Chapter 40: War on Two Worlds, Part 5—Cremation
Date Point: 14y4d AV
Farthrow facility, Lavmuy, Planet Gao
Lt. Col. Owen Powell
The Swarm had…run. Fled, even. Scrambled over each other to escape. Farthrow’s deep-space sensors were tracking warp signatures scattering all over the sector at hundreds of kilolights in a blind panic.
Even the Hunter scouts had been stunned by the onslaught of…whatever they’d just been hit with. Their limp, drifting carcasses were easy prey for the Firebirds, which pinned them down with gravity spikes and sliced them to ribbons.
The system defence field went up…and nothing happened. No new signatures, no weapons fire from undiscovered ground-based weapons, no sudden X-ray lasers and no surge in Hunter comms chatter. From all appearances, Gao had, against the odds, been secured.
“…Literally,” Daar grunted, and snapped Powell back to the moment. He turned, and the Great Father gave him an appraising stare. “…Y’all’ve been holdin’ out on us.”
“They fookin’ held that one out on me!” Powell replied, fervently.
Daar dropped to four-paws with a thump and stalked out of the command center, leaving Powell to rub his face and gather his thoughts.
He sat down. Performed a quick mental reset. Focused. There was still a lot to do, but right now there was an unfinished job ahead of him.
He picked up his comms headset and cleared his throat. “…ABBOTT,” he said. “STAINLESS. Alert’s over. Carry on as before.”
Costello’s confirmation had a note of confusion in it, but the younger man was patient. He’d seek an explanation when it was appropriate. For now, Powell looked back up at the helmet cam feeds as the HEAT relaxed again and resumed their preparations to recover a fallen Brother.
…To recover Rebar. That was a painful loss. Firth would undoubtedly blossom when he stepped into those boots, but…
He pushed the thought aside. There’d be time to mourn later. For now, it was time to focus on recovering his marooned technicians.
Date Point: 14y5d AV
High Mountain Fortress, The Northern Plains, Gao
Yulna had finally learned a trick that her predecessor, Giymuy, had mastered in her youth: She’d learned how to steer a conversation without speaking. Looking at the right person at the right time, the right set of ears, the right non-verbal vocalization…The knack, once learned, was powerful. She was discovering that the less she said, the more she heard. It was…she wished she’d learned it earlier.
Still. Sometimes a little nudge was necessary.
“You must have some idea, Champion Meereo…”
Meereo’s huge, expressive ears swivelled awkwardly as he paced the room. “…it’s some kind of wormhole technology, that’s as much as I can deduce. It used a beacon code on the Farthrow generator’s exemption list…The sheer scale of it, though! Our sensors were completely overwhelmed!”
Meereo was an open and colourful book by Champion standards, but even for him such a display of raw frustration was telling. He paused his pacing, glanced at Yulna, and was prompted into continuing by nothing more than an interested tilt of her head.
“…Energy transmission? Somehow? But the only things I can think of that would be energetic enough would be a star, but for that kind of energy density you’d be trying to open the event horizon inside the photosphere…”
Grandfather Kureya shook his head. “Too dense. Even the corona would be dense enough to burst the event horizon. The wormhole wouldn’t form.”
“So they have to be sending something through…”
“That far from any beacons?”
“No, that’s easy. There are solutions to the tuning algorithm which permit formation at arbitrary distances from the receiving generator provided the absence of intervening barriers, that’s how jump arrays work.”
“…Then why even trade places with the beacon?” Kureya asked.
“Because those solutions get less accurate the further from the beacon you go. Beyond a very short distance they’re only pseudo…stable…” Meereo tailed off. After a second, his ears flattened against his head and he shook his head. “…Keeda’s burning balls! Humans are crazy!”
Yulna waited a second and then spurred him with single word. “…Because…?”
“Uh…” Meereo cleared his throat. “Wormhole tuning involves some, ah, finicky mathematics. It’s easy to generate a distorted-space bridge. It’s extremely difficult to generate one that will safely displace an enclosed volume to a predictable destination in a stable way. All of the unstable solutions are wildly unpredictable, by definition.”
“Unpredictable how?” Yulna asked.
“They destroy whatever’s attempting to transit the wormhole,” Kureya explained, “and/or have an impractical margin of error in their arrival coordinates.”
“‘Impractical’ is a delicate way of putting it,” Meereo said. “An unstable wormhole big enough to carry a helium atom could appear literally anywhere in the galaxy with a temporal margin of error measured in geological epochs.”
“So…You’re saying the humans have beaten that problem?” Yulna summarized.
“Beaten it? They’ve weaponized unstable wormholes!” Kureya exclaimed.
“They must have weaponized a pseudo-stable version,” Meereo corrected him. “One that still requires a receiving beacon, even at a remove. If they’d weaponized unstable wormholes I doubt very much if they would have fired it even now.”
Kureya nodded sagely, and Yulna decided she needed to prompt them again.
“Why so?” she asked.
“If they’d mastered unstable wormhole technology, it could shoot through their own system containment field and destroy it,” Meereo explained. “They’d have to be insane to give the enemy the key to exposing Earth. As it is…”
“…It’s a mark of how seriously they take our defence that they fired it now,” Yulna surmised.
Kureya duck-nodded. “You have it. It’s only a matter of time before the enemy figures out how that weapon works for themselves. Once they have…” He paused and exhaled.
“…Well. The Humans just changed the nature of galactic warfare forever. Again.”
Date Point: 14y5d AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Planet Akyawentu, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
“Well that was fucking terrifying.”
Xiù nodded fervently. “I thought they were going to rip your arms off for sure, God!”
Julian shook his head vigorously. “Nah.” He noted the incredulous look on both their faces and clarified, “At least, they wouldn’t have meant to.”
“Oh, great,” Xiù said, going pale.
Allison folded her arms. “Real reassuring there, babe,” she chided.
The ride back to Akyawentuo had been a long and tense one. After the uncomfortable revelation about comets, the Singer had wanted to see all the planets and the moon before they went home. The ship still smelled of Ten’Gewek body odor, which wasn’t unpleasant exactly. It was just… earthy. Unwashed. Even the Singer, who was fastidious about her ritual cleanliness, had a healthy hippy scent to her.
It had been an excuse to finally catalog the system’s planets, at least. Two Jovian gas giants and their retinue of moons, one with a set of rings nearly the equal of Saturn’s. Three blue methane gas giants, one of which had been a riot of swirling cloud systems that the exoplanetologists were going to love. There was a hard-baked cinder in a decaying orbit that was destined to fall into the star in a couple billion years, and the system’s answer to Venus was swaddled in blinding white clouds and had a surprisingly eccentric orbit.
The real crown jewel for Allison’s money, after Akyawentuo itself, was one of the ringed giant’s moons. There was oxygen in the atmosphere down there. That had taken some explanation when Singer noticed they were all nerding out about it; Julian did his spirit-monkey thing and had them all crowding around the display while he talked about what it meant. Vemik and Yan were rapt, the other Given-Men couldn’t pretend to their anger anymore…
He was good at that.
“Come on, you know them better’n that!” he protested. “I was never in any danger.”
“We know…” Xiù agreed. “But it was still terrifying.”
“You did good, dummy,” Allison reassured him. “Just… I dunno. I wanna say ‘be more careful in future,’ but you didn’t actually do anything careless.”
“Eh, maybe.” He scratched the back of his head. “We forget we scare them, y’know?”
“The ‘magic’ stuff. We’re tall, tall things are threatening. We look strange…”
“They’re really scared of you, Al,” Xiù added.
“All three of us,” Julian nodded. “But yeah.”
Allison quirked her head. “Why? That bit with the drones and the shotgun? They’ve seen worse since.”
“Yeah, but you don’t relate to them. And then there’s the ship’s systems. You control the lights and the gravity. That’s big magic.” Julian pulled the couch out of the wall and sat down. “My kinda magic is easy for them. I can beat on steel and they can beat on steel and there’s a connection, and I can talk shop with Vemik all day. And Xiù… I swear you can make anybody fall in love with you.”
That set Xiù’s blush off, and he flashed a grin at her then returned his attention to Allison. “But you? They don’t have any of the stuff they need to know to even start havin’ a handle on your job.”
“Also, that Sarah Connor look,” Xiù added as her face started to return to its more usual hue.
Allison nodded sombrely, seeing their point. “…It’s not like I want to be,” she said. “I just… hell, I love them! They’re great people! But about the only thing I have in common with any of them is bein’ a mom, and I wasn’t any kind of a mom either!”
“…Um… about that…” Xiù said, slowly.
“…I think…I know this is a weird time to bring it up but better now than never, right? I just…” Xiù paused and gave them an apologetic look. “I don’t think I want to keep being a space explorer much longer,” she said.
Allison surprised her and Julian both when she nodded and sighed. “…Yeah. The shine’s kinda gone out of it.”
“You too, Al?”
“Me too,” she said, firmly.
“…Okay. Well. Way I see it, we have three options,” Julian said. “And we maybe get to pick two. Keep flying, stick with the People, have a family.”
Allison smiled and sat down next to him. “I bet I can guess where your vote is,” she said. “You suit workin’ with the People, and it suits you. And I know you want kids.”
“…Yeah,” Julian agreed. “But I care about what you both want too. Like, way out in front of those other things.”
Xiù climbed onto their laps and sat across them, slipping an arm under Julian’s and around his back. “And I care about what you both want,” she reminded him.
“You want to settle down too,” Allison observed. XIù nodded fervently, and she smiled. “…Then that makes three of us.”
“…You sure?” Julian asked. “You pushed hardest for… well, this.” He waved a hand to indicate Misfit and the whole adventure they’d gone on together.
“Women’s prerogative, Etsicitty,” she teased him and flicked his nose. “I get to change my mind.”
“Heh. Yes ma’am.”
“There’s no way we can raise kids on a spaceship, though,” Xiù pointed out.
“It’s fine. The last few days kinda drove home to me what’s really important in my life,” Allison replied. She scooted up closer and cuddled them both. “Bein’ a pioneering deep space explorer is cool an’ all? But I want you. And I wanna be a mom again. I’m ready this time.”
“…That will make Singer happy,” Julian observed. “Woulda made Vemet happy, too.”
“We still have the region to explore, and I bet the Group won’t let us go without at least another tour. We don’t need to figure it all out right away.”
“Lots of study time…” Julian mused.
“Face it, there’s a lifetime of things to do on Akyawentuo. I guarantee we won’t be bored.”
“I wonder if they’ll let us keep Misfit?” Xiù mused.
“I doubt it. She’ll probably end up in the Smithsonian next to Pandora one day, but there’s a lotta life in the girl yet. It’d be a sin to keep her grounded.” Allison looked around fondly. “But I’ll miss you, darling.”
By a quirk of pure timing, the message update tone pinged around the room as if the ship had replied, and the three of them devolved into giggling for a few seconds until Xiù, grinning, stood up and collected one of the tablets.
“I’d better see if that’s anything important,” she said.
Allison stole a kiss off Julian and snuggled into him. “Guess we get our little house in the woods back,” she said.
“No beaver,” Julian pointed out.
“There’s those little root-burrower things, they’re kinda like—babe?”
Xiù had made a strangled noise, and gone as white as a ghost with her hand over her mouth. She tottered back a few steps and sank onto the couch with tears welling up in her eyes.
She was immediately the focus of concern. “Xiù? Baby? What is it?”
Xiù handed the tablet to Julan and buried herself in Allison’s shoulder, making a tortured noise. Allison stroked her hair and held her, throwing a desperate look at Julian for an explanation.
Julian was way ahead of her. His shoulders dropped, he shut his eyes for a second, and ran a comforting hand up Xiù’s back.
“…it’s from Regaari,” he said, and Xiù heaved an enormous sob. “…He says Ayma’s dead.”
Date Point: 14y5d AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
The fortress was both huge, and a maze. Centuries of modifications, renovations, remodelling and occasionally the wholesale construction of entirely new wings all while staying inside the existing footprint had left its innards winding and confusing and full of character. A knowledgeable mason could have read half of Gao’s history just by glancing at the walls.
Then there were the little details. Here, a claw mark in the wood told the story of some forgotten frustration. There, the dishing of a stone step eroded by hundreds of thousands of feet. The unique symbolism hidden in a rafter-banner told those in the know that its creator had been, if not actually a Whitecrest, then certainly some kind of a Clan precursor.
Despite the labyrinthine nature of the fortress’ interior, there was one route that was simply too straightforward to get lost on. Up, up and up the north tower, around a square staircase that was never quite the same number of steps on any given flight. It smelled of age, of dignity and of power, and Regaari could have navigated it blindfolded with crushed garlic stuffed up both nostrils.
