…Use radio. Call Sky-Thinker,” Yan ordered. He sat on his tail, rested his arms on his knees and wept.

Daar was having trouble seeing in the encroaching dark, but he didn’t need to. The nose told everything.

They’d lost Vemet.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

“My fellow Americans.”

Just speaking the words sent a chill down Sartori’s back. They weren’t complex or difficult words, but in the mouths of Presidents they carried the weight of history. On an occasion like this, they heralded the changing of the world.

“My fellow Humans,” he added, “and all our friends and partners of every nationality and nature. Good afternoon. This address is going out simultaneously to an announcement by His Majesty King George in his role as sovereign to our several allied nations, including the colony of Cimbrean.”

That was the diplomatic necessity out of the way. On to the substance.

“Over the last four years,” he said, “our government has sought strong ties with the people of the planet Gao, and have committed to a strategic alliance which has strengthened both our species in the face of a tumultuous interstellar climate. We have pooled our knowledge, our expertise, our potential and our ambitions, and already we have achieved together what neither of us could have done alone.”

He paused for effect and adjusted his glasses, just for a second.

“Yesterday, our Gaoian allies came under attack,” he announced, looking directly into the camera. “Even now, their cities are in flames, their population is being massacred, and their ships are burning in orbit. As their friends and allies, we are duty-bound to come to their aid, and I have already recalled the XVIIIth Airborne Corps, the Twentieth Air Force along with the 946th Spaceflight Wing, combat engineers and support from all our uniformed services, and the USS San Diego. Our strategic partners through Allied Extrasolar Command have done the same, and Human boots are already on the ground, saving Gaoian lives.”

He glanced down at his notes, again for effect and to allow his words to stick rather than because he needed them.

“The time has come, however, for us to discuss the nature of our enemy. For years now, not only our government but governments across the world have faced pressure from medical firms and other well-intentioned industries who wish to bring the life-improving technologies of human augmentation to market, and we have denied them. We have been asked repeatedly to explain this embargo, and have refused.

“The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, that cybernetic implants can be used to influence a person’s behavior or, in extreme cases, to enslave them.”

He pushed a folder forward on the desk. “I have already authorized a full disclosure of this document, codenamed DEEP RELIC, which will be released shortly after this address. It details the history of our enemy, their nature and their agenda but the short version is this: Their name is the Igraen Hierarchy. They have existed since long before our written history, and their primary goal is to suppress the rise of deathworld civilizations such as our own.

“They have already rendered countless species extinct, and their intended victims include the natives of the planet Akyawentuo and now, in retaliation for their friendship with us, the Gaoians. Their operations on Earth led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Global War on Terror, and the destruction of the city of San Diego.”

On that note he took his reading glasses off and set them on the desk. He sat tall in his seat and abandoned his notes. “They have tried to provoke us into destroying ourselves at least three times so far,” he noted, “and they have failed. So they attack our allies, and they will fail. This is an act of desperation on their part because they have finally met an effective opponent, and they don’t know how to handle us. They are panicking: We shall not.”

A speech was all about rhythm. Ebb and flow, stop and start. Nobody was gripped by a monotone drone, which was why he raised and then calmed his voice, paused for effect, played with props. Leadership was as much about the theatre of strong leadership as the science of good decisions, and Sartori prided himself on being a peerless actor. In some sense it didn’t matter if the words were mediocre or exceptional—their weight was carried by the delivery.

“The Spaceborne Operations Regiment was created specifically to fight this enemy, and has been a success: The enemy’s operations on Earth have been completely shut down. Without that victory, it was only a matter of time before they secured a wormhole beacon and brought in their most terrible weapon: The Hunters.”

He raised a hand. “Now, I know, we all remember Vancouver. We all know that an ordinary human is physically far more than a match for an ordinary Hunter. But the Hunters number a million warships, whereas our own spaceborne military including unmanned spacecraft numbers fewer than two hundred. If they ever made it past the shield we once considered a prison, then our days would be numbered. Humanity, in fact, is only still alive because of the heroic efforts of the SOR and of their many sacrifices, HEAT, JETS, and their army of support staff. Every member of SOR is the absolute best of us, and we owe them our honor.”

That was important. Recruitment into the SOR was going to soar after this, and it was imperative for both to be seen as the heroes. Under no circumstances could JETS be the little brother that failed HEAT candidates dropped out into, nor could their technical backbone be neglected.

“Yet even they could not have succeeded without the efforts of other heroes; one operation in particular some years back was saved by a fighter pilot and a combat controller, both of whom are now prominent members of the SOR, and one of whom was instrumental in founding the JETS team even now working against the Hierarchy’s interests. It would take too long to mention the literally thousands of men and women—some of whom aren’t even human—involved in this heretofore secret fight across literally every dimension of defense and security. That makes this an almost fruitless gesture, but: thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”

One last pause. Into the home straight.

“As I said to the Global Representative Assembly some months ago: We are at war. We have been for years, and matters have now escalated to the point where there is no longer anything to be gained by secrecy. The Hierarchy don’t just threaten our way of life, they threaten our whole species. Right, Left, Centrist, Communist, Capitalist, Christian, Muslim, Atheist…none of that matters. Their goal is not political or religious, it is survival. They have deemed us a threat to their existence…and they are correct. The tragedy is, we are only a threat to them at their own instigation.”

He sat back in his seat. “There will be a press conference in twenty minutes’ time. Every question the press and the public could have will be answered. And once that is done, we will return to the business of saving our friends, and our future. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”

The lights blinked off. The moment was over, and Sartori made perfectly sure he was given the thumbs-up by the director before he allowed himself to relax, massage his face, and swear quietly to himself.

He had just changed the world.


Date Point: 14y1d AV
Lavmuy spaceport, Gao

Mother-Supreme Yulna

Yulna was well-disposed to like Humans, but they could be terrifying. Seeing Shoo accidentally break a Locayl in two had been one thing, but Shoo as it transpired was far from being the best her species had to offer.

The spaceport perfectly demonstrated why being scared of them, even if one liked them, was a perfectly sane response: it was unrecognizable. Its open expanse of concrete looked more like a whole town being slapped down in rough but functional fashion, in mere hours. From the air she could even make out its districts as her plane circled slowly overhead, slowed to a hover, and then kissed down onto the landing pad.

She wasn’t in any position to really appreciate it, though—She was too exhausted, too emotionally and physically numb. She and the plane were both running on their last reserves, and had barely made it to the camp at all. They’d been forced to land elsewhere, been searched by a grim Claw of Stonebacks. Their heads had been scanned, and that alone made Yulna’s imagination turn anxious circles as she slotted it into the sickening history unfolding all around her and found that it could be made to explain much.

The shorter hop to Lavmuy had been a silent one. Myun had relaxed once she knew the other Sisters were “clean” and had finally acknowledged that she was in pain. The ugly injury up one side of her face might never heal properly even with the very best in Gaoian medicine, especially not after leaving it untreated for so long. It was a shame, too—she’d been so unconsciously pretty that Yulna had had to flatten her ears and shake her head in frustration sometimes.

Human and Gaoian medics met her on the landing pad but quickly declared that there wasn’t much they could do besides dress the wound as a safeguard against infection. Getting her to a hospital with the equipment and expertise she needed simply wasn’t an option for now. There would be surgery and dentistry later, but those resources simply weren’t available for the moment, and so Myun remained at the Mother-Supreme’s side where she belonged.

Yulna herself was given a clean bill of health, and finally got to meet somebody important and begin to learn what was happening.

She recognized Colonel Powell. It was hard to forget the HEAT, they had a habit of…sticking…in one’s memory. They were almost, to an average Human, what a Human was to an average Gaoian. And if nothing else, the nose would never forget a musk that potent. Even across the impenetrable barrier between species, the biggest of them smelled male in a way that not even Daar could match.

And blood. They smelled of blood. Less so on Powell himself, but if he hadn’t been soaked in gore himself recently then he’d been spending time in the company of someone who had, and not even the potent scent of antibacterial soap could disguise that.

