The Deathworlders

Chapter 44: Samsara

Date Point: 15y5m4d AV
High Mountain Fortress, Gao

President Arthur Sartori

“I get what ‘yer sayin’, Mister President…but this all seems like doin’ a mile o’ walkin’ just to cross the room.”

Daar’s straightforwardness was refreshing, mostly, but right now it was combining with the rose-tinted goggles he often wore with regard to human nature to put an obstacle in their path.

The two Whitecrests in the room—Champion Genshi and Father Regaari—both traded an amused look behind the Great Father’s back, but said nothing. Nevertheless, their expressions were reassuring. This wasn’t a psychological species thing, this was just Daar being…extraordinarily honest in the way he conducted himself.

For his part, Sartori acknowledged Daar’s objection with a nod, but threw in a conciliatory shrug. “This is an old game in American politics. We call it ‘Wagging The Dog.’ You make the tail wag, the rest of the dog follows.”

Daar sighed. “We went to all that effort to get that footage, and y’ain’t even gonna use it officially? People died!”

“Which is why I don’t give a corkscrew shit about using it officially, I care about using it effectively,” Sartori shot back. Against any of his human counterparts such straightforward vulgarity wouldn’t have gone down well. In Daar’s case, it was practically required. “That’s why I want to leak it. If we put it out there ourselves then it’s propaganda, it’s what ‘The Man’ wants the public to think.”

“American culture places great stress on distrust of the government, Great Father,” Regaari reminded Daar.

Sartori nodded. “For good reason. Governments are dangerous. But it leads to stuff like the moon landing conspiracy theorists and 911 Truthers and…a lot of noise and paranoia. But if it’s leaked, then that means The Man doesn’t want people to know it, which means it’s unquestionably true. And then because it looks like ammunition they can use against me, my critics and opponents will pick it up. They’ll act like I’ve been half-assing the Hunter problem and insist I do more.”

Daar scratched his ear. “Won’t that hurt you, though? Undermine ‘yer authority an’ public opinion an’ such?”

“But it’ll bolster my agenda,” Sartori retorted. “I’m never more powerful than when my opponents are demanding that I do the things I already want to do. And then when my time in office is up, they’re stuck: If they win, they have to pursue my policy or else backtrack; If my party wins, then the next guy gets to carry the baton, nice and easy without opposition.”

Daar considered that for a moment with a thoughtful look on his shaggy head.

“Well, I ain’t so hung up on m’self that I don’t understand the value of military diversion or deception…and I ain’t gonna pretend like I can politically out-scheme Genshi. If he thinks ‘yer shits are golden, I’m gonna trust his advice.”

Sartori met the Whitecrest Champion’s eye, and found himself wishing that he could pull off that distinctive little ear-flick Gaoians had. It could say almost anything, though in Genshi’s case it usually filled in for an arched eyebrow. Genshi was definitely amused.

“I think it’s a good plan, My Father,” he said, urbanely.

“Right.” Daar shook his mane out and thumped down to all fours. “I swear I’m gettin’ too old for these shenanigans…anyway. I can’t tell ‘ya what t’do Mister President, but I gotta make sure you unnerstand somethin’.”

Daar padded over to Sartori and looked him dead in the eye. “I had ‘ta light three pyres ‘cuz o’ that footage, Arthur. I will not be happy if their lives were wasted.”

Sartori nodded, not breaking eye contact. He wasn’t the junior partner in this conversation, and he wasn’t about to give a subservient answer. “Agreed,” he said.

The change in Daar’s stance was subtle, but pleased. “Right. Now if ‘ya excuse me, I ain’t lifted since yesterday an’ Naydra is comin’ back tonight. A Stoneback’s gotta manage his priorities…” The smug waggle in his huge wolf-like ears was almost too much to take.

Sartori chuckled. “Of course. I should return to Earth. Thank you for receiving me, Daar. It’s been…quite an experience.”

“‘Yer welcome, and ‘yer welcome anytime you wanna visit. How…” Daar paused, looked at Regaari for a spare moment, and looked back at Sartori. “Are the cherry trees in blossom?”

“Sorry, no. They peaked in mid-March this year and the flowering is over with.”

“Durn,” Daar grumbled and padded over towards the doorway towards his private gym. “One ‘o these days, I’d really like to smell that.”

“Mister President?” Sartori turned and saw Champion Genshi holding the door for him. “The jump array is charged.”

Sartori nodded, exchanged a last mutual nod of respect with Daar, and allowed himself to be escorted out of the room.

“You made an impression,” Genshi said once the door was closed.

Sartori smiled as they took the long stairs down High Mountain’s keep tower. The building felt heavy with age, and the Gaoians had done a masterful job of incorporating modern demands like the plumbing, power, air conditioning and communications infrastructure without diminishing its historic gravitas. The ducting, cabling and pipework was all cunningly hidden in wooden features that looked like part of the fortress’ ancient structure. Human architects could learn a thing or two.

“I’m glad,” he said. “He’s made an impression too. I’ll have to watch my language when I meet the German chancellor tomorrow.”

Genshi chittered heartily at that. They descended the steps in comfortable silence for a few floors until they were on ground level. “If you’ll indulge me a question, Mister President…?” he asked.

“Shoot.”

“It’s my understanding that you became President shortly after the attack on Capitol Station, yes?”

“That’s right.”

“Which was more than five years ago now, by Earth’s calendar.”

“Yup.”

“And yet…despite the fact that a presidential term is four years, you’re still in your first term?”

“Technically.” Sartori smiled. He’d had to explain this one a few times. “The Amendment dictating how long a president can hold the office states that I can’t serve more than two full terms, you see…”

“Ah yes. The…Twenty-second Amendment, I believe?”

Sartori nodded. “Good memory.”

Genshi flicked his ear, this time the equivalent of a small smile. “Xenopolitics was my specialty, before I became Champion. I’m sure you and I could have a fascinating conversation about your Constitution…but the most important word in that sentence was ‘two full terms,’ yes?”

“Exactly,” Sartori smiled. “I served as my predecessor’s Vice-President for more than half his term, then the old man stepped down after Capitol Station. I finished the remainder of what was technically his term, then ran with Bill Hendricks to launch what is technically my first term.”

“What led him to step down?”

“Health reasons. He was eighty-seven and diabetic, and he had a heart attack about a week after Capitol Station. Just a small one, but in private he said to me, ‘Art,’ he said, ‘this here’s an honest-to-God space war and I’m too damn old to see it through. If the armada comes tomorrow, I might just drop down dead.’ So he stepped down, went back to his place on the lake…Maddy—his wife, the First Lady—went out to take him an ice tea seven months later and found him passed away with a fishing rod in his hands, God rest his soul. I keep in touch with his family, though.”

“If it’s not an impertinent question…who would you like to succeed you?” Genshi asked. “Hendricks?”

“…No. Bill’s a good VP, but he doesn’t want it. I think Margaret White. Hell, she might even have beaten me if she’d run against me.”

“Ah! And America will finally get its long-awaited first female president,” Genshi chittered. “Though from what I’ve heard, Mrs. White would be unimpressed to hear me say that.”

“She’d chew your ears off,” Sartori chuckled.

That provoked an interesting reaction. It was just for a moment and Sartori almost didn’t see it, but his words clearly had a loaded meaning in Gaoian culture. Genshi was too composed to give away much, but he came within a whisker of flinching or stiffening.

“That’s a…colorful metaphor, Mister President.”

“I guess it is.” Their perambulations finally brought them to the jump array deep in High Mountain’s bowels, where the presidential retinue were waiting and ready. The Array was loaded and charged…he could return to Earth at any time.

Something made him pause and look around. He was on an alien planet, he realized. He’d been treating it like just another nation, but in that moment it struck him that he was incalculably far from home, surrounded by aliens, negotiating the fates of interstellar societies and the course of galactic history. And the urbane, sleek creature he’d been making small-talk with was the product of evolution that owed nothing to Earth and aligned with human biology only because nature kept falling back on the same solutions that worked.

He wondered if he’d ever come back. Maybe see Gao in later years once it had been rebuilt, maybe go skiing…skiing in low gravity would be interesting.

He turned to Genshi. “It’s been a pleasure and a privilege, Champion Genshi,” he said politely, and offered a hand.

Genshi returned a paw, and they shook. “For me more than for you, Mister President,” he replied.

Sartori nodded, smiled, and turned away.

Time to get back to the grind.


Date Point: 15y5m4d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Clara Brown

Awkward didn’t begin to cover it.

The boys were adorable in a home-schooled, cloistered, helicopter-mom-afflicted kinda dorky way. And Allison was being pretty darn adorable herself as she got to know them.

Ramsey was the more talkative of the two. “Will we get to meet the Ten’Gewek?”

Allison gave him a fond smile. “Maybe later, if your mother says it’s okay. And if they get back before you go to bed.”

Your mother, Clara noted. The woman sitting silently in the corner couldn’t have looked more like an older Allison if she’d tried, but still she was their mother and not Allison’s.

She was polite, sure, even though she constantly glanced at her sons as if she expected them to somehow lose an arm if she didn’t check on them every five seconds, and she obviously wasn’t paying attention to the movie at all.

In fact, she gave the impression of not really approving of the movie either, which was an absolute romp as far as Clara was concerned. It had huge choreographed battles, a heart-tearing romance, balletic kung fu and a soaring orchestral score. It was rated for kids Ramsey and Tristan’s age, but Amanda Buehler seemed like the kind of mom who thought Saturday morning cartoons were too violent.

“They seem very…” Amanda paused to choose her words carefully. “…Uh…From what I saw on TV, they’re very…Earthy.”

“They’re stone-age hunters and warriors. And yeah, they smell like a tannery sometimes.” Allison shrugged. “But they’re good people. Yan’s quite a charmer, actually.”

“Oh. Good. That’s…That’s good.”

Awkward.