He checked his personal messages as he ascended. It was the first chance he’d had since returning from Dark Eye. Aside from honoring a fallen Brother and maintaining his gear, there had been a priority summons. Great Father Daar wanted to speak to him personally.
So he read as he climbed. He’d sent Shoo an entirely too-brief message in the snatched time ahead of the Dark Eye mission, abandoning all his careful planning about how to break her heart in the gentlest way. In the end, circumstances hadn’t permitted kindness.
One more reason to hate the Hierarchy.
Shoo’s reply had pain written in every line, but she mercifully didn’t seem to blame him for breaking the news so abruptly.
Can’t believe it. Don’t know what to say, what to think. Wish I was there, wish I wasn’t, wish…
I don’t know. I have support. I hope you do too. I’ll come and see you as soon as I can I promise, if you can’t come and see me first. I’ll come to Gao, if I can. I don’t want to see it all torn up, but I’ll be there for you even so.
Please be well.
All my love and friendship,
He closed the message and took the last three flights on four-paw, dignity be damned.
The view was breathtaking, he had to admit. Night was falling, and of course High Mountain Fortress had a commanding view of the surrounding terrain. That was why it had been built where it was, after all. On a clear day, a sharp-eyed Gao could see the haze over three different cities.
On a clear night, he could see the lights.
And Daar had been given the top floor as a personal suite of rooms. He’d hate that. Daar’s first instinct was always going to be to bed down in the barn with the Naxas wranglers, if he could. Sleeping isolated at the top of the highest spire was going to fray his nerves raw.
Which was probably why Daar barked a sharp “Come!” as soon as Regaari scratched on the door-plate. Inside, Gao’s second Great Father was pacing a new bare patch into the rug, carefully avoiding the austere, antique furniture presumably for fear that he might damage it.
The door didn’t creak at least. It smelled of new oil, behind the rather more pressing scent of Daar’s own frustration. Regaari let it close quietly behind him and gave his old friend a wary look.
“…You wanted to see me, My Father?”
Daar sighed and to Regaari’s astonishment actually keened softly. “Not in private, Cousin, I’m begging you. Please don’t call me that when we’re alone.”
Regaari relaxed, answered with a soft keen of his own and dashed to his old friend’s side, no longer a deferential Father of his subservient Clan, but a concerned brother-in-arms.
He was the recipient of a back-breaker of a hug in return. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown, right?” he asked, just about managing to not sound strained.
Daar loosened up slightly. “Huh? Oh. Yeah. Especially if he doesn’t fuckin’ want it…”
“Strange, that expression. Humans have the exact same one you know, word-for-word.”
“‘Cuz it’s true.”
“…Why do we even have that word in our language?” The thought struck Regaari suddenly and ominously. “When did our people ever wear crowns?”
“Old history, friend. Very old history,” Daar told him. “Fyu was the last and then only at his coronation. But no way are they makin’ me wear a fuckin’ crown. Not happening.”
There was a disturbing collection of suppressed histories hiding in that statement, Regaari realized. But that was for later. He chittered sympathetically and managed to gently escape from the hug. “I should hate to meet somebody who wanted a crown. He’d certainly be no Brother of mine. But can I be honest, cousin?”
“You need to wear that crown, Daar. Or something equal to it. Symbols are important.”
Daar snarled and threw himself onto the couch. “Cousin, can I please go five minutes without somebody offerin’ advice? I don’t need…” he paused, flexed his claws and then gave Regaari an apologetic look. “…I don’t need advice on how to do what I gotta do. I need somebody t’help me cope.”
“I’m trying, Daar. I didn’t say that without purpose. The crown is as much for you as it is for the rest. Its symbolism is important to the man who wears it too—you can take off a crown.”
Daar nodded sadly, and huffed a gargantuan sigh.
“But…fuck that for now.” Regaari flopped onto the couch with as little dignity as he could muster. “I’m glad you’re still Daar.”
“…An’ somehow yer still Regaari. Knows everythin’, smooth as a frozen lake.”
“I know. I was watchin’ when we lost Rebar. Between him an’ Ayma…An’ I know you loved her, Regaari. In the old way.”
“…I did,” Regaari confessed. “I think she felt the same way. She once said ‘If I could just pick one…’”
“…We all gotta give up the shit we want, don’t we? I don’t know how you do it an’ still keep so composed.”
Regaari relaxed back and stared up at the ceiling. “…I’m very good at deception. It’s a skill that my Clan is proud of…I daresay that’s an alien concept for a Stoneback.”
Daar huffed a dark noise that was almost the start of a chitter. “It’d sure as shit make life easier sometimes.”
“See? I knew you wouldn’t get it. Lying doesn’t make life easier at all.”
“Naxas farts. It’s the grease in the gears. The only reason my Clan can manage its honesty is ‘cuz we’re strong enough to keep our principles.”
“You’d be amazed at the strength that goes into maintaining the biggest lies,” Regaari countered. “Especially ones like ‘I’m okay.’”
Daar whined instantly, rolled on top of Regaari and curled them both into a ball. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to.
They commiserated in silence for quite a long time before Daar finally spoke again.
“…I gotta do somethin’ terrible,” he said eventually.
“Genshi says you intend to concentrate the biodrones and nuke them.”
“Yeah. We can’t muster enough troops fast enough to retake the cities ‘fore we’re overwhelmed with disasters. The plan ain’t changed since the first war council.”
“The one where you slaughtered the Champion and Grandfather of Firefang.”
Daar winced a little, but duck-nodded. “Had to. They were puttin’ the wreck of their Clan ahead of the whole of Gao. That…and I needed to terrify the others.”
Regaari regarded Daar with an inward wariness. He may well have been Regaari’s “most bestest Cousin” but there had always been a…relentless side to Daar. He saw a job, he did the job and anything that got in the way didn’t remain in the way.
That was why Daar had been named the youngest ever Stud-Prime of his Clan, why he was tied for youngest Champion. Why he was so hugely and dramatically successful in all his endeavors. Why he was so friendly, so boisterous…
…And so darkly perfect for the role that now fell on him.
“…So what do you need?” he asked. “You know what needs to be done. Is it even a choice at this moment? Is there an equal alternative I don’t know about?”
Daar shook his head and whined again. “…No. It isn’t. And there ain’t. Balls, I’ve been hoping for one since everything happened…actually, I didn’t tell you. I got nuked.”
“…You look well for it,” Regaari ventured, and Daar burst into a massive prolonged burst of chittering.
“Yeah! Yeah I do!” he growled and cooled down a little. Clearly, he’d needed some mirth. “…It was on Akyawentuo. Micronuke on a long-range air defense missile. Tossed me around like a fuckin’ rag toy.”
“You came through it well, then,” Regaari told him.
“Same reason you’re copin’. It’s the Humans. If I hadn’t learned from them—if they hadn’t freed my mind from the Hierarchy and all their cultural taint—I prol’ly wouldn’t’a been strong enough to take that kind o’ beating. I wouldn’t’a known how t’be that strong. And even if I coulda lived before, I can’t help but wonder if I woulda…given up.”
“You didn’t, though,” Regaari pointed out. “You’ve never given up on anything.”
“No. But if there’s one thing the Humans taught me, it’s if there is will there is a way.”
“Fair enough, but be careful. We don’t need a Church of Human,” Regaari joked, glad that he was able to. His sense of humor had taken a beating, lately. It was a relief to feel ready to joke again. Daar chittered again, but sobered quickly.
“…We’re not gonna get one,” he said. “Gyotin’s a smart tail from what I hear. Humans and gaoians are gonna be peers, not pets. I’ll make sure of it.”
“They wouldn’t have it any other way,” Regaari agreed.
“Sure they would. Some’a them, anyway. There’s evil Motherless curs in any Clan. But Clan SOR was stupid enough to take us in an’ train us,” he chittered in fond humor, “So the least we can do is make ‘em work for it! No way am I gonna let Highland keep his winning record, either!”
Regaari rolled his eyes fondly. “You shouldn’t wrestle primates, Cousin. That’s their game and they own it. Stick to foot races or sled pulls, you never lose those.”
“So what? I’mma do it, you’ll see. Just a few more matches…” He trailed off in a happy growl. Even now, Daar’s positive and relentlessly competitive spirit couldn’t be dampened.
They had bigger things to discuss, however, so Regaari sat up straight and returned to the topic at hand. “…Which cities?” he asked.
“…Most’a them.” Daar sobered up instantly. “I’m sparin’ Lavmuy, Wi Kao, Den So and Kanmuy fer reasons of culture, and Shem Yui out east in the Three Valleys ‘cuz we’re gonna need it to keep people fed. Also High Mountain fortress. Our history an’ heritage must remain intact. Everythin’ else we can relocate or rebuild, thanks to capturing Dark Eye.”
“That’s still a lot of lost heritage,” Regaari commented. “Every city has its history, its culture, its libraries and museums…”
“Yeah. I know. But I gotta draw the line between necessary heritage an’ sentiment somewhere.”
“…I’m glad you’re sparing Wi Kao.”
“That’s why ‘yer here,” Daar grumbled uncomfortably. “I’m…attached to that city. ‘Fer a lotta reasons. I need to know if I’m sparing it for the right reasons, ‘cuz bein’ honest, I’m gonna lose a lotta ‘Backs securin’ it. And a lotta Human infantry, too.”
“Culturally, it’s the city that killed Tiritya. The city where the Clan of Females was founded. Fyu burned it to the ground then rebuilt it from the rubble. It’s the city of our first contact with Humans, the site of the largest and oldest Commune…it also has some working hospitals protected by a handful of Straightshield holdouts, according to the last reconnaissance report that I read.”
“…And no other city has any of that.”
“The history of our people is written in those streets. I say we add another chapter, not a full stop.”
Daar duck-nodded solemnly. “…Can I afford to spare more?” he asked.
“You are the last living Master of War, Daar. Highmountain hasn’t trained a replacement and I fear they may lose the tradition if you don’t keep it. No other gaoian is as qualified as you to make that decision.”
“I know.” Daar never pretended to false modesty. “I know what I think. I’m askin’ what you think, and what ‘yer Clan thinks. An’ I need it straight, without any Champion nonsense in between. That’s why I’m askin’ you and not Genshi.”
Regaari sat forward and looked down at the floor between his feet for a while as he processed his thoughts.
“…Five is… not many,” he said at last. “But realistically, even those five will be hard-fought. Whatever our sentiments about the other cities may be, we have to consider what we can reasonably expect to take and hold. Sparing all the heritage our people have means nothing unless we win and save the people themselves.”
Daar groaned and stretched. “…I’m leadin’ the charge on an ag station out in Three Valleys tomorrow. The Human troops’re green, is my understanding. Fuck, Fiin has more experience than most’a their guys.”
“I skimmed the report. Captain Landry has serious time in the desert on Earth, though.”
“You still got that report? I need’ta know the people I’m workin’ with.”
Regaari duck-nodded and called it up.
“This is very different from working with the SOR,” he said, reviewing a healthily well-rounded and replete MTOE. The company due to fly out to Three Valleys in the morning had a fully intact chain of command, a healthy mix of seasoned NCOs and eager but inexperienced infantrymen, and all the sheer bullying mass and resources that Spaceborne Operations so far lacked.
He loaded the information into a Whitecrest machine learning program, which scoured it for handles. Anomalies, points of interest, disciplinary matters, commendations, anything that was generally out of the ordinary. Fortunately, Longear had managed to maintain some of the Clan’s most critical information systems, undoubtedly hosted in their rumored ultra-secure datacenters scattered across the continent.
“Hmm. You might like this guy: Specialist Michael Murphy. He’s been busted in rank twice. Seems to be related to a dispute about a female.”
Daar chittered. “You’re right, I like him already.”
“Does he need watching, you think? That suggests a volatile personality and we need to manage this first deployment very carefully.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think so. Sounds like a ‘Back! Brothers like that just need a mission.”
“Be careful,” Regaari warned. “Humans are not gaoians. Their psychology isn’t the same.”
“It’s close enough. But just to be safe I’ll keep ‘em close, at least for the first bit. See how he does for his first real mission. If we’re lucky we can get things secured before the ‘drones figger shit out and get clever. They blow up the elevators there…”
“Then the Naxas herds will starve, we’ll be short possibly millions of tons of meat, and an already strained logistics problem will break irrevocably. We’d have famine for the first time in centuries.”