“Mother-Supreme. Welcome to Camp Farthrow.”

Exhausted as Yulna was, there were more pressing matters than her relentless need to just curl up and sleep. “I require answers,” she said, not deigning to acknowledge the welcome.

“You’ll have them,” Powell promised composedly. “All of them.”

“At the moment, I see Sisters held against their will, the Champion of Stoneback missing, the Stonebacks themselves covered in the blood and entrails of my fellow Gao, and what looks like an aggressive occupation by an alien power, all in less than a single day. Your answers had better be good.”

“Mother-Supreme…Honestly, the answers are all terrible to know, an’ that’s the truth.” Powell sighed, and relaxed from his formal posture slightly. “An’ I’m afraid I have some personal bad news to deliver. I understand some of your guard-sisters attacked you in flight?”

Yulna glanced at Myun, then duck-nodded. “Yes…?”

“I’m afraid they also attacked at Wi Kao. I’m very sorry, Mother. It was a slaughter.”

Myun keened sharply. “…Mama Ayma?” she asked, reverting to the cublike form of address. Powell shook his head solemnly.

“She’s here. If you’d like to see her,” he said. “We didn’t know what sort of funeral would be appropriate.”

Yulna reached out with a shaking hand and gripped Myun’s fur, trying to steady both herself and her Sister-Daughter-Bodyguard. The news just didn’t…fit. It refused to enter her head. She’d heard the words and knew what they meant but they wouldn’t sit still in her brain.

“She…I was speaking to her. When the first bombs went off,” she said.

“Aye,” Powell nodded. His voice—naturally deep and earthy anyway—was so full of sympathy that it was almost subsonic. “I have a full briefing prepared for you. But it can wait, if you want to pay your respects first…”

In fact, Yulna didn’t need long. The Humans had refrigerated a room to the point where her breath made small clouds, and had obviously done their best to be respectful. Even so, there were a lot of bodies in the relatively small space.

Myun keened and whined bitterly, grieving like a Sister should. Yulna…

She ought to be a wreck, she thought. Her world was burning down around her whiskers, her protector had been wounded in saving an attempt on Yulna’s own life, the air stank of blood, smoke and death and she was staring forlornly at her best friend’s face, wishing fervently to see even a hint of water vapor around the nostrils, just a twitch in her chest…

But aside from that unlikely hope, there was nothing. Or, if there was an emotion at all, it could be summed up in very few words.

She laid a paw on Ayma’s forehead and keened gently, softly, and quietly, only for a moment.

“Somebody is going to pay for this,” she promised.

It absolutely was not a happy thing to say. There were no happy things to say. But it scooped out all the fatigue and confusion and lost sense of direction from her chest and put a kind of arctic fire in there instead. She marched to the command center feeling more like herself than she had in months, setting a pace that both Myun and her Stoneback escort had to scuttle to match.

Powell, other Humans she didn’t recognize, and a young, smaller-than-average Stoneback who was nevertheless carrying himself with the bearing of a leader turned her way and straightened up as she swept regally into the room and fixed them all with a glare.

“…Very well, Colonel,” she said. “Let’s hear your terrible answers.”


Date Point: 14y2d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm

Yan Given-Man

Pain was proving to be everywhere, this morning. It was on Vemik’s face, in the Singer’s eyes, crawling up Yan’s aching back and it swirled around Jooyun like a storm on the horizon, heavy with anger and desperation. He couldn’t sit still, hadn’t slept, had started to lose some of his weight like a Given-Man in winter, and even though his face was gaunt and dark around the eyes from fatigue, the Sky-Hunter just prowled aimlessly around the camp, pitching in on whatever needed doing.

Nothing did. So he fetched tinder for fires that didn’t need lighting, topped up water skins after the first sip, went back to check on jerky that wouldn’t be properly smoked until tomorrow and which had been just as clean of flies the last time he checked.

Yan normally knew how to handle a man in that mood: he needed his women. Unfortunately, all the women had gone—Shyow and Awisun away through the sky to get help, and the People’s women to the east with Professor Daniel, maybe to put enough ground between themselves and the enemy that they might live.

In their absence…he had no idea what to do for his friend, or for Vemik. He’d contemplated just taking charge and forcing Jooyun to sleep or something, but somehow Yan knew that wouldn’t help. He’d learned to trust those feelings many seasons ago and they were never wrong.

Jooyun didn’t seem to want help, anyway…and neither did Vemik.

Poor Vemik. The young man took death hard, harder than anybody else Yan had ever known. The moment when he’d seen his father’s body had been painful to watch. All the life and color of their victory had drained out of him and he’d just…slumped.

It was hard, watching him learn life’s cruellest lessons. But he had the Singer, and his son—he’d see them again and he would heal, in time. Strange as Vemik might be, Yan had total faith in his strength. There was nothing to do for him now except let him do what he did best, and think.

He gave the younger man an understanding pat on the shoulder as he went past, though, and got a miserable nod of acknowledgement. That was all he could do and all Vemik needed, so Yan instead tended to Daar.

The Gaoian was plainly suffering terribly, but Yan couldn’t blame him. From what he could gather, Daar had been closest to the ‘nuke’ that had lit the whole sky and made a thunder that would surely roll around the whole world. Then he had run all day, climbed a mountain, climbed down a mountain, run some more, climbed a cliff, been thrown around and crushed and heaved about…but he was alive. Sick, subdued and sore but very much in one huge furry piece.

He was curled up under a tree with his nose buried under his tail, trying to sleep when Yan joined him with the biggest shank of roasted Werne he could find. He saw the ‘nose’ twitch, an ear flick, and Daar opened his eyes and raised his head.

“Food,” Yan told him simply. There was probably a words-stone nearby but they both spoke the Human language well enough to understand each other. “No good sit all day. Not bring strength back. Eat.”

Daar did that strange nod of his, the one that involved his shoulders and upper back too, and accepted the meat. He made a bleary groaning sound and tore off a chunk of meat which he bolted down without chewing.

The meat didn’t last long. Neither did the bone. He crunched it open with relish and his enormous tongue scooped deep into the marrow. Yan nodded approvingly and settled in beside him.

“You feel better?” he asked.

“Like a mountain fell on me,” Daar told him. It sounded more like the simple truth than a complaint. “But hey. We won. It cost us, but we won.”

Yan huffed sadly, and decided that he could give voice to his own pain around Daar. “Vemet was good man. Friend,” he said. “Hoped I die before him. Tribes weaker without him.”

“Yeah, I hear ya. Seemed like he stood about halfway between you an’ Vemik, right? Kept the balance?”

Yan nodded, sadly. He was trying not to give himself completely to his grief—his friend had died fighting and a man who died that way, Yan hoped, got the best of whatever death had to offer—but he mourned the quiet conversations they would never have again, and the fact that his burdens were his alone again, now. He no longer had somebody to share them with.

Or maybe not. He looked Daar up and down.

“Tribes weaker, but alive. Better alive and hurting,” he observed.

Daar duck-nodded again, and took a long drink of water to wash down the last of his meat.

“Hope I never have to do somethin’ like that again,” he confided. “You want some advice? Never try an’ keep up with a human on foot. They ain’t slow and they Just. Keep. Going.”

His words made Yan trill, and Daar watched him with his head tilted to one side quizzically. Yan decided he was owed an explanation.

“I journey far every year, for Given-Man things.” he said. “For me, take many-many days. A moon, maybe. I tire, I hurt, am smaller and weak and hungry from winter, maybe freeze. Remind me that trees, mountains, sky, gods…all bigger than Yan…You? Never see man run so far in one day. And climb cliff, twice. And fight. And win!” Yan clapped Daar affectionately on the shoulder which earned him one of Daar’s open-mouthed and strange expressions of happiness.