Thank God for Grandma Ericsson’s secret cheese dip recipe. The secret ingredient was cumin, but the trick was to make a lot of it. Clara prided herself that she would never, ever leave people scraping the bottom of the bowl to get at the last of it while there were still dry chips left.

And God, how she’d missed making it. To her delight, Dane couldn’t get enough either.

Then again, it had been a while since they’d last cuddled up and watched a movie together. She resolved to do it more often.

The movie’s climactic showdown literally involved the protagonist and her husband in a spiralling duell atop of a dragon in flight, which as a concept went far past ridiculous but the cinematography pulled it off beautifully. It certainly held the boys enraptured, and Xiù was sitting next to Allison and quietly copying the choreography as if she was memorizing every move.

Actually, she probably was.

It had gone dark by now: the nightly rains had swept in, and apparently Allison had relented on letting her relatives stay because there had been no talk of cabs or hotels, and a little muttered talk of bedding, mattresses and dinner. Xiù glanced over her shoulder and reluctantly tore herself away from the movie when headlights strobed in through the blinds and cast water-pebbled shadows on the back wall.

Clara decided to follow her. “Is it me, or are things super awkward in there?” she asked as soon as they were through in the kitchen.

Xiù half-laughed. “Hmm. Do you have anything stronger than ‘awkward’?”

There were thumps and bangs from outside and then, weirdly, the sound of a van driving away. A few seconds later, Julian backed in through the door carrying a shallow cardboard box full of groceries.

“Thanks.” Xiù took the box off him and kissed his cheek. “Where are—?”

“Chimp’s taken ‘em back to the base. They got into a dairy farm and ate the bull, raw, so…”

“Ew.” Clara grimaced.

“Yeah. So, they’re going through a biofilter, just to be safe.”

Xiù put the box down on the table and turned back to him with several expressions warring for dominance on her face. “Why did they—?”

Julian shrugged. “They were hungry. Hey, Clara.”

She gave him a friendly hug. “Hey.”

Julian took off his jacket and hung it up. “So…what’s she like?”

Xiù made an exasperated noise. “I don’t know how that woman is Allison’s mom.”

On cue, the sound of a raised voice filtered through from the next room. Xiù hung her head for a second then slipped through the door to calm down whatever drama was unfolding in there.

Julian watched her go. “That bad, huh?”

“Well, she looks like Allison,” Clara conceded. “But…eh…That’s about where the similarities end. I guess the apple fell far from the tree, huh?”

“The apple got the hell as far away from the tree as she could,” Julian said. “…I’d better go introduce myself.”

He tilted his head when Clara laughed softly. “…What?”

She shook her head at him. “Never mind. Go say hi. I’m gonna heat up some more dip.”

On that slightly confusing note, Julian shrugged, ran a cursory swipe of his fingers through his untamable hair to get it out of his face, and followed the sound of Xiù’s calming voice.

Things quieted down when he opened the door. They stayed quiet as he closed it behind him. There wasn’t much to note until several minutes later when he stepped back out, quiet, calm-faced…and utterly fucking livid.

Clara was chowing down on chips at the kitchen table while playing around with her phone. Wordlessly, she pushed the bowl toward him, and he reached over, pawed a fistful of chips out of it and sampled the cheese dip like he was smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves.

“I think you might just be in love with two living saints,” she declared after minute filled only with crunching.

Julian let out a huge breath and chuckled softly to himself. “Nah. Allison’s gonna fill something full of holes up at the base later and Xiù’s gonna kick the crap out of my punching bag.” He grinned, “But yeah. Close enough.”

Clara glanced at the closed door. “Xiù’s gonna do that? Our Xiù? The kung fu magical space elf buddhist princess?”

“Hell yeah! You do know that half the reason I slabbed up was so I wouldn’t keep embarrassing myself against her in sparring, right? She once knocked me on my ass so hard I bruised a rib.”

“Well…okay, but I’ve never known her to get angry.”

Julian smiled. “I have. She literally threw a guy out an airlock.” He saw Clara’s expression. “…Into a river. We weren’t in space at the time. But if you’ve never seen her angry it’s because you never did anything to deserve it.”

“I guess I’ll take your word for it…what about Allison? Why up at the base?”

“The only other gun range belongs to the cops. It’s maybe taking advantage of our friendships with the HEAT, but…hell, I might go shootin’ too. Or lifting. I dunno. God, those poor kids.”

“Mhmm.” Clara ruefully studied the last dregs of cheese sauce, ran a finger around the bottom of the bowl to get the last of it, and licked it clean. “Still…I guess it’s an opportunity.”

“For what?”

“To show those boys there’s another kind of life. Y’know, like the one you guys built for yourselves. Get them out from under their mother’s thumb a bit, y’know?”

Julian sighed. “The way I hear it, their mother’s less than half the problem. I dunno if ever want to meet this Jacob fella,” Julian growled, “because I’m awfully tempted to just break him in half.” Nowadays he could do it too, which wasn’t exactly a comfortable truth.

“That kinda thing might fly on the planet of the apes, but here in civilization we at least let a man wipe his shoes before tearing him a backup asshole,” Clara reminded him. He snorted a laugh and headed for the fridge, but was brought up short at the sound of the van pulling back into the driveway.

“Speaking of the apes…”

Clara perked up. “Oh, awesome! I’ve been itching to meet them all day!”

“Oh, they’re a hoot. Literally in fact, if you get them excited. With Vemik all you need to do is basically acknowledge his existence and say hi. Yan’s a bit more reserve—”

The door…opened. Or rather, it was ignored: the second the lock beeped and the way was clear, a tan-and-blaze-orange blur bowled through it, deepening a small dent in the wall where the door-handle had obviously impacted a couple of times already. The room filled with a confusing medley of scents: newly tanned leather, flowery shower gel, leaf litter, barnyard and wood shavings, with a strong hint of locker room musk.

“Jooyun! We met Bozo again! WURF!!!”

Overwhelming didn’t even begin to be the right word. Clara froze up entirely as what could only be described as a short, be-mohawked talking gorilla juddered to a halt in front of her and beamed at her with a toothy, fang-laden grin.

“Hi!”

“Ah…Hi!” Some instinct made her offer him the bowl of chips, and she thereby earned herself an instant friend.

“Ooh! Chips!”

…And there went the bowl. There were a few seconds of gleeful crunching and then Vemik apparently realized—prompted, in this case, by Julian smacking him in the arm—that he was being rude and sheepishly handed the bowl back.

“…Sorry.”

Clara took them back with a smile. “It’s okay. Chips have that effect on me, too.”

This earned her a trill with a hooting sound on the end, which she guess was probably the Ten’Gewek version of a belly-laugh. She selected a chip, dipped it in the cheese sauce and let him get it out of his system.

Naturally, this piqued Vemik’s curiosity and within seconds it was clear she’d converted a new disciple to the Church of Dip.

This bought Clara a moment’s peace to appreciate Yan’s entrance.

Where Vemik had been a ball of manic happiness, Yan swaggered into the room, turning sideways to fit through the door. He looked like the biggest, brute-est thing she’d ever laid eyes on until she saw his eyes, which were warm and intelligent. He saw them flick to her piercings, which he considered with interest for a second before approaching.

“You are Clara?” he asked.

“That’s me…” Clara said, feeling a little wary as she put down the chips. Yan nodded, then engulfed her hand in both of his. His skin was as hard, rough and tough as a scouring pad, but his hands were warm.

“Jooyun, Awisun, Shyow tell me, you make Misfit. Meaning, they find us because of you. Meaning, we live because you make strong ship,” he said.

Clara opened her mouth to protest that she’d just been a team leader, that the actual work had involved dozens or even hundreds of people…but remembered Allison’s warning that Ten’Gewek in general and Yan in particular didn’t really respect modesty. So instead she laid her hand on top of Yan’s and said “Thank you. I’ll…let everybody who helped me know what you said.”

This seemed to satisfy. Yan grinned, then reached over and half-empted the bowl of chips in one giant fistful. “So! Steel in your face?”

“Uh, yeah!”

“Is…interesting. Look strange. Steel anywhere else?”

Julian choked on the water he’d been halfway through swigging and Clara blushed furiously. “Uh…that’s…not really…I don’t want to say!”

“Ah! Yes, then.” Yan trilled, then softened when he considered how red her face was. “…I say something wrong.”

“You know what humans are like, buddy,” Julian said, wiping water off his shirt. “We’re a bit more…uh…careful about our bodies.”

“Hmm. Scared of them, you mean. Wear all this clo-thing when not cold.”

“Says the man who hates water,” Julian teased him. “But yeah, that’s a personal question.”

“Hmm.” Yan at least could be a gentleman, and gave Clara an apologetic look. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Clara was surprised to find she meant it. She really couldn’t expect an alien to completely understand human etiquette, after all.

“But…is personal question to ask why you have steel in your face?”

“I…just like the way it looks,” Clara said.

“Oh.” Yan shrugged, and that seemed to be the end of his interest. He confiscated the rest of the chips and then rolled inexorably in the direction of the living room.

“Awisun’s mother and brothers come, yes?” he asked.

“Uh, yes…?” Julian agreed. “It might not be—”

Too late. Yan opened the door and headed through, instantly killing the conversation in there. There were the awed sounds of a couple of boys meeting about the biggest and strongest man ever and then the door closed behind him.

Julian blinked at the door, then shrugged and wordlessly handed Clara a replacement bag of chips.

“Y’know…you coulda just said ‘no’,” he pointed out.

“I guess?” Clara cleared her throat. “I mean, the last time I told a little white lie to an ET he was a Gaoian, and he called me on it right away.”

“Gaoians smell better than humans!” Vemik said.

“Uh…”

“He means they’ve got a better sense of smell,” Julian translated.

“Better than ours!” Vemik said cheerfully. “Ten’Gewek have no nose! How do we smell? Terrible!”

“Yeah you do, cavemonkey.”