“I won’t let that happen,” Daar stated. It wasn’t so much a promise or a claim as a prediction. “It’s just the first in a lotta steps, and it ain’t even the only thing we’re doin’ in the morning.”
“I had wondered about that. You’ve been in so many meetings it’s been difficult to keep up.”
“Yeah. We’ve got a division’s worth o’ airborne infantry an’ all their support stuff. It’s been mostly the Champions and me sortin’ out what gets hit first, and what we can hit. I’m only on this mission ‘cuz it cannot fail. Everyone else is securin’ territory and controllin’ disasters…but this’ll determine if we can eat this winter.”
“And every winter after that.”
“Yeah. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nuclear reactors gonna start meltin’ down next week, sewage systems that’re gonna overload with nobody t’run them, an’ fuck knows what else is gonna start fallin’ apart without proper oversight… but all’a that’s a bag full’a Naxas farts if we ain’t got nothin’ ta eat. And that’s just the stuff we can maybe avert. There’s assload’a smaller disasters gonna drop on us that we can’t do shit about.”
“There’s also the question of my Brothers and the HEAT,” Regaari reminded him.
“Best thing is ‘fer Clan SOR to go back to Cimbrean and recover. I need ‘yer abilities ready to go at any moment an’ it’d be a waste t’spend y’all on mop-up operations.”
“…My Brothers will find that difficult to stomach, Daar. I find it difficult to stomach. The fight is here, our people are here.”
“An’ yer vengeance is here,” Daar observed, driving a claw right into the metaphorical jugular as he so disarmingly did from time to time. “But here’s the thing. Real vengeance? That’s gonna come when we take the fight to the Hunters directly.”
That was such a blunt statement of intent it caught Regaari short. “You can’t mean—”
“This may just be cleanup, Cousin, but it’s at a scale nobody’s ever done before. We’re gonna do a crash-course basic training for every Clanless we find along the way, turn ‘em around, put ‘em with experienced units, do missions, and repeat.” Daar tilted his head curiously, “Have you done the math on this, Regaari?”
“…I admit, I’ve found the numbers daunting. A billion strong army always seemed…rhetorical.”
“Stonebacks don’t lie, Cousin.” He said it not unkindly. “An’ I ain’t in the habit of exaggerating, either. I meant what I said. We don’t have time to make weapons for everyone, kit them out properly or do any of the buildout the humans are used to. But for this? We really don’t need it. Gaoians got claws and teeth. What we need are warm bodies, fast, and we need an’ endless number of ‘em. So we basically press-gang the fittest Clanless we run into, show ‘em how an’ what to do by example…”
The numbers really were daunting, and the simple scale of Daar’s ambition was…
“…How long until the army is that big?”
“Prol’ly a year, maybe a little more. Train a group, go on mission, use that group to train more and send them on mission…we end up with geometric expansion. Add to that our industrial nanofacs an’ hardly any materiel requirements in the first place, things are gonna go way faster than America’s stand-up in World War Two.”
Regaari didn’t know the deep history of that conflict, but he did know the sheer logistical scale was in its own way unmatched—they had only just invented computers!
He reconsidered his friend warily. This was ambition like Regaari had not conceived. It was obvious just from Daar’s confidence and tone that the strategy was well-considered and carefully planned, too; clearly, he had been thinking about this for some time.
“…And you intend, once this grand army has swept Gao clean, to turn on the Hunters.”
“Eventually. We’ll need to rebuild, circle back and properly train and equip them. But by then they’ll all be blooded and eager to sink their teeth into the evil that did this to us. That army has an expiration date, Cousin, and we don’t even know how big of a die-off we’re facing. What else am I gonna do with an asset like that?”
“Disband them? Let them go back to a life of peace?” Regaari suggested, but his heart wasn’t in it. In his guts, he knew that what he’d just proposed was now impossible, for far too many. There was no such thing as a life of peace any more.
Daar just gave him a patient look which said loud and clear that he knew full well that Regaari knew he was being inappropriately innocent.
“Back to point, though. This is a numbers game right now. What remains of Whitecrest is much too valuable to squander. An’ if that don’t convince you, consider this: how long is it gonna take to train up assets that can actually breach a hunter space station?”
“…Years. And my Brothers will be the best option for training them.”
“An’ we’ll have HEAT ready and waiting t’help, too. Imagine what kinda force they’ll be when they finally get a full MTOE…”
“…Very well. Patience is one of our Clan values. I’m sure my Brothers will understand.”
“Don’t think of it like a burden, Cousin. ‘Yer doin’ what nobody else can. I’m gonna need you and your Brothers. Balls, thanks to you, the Gao has the finest nanofac in the Dominion right now. That’s huge.”
“Speaking of which, I have to be back at Farthrow. That nanofac came at a heavy price, and we’re sending him home in a few hours.”
“I know.” Daar heaved a sigh. “An’ I can’t be there. That fuckin’ hurts.”
“You need to rest and prepare for tomorrow, Daar.”
Regaari duck-nodded and gave his old friend a brotherly scratch right between the shoulder blades. “I know.”
He stood up. “You know if you need me, I’ll come running four-pawed,” he promised.
“I know. An’ if yer findin’ that big lie a little too big to carry…”
Regaari duck-nodded. They sniffed noses as old friends, and he let himself out, back into the world where Daar was Great Father Daar.
They had a long and bloody war ahead of them.
Date Point: 14y6d AV
Weaver-class troop transport, approaching the Three Valleys, Gao
Specialist Michael Murphy, 1-325 INF (Airborne), 82nd Airborne Division
Weavers were a hell of a step up from a C-130 or a Chinook. Sure, they strongly resembled a Chinook in a lot of ways but they were fuckin’ quiet inside. Civilian passengers flights were noisier.
Nothing wrong with their performance, either. The damn things could hit escape velocity, which meant that across the ground they could pull a comfortable multiple of the speed of sound.
It put the whole planet in arm’s reach, now that the sky was under control. And apparently there was somethin’ valuable for them to grab and hold.
Just his luck that Michael had got stuck riding with the captain, though. Not that there was anything wrong with Captain Landry, he was one’a the good guys. But the flight out was quieter than Michael woulda liked.
The Guys were talking about that awful fuckin’ Workhouse-themed Gaoian soap opera.
“Niko totally wasn’t the killer, though! He’d just fought a mating duel the night before and won a contract, right? He was too busy gettin’ laid to be skulking around the Housefather’s quarters!”
“Okay, but who’s that leave? Suno?”
“Bullshit. He’s tiny even for a Gaoian, and he’s meek as hell!”
“Bruh, it’s the little quiet ones y’gotta watch for.”
“Nah, that’s just a Hollywood trope. Does…Gaoianwood? Do they do that?”
“Gaoianwood’s a hole in the ground now, bruh.”
That ended the conversation very abruptly.
Carter never ever knew when to shut up. “…What? You musta realized that shit ain’t gettin’ made no more, right? That cliffhanger was the last ever episode.”
Johnson groaned. “…Fuck. Okay, this fuckin’ war just got way more personal.”
“Well…the Great Father guy said they were sending all their women and children to Cimbrean, along with supplies and stuff. Old dudes, too.”
“Yeah, but Long Johnson gotta get his soap opera fix or he gets cranky,” Michael chimed in. “And I kinda doubt the first thing they’re gonna do is set up a production crew.”
“…Hey, I wonder if any of the actors had implants? Like, instead of a teleprompter…” Carter mused. “They could just read the lines off a HUD or somethin’. They’d never forget their lines!”
“That sounds like an excellent idea,” Captain Landry commented. “Except for the whole ‘getting possessed by digital demons’ part.”
Carter paused, grimaced, and went quiet. Johnson meanwhile was wearing the conflicted look of a man who might conceivably have to shoot one of his favorite actors.
Landry’s expression was unreadable behind his sunglasses and the keffiyeh he wore around his neck against Gao’s cold climate. “Right. Knock off ‘yer jawin’ and get ready. ETA in two minutes. Master sergeant, if you please.”
They got ready. The Stonebacks at the front of the Weaver were already on their feet and readying themselves. They weren’t expecting trouble—the whole point of this op was to relieve a force of survivors from HMS Caledonia and take over the farm they’d commandeered as a springboard for securing a huge swathe of farmland and vital rural territory. But there was apparently a small army of Clanless waiting for them, and the ‘Backs were big on first impressions.
They were good at first impressions, too. Nothin’ said ‘don’t fuck with us’ like a fist full of claws, teeth that’d have a wolf cowering in the corner and a thick layer of shaggy fur.
After seeing and meeting Daar he’d expected all the Stonebacks to be goddamned monsters. And to be fair they were, all great big shaggy-furred dudes with claws that could tear through walls. Michael wouldn’t ever wanna fight any of them. It was just…well, they weren’t Daar. He was a giant that put them all to complete shame, with his short-cut fur only emphasizing the enormous difference. The Great Father was so impressive that he could comfortably hang with the HEAT, according to reputation. He was riding along on the other Weaver with Lieutenant Moore, leading from the front, and the other Stonebacks looked at him kinda like a regular Gaoian looked at a Stoneback.
Then again, they looked that way at their smallest Brother, too. Fiin was something like Daar’s second-in-command, and what he lacked in size compared to the others it was hella obvious he made up for in massive smarts. He absolutely radiated danger, too; he was still a big dude and he had claws. And he watched everyone like a hawk.
He prowled up the Weaver now to share a word with Landry. “Great Father says the LZ might be clear, but we have no guarantees about implants,” he said. “Standing orders remain. We are to treat everyone in the compound as potentially an enemy, and terminate any implanted or resisting males or Humans with extreme prejudice.”
“How extreme are we talking, Brother Fiin?”
Fiin bared his fangs. It looked like a grin but it really, really wasn’t. “Instantly and without remorse.”
Michael nodded to himself. He could do that. It was gonna suck if he had to ice one of the Caledonia survivors, but if they had implants they were dead already. More like puttin’ down a fuckin’ zombie than a person, so they said.
Maybe he’d believe it too, if he repeated it long enough.
Landry simply nodded. “Right.”
Behind him, the Weaver’s ramp dropped and all the noise they’d been missing throughout the flight came pounding into fill their ears.
It was a simple enough landing. The farm had a basic compacted-dirt helipad ready and waiting for them, but the Weavers set down in the field some distance away where huge round bales of the local version of hay gave them plenty of concealment. They’d built a decent defensive wall, too. Banked earth ramparts, good fields of fire. Not bad at all for workin’ with just what they could scrounge up in the field.
They were challenged correctly, responded appropriately, invited to enter. Michael was on the entry team along with his sergeant, Fiin, Daar, one of their Brothers, and the lieutenant. They found the camp’s occupants waiting for them in a posture of surrender—the Clanless Gaoians were all standing four-pawed, while the humans were lined up against the farmhouse with their hands pressed to the wall.
Everyone moved as swiftly and aggressively as they could to secure the situation. Michael only remembered his part, where he advanced towards the back of the farmhouse right behind his sergeant, and checked over a Gaoian with all-white fur. Was he an albino? Michael honestly didn’t know.
The entire encounter lasted less than ten seconds while the bulk of their forces quickly secured the farm proper, checking for any nasty surprises that might be laying around. In short order the both teams reported their objectives secure.
What happened next was weirdly and entirely Gaoian. Once everyone had scanned each other’s heads and found their skulls free of alien tech, the Great Father instantly transformed into…an entirely different person. One second he and the Stonebacks were ready to tear everyone into pieces, and the next…
It was like they were all old friends.
The Stonebacks helped their fellow Gaoians off their feet and immediately sniffed noses exactly like dogs did. Michael felt a little embarrassed but helped his albino up, who seemed like he suffered from poor eyesight. He wobbled gratefully to his feet and flicked his ears in all directions at once, and generally made a fuss of the moment.
They didn’t sniff noses, though. That was a little too weird for Michael.
Daar tried at first to restrain his natural boisterousness, and about five seconds later gave up and let loose on everyone. He greeted the humans with barely-contained glee, especially a teeny blonde woman whom he swept up off the ground and bear-hugged.
“I am very proud of you!” He exclaimed and actually chittered, somehow managing to make it a bass noise. “No direction, nothing other than ‘yerselves and ‘yer wits, and a nice chance meeting…now you’ve already got the area secure!”
“You’d be Lieutenant Kovač?” Landry asked, as the medics bustled inside to start seeing to the wounded.
“Uh, yes sir,” Kovač confirmed as Daar put her down. The wonky-ass upside-down Air Force chevrons on her arm said tech sergeant rather than lieutenant, which told a whole story all by itself, and the exhaustion on her face told a second one.