“Thank you,” the Gaoian said with a head-and-shoulder nod. “But don’t [undersell] yourself. You’re a Deathworlder. ‘Yer a foot shorter than me and so much stronger it’s scary. You hauled me and my gear up and down and across that cliff like it was nothin’! What am I next to that? I’m the very best of my Tribe, most strongest and most athletic and all that. But here, I’m really just a [liability]. I’m nothing compared to your People. Especially you. You’re more like a slab of steel and wood than flesh, you’re fast and clever and see as well as the Humans, you’re a better climber…”

Yan nodded graciously. “Maybe true. Am biggest, strongest, fall from high place and only small hurt, maybe no hurt. I break any man easy, pull apart like young Werne. But that thing you do? I cannot do. You do. Leave you weak and sick, but you still do…Coombes do, and he sleep once, eat tiny food, and back to work. Hard work too, like Vemik. But! You strong like Given-Man, only Den and Arsh stronger. Fast, sharp claws, teeth, ears. Nose! Nobody have magic like you! So gods not have favorite, yes?”

For the first time that day, Daar finally moved more than just his ears for something other than food. He lifted his head off his paws and adjusted how he lay for comfort.

“…D’you wanna know what the worst thing the enemy did to us Gaoians was?” he asked.

“…What?” Yan asked.

“They took our gods from us. Made us forget ‘em.”

Yan hissed between his teeth. “Take the gods?” he asked, incredulously. The very idea of magic like that made this whole war seem like a doomed cause.

Of course, it had been. They hadn’t even known they were fighting until the Sky-People showed up.

“More like…took our words for them. Took our…Iunno.” Daar rested his chin on his paws again. “It all happened a long time ago an’ I’m just a muck-shoveler an’ a stud. I ain’t a sky-thinkin’ kinda Gaoian.”

[“Asshole stew!”] Yan barked, dismissively. He’d heard the humans use ‘bullshit’ to mean the same thing, but he preferred his own words. They were his, and they were more colorful. They certainly made Daar’s ears move in fascinating ways before he figured out their meaning. “Every man can think. And if I learn one thing from young Sky-Thinker, is strongest men are strong here and here.” He slapped his arm and his head for emphasis. “You are strong, Daar Stone-Back. Strong in head too, I think.”

Daar growled or perhaps groaned to himself and sat up on his haunches, then twisted around to scratch an itch somewhere under his fur.

“…The old Champion, the one who was Champion when I was a cub?” he asked, through his own fur. “He told me three rules. ‘Backs don’t lie, ‘Backs work hard, and ‘Backs honor the work of others. So I was gonna share somethin’ that ain’t my idea, it’s my friends’ an’ I don’t wanna chew up their thoughts an’ spit ‘em out wrong, you know?”

Yan nodded. He could respect that. “What friends?” he asked instead.

“They’re both big ol’ Sky-Thinkin’ types, from Sky-Thinkin’ Clans. The first’a them, Gyotin? He thinks we lost our gods a long time ago and it made us weaker. We ain’t told him about the Enemy, but he figgered it out from lookin’ an’ thinkin’. My other friend, Kureya? He says Gyotin’s right but that we didn’t lose them; the Enemy took ‘em from us. He said…” He sniffed, his ear flicked and he tilted his head back to stare up at a tree in thought as he remembered. “He said we’ll never know what we lost. For all we know, they’re the ones who, uh…”

Yan gave him a moment to think before nudging him. “Who…?”

“…You an’ the humans, you both have about as many women as men. One for one. Right?”

“More old women than old men, but…yes,” Yan agreed.

“Us Gaoians, we have lots of men, not many women. Kureya says the sun did somethin’ weird long, long ago an’ changed us that way.”

“You think Enemy did that?”

Daar shrugged in that ducking, head-wobbling way of his. “We’ll never know,” he said. “An’ that’s maybe the worst part.”

“Daar!”

Coombes was half-jogging toward them. In truth, the dark-skinned Human wasn’t back to his full strength, and he was definitely limping a little…but he looked much fresher than Daar, and far stronger than Yan would have after running so far so quickly.

But the look on his face, if Yan had him right, said that he was in a place where pain and tiredness were just going to have to wait, because there were more important things on his mind.

Daar heaved himself up onto his four paws with a long-suffering groan. “Boss?” Coombes slowed and delivered the bad news.

“…The rest of the Abrogators are coming,” he said.


Date Point: 14y2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

“So you can’t do anything?”

Kevin Jenkins shook his head. He wasn’t bothering to keep up his usual I-could-give-a-fuck facade right now, and that all by itself told Allison that he was just as stonewalled as they were. He wasn’t the kind of man who gave up easily.

He’d managed to get himself up to Armstrong while the whole planet was on lockdown at least, and that was no small feat. Allison and Xiù had been confined to Misfit, allegedly for their own safety. Allison wasn’t fooled—they were effectively under house arrest. Not because they’d done anything wrong, but because the last thing the military needed right now was actors outside of their control.

She didn’t know how Kevin had navigated that problem, she didn’t want to and he probably wouldn’t have told her anyway. He looked stressed and dishevelled, he wasn’t wearing his jacket and his sleeves were rolled up which put that tattoo of his on show. A sure sign that right now he was completely out of fucks to give for anything but the job at hand.

“Allison, things’re locked down tighter’n a fat guy’s jock strap down there,” he said, and waved his hand vaguely out the viewing cupola on the chance that Cimbrean might be somewhere in that direction. All they could see through it was the inside of the Armstrong docking bay. “They ain’t playin’ around. Shit, if I hadn’t been at Chiune when they declared martial law we wouldn’t be havin’ this conversation at all, I’d be stuck on Earth.”

“I thought you said General Tremblay is a personal friend?”

“He is. And as his friend I know perfectly fuckin’ well that my friendship counts for squat when it comes to strategic shit, which is exactly how it should be.” Kevin’s expression was firm.

“So you can’t do anything,” Allison repeated.

“If I could get Julian’s ass pulled outta the fire I’d already have done it. I can’t. I can’t even suggest it right now, unless I feel like settin’ fire to some hard-built an’ important bridges. You remember how that turned out for Darcy, right?”

Allison and Xiù both nodded grimly, so he forged on. “It ain’t completely hopeless, though. Martial law don’t take away your constitutional rights.”

“Aren’t we in British sovereign territory?” Xiù asked. “They don’t have a constitution.”

“But Folctha does.” Kevin pointed out. “And it lays down free speech as an inviolable right. And now that the prez just dumped DEEP RELIC on the whole world…”

“…You’re saying we can go public,” Xiù summarized.

“Ex-fuckin’-xactly. And I know just the person to talk with.”

“Who?”

“Her name’s Ava Ríos. She’s a journalist for ESNN.”

“We know her,” Allison said, coolly. “She’s…pushy. She ambushed us at the jump array after the attack in Omaha.”

“Yup. That means she’ a good journalist,” Kevin said. “It’s a dirty job.”

“Why her?” Xiù asked him. “Why not Byron Media?”

“Three reasons. One, she’s one’a the few journalists in the world nowadays who gives more of a shit about the truth than her paycheck, and BM is all about the paycheck. Two, me an’ her father go way back. And three, she was in on DEEP RELIC herself. Use each other—you got somethin’ she wants, she has somethin’ you want. Make a trade.”

“…Okay. So we exercise our free speech whatever and give this gal an interview…” Allison said. “…Then what? What does it change?”

Kevin shrugged.

“Maybe nothin’, but it’s the best we got,” he said. “It’s something. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?”

Allison made a tired noise and turned away from him to make some work for herself refilling their coffees. She felt Xiù press a palm to her back and rub softly.

“Guys…you gotta consider that maybe leaving him behind was the right call,” Kevin suggested after a moment.

“It was,” Allison said, turning to face him again. “We know it was.”

“But it was meant to be a stop-gap,” XIù continued. “We were supposed to run and get help, not…this.”

“You ran and got help, and the help turned out to be busy with somethin’ more important.” Kevin scratched at his arm. “Honestly? How the shit aren’t you two climbin’ the walls and breakin’ stuff by now?”