Vemik beamed happily, then, following the sound of laughter, followed Yan into the living room which was presumably getting incredibly crowded by now.

Sure enough, Dane got the hell out of there at long last.

“…The movie ended,” he explained.

Clara giggled and slipped an arm around his waist. “Sure.”

He kissed her forehead then surveyed the table. “…Is there any guac?”

“Ugh, you and your goddamn avocados…” she grumbled affectionately, but uncovered it for him. He shrugged, kissed her again and claimed some chips too.

“So…now what?” he asked. “‘Cuz I’m pretty sure Allison might just commit a murder if she has to endure her mother for too long.”

“Hell if I know. I only just got back,” Julian grumbled. He leaned against the wall and folded his arms. “But if I know Al, she’ll wanna fix this, not just patch it.”

“If it can be fixed,” Clara pointed out. “I mean, we’re talking a whole lifetime of hurt here. Sometimes, a thing gets so broken it can’t be fixed.”

Julian shrugged, but an affectionate expression crossed his face as he looked toward the living room. “Tell that to Allison.”

“Heh. Yeah.”

She and Dane glanced at each other, and arrived at an unspoken agreement via spousal telepathy. It was time to go.

“I’m getting kinda tired, and I think right now we’d just get in the way,” she said. “We’ll have a movie night some other time, without the drama, yeah?”

Julian nodded, and a tired smile that was almost a laugh warmed his face. “Yeah. See you guys when I see you.”

He showed them to the door and let them out with a hug for Clara and a slamming handshake for Dane. Clara settled into the passenger seat, took off her New rocks and put her feet up on the dash, then fluffed her hair out to try and relax herself as Dane pulled out into traffic.

“…Wow,” she said at last.

“Yeah.”

“Those three just attract weirdness, don’t they?”

“Yeah,” Dane agreed. He flicked the radio onto SKID and turned it down to the point where it was barely audible. The late-night program was devoted to picking a year and playing the top twenty tracks from it, which in this case meant Phil Collins.

♪…there’s just an empty space/And there’s nothing left here to remind me/Just the memory of your face…♫

“It’s weird though,” he said. “You know, most times when I’ve met a total drama magnet, they were the problem.”

“Uh-huh.”

“…You worried this might hurt Al’s first day at work?”

“Nah. Not really. Well…a little. Maybe.” Clara sighed and hugged her knees. “I dunno. I hope not.”

“That’s a lotta answers for a simple question,” Dane teased, and got an affectionate slap on the arm.

“I just hope she’s gonna be okay.”

“She’ll be fine,” Dane said confidently. “After the shit those three have gone through, having the family from Hell’s gotta be a walk in the park.”

“…I guess.” Clara sighed, dropped her feet into the footwell and snuggled more comfortably into her seat. It was a forty minute drive home, and she was full of snack food. Sleep beckoned. “…I just hope Yan and Vemik don’t screw things up…”


Date Point: 15y5m4d AV
Diplomatic Starship Rich Plains, Orbiting Planet Gorai, Gaoian Colonies

Champion Sheeyo of Clan Goldpaw

Gorai had died alone and unrescued.

There simply hadn’t been the resources to rescue the colonists. The implantation rate on Gorai had been if anything slightly higher than back on Gao, and when the biodrone uprising had swept through the colony’s cities and towns it had met only token resistance. A few hundred beleaguered Straightshield and Emberpelt first responders had been swept away under a furry tide, and the unimplanted population had been left defenseless.

The Hierarchy had biodroned many, many more of the population before scattering their pawns to the galactic spacelane network and destroying the rest. Huge ships full of implanted slaves had gone totally missing and tens of thousands of colonists remained unaccounted-for.

The Great Father’s response had been unequivocal: list the unaccounted as fugitives, and order they be terminated on sight. Gorai had been flattened from orbit by waves of RFG strikes until every last Gao-made structure was a hole in the ground. Now, it was a monument world.

One day the Gao would return, was the message. But for now, Gorai was a memorial to the dead.

It was also the only place in Gaoian territory where the Dominion’s diplomatic fleets were welcome, without their escorts. The Rich Plains in particular was under strict orders to occupy this orbit and no other, so that visiting dignitaries conducted their business and delivered their platitudes under the judgemental glare of the dead.

Not that the Dominion was the power it had once been. The destruction of Capitol Station, the Guvnurag lockdown and their abject failure to respond when one of its security council members had come under a direct existential threat had all torn great chunks out of the Dominion’s credibility among its member species, and nowhere was that loss of face was more visible than in the Rich Plains’ great meeting chamber, which had become roughly divided into three factions.

The largest faction could, Sheeyo thought, be described as the “core loyalists”: the Vzk’tk Domain, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses and the Vgork herds, backed by most of the associate members like the Mjrnhrm, Robalin and Chehnash. Then there were the “neutrals”: headed by the Locayl alongside the conspicuously absent Guvnurag, supported by the Versa Volc and the Ruibal.

Finally, on Sheeyo’s side of the room, were what the loyalists termed the “rogues”: the Gao, the vacant slot reserved for the Human representative, an associate representative from the Rauwryhr…And now, having just walked conspicuously across the chamber from the loyalist faction, the Corti.

Sheeyo was resisting the thoroughly undignified urge to chitter and run in excited circles all around the chamber. The Rogues had made a point of anchoring their territory around the empty spot on the floor where an OmoAru ambassador would have stood if that species wasn’t functionally extinct, and now the oldest and most powerful of the extant Dominion species had just made a show of defecting.

Naturally, the loyalists were less pleased. Especially the Kwmbwrw.

“I hope that the Representative for the Directorate will provide their rationale for this…as they put it, ’recalculation’…?”

The Corti representative levelled a cool stare back at her counterpart. “The Directorate’s position remains unchanged: that the Dominion should be consistent and methodical in the application of its own rules. We have seen no evidence that the currently most influential members intend to pursue such an axiom…Indeed, you in particular seem to object most strenuously to it.”

There was wary silence, which the Locayl representative ventured to break. He cleared his throat and stood up. “I think, for the purposes of clarity…” he said, gesturing to the Corti with two of his hands “…I would appreciate it if you elaborated your meaning.”

“The Kwmbwrw representative has just spent several Ri’ complaining at length about the fact that a Gaoian patrol intervened in and thwarted a Hunter raid on a minor House’s mining operations,” The Corti explained levelly. “Mutual cooperation in matters of defence against threats such as piracy and the Hunters is a core value of the Dominion, I remind you.”

She turned to look at Sheeyo. “It seems to me, in fact, that the Gao are upholding that principle despite having every good reason to withdraw. Under Article Seventeen of the Charter, they are entitled to refuse their Dominion security obligations until such time as the Security Council’s failure to intervene in the attack on their homeworld has been appropriately repaid…” She turned back to the Kwmbwrw. “…What, exactly, is the basis of your objection?”

“The patrol did not announce its presence near our territory, and employed superluminal weapons technology of an unknown nature,” the Kwmbwrw replied with the instant, precise manner of a being who was repeating a practised statement. “The megalight device they used in particular could have reached any major Great House planet within a handful of Ric’.”

“Irrelevant. What matters is they saved your citizens from an unspeakable fate and returned them unharmed.”

“Surely you must see this raises the ugly specter of espionage?” the Kwmbwrw demanded. The Corti blinked at her.

“…The representative surprises me,” she said. “I would be disappointed and appalled to discover that the Great Houses are not spying on the Directorate. If you are not, then you absolutely should be.”

Sheeyo noted with satisfaction that, behind the Kwmbwrw, the Chehnash representative forgot whose side he was on and gesticulated agreement for a moment before catching himself and going still again.

The Corti representative gestured to Sheeyo. “But, I have spoken enough on the Gaoians’ behalf. Does the Gaoian representative wish to answer the Kwmbwrw representative’s concerns?”

Sheeyo inclined his head gratefully, and stood up.

“Only to echo my Corti counterpart’s sentiment regarding mutual espionage,” he said. “With regards to the tactics the patrol used, I queried my peer, Champion Hiyel of Clan One-Fang, about the stealth and technology used in the operation. In his words, a patrol which wishes to actually catch anything is best served by invisibility.”

“And are there any other such operations near our space?” The Kwmbwrw demanded.

“We are under no obligation to say,” Sheeyo replied calmly. “As the Corti representative has already explained, until such time as the Security Council makes good its negligence toward the Gaoian Clans, my people may honourably decline to participate in all collaboration with the Dominion, which includes sharing our patrol routes, technological breakthroughs and doctrine.”

The Kwmbwrw representative turned away and activated a privacy field to converse with his advisors, and after a few seconds the Locayl representative cleared his throat again.

“I propose that we advance the agenda,” he said. “The Corti representative has made the Directorate’s position quite clear.”

There was a ripple of soft chimes as the various other representatives seconded him.

The Vzk’tk representative, a venerable Rrrrtk with pronounced gray markings and plenty of loose skin down his neck, nodded slowly. “Very well. Next on the agenda for today is the subject of sapient status for the species known as Ten’Gewek. For those who are unfamiliar, the Ten’Gewek are a pre-spaceflight species native to the planet Akyawentuo, and are currently a protectorate of…” Here he consulted his notes. “…Several Human sovereign factions, working collaboratively. I note that, once again, the Human representative is absent…?”

“Their previous ambassador was murdered in cold blood, right here on this very floor,” Sheeyo reminded the room. “We Deathworlders take that kind of assault…personally.”

He watched the way a few of the more skittish representatives responded to the words ‘we deathworlders’ with some satisfaction.

The Vzk’tk representative, however, was unmoved. “Then in the absence of their patron species’ representative, the Ten’Gewek petition cannot proceed. The matter is tabled until such time as the Humans choose to re-engage with this council or the Ten’Gewek petition this council themselves. Next item…”

On it went. There was a long and frustrating report on the continuing failure to re-establish contact with the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy. By all accounts there was plenty of activity and comms chatter inside the nested system defence fields around the two remaining Guvnurag worlds, but attempts to make contact from the outside were either failing to get through or else were being ignored.