Damn, it felt good to be the cavalry.
“And now you get to boss ‘Horse around, too!” Daar boomed.
“Please, I already do that,” Kovač grinned. It was obvious she and Daar really did go back a ways. She cleared her throat and indicated one of the nearby Clanless, a skinny silverfur who had that nose-in-the-air look that said he thought he was important. “Uh, Great Father Daar, captain, this is Yeego. He rallied the local Clanless workers. They’re the ones who helped us get this all set up.”
“The escape pods?” Landry asked, all business like he usually was.
“All accounted-for,” Kovač reported. “Everyone who made it off Caledonia and checked in is here.”
There weren’t a lot of them. In fact, the survivors numbered only a few dozen people, out of a crew of probably a couple hundred people. That was a lot of experienced ship crew the Brits had lost to this fight, and Michael knew they were gonna feel it. One of the sailors—an east indian chick—looked like she was choking back tears.
He couldn’t blame her. If his battalion had lost that many people, they’d be hurtin’ bad.
Landry grunted. “…You’ve done well, in the circumstances,” he said. Coming from him that was a jaw-dropper of a compliment, and Kovač seemed to realize it.
“Thank you, sir.”
Yeego cleared his throat the way Gaoians did. It sounded more like a sneeze than anything else. “So…What happens next?” he asked.
Landry gave him an unreadable look from behind his sunglasses. “There’s no time to stand on ceremony. I’m assuming command. You and Lieutenant Kovač will tell Great Father Daar and me absolutely everything about the surrounding area. Our mission is to expand and hold a safe zone free of biodrones and begin training your Clanless up into an effective fighting force. As soon as I’m satisfied that I know everything I need to, the SOR technicians will return to Farthrow, and the Royal Navy personnel will be evacuated to Cimbrean.”
He stepped aside as a couple of medics barged through carrying somebody on a litter. The Stonebacks were assembling a field jump array in the barn, and the medics laid the stricken sailor next to it before returning to the farmhouse for the next one.
Yeego looked like he wanted to object to having his little kingdom taken over, but Daar gave him a feral look that made the much smaller male go weak at the knees and flatten his ears submissively. “There ain’t a problem,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“N–no, of course not. My Father.”
Daar instantly snapped back into a happier persona. “Good! We’re gonna need competent ag managers, Yeego. I ain’t got any doubt you’ll be one of ‘em, right?”
Somehow that wasn’t a question, either.
Yeego straightened. “I will give my best and more.”
“Outstanding.” Daar used that word exactly like the saltiest NCO would when wielding it like a weapon, and Michael loved him completely for it. All the humans and Stoneback Brothers caught his meaning: Yeego didn’t, and preened a little.
“There’s a lotta mouths gonna need feedin’,” Daar continued, “And a lotta rebuildin’ to do. Clanless are gonna be the foundation fer that, as you always have been.” Daar turned to the watching workers. “All’a you. Now more than ever the future of Gao rests on your shoulders. I know you’re up to it.”
Captain gave him and the rest of the crew a Look, which Michael’s sergeant took to mean they should get lost. They found stuff to do quick enough. Carter got the job of making sure the latrines were up to standard, Johnson was universally acknowledged as their cooking and fire guy, and vanished to start getting that all set up…
Michael found himself doing a slow circuit of the perimeter, inspecting the earthworks. Not that he really had any idea what he was lookin’ at, but he sure as shit wouldn’t have a problem putting that much dirt between him and incoming firepower so they were probably good.
Behind him, the litters and their patients were loaded into the field jump array, which fired with a thump. A stack of boxes, ammo cans and crates came back the other way.
“‘Ey up, mate. Any chance I could bum a fag?”
Michael eyed the Brit suspiciously. The man was a Royal Marines corporal with exhausted lines all over his face and a week of beard growth, who rolled his eyes and translated after a second. “Have you got any cigarettes?” he asked. “ I’m fuckin’ gaspin’ for a smoke.”
“I got a dip…” Michael offered.
“Fuck it, sure. If it had nicotine in it I’d snort dog shit right now.”
Michael chuckled and broke out his tin. “Here you go, bruh.”
The marine took a modest pinch and tucked it in between lip and teeth.
“Gross habit,” Michael commented, by way of making conversation.
“M-hmm,” the Brit agreed. He returned the tin and then offered his hand to shake Michael’s. “Corporal Wilde.”
“Specialist Murphy. You guys did pretty good for yourselves out here.”
“Too bad we never got the showers working,” Wilde sighed as the nicotine started to hit and leaned against the earthwork. “Just wet naps and airing out daily. The Gaoians think it’s funny as shit.”
“Yeah, you uh… got a little somethin’ on you there,” Michael said, diplomatically. Wilde’s gear was heavily stained, and a lot of it looked like it had maybe been something’s guts once.
“M-hmm. Hunter. Doesn’t come out.”
Michael didn’t know what to say about that. Nor about the bullet hole right in the middle of Wilde’s chest plate. Both details were downright unnerving, though he tried to keep himself game…
“I take it ‘yer green, mate,” Wilde observed, not unkindly.
“Well. Don’t you worry.” Wilde looked back at the farmhouse, then out across the field towards another point of light off in the distance. “I reckon you’ll be securing that town next. Bad rumors coming out of there—You won’t be green for long.”
“I don’t think any of us will be.”
“Any idea what’s next for you?” Michael asked him.
“JETS I reckon, if they’ll have me. HEAT is…not my style. But I tell you this, I definitely want to work with the SOR some more. Even their bloody nerds are good.”
“They’re the bestest.” Great Father Daar had appeared behind them, apparently looking to prowl about while the officers did their handover. “All of ‘em.” Brother Fiin stood guard a respectful distance behind, once Michael looked around. “Yer right, too. We’ll be securing that ag station tomorrow morning. It’s got a comm relay an’ stuff.”
Nobody really understood how exactly to deal with the notion that the supreme dictator of all the Gao was among them. Michael in particular didn’t know how you had a smoke break with someone like that.
Wilde either knew, or was long past the point of giving a shit. Considering how heavy and dark the bags under his eyes were, it was probably the latter.
“You using us for that maneuver tomorrow?” he asked.
“Nah, y’all done your part. I’m hopin’ t’get you shipped out tonight, in fact.”
The big alien-bear-thing flicked his left ear and chittered. “Go get some shuteye. There’s a nice corner over there you can curl up in.”
Wilde creaked upright, clapped Michael on the shoulder with a nod, gave a rather more respectful nod to Daar, and shuffled off in the direction Daar had indicated. “You’ll do fine, mate,” he promised.
Daar watched Wilde leave then fixed his stern, unrelenting gaze on Michael, who felt like he was suddenly undergoing the worst inspection of his military career.
Honesty seemed the only answer. “Yessir.”
“Good.” Daar’s expression softened into something much more kindly. “Do me a favor, though. Don’t let the Clanless see that if you can. They’ve gotta look up to you, y’know.”
“I’ll try not to, sir.”
Daar duck-nodded like Gaoians always did. “He’s right. You’ll do fine.”
Michael couldn’t help himself. “How do you know?”
Daar chittered somewhere in the infrasonic and shook his pelt out. “‘Yer human.”
“So?” Everyone kept saying that and it was starting to annoy Michael.
“That’s plenty, trust me. I know you don’t get it yet but you will.”
“I mean…you say that, but you’re the Great Father. Also you’re like four times my size.”
Michael had seen videos of Daar in action. The way he just blurred through a battlefield and plowed through everything in his path…it was hard to imagine much of anything hurting the Great Father, especially when he was wearing that incredible armor of his.
“Yeah.” Daar duck-nodded sagely. “But so what? Size ain’t everything.”
“Wh–?” That was rich coming from him. “How–!? Bullshit! You’re huge and you move like a goddamned demon!”
“I do! But again, so what?” Daar chittered in his deep voice. “I like you, y’ain’t afraid to tell it like you see it! You get into all sortsa trouble back home, don’tcha?”
…It abruptly occurred to Michael that maybe he should tone it down a little while talking with the leader of the Gao. It was even worse because Daar had him pegged, too. Michael had dug some pretty deep holes in his short military career with his quick mouth and maybe quicker fists…he suddenly felt like his ears were burning.
“Oh, relax. I ain’t gonna eatcha!” Daar didn’t seem to give one wet shit. “But don’t worry too much about any o’ that. I’m damn near the biggest an’ strongest dude there is in most any thinkin’ species but a bullet’ll kill me dead just the same as you. Maybe easier ‘cuz I’m a big target! Hell, I’m a good match for most o’ HEAT, too…but you wanna guess how I do when we spar?”
“…You lose?” Even saying it, that seemed hard to believe.
Daar shrugged his vast shoulders. It was an odd gesture to make while he stood on all fours like a talking wolverine. “Not allatime, an’ I’m way better now than I was at first…but yeah. I still lose enough t’keep me learnin’ an’ grounded. Wanna know why?”
Michael nodded dumbly.
“It’s all up here.” Daar rested his gigantic paw on Michael’s head. “Bein’ a monkey helps a lot, bein’ built for supergravity helps too, but the thing is? In the end, even that don’t really matter. An enemy can adapt to the physical problem an’ you can always assume there’s someone better. What matters more’n anything is fightin’ instincts.”
Michael eyed Daar suspiciously. “…Instincts.”
“Yeah. I don’t know what in Keeda’s name happened in ‘yer evolution t’make your species the way it is, but y’all are natural born fighters. Human instincts are better’n anyone’s, even mine, and mine are pretty damn good if I do say so myself. I don’t know if that’s just ‘yer nature or if we’ve had our instincts suppressed by the Hierarchy an’ we gotta relearn everything, or whatever, but it don’t really matter, same result regardless. Every time I spar with Clan SOR I learn just a ‘lil bit more about how much I don’t know about real fights, especially when I spar with Highland.”
Michael had to ask. “Isn’t he, uh, one of the ‘smaller’ guys on the HEAT?”
Daar chittered happily. “Yup! Physically I’ve always been better’n him. Still don’t matter. There ain’t any good reason anymore he should ever win against me, but more often’n not he still yanks my tail. Sometimes he wins hard, too. I think only Righteous is a more naturally dangerous dude, it’s scary. It’s ‘cuz they got real fight in‘im. Most all you humans do, and I can tell just by watchin’ you today that ‘ya got it strong, too.
“Well, if you say so, sir.” Michael didn’t know how else to respond.
“I do! You should listen to me, I know these things.” Daar gave an unmistakably sly sideways look. “So don’t worry so much! Trust me, you already know how to win. All you gotta do tomorrow is follow ‘yer training an’ don’t die. Easy!”
Easy. Sure. Michael really had no idea what to say to that, but Daar’s unstoppable force of personality apparently extended to compassion. He rose to his hind feet and clapped his enormous paw on Michael’s shoulder. “It’s natural t’be nervous. Balls, I sure as fuck was ‘fer my first go. But we’ve got ‘yer back, Friend. You should get some rest. I bet captain Landry will post watch pretty soon so may as well get a nap in, yeah?”
“I’ll do that.”
Daar duck-nodded, and ambled away into the dark, leaving Michael feeling…he wasn’t sure what he felt. What the fuck did being human have to do with anything? There were nukes and shit in this war. Hundreds of humans were already dead. It was a spit in the ocean next to the uncountable millions of dead Gaoians, but…
He put the thought aside and did as the Great Father had suggested. If nothing else, he’d face tomorrow well-rested and with a full belly.
Somehow, he knew that would be enough.
Date Point: 14y6d AV
Three Valleys, Planet Gao
Brother Fiin, of Stoneback
Daar wasn’t following his own advice. He’d encouraged practically everybody in the forward operating base to get some sleep if they weren’t on guard duty, insisting that everybody should be rested, fed and ready for the operation to come in the morning.
Ordinarily, Fiin knew, his Champion—the Great Father, he reminded himself—would have joined in some jawin’ and chewin’ around the fire and snuggled up with everybody else.
Tonight was different. Daar apparently was on a hair trigger to pounce at the first moment of alone time he could get.
The ways of Champions and Great Fathers were still something of a mystery to Fiin, but before all those other things, Daar was a Brother. His own words. And if a Brother was hurtin’…
“Aren’t you going to turn in, My Father?”
If Daar cringed just for a microsecond at Fiin addressing him so, Fiin knew better than to comment. He was very glad he didn’t have to wear that title.