“Would it get us what we want?” Xiù asked.

“No, but it’d be cathartic.”

Xiù shook her head wearily. “Fuck cathartic,” she said.

Allison gave her an impressed look, and smiled for the first time in days. Xiù liked to disguise the iron in her bones behind layers of cuddle-fluff when she could; it was always satisfying when she let it out unfiltered.

Kevin laughed as well. “Okay, fair,” he said. “But you gotta have a release if nothin’ else. Shit, if all that talkin’ to the press gets you is you feel a little better then at least you’ll feel better, right?”

“Hey, we’re on board.” Allison placed a fresh coffee in front of him. “It’s the only idea we’ve heard. May as well give it our all.”

“Anything’s better than just…rolling the bandages and waiting,” Xiù agreed.

“Right.” Kevin nodded and picked up the coffee. He took a cautious sip, savored the aroma for a moment, then set it down and picked up his tablet.

“So,” he said. “Let’s figure out what kind of an interview you’re gonna give…”


Date Point: 14y2d AV
HMS Myrmidon, Orbiting Planet Gao

Admiral Sir Patrick Knight

“The ground deployment is on schedule, thanks to Stoneback. The first three targets are already under our control, but we’re meeting stiff resistance. Air superiority continues to be the limiting factor—we have it established over Lavmuy and its surrounding towns but we don’t know what half the stuff in the air on Gao is right now. We know a lot of it is Clanless, and they don’t trust us.”

“Not such a disorganized rabble after all then,” Knight observed, reading the report for himself while the lead analyst went over its points.

“Hardly. They’re a civilization to themselves in a lot of ways, and arguably the most powerful economic force in Gaoian society.”

“They must have air traffic control…” Knight pointed out.

“A lot of which is patchwork and unofficial. The Clans—especially Longear—control and take responsibility for the data infrastructure but like any economy there are competitors. There are some things that have to be done centrally though, like frequency allocation and so forth, so we’re working on identifying where those are based. Once that’s done, we can secure them and start clearing the skies properly.”

“And if we don’t?”

“One way or another, those planes will have to come down eventually.”

“Make it a priority. So long as we don’t have a system forcefield up, we’re vulnerable, we can’t deploy one until the network is disabled, and we can’t achieve that without air superiority. If I have to order the destruction of every last aircraft in Gao’s skies, I will. See to it that I don’t.”

“Aye aye.”

Knight carefully made sure that nobody could see his hands as he detached his magnetic spill-proof thermal mug full of tea from the desk and took a sip. It was still excellently hot, and steadied his nerves somewhat, but those nerves were dancing worse than they had in his life.

He was an old man. It was a thought that crossed his mind every now and again when his back ached or his fingers weren’t quite so flexible as they once had been. His hearing and eyesight were both still perfectly fine and there was nothing at all wrong with his faculties of reason…but he kept his hands out of sight because they were shaking. It wouldn’t do for the men to see the admiral’s hands shaking.

He gripped the mug and let its heat soak into his bones as he considered the next report, which was a track of *Caledonia*’s tumbling hull and an analysis of the so-called ‘objects’ it had shed into Gao’s atmosphere. Some of those had to be lifeboats…didn’t they?

And yet there had been no word. Weather analysis said the upper atmosphere and low orbit were awash with radioactive particles from the hundreds of ships they had destroyed today, the nukes, the EWAR, the arcane ripples in the very structure of space itself coming from Farthrow…

Plenty of plausible reasons why none of the lifeboats had checked in yet.

He reluctantly set the report aside, focused on another: A political analysis regarding the Clanless, the Mother-Supreme, and the Stonebacks. He’d long ago mastered the trick of reading text a whole page at a time—Scan, assimilate, swipe; Scan, assimilate, swipe—and he set it down seconds after lifting it and turned to issue an order. Its content presented a problem, but one with a mercifully clear solution. He craved clear solutions right now.

“Get me Brigadier Stewart and Colonel Jackson,” he said.


Date Point: 14y2d AV
Clan Straightshield Grand Precinct, Lavmuy City, Gao

Cytosis

The Gaoians certainly knew how to build a jail cell. The reinforced concrete was seamless and unblemished, coated with a dark gray lacquer that wouldn’t hold a stain, graffiti or a claw mark. The door was a door, a steel obstacle that could probably handle explosives or a team of determined deathworlders with a battering ram. The best a relatively ordinary Gaoian might achieve would be to break their claws trying to scrabble at the scarcely-visible gap between the door and its frame.

Cytosis hadn’t bothered to try. The cell was overkill, designed to intimidate and he coped with the intimidation by…

Well, there was the problem. He was quite sure that he was going to die soon, one way or the other. Either the Straightshields would rush in and claw his throat out, or a bomb would smash the building down around his whiskers, or he’d be abandoned to croak his last days from now without water or food.

Maybe he should just go into hibernation and let the end happen without him.

It came as a huge surprise, therefore, when they fed him. It wasn’t much—just a standard flavorless ration ball dropped through a dispenser in the front and followed moments after by a water ration wrapped up in a soft spherical gel-based membrane that couldn’t possibly be converted into a weapon or escape tool by even the most feverishly inventive inmate—but they fed him.

He ate them. Straightshields weren’t the type to poison their prisoners and it boded good things for his future at least insofar as whether his death would be quick and relatively merciful.

It was the only event of note in a day that was otherwise punctuated by tracking the faint sounds through the walls and the tiny vibrations through the floor. A rumble here, an explosion there, something extremely fast tearing the sky in half with a sound like ripping paper…and the march of feet.

The door had the kind of lock that made a heavy slamming sound, but its hinges were silent, and Champion Reeko filled the frame like a black-furred avatar of anger. Cytosis stood without prompting and turned away, presenting his borrowed body’s paws behind his back for restraint. There was nothing gained by being an awkward prisoner, Six had made that point clear often enough.

The restraints were applied firmly and without regard for his comfort, but professionally. Maybe survival was still in the probability space after all. As soon as they were applied, he was hoisted around and encouraged through the door out into the hallway, then turned left. Reeko wasn’t alone—two Straightshield Brothers armed with weapons that looked significantly more serious than a pulse rifle were waiting to escort them.

“Go,” Reeko instructed. Cytosis obeyed.

It wasn’t a long walk. End of the hall, through a guard checkpoint with a pair of gates, up three flights of steps, through another pair of sturdy steel doors, out into a processing area. A potent scent struck Cytosis in the nose the second the doors opened. Blood, burnt explosive chemicals, mineral oil and a powerful alien musk.

Three humans were waiting in the processing area. Cytosis had never seen one in person before, and this first meeting definitely sold the legends: Despite being slightly smaller than the Straightshields around them, the humans radiated implacable strength just by the sheer amount of equipment they had layered on top of a thick suit of armor in assorted shades of gray. Dark glasses made their expressions unreadable, but hostile.

“Here.” Reeko pushed Cytosis forward. “This…thing is your responsibility now.”

The foremost human nodded and smartly turned Cytosis around to control his wrists, and aimed him for the door. Another got on a communicator of some kind and issued a perfunctory report. “Detainee in transit.”

Cytosis was promptly bundled out into the Grand Precinct’s open lot, where a convoy of light armored vehicles had obviously only just piled in and fully intended to pile out again very soon. He was steered toward one, and the human controlling his hands spoke to him for the first time.

“Watch your head.”

This was the only warning he gave before the vehicle’s door was popped open and Cytosis was thrust firmly but not roughly inside. He heeded the warning and managed to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe, and quickly found himself sitting between two armed and armored deathworlders both of whom were making it clear by posture alone that attempting to escape would be desperately stupid move on Cytosis’ part.

No matter. This was a definite step up on being detained by the Gaoians—Gaoian justice had a nasty habit of ending in evisceration whereas Humans, according to Six, constrained themselves to a strict code of ethics and a robust legal framework: He had no reason to run.