There was a quick nod to the status of the Celzi Alliance, which was being largely quiet for the time being. Piracy was up massively across the entire Dominion, and there was an all-too-brief and broad-strokes summary of the short-term economic consequences that got Sheeyo’s nose twitching. He’d bet both his ears that there was a recession coming, and soon.

Not that it mattered much in the face of Gao’s near destruction, but a Goldpaw must always keep his nose to the wind of opportunity.

He kept his expression carefully neutral when the conversation turned to the subject of an unidentified space vehicle that had strayed near Ruibal space only to detonate a fusion warhead inside itself when a deep-space patrol had tried to intercept it. Apparently it had been taking detailed surveys of a class 11 deathworld in the area.

The Dark Eye facility had run a few theoretical models of these Von-Neumann devices, and the sheer power they represented simply by multiplying like bacteria was…intriguing. With that kind of growth, a brute-force solution to any problem became only a matter of time.

Of course, every paw had its claw, and the Humans had stressed the need to be incredibly safety-conscious. The Dark Eye technicians hadn’t even been allowed to begin the project until they’d read a small library of cautionary literature.

Eventually, interminably, they reached the end of the day’s items and were free to retire to their respective chambers to consider whatever progress had been made.

Sheeyo chittered darkly to himself at that thought. “Progress” for the Gao, over the last year and more, had been a swift and decisive thing—Daar said it, people made it happen. He was absolutely proving that the most effective form of government was a supreme but benevolent dictator.

By comparison, the endless wrangling of interstellar politics flowed about as freely and easily as gravel.

He ate a late dinner while digesting the summary of the day’s meagre achievements. The Corti defection was by far the biggest and most important prize and he sent a request to his Directorate counterpart to meet privately when she had the time.

The nice thing about Corti was that they were always open for business…


Date Point: 15y5m4d AV
Hell, Hunter Space

Gorg Odvrak-Bull

The canyons would do, temporarily. Gorg held no illusions that his herd would find anything to eat among the barren rocks, but at least they had shelter.

Was it all useless, though?

They were prisoners. No, worse: They were livestock. There were rich grasslands out there and good eating prospects, but the other side of the sky belonged to the Hunters. How could they build any kind of a life here? How could there be any point to even trying to survive?

But Gorg was the Bull, and the Bull’s job was to protect his herd. Even if that was a futile task he wouldn’t just abandon it, he wouldn’t abandon them.

So, they carefully navigated the loose rocks and the ankle-twisting, leg-breaking hazards, stuck to the smoother, flatter stones of the canyon floors until they were in so deep that the cliffs on either side nearly met at the top and the night sky was little more than a blue-black line.

The echo of pebbles bounced and rattled eerily from some distant spot in the canyons. Gorg wanted to be wary of them, wanted to imagine that they heralded a predator about to plunge into their midst at any second, but exhaustion was forcing him to be frugal with his fear. If he jumped at every wind-blown stone, he’d collapse sooner rather than later.

The air smelled sulfurous. Volcanic activity, perhaps? He’d taken a daring vacation to an area of volcanic activity on the class Nine planet Truvwhiur in his youth, and he clearly remembered the smell that had rolled out of one colorful, scalding-hot pool of water.

How high-end was this planet, he wondered? He didn’t need much thought to reach the gloomy conclusion that, realistically, a Hunter livestock world was in every practical sense a deathworld no matter how the Dominion might classify it.

That went double for any planet with Humans living on it.

They emerged from the shadows and from behind the rocks like they had only just popped into existence at that moment. One instant there was nothing but boulders and terrain, the next…armed deathworlders.

There were seven of them, all looking…a little different to what Gorg remembered of Humans from the media he’d seen. These ones looked skinny, insofar as that word could apply to a Human, and were wearing a mismatched assortment of stained, frayed and extensively repaired clothing that had clearly outlived its usual lifespan.

Three of them had rifles of some kind. The rest were armed with spears, except for the small female with the orange hair at the back, who was dragging some metal boxes behind her on a wheeled truck.

One of the spear-wielders, who looked more well-nourished than the others, grinned and planted his spear’s butt firmly on the ground next to him so he could lean on it.

[“Welsh it. Luk’sleye kwee gahtahr salv zagroopah reh fujees.”]

“Uhm…do you have a translator?” Gorg asked him.

The humans looked at each other, then at the tall bald one on the left who cleared his throat, muttered a single word—“sahree”—and fished a small black box out of his pocket.

[“Izzisdamthi n’gee ven] charged? Oh hey. It’s working.”

Gorg blinked. The ear-bending moment when the incomprehensible garble of their language had been re-rendered in Vgork had left him feeling funny and off-balance. “…I understand you.”

“Good,” the first one said. “Turn your ass around and find someplace else to be.”

One of the group’s males—the one whose skin was several shades darker than his peers—pulled a face that Gorg couldn’t read, which seemed to involve looking up at the sky for a second and gritting his teeth.

“Cook, don’t be an ass,” he said.

“Be better for ‘em,” the one known as Cook said.

“I don’t care. Can it.”

‘Cook’ glanced back at him, then lifted his shoulders in a gesture that Gorg couldn’t quite read but which he guessed was a kind of physical ‘whatever.’

“What our colleague means to say,” the darker human male said, “is that you might not want to linger here.”

“Why?” Gorg challenged him. “How is this place any more dangerous than anywhere else on this planet?”

Cook issued a dark laugh, picked up his spear and took a step closer to Gorg and the herd. “Y’never know. Something might eat ya—” he began.

“Cook, back off!” the darker-skinned male snapped at him, but Gorg, panicked by his words, his proximity and the whole situation they were in, was already winding up. He reared back on his hindfeet, wound up his head and slammed the thick bone plate of his brow ridge into the human’s face.

There was a crack of bone on bone and his vision flashed a lightning black-and-white. Gorg staggered back a few steps in instant pain—it had been like butting a rock wall.

The human meanwhile had spun away and was holding his head in a pained half-crouch, but to Gorg’s surprise, shame and horror he started laughing as he straightened up.

“Whoo! Okay! Guess I had that comin’!” he whooped. He touched his fingers to a small wound above his eye, inspected the resulting smear of bright red blood on his fingertips then grinned at Gorg, who was fighting to stay upright with his ears ringing. “You hit like a girl, though.”

The larger of the two females made an exasperated sound. “Shut up, Cook.”

“No seriously, Holly has a meaner right hook.”

She gave him a stern look that said she would brook his games no longer. “Cook. Enough.”

‘Cook’ shrugged, flashed his teeth at Gorg, then wandered away while making a dark chuckling sound. He was stopped as he left by the dark one, who grabbed his arm and glared at him for several seconds before dismissing him with a gesture that unmistakably said ‘I’ll deal with you later.’

One of the male humans, the tall one with no hair atop his head but an abundance of it around his jaw and who owned the translator, approached Gorg more carefully. “Are you okay?”

Gorg shook himself to try and clear out the lingering fog in his head. “…What in the great galaxy’s name are your skulls made of?” he complained.

The human chuckled. It wasn’t a merry sound. “A type of collagen and calcium lattice. Hydroxylapatite, mostly.”

Gorg took a second to absorb that. “…Your bones are made of rock?”

“They’re a fair bit tougher than most rocks, actually. Anyway, watch my finger.” Bewildered, Gorg did so. The human moved it around a bit, then shrugged. “I’m no xeno doctor, but I guess that looks okay,” he said.

The dark one that Gorg had tentatively pegged as the closest thing the humans had to a Bull spoke up. “He gonna be alright, Conley?”

Conley nodded. “I think so.” He threw in a grin that was every bit as scary as the one the departed ‘Cook’ had employed. “Congratulations friend, you just fought a deathworlder.”

Gorg blanched, but the larger female sighed and waved Conley aside. “Ignore him. I’m Ray, that’s Spears, this is Conley, Chase, Choi and Berry,” she said, indicating each with her hand as she made introductions. “The one you headbutted was Cook.”

“…Gorg. Bull of Odvrak Herd. What are Humans doing here?”

“We’re stuck, just like you.”

“But…how did you get here? Did the Hunters capture you too? I heard that if they manage to catch a Human they just—”

“It’s a long story,” Spears cut him off. “Look, if that stunt with Cook didn’t actually hurt you then he’s right, we do need you to go.”

Gorg stared at him. “…Go where?” he demanded. “There’s nothing out there but Hunters!”

Spears transferred his weight from one foot to the other, and something about even that simple change in stance was menacing. He wasn’t being threatening, but the shift in his posture hinted at a capacity for violence that had become legendary. Everybody knew about the Celzi general whose severed head had been unceremoniously dumped on a Dominion admiral’s desk. “Someplace that ain’t here,” he said. “The sooner the better.”

Their body language and expressions were alien, but Gorg got the impression that the others agreed, or at least didn’t disagree so strongly as to argue with him. The small pale female with the bright orange hair—Chase—looked…ashamed, maybe? And the fidgety male with the lenses over his eyes wasn’t looking at Gorg at all.

“…This is the safest place on this whole planet,” Gorg said. “Ships can’t get into it, we could set up rocks to fall on the Hunters if they come in here…And if they got past that then you’re here!”

“We’re seven starving refugees hanging on by our fingertips,” Choi said. “And if the Hunters find out about us, they’ll drop a fucking army on these canyons. Besides, what’ll you eat? You guys are herbivores, right?”

“…Yes?”

“You see any herbs in these canyons, friend?” Conley asked.

Gorg looked around. The canyons were indeed quite barren, unless one counted a few local hardy things that grew from cracks in the rock and looked about as edible as stone themselves.

“Well…no. But…I mean, what do you eat? If you—”

Ray spoke over him. “We make do. Take our advice, Gorg: Take your herd and leave. There’s nothing for you here.”