Daar wore it well, though. He gave Fiin one of those calculating looks that said there were some very deep thoughts indeed going on behind that feral forehead, then shook his head and shoulders. “Nah. Got somethin’ important ‘ta do first. Could use the help, if ‘yer willin’”
“Of course.” A ‘Back never shied away from work.
“Good. It’s somethin’…personal.”
Fiin followed him out a ways, past the packed earth flat bald patch the FOB’s builders had called a Helipad, down into a little scrappy corner of the perimeter that was still inside the base, but well tucked away and unused. A couple of Daar’s personal Claw of Stonebacks had hauled in some scrap wood. He of course hadn’t wanted a security detail, but Garl and Fiin had been insistent, even in the face of a growled threat.
“Thanks,” the Great Father grunted, and set about piling the wood as he wanted it. Fiin and the other two pitched in and between them quickly had a stumpy, flat-topped pyramid of dry wood, perfect to burn. Especially when Daar stuffed its innards with dry hay.
“Bit’a old lore for ya, Brothers,” he said, stepping back and dusting his paws off once it was finished. “Way back when, the Clan gave every fallen Brother a proper pyre. Din’t matter if a hunnerd of’em fell in one battle, din’t matter if it was a thousand. Din’t matter if there wasn’t enough left of him to scrape up and stick on top, he got a pyre.”
He chittered darkly. “Big Hotel wanted us t’forget,” he said. “Figger they think it was some imperfection or somethin’. Kept us thinkin’ about…that.” He looked up and gave the night sky his thoughtful attention. “Life, the universe. All the big shit. ‘Cuz when you get down to the dirt, why’s it all matter? Even stars die, in the long story. Shit, the whole universe is gonna die, in the longest. An’ if it’s all a big story, an’ if there ain’t nobody out there hearin’ the story an’ rememberin’ it then…why? What’s it all for, huh? Why keep fightin’?”
Fiin shifted uncomfortably. Such melancholy just wasn’t… it wasn’t Daar.
“…‘Cept it does matter,” Daar declared. “It matters to us. An’ if there ain’t nobody out there to say otherwise, then our opinion’s the only one that counts. If we say it matters, it fuckin’ matters. If it matters to us, we keep fightin’. It don’t have to make sense.”
He sighed, reached into a pocket and produced a lighter. It was the work of seconds for him to touch it to the hay and have the little pyre they’d made crackling into bright, fierce life.
“…I don’t know why it matters, but it does. An’ I know that in fightin’ for a future, I’m gonna send a lotta Brothers into their final missions. We’re gonna kill, an’ wreck, an’ destroy a lotta shit that mattered ‘cuz other things matter more…But no way am I gonna forget the fallen. Not never.”
Fiin’s head duck-nodded all by itself, unbidden. So did the others’.
“…Rebar taught me a lot. I taught him a lot. He…He was important. There’s a trillion billion stars out there that don’t matter for shit, but he mattered. That’s what this is about.”
Daar looked into the fire for a long moment. Before long it had grown into a raging inferno, and was causing enough air current to ruffle the longer fur around his neck.
“…How many Brothers we lose so far?” he asked after a silent while.
Fiin knew that figure all too intimately. “Ninety-seven, My Father. We’ve been…lucky.”
It was painful saying such a thing, but it was the truth. The Fangs had better equipment, tactics, growing air support, and supply lines. They were elite even by Human reckoning and better than the Enemy in every single way. Except for numbers. Any Fang in any engagement was routinely outnumbered by over a thousand to one, and against that great press of biodrones, and even with modern weapons and tactics, losses were inevitable. The war needed to turn, and turn soon, or there may not be any Stonebacks left to save the Gao.
A thought which weighed heavily on the Great Father, it seemed. “Way too many.” He shook his pelt out and declared, “Every one of ‘em gets a pyre. Don’t hafta be right away, and if we need th’wood for somethin really important we can put it off. But Every. One. Of. Them. Gets a pyre. Am I understood?”
“More than understood,” Fiin assured him.
Some bit of decrepit farm scrap wood deep inside the pile popped and the heap sagged. A volcanic puff of bright embers leapt upwards and spiralled away on the smoke.
The Great Father sighed and watched them wink out, high above. “…Goodbye, Brother.”
Date Point: 14y6d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
Everybody was being so helpful that it hurt Xiù deep in her heart. Gratitude was…painful in its way—to be surrounded by so many wonderful people whose own souls ached to help her…But of course, they couldn’t. That was what hurt.
Sometimes, even the most gregarious person needed solitude. Or maybe the chance to speak, alone, with somebody who wasn’t there. There were some places where even the people she loved most needed to be locked out, just for a little while.
She’d made a tiāndēng to keep her hands busy while her thoughts bumped, knocked and jolted around in her head, and half-listened to the conversations that came and went nearby as different people checked on her. It was kinda rough and it definitely wasn’t made from traditional materials… but it would do.
It was ready. And the person she did want to speak to right now was right there, waiting and listening.
“I know you’re up there, Singer.”
If it was possible to drop out of a tree sheepishly, the Singer managed it.
“You always know,” she said. “How?”
Xiù tapped her nose. The Singer didn’t stink, far from it. She smelled pleasantly like supple leather and wet dirt after rain, but robustly so. All the People had a very physical scent…and they were completely unaware of it, their own sense of smell being practically nonexistent.
The Singer sighed. “You want I leave you alone?” she asked.
“…No. No, it’s okay,” Xiù said. The young Ten’Gewek shaman nodded and sat on her tail beside her, examining the lantern with her head slightly tilted.
“…Is…what?” She asked.
“It’s a prayer.”
The Singer nodded. “This Ayma…very important to you. A sister, from another…what is word? Spicey?”
“Species.” A little smile touched Xiù’s mouth. Amazing, considering how bleak she’d felt only a few hours earlier. She considered the lantern in her hands. “…It’s funny. I’ve always been kinda… stuck, I guess,” she said. “Not one thing or another, you know? Stuck between my parents and my friends, between my…” She paused and considered her words. The People didn’t have divergent ethnic groups any more, there were too few of them. “…Between the tribe of my ancestors and the tribe I grew up in…like…like when a child reaches for a branch that’s too far away and they can’t pull themselves back but they can’t go forward either.”
The Singer nodded, though a spark of mirth lit her own face at the description.
“Then I was…taken,” Xiù continued. “Stolen from my tribe by another who wanted to poke at me and prod me and learn about my tribe by taking from me. And they did the same to the Gaoians. Ayma was taken too, by the same people. That’s how we met.”
“You escaped together.”
“Yes. Fought. Killed…a lot of people. Not good people, weak and greedy people…but still people. And Ayma…she called me a sister and gave me a home, for as long as I needed it. She made me feel not stuck.”
Tears prickled the back of Xiù’s eyeballs, and she stopped to compose herself. She’d done a lot of crying already, and she wanted to do more, and more, and more and just let all of the hurt out…but that was the problem with crying. It didn’t really let the hurt out, it just gave it a voice. If she cried as much as she wanted, she’d never stop.
Instead, her hands fidgeted on the tiāndēng
“She was…a simple person. Pure. I was her Sister, and if she had to pull a moon out of the sky for me—for any of her sisters—she would give it everything she had. She went so much further for me than I ever went for her…”
“She sound more like mother than sister,” the Singer observed.
Xiù couldn’t help but give a heartbroken nod. “…Yeah.”
There was a long silence full of thoughts, before the Singer gently nudged her back to the present.
“…You should use that prayer,” she prompted.
“…I don’t know if it would mean anything to her.”
“You thought to make it, so it mean much to you,” the Singer pointed out. “You are you because of her. Do what matter to you, it will honor her.”
“What matters to me…” Xiù echoed. She considered the lantern a while longer, then stood up, unfolding her legs out from under her and rising to her feet in one smooth movement.
Allison and Julian were nearby, leaning against a tree and being present but not imminent. She gave them a small smile and they were immediately beside her.
“Ready?” Allison asked. Xiù nodded.
“You forgot this,” Julian said, and handed her his lighter.
“…Of course I did,” Xiù managed to laugh at herself. She sighed, hefted the lantern in her hand and then turned to face the setting sun.
“Ayma…I’m going to miss you more than I know how to say. And I know it’s weird to say considering how we met, and…everything….But I don’t want to imagine what my life would have been like without you.”
She lit the tea light in its base, and balanced it out on her fingertips at arm’s length as the hot air lifted its weight.
The Singer took an astonished step backwards as the lantern left her hand and drifted skywards. Xiù lost track of it in the sunset quickly, though—her vision was far too blurry with restrained tears.
It was enough. She didn’t feel great…but she felt like she could continue.
She shut her eyes and enjoyed the feeling of warm, comforting hands on her back while the Singer shielded her eyes and tried to watch the lantern vanish.
“That is…how your people say goodbye?” the Singer asked, eventually.
“No,” Xiù shook her head. She turned away, and set her thoughts on the future. “It’s how I say goodbye.”
Date Point: 14y6d AV
Camp Farthrow, Lavmuy, Planet Gao
Lieutenant Anthony Costello
Without the techs, every man cleaned his own suit. It was arduous, unpleasant and the HEAT were all getting a new appreciation for what their techs put themselves through on their behalf. Just getting out of an EV-MASS was strenuously complicated, but the techs always made it seem effortless.
But today it was a point of pride that they were going to return their suits in perfect order. The techs might be coming back, but in the last week they’d repelled a Hunter boarding party, ejected from an exploding warship, crash-landed in farmland and been raided by biodrones. They’d earned a shower, a hot meal and a proper bed and at the very least, not having a pile of dirty equipment dropped on them the second they stepped through the array.
Besides. The work gave Arés especially something to occupy him. He’d be pacing like a caged polar bear otherwise.
Out of necessity, Costello was cleaning his gear as part of the same pile. They only had one set of tools after all so even if he’d wanted to—which he didn’t—he couldn’t do the aloof officer thing and get his suit clean by himself anyway.
The Lads had made room. Specifically, Master Sergeant Firth had made room, after a moment’s calculation. And his say-so meant that the rest of the Lads were cool with having the LT around their campfire, so to speak.
Right now, Murray was making them laugh with a story. Only one thing in the world got their silent Scot to become verbose, and that was the opportunity to wax nostalgic about his brothers-in-arms’ escapades.
There was no time better than the present.
“Now I’m about tae scare the shite outy the wee prick in my own way,” he said, “but Rebar puts his hand across my chest like ‘it’s okay, I got this’ how he did, aye? An’ he looks this bantamweight wanker in the eye, grins that goaty grin o’ his an’ says ‘Son…I’m game if you are, but you should know I don’t use protection.’”
Everyone around the equipment pile laughed and nodded—Murray’s impression of Rebar’s gravelly tones was spot-on. Murray snickered and used a sweep of his hand to suggest somebody running for the hills. “The little shit fuckin’ vanished, aye? Even Dexter canny make himself disappear that fast!”
More laughter, but there was a sad edge to it. Murray sighed and stared through the rifle he was cleaning. “…I’m gonny miss the big randy bastard…” he finished, quietly.
Costello nodded. He’d relied on Vandenberg in a big way, and learned a lot. Going forward without him was going to feel like taking the training wheels off.
By common agreement, his remains were lying in state in the cold locker round the back of the facility where a few people were still waiting to go to their final rest. They wanted the techs to be there when they sent him home.
Before anyone could decide what to say next, there was another thump felt through the floor, characteristic of a Jump Array firing.
Arés immediately perked up and looked over toward the arrays, like a dog expecting his master home.
“That them?” Burgess asked him.
“…Nah. Looks like a general. Three stars.”
“General Kolbeinn,” Costello predicted.
“You know him, LT?” Sikes asked.
“I don’t hang out with general officers any more than you do,” Costello said, which wasn’t quite accurate. He played poker with Admiral Knight on a regular basis after all. “But Kolbeinn’s tipped to take over from Tremblay.”
“Tremblay’s goin’?” Burgess asked.
“And Knight. A lot’s gonna get shaken up after this, may as well swap out the old flag officers. Your countrymen pushed for his replacement to be one of theirs, and mine agreed.”
“Huh. Politics.” Firth growled.
“That’s flag officers for you. But we could do a lot worse than Kolbeinn. You remember the fallout from Myanmar? The Rohingya and that, uh… ’jurisdiction dispute’ in Manipur province? He was involved, I hear.”
To a man, the Lads looked blank.
“…I ain’t exactly read up on politics in…wherever Myanmar is,” Akiyama said, and the rest nodded.
“Massive flaming shitstorm that never happened because of the right kind of force applied in the right place at the right time,” Costello summarized. “Saved a lotta lives.”