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat as the convoy pulled out, but didn’t speak up. As awkward as his restraints were, he doubted that a request for a little more freedom would go well. Instead, he settled in and took in the outside world for the first time since he’d first been thrust unceremoniously into his cell.

What he saw was not encouraging. There were a lot of burnt-out vehicles, and the streets were coated with broken glass, not to mention the occasional sad pile of fur that could be either biodrones or their victims. There was smoke, scorch marks, craters and the skyline was definitely missing at least one iconic skyscraper.

The Straightshields had built layer after layer of barricades around their Grand Precinct, and these had obviously come under assault but held.

Now, the road between the precinct and the starport were pretty well clear. Human troops had set up checkpoints along its length via the rough but functional approach of packing some big sacks full of rubble. And thus building a wall.

The vehicle picked up speed along the straight, jinking left and right to steer around any debris on the road. The open path gave way to a serpentine series of obstacles, which in turn became an even sturdier checkpoint, and finally a killbox.

The doors opened, the Humans slid out easily, then turned back into the vehicle.

“Out.”

Cytosis complied. They were still some distance from the spaceport, he realized. Presumably at some kind of a forward position far from the sensitive nerve center of the Human operation but still well under their umbrella of protection and security. They’d commandeered a building, boarded the windows, laid more of those rubble bags around it and it was bristling with weapons.

He was guided relentlessly indoors, down some stairs into a bare basement with only a diode light strip for illumination and some bare, basic furniture. He was pushed firmly onto one of the chairs, and his restraints were adjusted. Rather than being locked behind him his arms were now in front of him, but shackled to a sturdy steel staple anchored in the concrete floor.

In its way, that was an even more effective prison than the Straightshields had given him—He wasn’t getting out of this one unless he managed to pull off his own arm.

A new Human, this one not wearing dark glasses, sat down opposite him. He made a show of comparing Cytosis’ borrowed face with something on the screen of a tablet, nodded, and set the tablet aside.

“Cytosis,” he said.

“Yes.”

“Also known as Thirteen. Agent of the Igraen Hierarchy, member of Six’s Cabal within that Hierarchy. Correct?”

Cytosis permitted his host body to duck-nod an affirmative. “All correct. Though for the record, Six goes by ‘Cynosure’ when conducting Cabal business.”

The Human inclined his head. “You’re very free with that information,” he observed.

“I intend to comply with your interrogation and answer all of your questions in full to the best of my ability,” Cytosis replied. “From what I understand, it will save both of us a lot of time. And in any case…it might just stop this madness before it dooms my entire species.”

HIs interrogator stared at him for some time, then nodded, sat back, and picked up his tablet again.

“Very well,” he said. “Let’s begin.”


Date Point: 14y2d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm

Julian Etsicitty

Beep.

“Uh…Fuck. God, I don’t know what to say. I don’t…there ain’t much time.”

That really wasn’t an understatement. Julian could hear stones falling and clattering down the scree as the remaining majority of the Abrogators, according to the satellites, picked their way over the mountains rather than through the pass. Even if the JETS team had had explosives left, dropping any more rocks on their enemy wasn’t an option this time.

He took a deep breath, gulped, and forced himself to keep talking to a blank camera lens, trying to imagine the faces beyond it and not the tears. If the girls ever saw this, then…

“Uh…The Abrogators are comin’. We know where their weak spots are, we know we can take them down…but there’s a lotta them. And I, uh…I hope I get to delete this. But if you’re watching, then…”

He looked away, grimaced against the itching at the corner of his eyes.

“…I love you both. Look after each other. I’ll…try and look out for you, if I can. I’m…sorry.”

He knew what else he wanted to say. It was just one big word, an important one: ‘Goodbye.’ But he didn’t dare. That felt too much like giving up and accepting that he was definitely going to die here, and he wasn’t ready. He’d face it…but he wasn’t ready to accept it.

So instead he stared into the camera for a second or two longer, then kissed his fingertips, pressed them to the camera, and stopped recording with no idea if or how the message might reach them.

He cleansed himself with a breath through the nose, put the phone away, corrected his hold on his hunting rifle. It wasn’t anything like good enough for this fight—in fact, he doubted that the HEAT team’s own weapons would tip the balance that much—but it was better than spears and knives, which was what the People had brought. To take on plasma weapons.

They were all far braver men than him.

He was at the back, high up in a tree where his rifle was probably at its best…and this time he was doing it without Vemet. That hurt. He hadn’t yet had time to grieve properly, and he’d thoroughly liked and respected the stoic cavemonkey, and his sharp, dry wit. It had shone through language and cultural barriers, and even Allison had described him as “Old Man Charming.”

Gone, now.

Everyone mourned him, but especially Yan. And Vemik, who had his tail firmly around Julian’s waist, holding them both securely to the tree.

And as grief-stricken as he was, Sky-Thinker never missed a trick. “…You miss them,” he said.

“I love them.” Julian gave him a helpless shrug. “I don’t want them to hurt.”

Vemik nodded and squeezed his tail a little tighter. The People treated that like a particularly close hug and it was strangely comforting. Julian hugged him back, putting as much of his now considerable strength into it as he could to try and communicate his gratitude. His hard-earned muscle meant that even a tough human would have been left gasping for breath—Julian had learned that the hard way with his friends—but Ten’Gewek were damn near made of teak, and Vemik had spent over a year beating on iron and making bows. A semi-arboreal lifestyle on a supergravity planet put the kind of solid mass on their bones that a human could only achieve through a lifetime of rugged living and hard work…or through whatever broscience bullshit they did in the SOR.

Julian grit his teeth and squeezed even harder, and managed to earn the slightest happy grunt of discomfort from Vemik. Oddly cheering, that.

“They safe in ship,” he said without any difficulty, despite Julian’s hardest efforts. “No matter what, they safe.”

“They’ll live,” Julian agreed and let go, slightly disappointed and shaking out his arms. And bummed out. “That ain’t the same thing as safe. We kinda…need each other, man.”

Vemik nodded. “I know. Yan know, too. He worries. Wawsh worries, Heff worries. We all worry.”

Julian looked up at the sound of urgent conversation up ahead. Walsh had rushed to Coombes’ side and the pair had their heads together.

“Guess we won’t worry much longer,” he muttered. “…Sky-Thinker. It’s been…”

“Tell me later,” Vemik interrupted him, and dredged up a grin from somewhere under his own fatigue and sorrow. “When you too tired of fucking to think straight.”

Julian snorted.

“Hey…” he said instead. “…Some humans think if you die in battle, you go to a huge feast where there’s all the best food and fighting and singing.”

“And women?”

Julian chuckled despite himself. “And women.”

“I think Yan dream of that.”

“He ain’t wrong. Anyway…If I see you there, I’ll introduce you to something called beer.”

That got him a smirk from a sharp-eared Hoeff, who was in the next tree over with one of the machine guns.

“Don’t write us off just yet, Playboy,” he said. “My radio just blinked.”

Walsh immediately dived for his pack and was intensely focused on…whatever it was he was doing.

“…What does that mean?” Julian asked.

“It means, keep your ass attached to that fuckin’ tree.”

Vemik gripped the tree with all four hands and nearly crushed the breath from Julian’s body. Hoeff nodded, raised his gun, and the first Abrogator scuttled over the top of the stony rise.

It was immediately staggered back by a six-round burst from one of the machine guns. Coombes’ by the sound of it, probably. Sparks and glass flew from the sensitive sensor cluster on its nose and it half-twisted to present its armor plating to the threat instead. Its scorpion-like tail arced up and the plasma gun mounted therein spat a wash of blue destruction in the vague direction of whatever had wounded it.

Coombes had clearly done a good job of confusing and blinding it, though. The bolt sizzled over his head and blew a Ketta apart as some of the water under the tree’s bark flash-boiled. The burning trunk splintered, cracked, and toppled over.