An awful suspicion settled on Gorg’s yoke and he backed away a little. He’d know a few Kwmbwrw in his time, and they’d always muttered darkly about omnivorous species like Humans and Gaoians that didn’t restrict themselves to a voluntarily herbivorous diet.

Suddenly, the canyons didn’t seem like the safe option any longer.

“I…see,” he said. “”We will…we will find somewhere else.”

“You do that.”

Gorg turned to leave. The herd had heard the same things as him, and there was a definite scent of uncertainty and a sudden desire to get as far away from these deathworlders are possible. Already, a few at the back were already heading back the way they’d came. He sent the rest after them with a toss of his head in the right direction.

“Gorg.”

Gorg turned back around. The female, Ray, gave him a look that seemed to bore right through his head and down his spine, then her mouth twisted in a way he couldn’t read. “…Go far away,” she advised. “And…good luck.”

“…You as well.”

They parted ways, though Gorg knew that this wouldn’t be the last dealing he’d have with these Humans.

After all: If anybody could get them out of this situation, it had to be the only people that Hunters feared.


Date Point: 15y5m5d AV
Riverside Park, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Master Sergeant Derek “Boss” Coombes

“Really? You did nude modelling?”

Ava was using a park bench to stretch her hamstrings, and there were few sights in the world quite like an athletic Latina in tight leggings stretching out before a run. Coombes had stopped trying to resist the urge to appreciate the view—he’d just be straining his neck unnecessarily.

She either didn’t notice or didn’t mind, and he was pretty sure it was the latter.

“Yeah! Just for art. Not, like, glamour shoots or Playboy or whatever. But…yeah.” She straightened up, bounced on her toes a bit then stooped to check her laces. “Does that bother you?”

“Not really.” Quite the opposite, in fact. Suddenly, he had a new appreciation for art. But again, he was torturing himself.

It was torture. She was gorgeous, she had a smile she saved only for him, they could talk about anything…In any other situation he’d know exactly what to do. The problem, really, was that Ava was forbidden fruit. There was literally tons of angry pain waiting for him if he pissed off the HEAT, and Coombes didn’t much fancy his chance against any of that. Duty, Brotherhood and simple self-preservation said no, loud and clear…

…But different bits of his mind, body and soul were all telling him that goddamn would she be worth it.

“Uh-huh.” Her tone said she knew exactly why it didn’t bother him. “Seriously though. It’s artistic. You can express a lot with just the human body and the right light.”

“Like what? I ain’t really an artist…” Coombes asked, launching into their morning jog. She fell in alongside him while Hannah, who’d been lounging bored in a sunbeam for a few minutes, scrambled to her paws and went whirling off ahead to get a good look at the path and check for squirrels.

“Anything! Joy, loneliness, anguish, strength…”

“Sexiness?”

She laughed. “Yeah, why not? Titillation is a normal healthy emotion, it’s a shame serious art doesn’t explore it so much. It’s ‘exploitative’ or whatever.” Her tone suggested she thought a lot of art aficionados were high on the smell of their own shit.

“What did you explore?”

She went silent for a few paces, and Hannah—who frankly might just be the Best Girl—was at her side in a flash. Ava smiled at the dog then shrugged. “It…when things got really bad, it was a way for me to say stuff I couldn’t put into words. It was an outlet, y’know?”

“I hear ya. I had my recovery and work, and…Kinda think I’da gone bad without them. Egypt was just a goddamn horror show from start to finish.”

“Yeah.”

They jogged in strangely comfortable silence for a few hundred yards, until Coombes’ curiosity got the better of him. “So…how were you doing it? Was it just you or did somebody help out?”

“I rented a studio, set up some lights, put the camera on a timer,” she said. “It’s not an ideal setup but…well, I was expressing some very private feelings.”

“You’ve only done shoots for yourself?”

“No, I’ve modelled for others as well. It’s…liberating.”

“Really?”

She looked over at him and shrugged. “Yeah. I dunno. I go into a different headspace. It’s like ‘I know what the rules are here’ and I’m in control of things.”

“Don’t you feel…I dunno…vulnerable?”

“That’s actually part of the appeal. I can drop my walls for a bit. Y’know?”

“I…no, not really.”

She smiled again. “Maybe you should try it sometime. Modelling, I mean.”

“Huh.” Coombes considered that idea for a moment. “…You think so?”

“I don’t hear a no…” Ava’s signature teasing grin crept up her face. “Whaddya say? Wanna get naked and let me take pictures?”

Coombes snorted and snickered. She had an irreverent streak that he just loved.

Pleased at his reaction, Ava returned her attention to the path. “Actually,” she confessed, “the person I’d really like to get in front of the camera sometime is…well, Adam. Any of the Beef Trio would do, but Adam in particular would be kinda…”

“Striking.” That was quite probably the most understated euphemism Coombes had ever employed.

“Yeah.”

“He’d actually do it, y’know. He’s, uh…”

“Not shy. I know.”

“I was gonna say ‘open.’ Hell, y’know what would be impressive? If you somehow got Adam, Yan, and Daar together. Sort of a superheroes thing.”

There was a momentary gleam of avarice in her eyes as she considered that idea. “God, that’d be even more legendary than that Hometown Hero piece I did on Xiù Chang. Imagine it! I mean, Daar especially but…Huh.” She stopped.

“What?”

“Nothing, it…Just occurred to me, that’s the first time I ever even considered doing a shoot with non-human models.”

“Why?”

“Dunno. Mierda, I hope that doesn’t make me a bigot…”

Rather than let her worry over it, Coombes decided to drag her back onto the subject at hand. “Well…honestly? Go for it. You can call it, uh, ‘Deathworld Heroes’ or something like that. It’s a longshot but I bet you all three would be receptive, Daar especially.”

“Are you kidding? Great Father Daar?” Ava snorted. “Come on, even if that wasn’t like asking the goddamn President to do a shoot, he won’t like me. All that Protect and Provide stuff…I bet he’s real big on loyalty, like Firth.”

“He is, but he’s also…well, I’d vouch for you. And he’d listen.”

“You would?”

“What, you think I hang out with you every day out of pity or whatever? No. Stop, stop.” Coombes skidded to a halt and gave her his best cut-the-bullshit look. “I’d vouch for you. I saw you literally crawl into a collapsing building to save a kid for fuck sake! You beat yourself up more than you deserve.”

She brushed some hair uneasily out of her face and didn’t look at him. Hannah came circling back to park herself at Ava’s side, and licked her hand.

“And besides. There’s a story there that I think actually all three of them would want to tell. If you talk to them, the thing they all have in common—”

“—Besides being hypermasculine barges—” she interjected, bringing some levity back into the conversation as she scratched her dog’s ears.

“—Yeah, beside being the ‘most bestest’ is that they’re experts in doing not particularly nice things, and it weighs on them. All three of them are stone-cold killers when they have to be.”

“…Yeah. I know.” She took a breath. “…And you’re right. That’d be…a powerful piece. You sure you’re not an artist?”

“If I am…Well, bein’ honest it’s an artistry like they do as well. So maybe…a guy like me wants that story told, ‘cuz I don’t think people understand and they need to. I just don’t know how to share it.”

She nodded slowly, with the faraway expression of somebody staring through the ground at something only they could see.

“…If you can make it happen, it’d be…well, it’d be an honor,” she said eventually.

“No promises, but I’ll send a message off.”

She smiled again, then nodded down the track. “Thanks…Betcha Bozo’s up that way somewhere, waiting.”

“When isn’t he?” Coombes smirked.

“Shouldn’t keep him waiting, I guess!” she chirped, and set off jogging again. Coombes followed, just far enough behind to enjoy watching her move.

Forbidden fruit or not…he was happy to torture himself for her.


Date Point: 15y5m5d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Vemik Sky-Thinker

Human children were small. Well, babies of the People were small too. Actually, now that Vemik thought about it, all babies started out very small. They didn’t stay small though, and the children of the People put on weight quickly after the first year.

Not Humans. Vemik had met a few at the park while he was doing his third burg of the day, along with a…pack?…of Gaoians, and the thing that stood out about it was how those frail, “noodly” young boys could grow into solid men like Heff, or Wawsh, or Jooyun.

The ones in the park were at least playful. The two Vemik had just met were…shy.

No…maybe not, actually. They were quiet and tense, watchful, wary. Like they expected something awful to happen if they did or said anything without their mother’s approval. Underneath, he could see they were itching to ask him questions and play a game, run around, do something.

But even when she wasn’t in the room, their mother seemed to have her hands on their shoulders to hold them back.

Right now, she was in the cooking-room—kit-chin—and Vemik could hear the terrible wrath of women clashing over territory. That room was Shyow’s, and Amanda was trying to be more than a guest.

Vemik didn’t quite follow Human manners sometimes but Shyow had said something that sounded, to Vemik’s ears, perfectly polite and even inviting. Amanda, however, had wilted like a summer flower after a sudden frost and was now quietly assisting by handing over asked-for tools and foods while Shyow’s knife flashed in ways that made Vemik’s eyes blur. She always looked a fingernail’s width from leaving two or three fingers on the floor, but instead she’d reduce a root or one of those eye-stinging un-yun things to little bits in a couple of heartbeats, sweep it into a pot and then turn her blade on something else.

No wonder Amanda was quiet.

The two boys sat in the living room and looked like they didn’t know what to do, they just sat there while Jooyun tried and mostly failed to talk with them.

Maybe they could color with him? That seemed like a good idea. Vemik knuckled over to his pile of supplies, picked out his colored pencils and sketchbook, ambled over to the couch they were sitting on and squeezed himself between them. He wondered if it was rude to shoulder them apart but he wouldn’t fit otherwise, and he did want the table. If nobody wanted to talk, Vemik could at least work on his sound-pictures. Only a few more sounds to go, maybe…

It didn’t take long before the slightly taller, slightly bolder of the two boys scooted back over and started watching what he was doing. Vemik gave him a grin and kept working.