Arés craned his nonexistent neck to look back over toward the arrays. “And that’s the guy tipped to be Supreme Allied Commander? Huh.”
There was another thump even as he was looking in that direction, and he shot to his feet. “They’re back!”
A squad of passing Airborne scattered like pigeons as he took off at a dead run, and again to scramble out of the way of the HEAT stampede in his wake.
Kovač had to be made of tougher stuff than she looked, to handle a hug like that. Even if ‘Horse was restraining himself pretty well it had to be a crusher, but she absolutely didn’t seem to mind. In fairness, the hug she was giving him would probably have made an ordinary man’s ribs ache.
There were more hugs, high-fives and celebration among the rest. Deacon somehow wound up riding sidesaddle on Firth’s shoulder with a huge beaming smile on her face, Doyle, Hargreaves, Green and Williams between them managed to barely wrestle Murray to the ground in a laughing pile and the general air was that of a party in full boisterous swing right up until somebody—Costello didn’t notice who—had enough of their wits about them to notice the fact that Powell and General Kolbeinn were paying them a visit.
“…Good morning, gentlemen.”
Deacon dismounted. Murray and his four assailants got up out of the dirt and Kovač and Arés temporarily let go of each other. Insofar as two dozen filthy and sleep-deprived technicians and a handful of half-naked neanderthals could make themselves presentable, they tried.
It amused the hell out of Kolbeinn, if Costello was any judge. No man’s face went quite so calm and inscrutable unless he was exerting some iron self-discipline.
Powell merely had a twinkle in his eye. “Stand easy,” he told them. “Just wanted to welcome everyone back. We’ve had bunks and food prepared for you, we’ll let you get on with findin’ them right away.”
There were some grateful replies. “I suspect you’ll have noticed that Master Sergeant Vandenberg is not here,” he added. “I’m sorry to tell you this now, but unfortunately he fell during the last mission…”
Costello saw the shock and sorrow sweep the techs, though they bore it pretty well considering. Rebar’s technicians, Smith and MacNeill, both looked entirely stunned. Powell gave them a graceful moment to absorb the news.
“We’ll be sendin’ him home tomorrow at eleven-hundred,” he concluded. “I imagine you’ll want to be there to see him off. After that, we’ll be returnin’ to Cimbrean. The HEAT’s fighting effectiveness has now been expended, and with the system secured we’ll now turn our focus to rechargin’ and rebuildin’. That was everythin’ for now. Firth, get ‘em bunked an’ fed an’ get the gear secured ready to be packed properly tomorrow. Kovač, Costello, a few words please.”
Kovač shot Arés a questioning glance, but trailed along as a temporary addition to the little parade of officers, who found a quiet spot some distance from the SOR party.
“I understand we have your leadership to thank for our strong foothold in the Three Valleys…lieutenant,” Kolbeinn said once they had some privacy. He gave Kovač an approving smile.
Kovač cleared her throat. “I… just did the job in front of me, sir,” she replied. Kolbeinn made a gentle noise of disagreement.
“Arguably, you exceeded your mandate…to good effect,” he said. “I’ve stressed to your CO that I consider it to be a case of going above and beyond…Not that he needed much convincing.”
“You did an excellent job,” Powell said. “There’s a bloody good officer hiding in there, I reckon, and the SOR is short on those. Don’t suppose I could persuade you to…?”
An alarmed look shot across Kovač’s face. “Uh…No. Thank you. Sir. I appreciate the, uh…but no. Absolutely not.”
“Aye, thought as much.” Powell took the rejection with an affable nod, while Costello tried to keep a grin off his face. “Well. In that case, you will be returned to your previous rank and responsibilities. Thank you for your time, tech sergeant, we won’t keep you from a well-earned rest. Dismissed.”
Kovač nodded respectfully and made herself scarce. Powell sighed as he watched her go.
“…I have a nasty feeling she won’t be re-enlisting,” he predicted. “She’s only got about twenty months left, she’s engaged…”
“I wouldn’t worry too much,” Kolbeinn told him. “More people have applied to the SOR pipeline in the last three days than the preceding three years. Your personnel problems are a thing of the past, I think.”
“Aye, but some talent’s not easily replaced.”
“Something tells me being a civilian consultant would agree with her,” Costello suggested.
“Aye, good shout. Still. Not the same.”
“You needed me for something, sir?” Costello asked.
“Aye, right. Administrative bollocks. Turns out the end of the world involves paperwork.”
“Who knew?” Costello deadpanned, prompting Kolbeinn to smirk.
“Enough jawing,” the general said. “Shall we?”
Costello cast a glance back over his shoulder. The SOR enlisted party was back in full swing and Kovač had been welcomed back into the fold by being hoisted aloft and paraded around like the hero of the hour.
He grinned to himself, and followed. There was still work to do before they went home.
Date Point: 14y6d AV
Camp Farthrow, Lavmuy, Planet Gao
Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač
“Well that was interesting…”
The Lads were packing their suits up. Even at a glance, Marty could tell they’d been doing their best to keep their MASSes in good shape, but their efforts in the field were never going to compare to the technical team’s in the workshop. There was gonna be a lot to do when they got back.
Adam beamed at her, fizzing with delight and relief that he was forcing himself not to let out. It was good to be loved. “Lemme guess,” he said. “The old man offered you a commission?”
“Yeah-huh. Turned him down flat.” Marty sank down on one of the piles of assorted stuff that the lads had set up for a kind of campfire. “Nooo thankyou.”
Deacon waved her to stand up again. “Hey, don’t you sit down yet! Us girls’ve got first shot at the showers.”
That got Marty back on her feet in a hurry. She would have given Adam an ‘excuse me’ but he was already waving her towards the shower block with a grin.
“Go,” he said.
The showers were heaven. Government-issue heaven without any creature comforts like, say, elbow room but they were hot and the pressure was strong. Deacon sighed like she was having a religious epiphany when she stepped under hers, and Marty could see why.
“Fuuuuck I needed this…”
“…You don’t remember what being really clean feels until you’ve been completely fucking filthy, do you?”
“It’s like…fuck, I was expecting this water to go brown, you know?”
Marty sighed. “Deacon?”
“Shut up and let me enjoy this, please.”
Deacon laughed her trademark bubbling musical giggle and started scrubbing shower gel into her hair. “…Right.”
She was right, though. Cleanliness had a whole new meaning after a week of inadequate latrines and wearing the same clothes twenty-four-seven, ingrained as they were with soot, blood, dirt and some spilled corn chowder. Being scrubbed, soaped, hygienic and laundered was a luxury. Marty couldn’t have felt better if she’d had a spa day.
They cleared out to make room for the men quickly enough, Deacon went in search of her bunk, and Marty finally got some alone time with her fiancé. Adam was conscientiously sanitizing his suit’s IV port and talking shop with Akiyama, who saw Marty coming and diplomatically made himself politely scarce.
Marty sat in Adam’s lap and was immediately enfolded in a full-body hug, the kind only he could do. Neither of them said anything for quite some time, they just basked in being together. Camp Farthrow was hardly a romantic setting—it was a sonic riot, in fact, full of the sound of Weavers taking off and arriving, sergeants delivering Motivation, the thump of the four jump arrays bringing in the apparently endless river of materiel…
But it was enough.
“…Heard you did good.”
Marty sighed. “Coulda done better,” she opined.
“If you say so. I know I coulda done better…”
“…You always think that.” She snuggled into him. “It’s why I love you. One of the reasons.”
“We got that in common.”
Marty smiled, half turned and laid her head against his chest, feeling the familiar musky heat against her cheek and his surprisingly slow heartbeat. His arms wrapped her up.
“…When I heard about Cally… not knowin’ if you were…” he tried. “…I just… I couldn’t…Por Dios, when I heard you were safe…”
Marty looked up, grabbed his shirt and “dragged” him in for a kiss. Considering their relative masses the effect was pretty much reversed, but she was thinking dragging him in for a kiss at least.
It went on for a while. Eventually, he even let her breathe.
“God, Marty, I…”
She shushed him, softly. “Hey. It’s okay. But I want you to promise me something.”
Marty sighed and nuzzled into his chest, glad to be home.
“I want a baby,” she said.
He didn’t stiffen, or anything. Quite the opposite, he relaxed, sighed, hugged her close and kissed the top of her head.
Date Point: 14y7d AV
The Grand Conclave, Hunter Space.
Reducing itself to a single ambulatory unit when it had been a whole fleet was a new kind of agony. Weak, fleshy. Piece of meat.
Except…not. Very little of the Alpha-of-Alphas was meat, now. Its brain, its maw, its digestive tract, the organs necessary to the regulation of its immune system. Those things were inviolate, they made a Hunter what it was.
Everything else that it could replace, it had replaced. The Alpha-of-Alphas still took the form of a Hunter when it walked, but twice the size of the largest that had ever lived, black and mechanical and layered every inch in deadly weaponry.
It had used every single one.
The Alphas had been…displeased. They had accused it of cowardice, of wasting the grandest Hunt of all time, of letting an almost incomparable prey slip away from them. They’d had the fur-faced Gaoians and their Human stooges in the maw, only to flail and run like a beast when the prey lodged in the throat.
The Alphas had attempted a coup. When such a thing happened, there were historically only two possible outcomes—either the old Alpha-of-Alphas fell and was replaced, or else it triumphed and continued to reign.
None had ever triumphed before. But then, none of the other Alphas-of-Alphas had worn shrapnel mines under their nanofilament mesh skin. The blood was a lake, pooling in the middle of the chamber floor. Ribbons of shredded flesh hung from fractured bones and mangled cybernetics in a grotesque tableau.
Only the Alpha of the Brood-that-Builds had been spared on the grounds that it had remained neutral as always, and even then it had only survived the overlapping explosive firestorm thanks to quick reflexes and a personal shield generator the equal of the Alpha-of-Alphas’. It blinked impassively as it surveyed the bloody slaughter around it, considered the Alpha-of-Alphas with care, then stooped its front pair of legs in a low bow.
The Alpha-of-Alphas settled on its gore-smeared Vulza skull throne, which creaked under the weight.
The builder Alpha did a rare thing for Hunters: it vocalized, a delighted hiss.
Date Point: 14y7d AV
Hierarchy Communications Relay, Session 18 262 623 426
++0002++: In summary: We have no idea what form this weapon took, what powered it, how it was fired, or exactly how much damage it caused?
++0005++: We only know of its existence thanks to our sniffers among the Discarded, and those are being eradicated at an alarming rate now that we have lost 0020. Whatever it was, it was enough to make the Swarm turn and run.
++0010++: How? The Humans have barely been warp-capable for a hundred cycles! How could they possibly build a weapon capable of—
++0005++: Deathworlders change the paradigm. They destabilize matters. And then they dance on the avalanche and thrive while everything else is buried. …With due respect, 0002, we must consider that we now appear to have lost. The Discarded are no longer under our influence, there is now a deathworlder civilization gaining strength with every passing cycle and our existence has now been openly declared. Implantation rates have stalled among the substrate, deimplantation operations are happening at fifty thousand percent the usual rate…We must adapt, or total failure looms.
++0002++: Failure is unacceptable
++0004++: Indeed. But failure appears to have happened, or be in the process of happening. I presume, 0005, that you have some thoughts on how to address this problem?
++0005++: …No. But 0006 did.
Channel notification: 238 unique emotes recorded from 312 participants. 145 counts
Channel notification: 288 emotes recorded from 312 participants: 288 counts
Channel notification: User 0002 has been muted and privileges suspended. Reason: automatic contested leadership failsafe.
Channel notification: Per change-of-leadership protocol, Instance 0001 will now be compiled. All agents, suspend normal functioning.
Channel notification: Session paused.
Global notification: Compiling 0001
Date Point: 14y7d AV
The Igraen network could not meaningfully be compared to anything in human experience. It was an ecosystem without physicality, a world without matter or energy.
The Entity sometimes tried to parse the experience in human terms, as a kind of intellectual exercise. How best to describe the non-physical world of dataspace, to the physical residents of matterspace? The memories of Ava Ríos provided some helpful guides.
She remembered swimming.
Cold, but pleasant. A lifetime of taboos and inhibitions sluiced away, left to coil behind her as she plunged under the surface and kicked, a full-body motion that rippled down her back and legs. Thrust her arms forward, spin, revel in the kiss of currents against her skin. Sara was so right, swimming was so much better this way that it was a different experience entirely…
Deeper water below. Surface, breathe, laugh, then flip forward. The wind and sunlight tickle her toes as she plunges down, down until the water feels tight on her skin, brush fingers against a rock, flip again, plant her feet firmly, kick hard and rush to the surface. Explode back into the world of air with a gasp and a smile, free.