Spurred into action by pure adrenaline, Julian raised his own rifle, aimed and tried to get a decent bead on the Hierarchy genocide engine’s twisting tail. His finger seemed to squeeze of its own accord and maybe it was instinct, maybe it was pure nervous luck, but the Abrogator didn’t get a second shot off—its cannon spat sparks and then popped in a half-hearted shower of blue plasma.

Vemik fired one of his arrows at it too, one from Yan’s old bow. Julian couldn’t even draw the damn thing—a training goal for later, maybe—and Vemik obviously strained with every pull, but good God could that huge bow throw an arrow. It rammed that arrow—really more a small spear than some light, quick dart—straight through the metal petals on the Abrogator’s “neck” and caused the entire machine to seize up like a man with a cramp. It was far from dead, but it coiled around the damage, staggered and lost its footing on the loose stony ground. Seconds later it was crashing and rolling down the slope, twisting to try and get up even as the awkward fall bent its legs and smashed its carapace. When it reached the bottom its fusion-blade arms flailed uselessly, but it otherwise seemed to be out of the fight.

Vemik looked at Julian like he was more stunned than anyone else.

Hoeff smirked without taking his attention off the Abrogators. “Damn, Vemik. Hulk smash.”

Walsh had jumped down from his tree to presumably find a better lookout, and was talking urgently into his radio in a very dense-sounding military gibberish. Julian didn’t catch one word in twenty, but two stood out: ‘Danger close.’

He’d barely said them before another of the Abrogators reared over the bank ten feet to his right. There was a horrible moment where it looked like the hulking Combat Controller was about to be incinerated on the spot, or maybe slashed in half…but Yan had other plans. He leapt from his tree and landed on its back with enough force to dent the armor.

The Abrogator twisted and writhed like Lovecraft’s answer to a rodeo bull but that hardly deterred the massive Given-Man. He rode it, dug his feet into the metal, grabbed, heaved, and tore.

An armor plate like an oversized toenail clipping spun off the massive machine’s back, followed by a gush of black, shining fluid that sprayed from a thick hose. It caught Yan in the face and slipped under his feet, and even with a Given-Man’s simply ludicrous strength he wasn’t able to keep his grip on the lubricated metal: The next buck threw him off its back. The Abrogator turned, reared…

Julian shot it through the gap in the armor, aiming for where he knew the important stuff lived deep in the machine’s innards. He didn’t get what he was aiming for, but two of the Abrogator’s legs seemed to give up the ghost and its lethal fusion-claw swipe in Yan’s direction missed the Given-Man by a prayer’s width.

Yan, meanwhile, took being thrown like a pro; he tumbled to his feet like he’d meant to fall all along and dashed up another tree so fast it was hard to believe. He might have been brash, and he had a well-earned ego the size of a small planet, but age hadn’t made him stupid.

Hoeff had turned his machine gun on a third Abrogator that had poked its nose up directly in front, while Daar and Coombes were combining their firepower to drive back a fourth Abrogator on the left. Walsh, meanwhile, had darted aside and got a good angle on the damaged one. He unloaded three bursts into the exposed hole in its armor, and this time it went down and stayed down.

Then there were two more. And two more. Daar threw himself in the dirt a shaved second before another plasma blast came his way, then rolled over desperately beating at the fire in his fur. Walsh grabbed his harness and dragged him back, yelling something. Three more Abrogators mounted the ridge…

And then there was a noise. It filled the whole world, and Julian didn’t hear it with his ears; he heard it with his whole body.

BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRT

An arrowhead-shaped aircraft blasted overhead, rocked the trees with its thunder, and was gone almost before Julian could recognize the profile of a Firebird. In its wake, the last of the Abrogators that was still remotely intact limped and scratched pathetically at the dirt with its only remaining leg, glaring balefully at them.

Julian shot it right through its sole surviving eye.

The ground was pulverized, absolutely riddled with craters. There was a stench of metal and stone dust, and a moment of relative calm before the second Firebird blasted through, delivering the same kind of fury a few yards further back past the ridge.

The echoes faded, and Julian became aware of a cracking sound at his side: crushed bark falling from Vemik’s fingers as he loosened his grip. The Sky-Thinker looked like he’d just seen an angel in all its glory, and Julian was pretty certain he was right.

“…What…” Vemik managed, then tried again. “…What was…?”

Hoeff breathed out long and slow. He was wearing the biggest, shit-eatingest grin Julian had ever seen. “That, my good friend,” he drawled, “Was a GAU-8/S Equalizer.”

Walsh reloaded, wearing a grin of his own that was only a shadow less satisfied than Hoeff’s. “A little gift of freedom. From A’*murr*ica. You’re welcome.”

Vemik blinked at them, then turned to Julian. “…Means what?”

Julian could only laugh in disbelief.

“Vemik, friend…it means we live.”


Date Point: 14y2d AV
Farthrow Facility, Planet Gao

Lt. Col. Owen “Stainless” Powell

Yulna had been…solemn.

Powell really couldn’t blame her. He’d been there himself, after all, learning the reality of what kind of a power-mad thumb the galaxy was squeezed under but the Gaoians had it worse by a country mile. The Hierarchy had been tugging their strings for generations, well back into their equivalent of the medieval era.

Discovering that the tensest days of the Cold War had been a consequence of Hierarchy action had been tough enough for Powell to chew. How did that compare to learning something similar about the whole of one’s own civilization? As a patriot, that would have rattled him badly.

Of course, patriotism meant something different for Gaoians. But still, he’d just knocked on the foundations of Yulna’s world.

The Mother-Supreme had read the documentation, asked a few insightful questions, reviewed the evidence and her expression had barely changed. An ear moving from here to there, a twitch of the nostrils, a solemn duck-nod before turning the page…little else.

“San Diego,” she said. “Giymuy knew it had to be an enemy of your people, but this—”

“Aye. It goes a long way beyond enemies at this point,” Powell agreed.

“Into what?!” Yulna asked. “What do you have that’s worse than a foe who wants to control the galaxy and will butcher anything that even could undermine its control?”

Powell rested his hands lightly on the table. “I’d go with disease, m’self,” he suggested. “And they bloody well wouldn’t be the first one we’ve wiped out, either. Look up summat called Smallpox sometime.

“The weird thing is,” he added, turning to retrieve a different folder from his desk. “We’ve gamed scenarios not unlike this.”

“You have?”

“Oh aye. We’ve got bloody fertile imaginations, Mother. An’ the thing is, you never know what you might learn about the possible by imaginin’ the impossible.” He put the folder in front of her.

“…I have heard of these *’Zombies,’*” Yulna said. “Sister Shoo frightened the cubs with them once. She thought it was very funny.” The set of her ears said that Yulna hadn’t seen it that way at the time, but was remembering it more fondly nowadays.

“It was funny,” Myun agreed.

“You were just as much of a terror as her,” Yulna replied. “You have…dedicated serious military thought to this scenario?”

“Aye. An’ a lot of the solutions we came up with to that fictional problem are useful here. An’ there’s one thing in particular that might just keep this whole thing from goin’ completely tits-up, an’ that’s your voice.”

Yulna duck-nodded. “The Clanless will just see what I saw,” she reasoned. “Slaughter and mayhem and aliens on our streets.”

“Exactly. So they won’t trust us. Which means they won’t listen to our advisory broadcasts. We need a voice of the resistance, Mother. I can’t think of anybody better suited.”

Yulna duck-nodded again, more slowly.

“I need…to sleep,” she declared, after a moment. “Just a few hours. And then I will record whatever message they need to hear.”

“Fair and done,” Powell promised. It was no kind of a concession, anyway—they didn’t have the infrastructure for civilian broadcast yet, and given that their whole strategy revolved around devastating the existing infrastructure they were going to need to build their own in short order. “Take as long as you need. Oh, and…Sister Myun?””

Myun perked up and gave him her full attention.