“…What are you writing?” he asked, eventually.

“Not writing yet. I’m making up how to write,” Vemik explained.

“Why not use our alphabet?”

“Because it’s not ours. We want ours. Also, Human letters are small. Hard to write!” Vemik waggled his fingers, which the gods had made better for holding tight to a branch than scratching thin little marks down on paper. He took the boy’s hand and pressed it against his own, palm-to-palm. “See?” Vemik’s hand in comparison was huge, thick, wide, and blunt.

The boy had an awed expression on his face. “You only have three fingers!”

Vemik trilled. “Only three, but strong! One of these, as good as all of these!” He circled his own thick first finger around all four of the boy’s.

“He ain’t kidding, either,” Jooyun added from the other ‘couch.’ “Vemik’s got a grip good enough to crack open rocks. Trust me on that.”

“How do you know?”

Jooyun chuckled and smiled back at Vemik fondly. “Vemik likes to wrestle. When we first met he was so much stronger than me, he could’ve snapped me in half if he wanted to.”

“Still can!” Vemik hooted in challenge and drew his arms into a flex, which the boys stared at open-mouthed.

“So can I, though. I seem to win my share of bouts these days…” Jooyun flexed back and smiled, which also impressed the boys. He was right, too; wrestling was a lot more fun now that Jooyun was man-strong! Vemik still thought his own arms were better, though.

“Anyhow,” Jooyun said, “I know he can break rocks ‘cuz I’ve seen him do it, and I’ve still got bruises from our last little tussle. And as strong as his hands are, his feet are way stronger.”

“Yes. But! You have a man’s grip now too! Also your fingers are clever,” Vemik replied loyally. He pressed their hands together again so the boy could feel the thick calluses he’d earned. “Mine are good for climbing, maybe not so good for tricky things. Thick skin, hard. Your’s are soft, feel everything. Jooyun can tell leather from werne bull or calf just by touch!”

“How old are you?”

“Ooh! I know this one. Year on my plan-et different to year on yours, or here. So, hard to say.”

“He’s something over sixteen in Earth years. We’re not exactly sure how much.”

“Why not?”

“No calendar. Is that right word Jooyun?”

“Yeah, bud.”

The smaller, quieter boy finally spoke up. “So…How do you know when things are gonna happen?”

Vemik shrugged. “We count moons. We know herds go south after third moon of dry season, have calfs in second moon after cold season ends…”

“They have a lunar reckoning, but it doesn’t line up very well with the seasons.”

“So you don’t have a birthday?”

“Birthday.” Vemik turned to Jooyun and made a questioning noise.

“Some human tribes remember what day of the year a person was born, and then their friends and family give them gifts on that day,” Jooyun explained.

“So…no calendar, no writing…do you have math?”

“Numbers? We have numbers. One, two, three, a hand.” Vemik held up his hand, then the other one. “Two hands. Three hands. A hand of hands. Humans use tens, I think we stay with eight. Easier to count. Don’t need toes!”

Both the boys laughed.

“I like math,” the smaller one said. “We’re doing Algebra right now. Lemme get my book!”

As was the way with brothers, the bigger boy—Vemik wished he could remember who was who—rolled his eyes and stopped the smaller one from standing up. “He probably doesn’t like math, goober.”

“Says who? Maybe I do!”

The boy cringed, went quiet, and shrunk into himself a little. Why did…oh. Right. Vemik was a strong man of his tribe and the boy wasn’t yet. That was a strange thought, suddenly.

“…Is okay. Maybe math is fun? We not have sky-people math so how do I know? Not all sky-people things are fun, though. Like showers and soap.”

Jooyun snorted. “I’m tellin’ you, a proper bubble bath is way better than a hose-down.”

Vemik didn’t like the sound of ‘bath’ but bubbles were fun, so maybe…?

No. Nothing good could come of soap. In the meanwhile he still didn’t know which boy was which, so Vemik decided to stop waiting for a hint and just ask. “I know your names, Ram-see, Triss-tun. Not sure which is which, though.”

The bigger boy aimed a thumb at his own chest. “I’m Ramsey, I’m the older one.”

“You’re only older by like twenty minutes!” his brother objected. “…And you’re Vemik, right?”

“Vemik [Sky-Thinker!”] He declared, giving his chest a hefty slap before he translated into English. “That means I think Sky-Thoughts.”

“Vemik’s kind of…a dreamer, an inventor and a tinkerer,” Shyow added from the kitchen.

Vemik nodded along. “I invented the bow!” he said proudly. “And other things, but the bow was the first thing I invented.”

“Wait.” Ramsee seemed impressed. “You’re the first Tangy-Work to use a bow?”

“Ten’Gewek,” he corrected. Humans had a lot of trouble with the little click-trill in the middle. “And yes! Sort of. I think.”

“We found out later that there was another Ten’Gewek subspecies who had things like the wheel and stuff, but they were all wiped out,” Jooyun explained.

[“Weak yellow-hair thin-bodies, no meat on their women…”] Yan muttered it in People-words as he sauntered back towards the group. He had earlier decided to stand apart and watch everyone from afar, but now wanted to join in on the fun. The boys unabashedly stared at him like everyone did whenever Yan was around.

“So, wait.” Ramsee looked back at Vemik and was again the first to ask questions. “You’re the first with a bow, you’re working on letters…does that mean you’re real cavemen?”

The boy’s mother called at him from the kit-chin. “Ramsey!” He shrank in on himself but Vemik wanted to keep talking, so he wrapped his tail around the boy’s waist in a friendly way, pulled him closer, and smiled.

“Is okay! Jooyun calls me his favorite cavemonkey, so maybe yes!”

Jooyun chuckled, reached over and ruffled Vemik’s crest. “You are my most favoritest cavemonkey, Vemik.”

“Okay.” Vemik gripped his hand around Jooyun’s wrist and nodded happily.

Yan trilled, “What about me?” then tried to sit down next to Jooyun on the ‘couch.’ It plainly didn’t like it and made pained noises as soon as he settled any of his weight on it.

“Naw, you’re my favorite cavegorilla, Yan!”

Yan stood back up, thought for a moment, and decided to sit on the floor instead. “What is this…‘gorilla’ thing?” That evil not-quite-trilling sound still gave the People pained tongues when they said it, but Yan was very respectful and always tried to say a thing’s name properly.

“They’re kinda like monkeys, but they’re much bigger and stronger.”

Yan made a pleased happy grumble and settled in on the floor.

“But Vemik’s about gorilla-sized himself,” Jooyun continued. “You’re a heck of a lot bigger.”

“Quit buttering Yan up, babe.” Awisun made an amused snort-noise off in the corner.

Yan tilted his head. “What is butter?”

The boys laughed at the question, Yan gave him his friendliest, toothiest grin, and after that things went much better. They had questions, lots of them. Vemik liked that! Ramsee wanted to know all about hunting, building huts, animals and plants and everything a man could get his hands around.

Trisstun was still too shy. Maybe that was because he was so small? Vemik understood being the small man better than most, since he had been almost a season late to manhood and it was only over the last year he’d become a strong man of the People. He pulled them both closer as gently as he could and made a point of asking Trisstun good questions, too.

“What is skool like?”

That finally opened him up. He seemed like a Sky-Thinker himself and talked alot about something called chem-is-tree and fizz-icks, which sounded fun but needed lots of math to do. Maybe Vemik could learn the math? That sounded fun too! Trisstun ended up being the more talkative of the two and was more interested in stories about the People themselves, instead of where they lived. Vemik told him of those things while Jooyun and Yan watched on; stories about his village, and the other Ten’Gewek, and about becoming a man.

*Ram*see was the kind of boy who easily grew bored and had started climbing all over Vemik as soon as his attention was on *Triss*tun. One leg around his waist put a stop to that, but gently; the two were so young and light, Vemik was afraid he’d break them if he wasn’t careful.

That didn’t stop him from squirming loose and asking questions! “Is it really true what we saw on the news about the Hierarchy and stuff? And did you really nearly fight when you met?!”

“We did! Yan almost speared Jooyun in the face!”

The boys’ mother—A-man-da, which was a funny name for a woman—came billowing out of the *kit*chin like a storm rolling down a mountain. Vemik recoiled and pulled the two boys into himself before he realized what he was doing, which didn’t make A*man*da happy at all.

“Is all this talk of violence really necessary?”

Vemik had no idea what could possibly be bad about not spearing each other in the face, but Awisun seemed to know exactly what to say. She just grinned at at Amanda and retorted, “Yes it is. Also Vemik, what you really meant to say is that I almost shot Yan.”

Vemik jeered loudly but Yan could defend himself. “Can throw spear very hard, Awisun!” He thumped his chest loudly and Amanda winced at the sharp sound. Did the noise hurt her? She seemed to be in pain.

“Kids, you’re both mean and dangerous.” Jooyun shook his head and chuckled.

Vemik meanwhile was worried. “Are you okay, A*man*da?”

“Migraine,” she replied. She looked pale and tired, Vemik thought suddenly. “It’s okay.”

“What’s a migraine?” Vemik asked.

“It’s a really bad headache, Vemik. Like if Yan picks you up by your head and throws you around.”

“…That sounds like it hurts.”

Shyow called from the kit-chin, “Maybe you want to lay down? We have an air mattress in the office upstairs.”

A-man-da looked like nothing would please her more, but was far too stubborn for some reason. She paused in the middle of the room seeming torn, and it struck Vemik that mother and sons looked very like Awisun. They had that same sun-yellow hair and those same cold sky-blue eyes that were so unnerving that the first time Awisun had taken off her ‘sunglasses’ all those seasons ago, Vemik had almost leapt into the trees. They were even more intensely blue in the two boys and they darted to and fro, looking at all the adults in the room and sizing them up.

They had a hunted look to them. As though at any second they expected to be shouted at, or beaten.