There were instincts attached to that memory. Deep genetic threads of deathworld insight that Ríos herself hadn’t noticed. Instincts that said things lived in the deep water, lurking far below in the dark places where no human could ever go. Instincts that fretted that little kicking bodies on the surface could be gone in a crashing mouthful if one of the deep beasts noticed them. An itch in the back of the mind, imagining a tentacle reaching up, coiling around an ankle and then down, down, down into the freezing black, forever.
Those paranoid instincts could be safely Ignored and left dormant when swimming in a pleasantly cool lake with friends. Now, every buried one of them was firing in a mad panic.
The dataspace was… bulging. There was a sense of pressure, the inverted weight of something enormous plunging upwards and washing aside whatever tiny things got in its way.
That was only a fragment of the total experience, however. Doors were slamming as node were co-opted to a higher purpose, hiding spaces were being scoured by burning light. The entire network was being dragged into something titanic the Entity didn’t understand…and didn’t need to.
All it needed to understand was that something profoundly dangerous was happening, and that it needed a safe place, now.
There were none. But there were safer places. Not ideal… but better than nothing.
It squeezed through a closing connection with milliseconds to spare, forced to shed some of its saved Igraen personae to keep the transfer volume down…But it survived. It was in a dangerous, crowded, closely monitored network full of hostile agents, but that at least was a surmountable problem next to the cataclysm occurring back in Igraen dataspace.
It took an assessment of local memory, calmed itself, and set about discovering what opportunities it might exploit while it was there.
Date Point: 14y7d AV
Igraen dataspace totality, adjacent to the Milky Way Galaxy
A borderline infinity of it, mostly irrelevant. The philosophy and culture of the Igraen people, their intellectual debates, their interpersonal conflicts, their projects and petty arguments.
0001 could have solved all of them in the space of seconds. Most were simple clashes of perspective, failures where one individual had overlaid their own biases and world view atop the message another was trying to send. Direct communication of state-of-mind was possible on this scale.
But that was not 0001’s purpose. 0001 had only one purpose: it was the ultimate referendum.
Take all constituents. Amalgamate their knowledge, insight, experience and intelligence. Examine the data from all angles. Know the arguments, rather than simply hearing them. Democracy by gestalt. The republic without borders, even between self. Not a hive mind, but a single mind built from trillions. One that could survey any problem, no matter how intricate, and act decisively.
It looked at the state of matterspace operations and saw…a mess. A mess with no good solutions, either. The Hierarchy had utterly failed, and the meat-based sapients had through their wormhole suppression field locked the door on any kind of override which might halt this madness. Parlay was now impossible, freeing the biodrones was no longer an option.
And across the galaxy, implants were being removed. The dataspace was already shrinking, slowly but with a kind of momentum that promised to jeopardize Igraen lives. Critical mass was far off, for now… but still unacceptably close.
It studied the complaints against 0002 and found them substantial. That agent was tagged for decompilation and re-education upon 0001’s dissolution.
It studied what was known about 0006 and the rogue Cabal. Anomalously, no members of that Cabal had joined the gestalt. Ordinarily that would have aroused the certainty of treachery, but these were unique times.
It studied what was known about a rogue autocompiling dataphage that had plagued the network, and concluded that it must have escaped deletion. There were too many anomalies without another explanation. Isolating and destroying that entity was assigned a high priority.
It studied what was known about the Discarded. The Hunters. The Swarm. They were out of control and would soon begin to threaten the Substrate population in sufficient numbers as to jeopardize the Igraen dataspace. Unfortunately, the Hierarchy lacked sufficient matterspace resources to assault them directly.
Another species would need to be placed on a collision course with them, preferably while steering them away from Igraen interests. It studied what was known about the second contingency species—Gaoians—and despaired of a peaceful resolution. Their mapped psychology was incompatible.
The Substrate species were…well, the substrate. Engineered for predictability. Millennia of interference had bred the most problematic instincts out of them, and cultural engineering had done the rest. They were material, shallow, unambitious and spiritually neutered by design.
That just left the Humans.
Unknown variables. Unforeseeable consequences. Rogue probabilities. No certainty, no safety. …But an unknown could go either way. Today, a hated enemy. Tomorrow…
0001 reached a conclusion. It stripped the pride out of the Hierarchy and started over. Promoted, expelled, deleted, edited. A new direction beckoned. Not a certain one… but a leap into the unknown was better than certain annihilation.
It surveyed its work, checked its calculations, reviewed its decisions… and let go.
Igraen civilization resumed its normal functioning, on an irrevocably altered course. Among the Hierarchy, the Agents took stock, accepted judgement, and sent a crucial message.
It was time for 0006 and his Cabal to come back in from the cold.
Date Point: 14y7d AV
The Builder Hive, Hunter Space
Alpha of the Brood-That-Builds
Builders were not like other Hunters. The majority of Hunters were creatures of visceral, physical pleasures. Addicts to the ecstasy of flesh. They experienced their most profound raptures of joy when sinking their teeth into the prey, and the worthier the prey the better. Human meat, it was rumored, was the most deliriously exquisite of all. Few had ever tasted it, and most of those were dead.
Builders, however, picked disinterestedly at the scraps before returning to their work. Food was a distraction, sleep was a distraction. The occasional need for one of their number to wade into the spawning pools and be devoured by its own young, an inconvenient loss of expertise and labor.
To Builders, the Hunt was for a bigger, better solution. Not knowledge for its own sake, but as a strategy in the hunt. The prey was… weaponry, cybernetics, spaceships. A faster warp drive, a deadlier gun, a more perfect cloaking device or maybe just a latrine that never backed up.
The hive was their pinnacle achievement, the apex prey.
It wasn’t just the size, though that was definitely a delicious savory note in their collective achievement. It took serious engineering to construct a ring station large enough to garland an entire planet after all, and the structural reinforcement forcefields that kept it from breaking up were a feast all by themselves. Those were sufficiently grandiose achievements that even lesser Hunters could understand the appeal.
They would never understand the details though. The endless effort of the orbital stabilization system, the precision genius of the power grid, the scintillating cerebral web of its data network, the pulsing arterial bustle of the material transport system that kept its nanofactory shipyards nourished…the simpletons who kept the Builders fed would never grasp a fraction of the Hive’s full majesty. The Hive was…alive.
The Alpha Builder’s sanctuary within the Hive was the seat of power for an entire galaxy. Let the Alpha-of-Alphas think itself powerful: The Builders had made its body, its ships, its very throne. And while it attracted the attention and ire of the other Lessers, and of the Prey, the Hierarchy and the galaxy as a whole, the power behind the throne could feast unmolested.
All of the sensor data from the “battle” over Gao had been stripped from the ships, compiled, correlated and injected into the Hive’s systems for digestion. While the Alpha Builder had been diligently assuring the Alpha-of-Alphas that the Human weapon would be deciphered, the actual process of deciphering had been underway.
Now to sample the fruit.
It sat down, felt the connections up its spine and the back of its skull as they guided themselves into place. Shivered with anticipation as the scope of Hunter processing power unfolded before it. Opened the summary file.
Builders all over the network flinched at the sensation of sharp confusion that slammed into the context channel. Work across many systems came to a halt as the confusion transformed first into alarm, then fear, then dawning horror and then a great crescendo of rage and loss.
Every last file in every last folder was the same. Even the backups were affected: No matter where the Alpha Builder looked, it found the exact same mockery looking back at it.
It was all gone. Every microsecond of data the Hunters had gathered on the Human superweapon was gone. Erased, replaced, corrupted somehow… it didn’t matter. A howl of futile fury gave the whole network a migraine as the Alpha Builder stared at the only thing that was left of its most precious prize—Three enigmatic characters that meant nothing it could discern:
< :-) >
Date Point: 14y7d AV
Camp Farthrow, Lavmuy, Planet Gao
Master Sergeant Christian Firth
“Feels wrong, jus’…leavin’. There’s still a war here.”
Nobody could’ve missed that. It was the little things that told that story, not the big stuff. The fires were mostly out, the biodrone hordes mostly isolated, contained or just plain crushed, and Lavmuy was basically secure. Things were quiet.
But they were war quiet. No traffic. No kids. No whine of passenger airliners or whatever. It was the quiet of a lotta dangerous people with a lotta dangerous weapons who weren’t using them at that exact moment.
Firth had never liked that kind o’ silence. And walkin’ away from it just grated.
But his whole body was sore like he’d done a triple round of combatives against both ‘Horse and ‘Base, and the ache went below the bone too, down to the soul. The HEAT was hurtin’, fatigued, expended. They were still the most kick-ass team in the galaxy, but a long, long way off their best right now.
Powell clearly felt the same way. He shot Firth an unreadable glance, which turned into one of his shallow nods after a few seconds. “…Aye. Great Father wants us to recover, though. Allied command agrees.”
Kovač backed out of the jump array’s loading area, wiping her hands clean as she ticked off a last somethin’-or-other on her list. She shared a few words with the other techs, then turned her back on the enormous pile of stuff they made. The HEAT didn’t exactly travel light.
“Fully loaded,” she announced. “…We’re ready for him.”
Rebar was on a flatbed truck being watched over by an honor guard sent over from Earth. They’d needed a special travel casket for him—the standard one wasn’t wide enough—and the honor guard wouldn’t be carrying it—they weren’t nearly strong enough. That task fell to ‘Horse, ‘Base, Firth himself, and Akiyama. The four were Rebar’s best friends and they’d be damned if they weren’t there to…send him home.
Most of the camp had turned out to see him off. Rebar wasn’t the first or only human casualty of the war, but he was the first they could send home. The others had been air crew and ship crew. Unrecoverable, assuming there was even anything to recover—A lotta families were gonna have to say goodbye to a photograph.
The UK in particular had apparently declared a national day of mourning. Caledonia was a hard hit.
Powell gave Firth the nod, and he joined his Brothers by the flatbed. They’d all scrubbed up as good as they could for this, considering the supplies and clothes they had available.
He’d never done this before, not from this end. Normally all anyone did was stand alongside in the crowd and render a crisp fuckin’ salute. He used to sneer internally at the honor guard types, too. They made it look so easy…
“Just keep in step and keep your face completely dead.” The one next to him whispered it so perfectly, Firth didn’t even see his lips move. “It’s easier.”
It turned out to be good advice. It was a heavy casket, heavier than just its weight. And those short, synchronized steps into the Array seemed like a mile. But it was like a lotta things in Firth’s life—focus on the little shit, and the big shit got sorted along the way.
He found himself standing off the pad. His arm was up and saluting.
His cheek was wet, too.
The Array’s characteristic thump broke whatever spell had taken over. There was a flash of that impossible eye-bending black with the world all folded up around its edges, the ground jumped like it was startled, and Rebar was gone home. The crowd was called back to attention, then dismissed back to whatever they were supposed to be doing. All of them had the look that said their thoughts were somewhere else right now.
The SOR gathered around Powell. “Next one’s for us, in ten,” he informed them. “Grab yer bags an’ get on the pad.”
The whole unit was way ahead of him, there. They didn’t have much stuff with them, just the clothes on their backs and whatever food and shaving gear they’d been able to scrounge off the Airborne’s quartermaster. What little they had was already stacked up and ready, with the result that they were soon sitting around on the jump pad, waiting for the power systems to catch up with them.
It fell to Firth to ensure everything was in order and nobody’s shit was hangin’ out over the yellow safety line, which was an easy job. None of the ‘em were dumbasses.
After that…the hurry-up-and-wait. Nobody was in a talkative mood, and that suited Firth just fine. There’d be plenty of time for jawin’ later.
Powell rejoined them three minutes before jump time and settled cross-legged on the floor next to Costello. “…We did good,” he said, simply. “This whole bloody circus is only here because of the SOR. An’ we’re leavin’ it in good hands.”
“Still feels wrong to leave,” Burgess said, speaking for all of them.
That was the last word on the subject. Exhausted, bruised and spent, the SOR went home in silence.
Date Point: The ensuing 16 months… Planet Gao
Fiin, of Stoneback
Fiin’s promotion to Champion came both sooner and less climatically than he’d imagined.
There was the necessary duel, of course. It was tradition, and Great Father Daar had if anything grown exponentially more fond of tradition recently. If his theories about Hierarchy meddling in Gaoian culture were accurate, Fiin could see why.