“Good work. Here.” He handed her a dose of Crue-D, then reconsidered and handed her a double dose. One was a minimum therapeutic dose for a human, and would normally be a solid shot of the stuff by Gaoian standards…Myun, though, was the feminine answer to Daar and in her own way just as exceptional. “Regenerative medicine. Won’t grow owt back or stop that wound from scarring, but you should feel better for it. Come back in a few hours and have my Protectors give you a lookover.”

Myun took it between two claws, gratefully. “Thank you, sir.”

“You keep doin’ what you’re doin’,” Powell told her. “And we’ll handle the rest.”

He cleaned the endless field of maps and tablets on his operations table after they had left, returned the tablets to a neat stack on the corner, skimmed the latest reports, swigged the remaining half of a coffee that was slightly on the warm side of completely stone-cold, and was pondering whether he might be able to grab an hour or two of shut-eye himself when one of the communications specialists got his attention.

“Sir! We’re receiving a short-wave radio communication on the ALE address used by *Caledonia*’s lifeboats.”

Powell’s heart jumped in his chest at the first bit of genuinely good news he’d had since his boots had first hit the ground. He’d been teetering on the edge of giving up hope for his techs. Now, suddenly, it was rekindled.

“It’s about fookin’ time!” he exclaimed, turning away from his desk. “What kept ‘em?”

“All the nukes and energy discharges in orbit played hell with the upper atmosphere and SATCOM is struggling to stay up for ten minutes at a time…” The communications specialist turned and offered him a headset. “The callsign is JOCKEY, sir.”

Jockey. That was Kovač’s callsign, gifted to her by the Lads in typically irreverent fashion—She wasn’t exactly a tall lass by any reckoning, and of course jockeys rode horses…

Relief and hope managed to soothe some of his worst jangling nerves as he strode across the command center, grabbed the headset and clamped it snugly around his ears. “Jockey, this is Stainless,” he said, adjusting the microphone as he spoke. “You had us worried. What’s your status?”

Kovač’s voice was distorted, flattened and tinny but by God it was definitely her voice right down to that tiny remnant of a Georgia twang that she’d never quite managed to lose, and he’d never been more glad to hear it. “We’re on the wrong landmass, sir. About three thousand klicks due west of Lavmuy. Caledonia escape pods are scattered over a two hundred kilometer line, all surrounded by enemy forces. Number of survivors unknown. We have wounded, several with life-threatening injuries and our supplies are limited.”

None of that was an unexpected development, frankly. In fact, it could have been a lot worse. First things first. “Who is in command?”

“That would be me right now, sir.”

A grimace shot across Powell’s face. That was far from ideal news. No sense in griping about it though. The important part was to work with what they had.

“What do you have for combat armsmen?”

“Five royal marines in my lifeboat. Otherwise not yet known. I’m trying to establish contact with the other boats.”

…Well that was just bloody wonderful.

“Aye,” Powell said out loud. “Your orders are to establish command, consolidate and dig in. No idea when we can get relief to you but it could be a few days.”

“Wilco. Some of the wounded don’t have a few days.”

“…Aye. Then I’d give and encourage your Marines wide latitude to obtain what they need from wherever they are. Who is the senior Marine?”

“That’s Corporal Wilde.”

“I know him. He’s a good lad, level-headed. Listen to him. My advice would be to delegate combat items to his purview as much as possible. I’m also field promoting you to Lieutenant under the AEC brevet arrangement. You are in command until such time as you’re relieved by a commissioned officer, Jockey.”

Kovač, to her credit, barely paused. “…Yes, sir. I’ll keep us alive.”

That was classic Enlisted can-do attitude right there. Good stuff, but not appropriate for once. Her thinking was going to have to change, and fast. “First bit of advice, lieutenant? Never promise something you aren’t sure you can deliver. Just do the mission as best you can.”

“…Understood, sir. Any further advice?”

“You would do well to establish a command post, consolidate to some defensible location, and bring as many of our men back as you can. Diplomacy, too. You’ll be taking food and medicine from the locals, so try not to make them too upset. Use every tool at your disposal to get the mission done wi’out causin’ an ecological disaster while you’re at it. Trust Corporal Wilde but don’t be afraid to take him down a peg, he needs a firm hand. You’re in charge, not him; don’t let him forget it.” He let some encouragement warm his voice. “Should be an easy first command, aye? Any questions?”

“Not at this time, Stainless. I’ll…do everything in my power.”

Powell grinned, which was a rare enough expression to cross his face even on good days. “You’re learning,” he said. “I want regular updates, and will update you in turn…Do us proud, lieutenant. Stainless out.”

Laying a responsibility like that on her without warning wasn’t how Powell had wanted to reconnect with the techs, but things really could have been infinitely worse. Kovač was already on the short-list for Master Sergeant anyway, and usually had the Lads wrapped around her finger, so somehow he suspected she’d turn out to be good at it. It wasn’t what she’d signed up for, but Powell would eat his beret if she didn’t rise to the occasion.

There was no sense in leaving her stuck in her trial-by-fire any longer than necessary, however.

“Get their location and status up to the FIC,” he ordered. “I wanna know when we can relieve them an’ what else has to happen first. And get Master Sergeant Vandenberg in here.”

His chance at some shut-eye was just going to have to wait.


Date Point: 14y2d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Near 3Kpc Arm

Vemik Sky-Thinker

These new ships reminded Vemik of spearheads, or a good stone knife. They were smaller than Misfit or Drunk on Turkey had been, and while they had the same sharpness of line as Drunk On Turkey, they moved more gracefully. Daar’s ship had thumped sullenly to the ground like it couldn’t wait to get out of the air. These new ones touched the world gently and reluctantly, as if they were promising not to stay for long.

Jooyun had perked up immensely since their arrival. Now, though, he was staring. “Christ. Is that who I think it is?”

“Yup. Good nose art, ain’t it?”

Vemik followed Walsh’s pointing finger and squinted at the complicated patch of bright colors toward the ship’s front, trying to make sense of it.

“I don’t…understand,” he confessed. It looked vaguely like a human woman thrusting a spear toward something, except that what looked like a vicious hook-beaked bird made of flame was coiling around the spear’s shaft and screaming at the unseen enemy.

“…Your tribe is war-like,” he decided. Even if he didn’t fully understand what he was looking at, the meaning was clear.

“Nah, bruh. If we had our way, peace would rule. But we got a saying: ‘If you desire peace, prepare for war’.”

Vemik tried to mull that over, but was interrupted by a sharp hissing sound from the landed ship, followed by the sounds of its parts moving. The black shiny round bit on top popped slightly upwards and then back and up and away to make room for the two humans shielded behind it to clamber out. They dropped to the ground carefully and wobbled a bit on their feet, before stepping forward carefully.

“Heavy gravity!” one of them commented.

“You get used to it,” Coombes commented. “Your timing’s perfect, ma’am.”

“Yeah, well. It ain’t all good news.”

The newcomer reached up and undid part of her…Vemik needed a second to remember the word. Helmet. The black shiny plate on the front slid up while another bit came off entirely, and she hooked it onto something on her shoulder.

Her skin was about the same dark brown as Coombes’ and she had kind eyes. The moment they alighted on Jooyun she beamed a huge dazzling smile and gave him a hug. “Your girls are worried,” she said.

Jooyun was obviously delighted to see her and Vemik could tell even through his best efforts to seem calm. “They’re okay?!”

“Angry. Frustrated. Scared. I don’t blame them though, I’d have started breaking shit by now if I got sidelined like that so they’re handling it pretty well. Anyway…where’s Daar? He’d better still be alive.”

“He got his fur singed in that party you broke up,” Walsh said. “And he’s taking a well-earned nap and recovering on the last of his Crude. Why?”

“Big Hotel hit Gao and the Swarm-of-Swarms is probably on its way already. A lotta folks are dead, including Stoneback’s Champion-in-Stead. Shit, the only reason I’m here is because he’s needed at home, like, now.”

“…I’ll get him,” Walsh said, and stormed off toward the tents.