That made Vemik very sad, and he knew it made Yan in particular angry. The Given-Man had a weakness for promising boys.

Perhaps it was Yan’s simmering dislike that drove A-man-da to finally mumble something like “…yes, maybe…maybe just a short nap…” and scurry from the room. How anybody could live while being so nervous all the day long was beyond Vemik’s understanding.

She turned around at the bottom of the stairs and came back in. “You…Ramsey, promise me. If anything happens, you wake me up.”

Ram-see didn’t look at her face. “Yes, mom.”

The promise was a weak one, but it seemed to be enough for A-*man*da, who fretted a few seconds longer then her face pinched with pain and she beat a retreat upstairs.

The boys immediately relaxed once she was gone. Vemik sensed somehow that he shouldn’t say anything. Instead he pulled the boys into a hug. They didn’t hesitate and hugged right back, and that made Vemik feel even worse.

“Christ.” Jooyun shook his head and swore. Vemik didn’t know what a ‘christ’ was but it must have been a powerful god.

Awisun touched his arm then jerked a head toward the kit-chin, in the gesture that all women used to tell their men to get moving. Moments later, the room held only the boys, Yan and Vemik.

“So…this ‘squared’…” Vemik asked, to fill the silence. “Means…you take line, then same line but like this? But also means…like a hand of hands is a hand squared. Yes?”

“Uh…Right! Yeah! Here…” Triss-tun dropped to the floor and demonstrated in his notebook. “So, let me show you Pythagoras’ theorem…”

“Pie thag-or-ass.”

“Yeah-huh. He was this ancient Greek thinker…”

Yan rolled his eyes but grumbled his gruff amused sound, stood up from the floor and rolled out of the living room. [“Don’t break them. I’ll be talking with Sky-Brother for a bit.”]

[“Yes, Yan. I’ll be careful.”]

Yan grunted, nodded to the boys with a toothy smile, and left.

This was a broken family. Everyone saw it. Normally a Given-Man or the Singer would handle something like this but Human tribes didn’t have either of those things. Vemik wasn’t sure how they were going to fix this, but he was sure of one thing he could do.

The boys needed a friend, and Vemik could do that for them.


Date Point: 15y5m5d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge

“You should take the boys from them, raise them instead. Would be happier for them.”

Jooyun was stacking charcoal in a shallow metal pan on legs out in the garden while Shyow and Awisun fetched food from the kit-chin and laid it out on a wooden table nearby.

“Wish it was that easy,” he grunted.

For her part, Awisunn sighed and opened a beer bottle. “I won’t lie, big fella. That thought has crossed my mind more than once today. It’s not easy to do though.”

“We’d get in a lot of trouble,” Shyow nodded.

“Mm. You say. These Po-lees. Like…I try to understand. Like Given-Men, but not?”

“They make sure we follow the rules,” Shyow explained.

“And who makes rules?”

“Here? We do, collectively. We pick from among ourselves, and they debate.”

Jooyun nodded. “Kinda like the lodge, Yan.”

“Hm. And lodge rules say, can’t take children even if parents bad at being parents?”

“More like…we’d have to convince the lodge that it’s the right thing to do first,” Shyow explained. “And they have to see for themselves.”

“So basically, if we wanna rescue my brothers then we have to—” Awisun paused and cocked her head, listening. “Goddammit. I think Mother’s given up on her nap. Change of subject.”

“Should give gods more respect, Awisun!” Yan chided her.

She paused, then sighed. “…I know. I’m sorry.”

“Eh. Gods are strong. Know when to let you get away with it, yes?”

“Tell that to Sister Leoneida,” Jooyun mumbled.

“Whose sister?”

Jooyun paused “…Never mind.” He took one of those little magic-sticks the Humans had out of a pocket and made fire with it from only a rolling flick of his thumb. It was just a tiny round gentle flame, but when he touched it to the charcoal it spread quickly.

“You teach us to make that magic?”

“In time, sure.” Jooyun pocketed it again. “It’s like a lot of magic, you need to know other stuff first.”

“Even for that?” Yan asked.

“Even for this.”

Amanda pushed the kitchen door open and joined them, but she couldn’t resist looking back through the window to check that her sons hadn’t…Yan didn’t know. Hadn’t burst into flames or been ripped apart by a Yshek in the hand of heartbeats since she’d last seen them.

All that had changed was that the tall boy was wrapped in Vemik’s tail and held off the ground while laughing, while the other was lying belly-first on the ground. Both of them were making strange marks in Vemik’s ‘sketchbook.

“Couldn’t sleep?” Awisun asked her. The words were small polite ones, but there was frost on them.

“Uh…no. You know how it is, strange bed, strange room…” Amanda couldn’t stop glancing back through the window.

“You just need to relax. Right, Yan?”

Yan thought about it for a second. [“…I think your mother needs a good fucking,”] he suggested in People-words.

Amanda stood confused as Awisun, Jooyun and Shyow all started giggling.

[“Please! Please, be my guest!”] Awisun waved a hand at her mother, who looked completely lost. [“Whatever works!”]

Yan needed no further encouragement. He turned and gave Amanda his biggest, toothiest, most unmissably inviting grin and flexed his muscles for her as hard as he could.

She did give him a look-over. It was more shocked than interested, sadly, but it was a start. Yan had conquered colder women in his time. He liked a challenge!

For now, she cleared her throat and vanished back into the house, giving him strange looks with those weird sky-hued eyes she and her daughter shared.

She would need more charming. Meanwhile the boys seemed fun…maybe they should come outside and play? Yan thought they needed that, somehow. They could toss Jooyun’s ‘football’ around. Something…gentle. Humans were tough but also mostly a lot smaller than a man of the People, and Vemik was maybe a bit too excitable for any wrasslin’.

Or not. Vemik could be gentle, too.

And maybe the more they persuaded those boys there was another way to live, the freer they would be when they were grown.


Date Point: 15y5m5d AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Darcy

Darcy hadn’t even known about Erebor until only two days previously. It was a real, honest-to-god Area 51 like the conspiracy theorists had always liked to imagine about the air base near Roswell.

That was just a benign testing facility. This was…

It was a mad scientist’s laboratory full of aliens and alien technology, whirling around an alien gas giant on an alien moon under the forge glow of an immense red alien star. The people walking its halls were an eclectic blend of military, civilians and extraterrestrials.

And they’d prepared a whole lab just for her.

“Really? A whole lab? This is a space station, isn’t space a premium?”

The man giving her the tour, Warrant Officer Lee, gave her a shrug. “The Entity has been our wild card more than a few times. Which is a problem because we barely understand what it is. Brass says we devote resources to it…” he shrugged. “Besides, space isn’t as limited as you’d think. Mrwrki was built for a whole Kwmbwrw Great House, and apparently the Kwmbwrw like to have plenty of elbow room. We could fit twice as many people on this thing before we started to get tight.”

He gestured for her to enter the office fully. “Afraid you’re right next to one of the supply lines for Nanofactory C,” he said. “Might get noisy in here during a build cycle, but we insulated the walls as best we could. Nanofac D and the fusion plants to power it are going in downstairs too, so you might hear construction noises through the deck.”

“We have nanofactories here?” Darcy toured the room. It was basic, spartan, in need of a few personal touches, but she’d had smaller and dingier offices.

“Yup. If you need to use one for a project, the man to talk to is Lieutenant Brandt. You even get some personal time on them, way down the priority list after experimental equipment and prototyping.”

“What can a nanofactory make?” Darcy asked.

“B, C and D can make pretty much anything that’s metallic, plus circuitry. Plastics, polymers, ceramics and organic or volatile compounds need the specialist sub-modules on Factory A. That baby can build whole ships.”

“So, say, if I wanted some potted plants…?”

Lee chuckled. “Easier to order them from Earth, frankly.” He indicated the wall behind Darcy’s desk. “But that wall there is covered in ET-tech. We call it Wallpaper, it’s kind of a 3D screen. Room, load up my office wallpaper.”

The wall shimmered and fuzzed, and Darcy took a step back in surprise. It was like she was sitting in some executive high-rise office with a sweeping view of downtown…somewhere. She didn’t recognize the city, only that it must be on the west coast. Sunset was blazing a fiery trail in the water behind the buildings, glinting off an impressive bridge to the north-west and warming the wooded mountain slopes to the north.

The most impressive part, however, was that it was flawlessly three-dimensional. As she walked around her desk, near objects moved and were occluded by the frame as though she was looking through a pane of glass at something that was really there.

“That’s…a neat trick,” she managed.

“Ain’t it?” Lee grinned. “Anyway. Let me introduce you to your work setup.”

He indicated a door in the corner. “Through there’s the server farm hosting our captive slice of the datasphere. It’s kinda like alien Internet except…well, very different. Some of the way it works is downright weird.”

“What’s the biggest difference?” Darcy asked as she sat down.

“Ehh…I’d need all day to explain and I don’t understand it much myself,” Lee confessed. “The biggest difference is the Internet is just a network. From your perspective, the important bit is that the Internet can’t support digital sapient life forms. Datasphere can.”

“So…that’s my fish tank the Entity can live in.”

“Sure. The computer on your desk handles the rest. We even kitted it out with a volumetric field emitter, so it can project 3D objects. The Entity mostly communicates in images, emoticons and plain text, but for you it might break out something new.”

“…This is weird as all hell.”

Lee shrugged. “Hey, we could put those words over the front door around here,” he said. “But…okay, yeah. Even by our standards, counselling a…thing like the Entity, well…yeah. That’s a new one alright. If it’s any consolation, that means you’re already the most qualified person in the world.”

Darcy resisted the urge to scoff. “Gee, thanks.”

Lee chuckled. “I’ll let you get settled in. Get to know the interface, read the documentation we prepared for you. We’ll try to get in touch with it tomorrow, I guess. And…brace yourself. Something tells me this one’s gonna be interesting.”