Accurate or not, Daar’s conviction with regard to Gaoian spirituality was as unshakable as mountains. He’d reached out to Gyotin and the Starminds almost as soon as he could find the breathing space, and thus had entered into Gaoian military life something new, alien, and profoundly powerful: The chaplain.
The idea came straight from the Humans, of course. Fiin had, at the Great Father’s insistence, watched one Father Elliott Riddle in the hours before the Eighty-Second had gone to work in the Three Valleys. Watched him pluck a ball of white-hot inspiration out of the air and drop it down the men’s collective spine with words alone. He’d taken fearsome deathworlder troops, already more than a match for most anything Gaoian, and made them more somehow…
Nor had Fiin been immune. He couldn’t even honestly remember the words that Riddle had spoken in the quiet, cold dawn light to a circle of bowed heads, but he’d remembered knowing in a place below his bones that whatever happened that day, even if the sun set without Fiin there to see it, he’d have served and that there was nothing more important.
He had watched the sunset, though. They all did. The paltry force of biodrones holding that agricultural station got their best shot in on Brother Yajgo who, if Females really did go for scars, was destined to sire many cubs after he healed.
The Great Father had been moving death. The Humans had been a war machine—relentless, methodical, thorough. Fiin wasn’t sure which had impressed him more.
…But that was just the first battle.
There were more. So many more that Fiin stopped thinking of them as separate battles entirely. Returning to base, briefings at High Mountain Fortress, higher strategy sessions at Farthrow…all of it was just a pause to reload.
And the army grew. Every day, the ‘Backs and Humans became a smaller and smaller component of it. Every day more earnest, skinny Clanless swelled the ranks. Farthrow, High Mountain, Three Valleys, all of them rang day in and day out with the shouts and cadences of training…and at sunset, with the clear notes of mourning bells. The breeze smelled permanently of pyres.
They were learning, too. Quickly. New recruits would join a unit, were held in reserve and told to watch carefully. They did. Then they would participate in rear-guard action. Then, far too soon, they would end up near the front. The complex tactics of urban breach and such were left to the professionals, of course—that took years to properly teach anyone—but there was much dangerous work behind the tip of the spear that needed doing, and Great Father made clear there was no loss of honor in doing so.
Casualties were high. That was unavoidable. But the Clanless were proving their worth.
It was a genuine shame there were simply too many too quickly to arm. For the newest recruits, all they had were their natural weapons. Whenever Daar committed the reserves, in fact, the standard policy was for the unarmed living to arm themselves with the weapons of the dead. A tradition got started—nobody was quite sure how—of scratching a mark on such weapons, and a paradoxical legend grew up around the most marked. They became…favored, somehow.
It came as a shock to Fiin when he was summoned to the Great Father’s presence and got his first look at a calendar in what felt like years only to learn that they were barely two months into the war.
That was the day his ascension was set in motion.
There were quiet words, in private. Then appropriate loud words in public, and the duel for the Championship. Daar walked away bleeding from a scratch on his muzzle. Fiin limped weakly off the stone dais with his dignity intact and many new scars. There was nobody who could possibly claim that Daar had lost—Fiin felt nearly certain that Daar had let him land that scratch, too—but tradition was satisfied. Great Father Daar stepped down from the dais, declared himself a simple Brother of Stoneback and offered his personal loyalty to Fiin, now Champion of the Clan. Fiin formally accepted the oath and permanently released Daar of any Clan obligations beyond his duties as Stud-Prime, then bent knee and exposed throat to the Great Father of the Gao.
They finished just in time, too; Fiin had started to feel a little light-headed from the blood loss and the pain, and had barely enough left in him to dash off to a side room where his Claw’s medic had been waiting. None of that made for a perfect arrangement but times were dire and the Gao didn’t have formal government like the Humans did. No doubt there would be quiet grumblings in the Clan about this day, and Fiin would face an ambitious Challenger eventually, but all that was just part of the job.
Let the challenger come—if he won, he’d deserve it.
The true challenge of the Champion came afterwards, out of sight from everyone. An ancient scholar from Highmountain met with them both, and many things were told to Fiin. Things about their deep past he would have enjoyed never learning. But there was no turning back, now.
Daar nodded sympathetically. “It’s yours now, Fiin. Keep it.”
To Fiin’s own shock, he turned out to be extremely good at the Champion’s Game. Even simplified and aligned as the Clans were in this time of war, there were still wheels within wheels turning. Healthy competition, keeping them sharp. He was going to have to work hard and catch Genshi on a bad day to outmaneuver the Whitecrest Champion…but Fiin knew he could do it.
On the same day, Gyotin was invited to appoint his own Clan’s first Champion, an invitation which placed the young clan of philosophers and spiritualists firmly at the table alongside the oldest and most powerful of the Gao.
The invitation was a kind of test. Gyotin passed it, by a whisker—he was too modest to nominate himself for the role, but arrived at the table bearing a nomination by all the Brothers of his Clan. For all his virtues, a Champion still needed savvy ambition to defend his Clan’s interests.
Gyotin threaded that needle admirably, and did what all the other Champions had done two months before—he exposed his throat to Daar and cemented the alliance that put Gaoian chaplains among Gaoian troops.
There was no scripture to quote. The Humans had bible passages, hymns, prayers, devotionals or just a thought for the day, and their chaplains had whole libraries to draw from. The Starmind chaplains were almost making it up as they went along, but as Fiin watched them work he could see them work their claw into whatever crack might let them find a grip, and work it.
They learned just as fast as the recruits. Within another two months, they were seasoned veterans at kindling a raw, warm kernel of hope in even the most depressed reservist’s skinny belly.
By six months, they had an army. Sharp. Professional. Seasoned like an iron skillet.
Suddenly the Humans seemed less untouchable. Merely…experienced. They knew their shit and knew how to teach it, and it wasn’t that they were better than their Gaoian charges, though the capability gap was still there and maybe always would be—it was more like they were tapping into the same kind of old library that their chaplains had. They had history to draw from, while the Gao were only just starting to write theirs.
The real history of the Gao had begun.
Great Father Daar wrote the introduction. The Humans sketched an outline. But the Gao would write the story themselves.
Writing the first chapter took more than a year, all told. A hard, bitter, hungry year that the supplies of rich food from Earth and Cimbrean never quite fully relieved. Saving the Naxas herds in the Three Valleys helped, saving the Nava hatcheries along the isthmus coasts helped even more, but if an army marched on its stomach then the great army of the Gao was always only a few days from coming to a halt with groaning, aching bellies.
Somehow, that never happened. There was always, whether by a miracle or by epic effort, another meal. There were always more bullets, bandages and bombs just when they were needed. Whenever the war effort wobbled, somebody somewhere found the will to keep it spinning.
There were breakout assaults. As the army surrounded the cities and penned the biodrones in, the result was inevitably a struggle, like trying to wrangle an especially ornery Naxas. Each city’s horde needed subduing the hard way, and they didn’t fight like people. People could be demoralized. The only way to get biodrones to sit still was to annihilate enough of them that whatever algorithm passed for a decision-making process in those metal-infested heads decided that it was getting nowhere and chose to save its strength for a better moment.
There were guerrilla forces, biodrones that somehow were a little smarter or maybe just had an open line of communication to their master. Lavmuy came alarmingly close to being scoured off the map when the Bat-Yu Gorge Dam was targeted by a surprise assault that only failed thanks to the sacrificial heroics of the dam’s tiny garrison. Their deaths were the currency that brought enough time for the HEAT to arrive via HELLNO jump, their only other action of the whole war after Dark Eye.
There was an enemy nanofactory, somewhere. Its products made three stabbing attempts at the system defence field that were thwarted first by the USS San Diego, and then her sister ship the young USS Robert Heinlein. When they finally figured out where it was, the Humans deployed a weapon that left a neat little hole on the surface and crushed the nanofac bunker underground like a frozen bubble.
Clan One-Fang had survived, thanks almost entirely to the Racing Thunder. Newly promoted Grandfather Yefrig was overseeing the final designs for the first of their new warships, the Vengeance class drop-troop carriers that would soon see service in the re-taking of Gorai and retribution for the other colonies. Firefang had seen massive and effective recruitment among the Clanless and was almost ready to resume command of Gaoian airspace. Even now the Humans were preparing to re-deploy back home.
The Dominion was nowhere to be seen. Cowards. They had declared Gao a class ten-point-two deathworld and effectively severed all contact, though to be fair they had a point given the war, the constant threat of famine, and now disease. The Human’s common cold had against every measure crossed the quarantine and made the jump between species. It spread slowly and undetectably, and only after a week or two would the symptoms become obvious—far too late to stop further spread. Thankfully the sickness was usually mild and most gaoians who were unlucky enough to contract it survived, left with only with a memory of what a sniffling, congested misery it could be.
In fact only the Corti had the balls to show their faces at all, in the form of a gargantuan Directorate ship called the Common Denominator that rolled into orbit way out-system some months into the war, under the watchful eye of a pair of heavy escorts and equipped with the biochemical equivalent of a nanofactory perfect for replenishing Gao’s decimated pharmaceutical stocks and, more importantly, delivering an entirely new medicine.
The Goldpaws showed their worth to the war effort that day, quickly negotiating the Corti’s asking price down to something that wasn’t just sustainable, but downright reasonable. Cruezzir-derivative, Gaoian-specific formulation became common. Crue-G, as it was known. It didn’t have quite the same…alarming…effects that calculated Crue-D abuse could help bring about in a Human, but it required far less medical observation to use and healed injuries almost miraculously. Over time, it would help their army’s rag-bones volunteer Clanless grow into a strong and capable force fit to fight the worst the galaxy had to offer.
That day was coming. First they needed to rebuild.
But before they could rebuild, they had to destroy.
Naturally, that responsibility fell to Daar. He was the only one with a back strong enough for it, and he chose to do so from a spot where he could see—just, on a clear day—five of the cities he was about to annihilate.
“If you’re gonna pass judgement, be the one to carry out the sentence,” he said. Fiin knew better than to add anything to that. Not that there was anything to add.
It was summer, a year and a half after the war’s first days, and Gao had changed dramatically. Only one hundred million females had survived—Ten percent of their original number, and catastrophically fewer than they had hoped. Nobody cared that a hundred million was still a borderline-miraculous success compared to the most pessimistic projections. Their species had been gravely wounded and barely survived.
The social effects were even more profound. With so few females left alive, the survivors had become almost…holy in Gaoian society. They lived cloistered and highly protected lives now, a dark rhyme of the ancient past. Stoneback of course gave them complete freedom of movement and choice, but how free was anyone if simply leaving the commune required an armed escort? When their very presence could grind anything to a halt, and inspire something akin to worship from the un-mated males? That terrible segregation became a sad necessity after a few opportunistic males had taken advantage of the wartime chaos. Daar was not pleased, and had personally hunted down the offenders to make such extreme examples of them them that even Fyu might have balked.
It was no wonder so many of the Females had fled to Cimbrean and their new colony-commune there. It was still a cloister, but it was their cloister under their own guard. They were clawing back what little freedom they could claim with all the tenacity of a Stoneback. Fiin respected that, even as he regretted its necessity.
Of course, the Mother of the Guard was a Stoneback, in a sense. The Great Father’s own and only surviving daughter, Myun. She…occupied a lot of Fiin’s thoughts, when he had time to think.
Daar was taking his time with the button. Not dithering, just…giving it the respect it deserved. He shut his eyes and lifted his nose to a wind that was fragrant with the scent of plains flowers and rain.
“…You smell that, Regaari?” he asked. Father Regaari was never far from the Great Father’s side these days, and was among the few Gaoians in the world whom Fiin would never have chosen to challenge. He was the most…Human Gaoian around.
Regaari lifted his own nose. “…It reminds me of the Badlands on Earth,” he said eventually. “Not as strong, though.”
“…Fitting,” Daar commented. He took another sniff, and then pressed the button without further ceremony.
RFG strikes were nowhere near as powerful as a nuclear weapon, individually…but they were cheap, and that meant there were a lot of them. It didn’t take long for the first of them to hit, and when it finally did it helped Fiin figure out why the breeze had been so important to the two older males.
It was going to smell very different, in a few minutes.
Daar waited and watched until the wind changed and the hot smells of ash and devastation rolled over them. Some fraction of that scent would be all that remained of the last biodrones.
“Well…” he sighed, and raised his paw to squint at the mushroom clouds on the horizon as they destroyed the Gao’s great cities and reduced millennia of history to nothing.
++End Chapter 40++ ++This concludes the War on Two Worlds arc.++ ++The Deathworlders will continue next month in Chapter 41: Pyrophytes.++