Vemik looked toward Yan, who had been lumbering over with a happy look on his face. He sensed the mood, though, and picked up his pace.

The new Humans stepped back slightly as Yan approached. Funny, to think they had just unleashed destruction like nothing the People could even have dreamt about but the sight of Yan swaggering over in a good mood made them jumpy.

Yan stopped a respectable distance away. “You save us?”

Coombes made introductions. “Colonel Jackson, this is Yan Given-Man. He’s friendly, I promise.”

Yan knocked a fist against his chest. It was a gesture of respect that he usually reserved for fellow Given-Men. “Your tribe has fierce women!” he said, and grinned at Jackson. “I like!”

The tension seemed to blow away, and Jackson smiled in return. “You have good taste, big guy. Hello.”

“And this is Vemik,” Coombes continued. “They call him Sky-Thinker, he’s…kinda the ideas man. Cavemonkey scientist, inventor, engineer, all-round [geek].”

“…Geek.” Vemik liked the sound of that. The word fit comfortably in his mouth, but he decided to ask about it later. “Thank you.”

“Ask too many question,” Yan grumbled affectionately. “But…you bring bad news, yes?”

Jackson nodded. “The…” she paused and addressed Coombes. “How much do they know?”

“It’s bad news,” Coombes explained. “Daar’s people are older than us. They know even more than we do. The Enemy can’t just…swagger down there and destroy them like they tried to do with you. If they decided to strike now, they must think they’ve already won.”

Yan sat on his tail like he did when there was Big Thinking to be done. “Daar Stone-Back is friend to my tribe. His tribe in trouble, need help. And…we not able to help Sky-Friends.”

“Yan, my friend…” Daar’s voice joined them, followed closely by the man himself. He was limping some and his fur had definitely seen better days, never mind that the plasma seemed to have taken off the very tip of his ear. But he was upright and strong anyway. “You’re a Cousin to me, but fuck that. Help me by rebuildin’. That’s all I want.”

“Is not enough,” Yan replied.

“No,” Daar shook his head, then repeated himself. “But it’s all I want from you. Protect yourself, and provide for your children. It’s what my Clan does.”

He turned to Jackson. “Tiny gave me the short version,” he said. “How bad is it?”

“…Bad. The last update I heard was that Tyal is dead, the commune at Wi Kao was massacred and nobody knows where Champion Genshi is.”

Daar hung his head. “…Fiin?” he asked.

“He’s Champion-in-Stead. They need you, Daar.”

Daar shook his pelt vigorously, and rose to his feet. “Then they’ll have me. Tiny, y’got anything more? I need ‘ta get fixed up in a hurry.”

Walsh gave him a long, miserable look and then produced a pair of strange bright blue little pouches from his pocket.

“…This is my very last hit, bro. Full dose. You better fuckin’ save the day, got it?”

Daar duck-nodded and took them, then headed back towards his hut as fast as he could manage. Jackson nodded sharply before gesturing back toward her ship. “We have jump codes for your field array, and there’s a supply package waiting to come back the other way. As for us, we hit Big Hotel’s bunker with an RFG, but there’s a lotta continent out there. We’re gonna make sure it’s all safe for you. After that, you sit tight. Sorry Julian, but your reunion’s gonna have to wait.”

“Can I send them a message at least?”

“Definitely. Record some video. All of you, it’ll be good for the war effort. DEEP RELIC has been made public.”

“…Fuck.” Hoeff breathed.

“Yeah. The war’s officially on, gentlemen. Welcome to the main event.”

“We help?” Vemik asked.

“Help make that video. We need…do you know what [public affairs] means?”

“Not know words. But…make people see? Know?”

Jackson gave him an unmistakably impressed look before turning to Jooyun. “…Christ, you’re right. He’s smart as hell.”

Yan wasn’t happy, however. Before Jooyun could reply, he stepped in. “We owe our lives. All the People, dead except you stop it. And you want us…just tell stories? Is not right!” he smacked a fist against his belly. “You give, give, give to us! Never take!”

“We are taking, Given-Man.”

The whole group turned. Daniel Hurt gave them a weary and mud-coated half-smile. Behind him, the line of children, women and old men were beginning to spread out back to their tents, light the fires, get the village working again.

He was leaning heavily on Daar, who flicked an ear at them and wasn’t limping anymore. “Look who I found,” he growled.

“Doctor Hurt, I presume,” Jackson said, and shook Daniel’s hand.

“Professor Hurt,” Daniel said it with a smile. “And far from lost in the woods, as you can see.”

“You look like it,” Julian commented. “What happened?”

“Slipped in the mud,” Daniel explained. “And thank God that was the worst of it.”

“Take what?!” Yan exploded, reclaiming their attention. “You not even let us feed you!”

“We are learning more about ourselves by observing you than you will ever know,” Daniel told him. “What we are taking from you…is a chance at redemption.”

Yan stared blankly at him for a second, then sighed hugely and gave up. “Sky-Thinking strangeness…” he grumbled. “No. You take something else. Daar!” he spun, stormed up to the huge Gaoian and ripped his knife from his belt. It was the good one, the damascus that rippled like flowing water. The third one Vemik had ever made, with Jooyun’s guidance.

“Yours now,” he said firmly. “No bring back, this is me Giving. You refuse or give back, insult me and the gods.”

Daar looked at it, swallowed, and duck-nodded furiously. “And I will Take it, Cousin.”

“Good.” Yan sagged. “Is not much. I know this. Is just a good knife. You make holes in the sky, fight enemy with star fire and other things. But a good knife save life. Maybe save yours. Is enough for balance.”

Daar took it. It fit perfectly in his enormous hand-like paws and he swiped it skillfully at the evening breeze, testing it. “…Heavy, but that’s useful. And sharp. Thank you, Yan. It is a good knife.”

“Not good Giving if I give you bad knife,” Yan grumbled.

“I know, Cousin.” Daar stooped and hugged him, trying and failing to lift him from the ground. “Hnngh, you keep young Vemik in line while I’m gone, ‘kay?”

Yan trilled, and hoisted him off the ground easily. “Nothing I do work, but will try harder,” he promised and set Daar back on his feet.

Daar smoothed his fur out, then plucked a flat black parcel out from behind his working harness. He tore its side off with a claw, pulled out the contents and flapped them in the wind to unfurl them. Vemik blinked—his eyes refused to settle on the whatever-it-was that Daar had just produced. It was as though the thing he was holding had no edge, it just…was there, and then it was not there, but nowhere did it stop.

“What—?!” he gawped at it.

Daar pant-grinned at him as he began to…yes, to put it on, like a cloak for his whole body. Just like the ‘clothes’ that humans seemed so confused about. ”Big magic, young Vemik. Magic I’ll need.” He wriggled into the suit and stood with his arms and legs as wide as he could go, and the suit…somehow closed itself up his back!

Even Walsh gawped at that. “Damn Tiggs, you brought a HEAT suit? You’ve been holdin’ out on me!”

Daar, for his part, cringed a bit and flattened his huge ears. “I didn’t mean to Cousin, but I didn’t wanna break this out until I needed it. I gotta spend some time gettin’ [re-acclimated] while I’m [doped up] on the Crude…”

Yan stepped back cautiously but respectfully. Somehow, it was obvious that the magic-thing Daar was inside of was a very powerful tool of Taking. That impression grew stronger when Daar popped his claws through the gloves on his hands and feet, and then extended them. Vemik hadn’t seen Daar do that before—his claws were huge, even bigger than he’d already seen.

“…What you do now, Daar Stone-Back?” Yan asked.

Daar flipped the last part of the suit up and over, a hard ‘helmet’ to protect his head. “Right now?” he asked, tucking his ears carefully inside it, “Rest. This suit takes some gettin’ used to. So first, I’m gonna eat. Then, I’m gonna sleep, really hard. And then…”

He pulled his helmet down with a loud click and spoke through a speaking-rock on the side.

“…I’m gonna kill a lot of people.”



++END CHAPTER++



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