He left her in peace. Darcy looked around her new office for a time, taking in the room and the anachronistic view behind her. With some experimentation and a trawl through the Wallpaper library she managed to find a view that better suited her in the form of a warm limestone patio with garden furniture on it, and beyond that an orchard of orange trees. She fancied she could actually feel the sunlight warming her back.

Too bad she wouldn’t be able to go out there and recline for real. But just looking at it was comforting.

She opened her documents folder, and began reading.


Date Point: 15y5m5d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Julian Etsicitty

“I can’t believe you put the moves on Amanda, big guy.”

Yan grunted. “Why not? Meant what I said. She needs real man.”

Xiù was teaching Allison and the boys the basics of Baguazhang on the lawn while Vemik watched, having given up almost as soon as they started. His body was just built for a completely different kind of gymnastics and he figured that out immediately. Amanda had returned to the guest bedroom, overwhelmed by her migrane.

“I mean…look,” Julian leaned in an muttered under his breath. “You ain’t wrong…really ain’t wrong…But I don’t really think that’s gonna fix the problem we’ve got.”

“Problem is what, exactly? Start from start.”

“A few things. Biggest one is she’s smothering the kids. She smothered Allison so hard she ran away, joined up with, uh, I guess we’ll say a really bad tribe, and uh, never went back.”

“Smother. Like…heavy weight on them?”

“…Yeah. But not like if you throw a werne on top of a boy and make him carry it back. You have to do that to make them stronger, right? This is more like…smothering their soul.”

“Ah.” Funny how that noise was common between species. “All give give give, no teach how to take, how to give in turn. Mother keep baby on breast, doesn’t let them play.”

“Yeah. Afraid to lose them like she lost Allison, I guess…and she still doesn’t understand why she lost Al in the first place.”

Yan’s tail twitched in the way it did when he was thinking good and hard. He watched the boys move on to learn how to catch, then watched them try to play keepaway from Vemik; that didn’t work, as he jumped high in the air, caught the ball, then leaped onto the roof and trilled down at them for a bit before leaping down tail-over-top and landing between them both. He grinned, flexed for them, then slammed the ball to the ground so hard it bounced clear over the roofline. It was exactly the right thing to do, too; playful showboating was charismatic and the boys were drawn to him because of it. Both Yan and Vemik had a charm that seemed to work wonders on kids, actually, and attracted crowds of them every time they visited the park.

Julian tended to the grill while they both thought about the problem.

“Problem with her man is what?” Yan asked, eventually.

Julian shrugged and turned the frankfurters over, the very last of his cheat meals for the week. It had taken him a few minutes to explain to Vemik that a frankfurter was not used when somebody wanted to frankfurt, nor was a burger used for burging…though Xiù had promptly shot him down on that one and insisted that it was now. The sizzle caused Vemik to flick his ears and sideways-amble over in the hope that dinner was ready…Yan gave him a Look and he reluctantly want back to gently roughhousing with the boys.

“That one’s more complicated, and I’ve never met Jacob,” Julian said. “Allison says he’s…a hard man. Take, take, take. Expects everything to be just how he wants it, doesn’t know when to give.”

“There are gods involved too, yes?”

“Yeah, but that’s a huge mess. Jacob and Amanda promised to be with each other forever, and promised that before God. They’ve broken that promise.”

Yan hissed and shook his head. He no doubt took that revelation a hell of a lot more seriously than either of the two idiots were doing, but this probably wasn’t the time or the place to introduce Yan to the concept of casual sacrilege.

“This feels like Singer work,” he said at last. “Sometimes, women get lost in the Giving, need other women to help them let go.”

…Julian had to admit, that was a better idea than any that were floating around in his own head right now. The Singer’s job, or at least a huge part of it, was handling family conflicts and matters of spirituality. Hers might just be the perfect opinion to ask.

Yan grinned and tapped Julian on the forehead, not quite hard enough to hurt.

“I say something smart, yes?”

Julian chuckled and shook his head. “You did! Maybe don’t Sky-Think too much, though. Wouldn’t wanna hurt yourself…”

Yan hooted and casually picked Julian off the ground with his tail, which wrapped around Julian’s waist like a hairy python.

“Hey—!”

A bare moment later, Julian was upside-down, shaken a few times, then dumped unceremoniously into the grass. By Yan’s standards that was the equivalent of rolling his eyes and giving an affectionate middle-finger.

“I not shame you in own hut, Sky-Brother, in front of women. But don’t worry. I not sky-think too much, so you feel useful!”

Julian snorted, and picked himself up. Yan roughly dusted him off and pulled him into a brief crusher of a hug, one fierce enough to smash all the wind out of Julian’s lungs.

So, a “gentle” apology, then. The biggest consequence to having slabbed up so big and having become a man of the People was that Yan didn’t treat him like something breakable and magical anymore. Julian didn’t mind. In a strange way, that was how Yan showed respect.

“Anyway. I think for you, you think for me,” He let go and let Julian regain his breath. “We need Giving to make right for Taking bull. Sixteen thou-sand pound, you say.”

“Ayup. I think some gesture of goodwill is more important than the money, though. The money’s covered. And if I know farmers, I know they’ve got hard work they need done that they haven’t gotten to yet. Which would be good exercise for you two anyway, don’t want the low gravity making you weak.”

“Hmm.” That was another noise Ten’Gewek and humans had in common, though the Ten’gewek version was slightly open-mouthed on account of how they didn’t have noses. “Some things, easier to make right than others.”

Vemik chimed in from the grass. “We take boys to farm too, maybe!” He had both Ramsey and Tristan thoroughly pinned and squirming, but neither of them seemed upset. To the contrary, they were laughing as they tried to escape.

Yan nodded along which sent hypnotic waves down his crest. “Is good idea!”

“We’re gonna have to conspire against Amanda, then,” Julian pointed out.

Yan furrowed his brow for a moment. “Con-spire. Means…Ah. No. I understand. But why conspire? She bring problem to you! Take what she owes!”

Julian shook his head. “If only it was that easy. The cops would see that as a kidnapping…uh, stealing her children. A bad Taking, by our ways. We’d get in big trouble.”

“Hmm,” Yan grunted again and settled into deep thought.

Julian tended to the meat on the grill some more. The truth was, they were kinda stuck. Amanda was the boys’ mother, and that didn’t change just because she was a heavy-handed cloying smog of a parent. What was right, unquestionably, was to give the boys a day or two out from under their parents’ looming shadows. What was legal however, was a very different matter. If Julian was any judge, her boys were about the only thing in her life that Amanda had any control over; she wasn’t about to surrender that control without a fight. Even a badly pecked hen like her had a line in the sand.

Then there was…whatever the phone call was about. Xiù was indoors dealing with it while Allison took a break and got her gear together for her first day on the job out at Chiune Station. A break that she was, Julian guessed, absolutely desperate for. She needed simple problems she could solve with a little creativity and the right tools, not…this.

“Gao,” Yan said, quite abruptly.

“What about them?”

“Gao women good with children, I see in ‘park.’ Humans trust, too. Vemik, me, too big. Scary sometimes. Need you, say is okay to Gao women. Amanda…too scared.”

“But she might be more receptive to a Gaoian…” Julian finished for him. “Interesting idea.”

“Re-cep-tive. Hmm. Yes. Maybe. If lodge-rules say we can’t take boys, we get her to give boys. Find somebody she trust.”

Julian grinned. A name and a furry face had just come to mind. “…Yan, I think I know just the man.”

“Who?”

Julian didn’t get the chance to answer. Xiù emerged from the house looking…pensive. No, troubled.

Julian lowered his spatula. “Baobei? What’s up?”

“The thing with the court’s finished,” she said, “But I just checked our emails, and, uh…”

“What?”

“There’s a very formal message from one Jacob Buehler. He’s at the array in Chicago, catching the morning passenger jump.”

“…He’s coming here.”

“Yeah.”

Yan rolled his neck, producing a cascade of satisfying clicks. “Small man,” he predicted.

“Everyone’s small next to you, Yan,” Xiù pointed out.

“Yes,” Yan said, then grinned and tensed his body. Tendons and muscles like massive shipping cables fought for room under his thick, leathery hide. “What is word? Exactly.”

Julian smirked and flexed his own thick arm. Once upon a time he’d never have imagined himself packing on muscle like he had. Ignorance and prejudice had turned him off the idea. Now…well, he was an impressive slab to say the least, no point denying it. What harm was there in being damn proud of all his hard work? The girls certainly hadn’t ever objected.

A slow grin spread across Xiù’s face, the one she always wore right before she cracked an awful joke. “Oh. Right. You’re right, we have him out-gunned, don’t we?”

Julian snorted at the pun, which flew clear over Yan’s head. He’d ask about it later, probably. “Al always said her dad’s a bully,” he said. “I think we can turn that against him.”

Xiù considered it for a second then nodded, looking much less anxious.

“I’ll go give Al the good news,” she said. She bounced up on tip-toes to give Julian a kiss, then headed for the garage. “Don’t let the franks burn!”

“I won’t!” She was the master chef and Julian was but the lowly grillmaster. He enjoyed watching her go for a second, then discreetly turned around and rolled them over, chuckling to himself.

“You know just the man?” Yan prompted.

“Huh? Oh. Yeah. A holy man. A source of advice on spiritual matters, very wise.”

“Hmm. Sound important.”

“He is. His name’s Gyotin.”


Date Point: 15y5m6d AV
Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

The Singer

There were new Humans, working in and around the bunker. They had Yan’s blessing to be there, but…Well, the Singer didn’t know them, and they hadn’t properly introduced themselves. When they had arrived, Jooyun had helped them share their names with the tribe but aside from that they stood apart and rarely came to speak or share meat.

They’d done the least that was expected of them for politeness, and that was it. Some of the Given-Men were getting itchy about that. Yan had promised that the memory of him and what he’d done to the last Given-Man who defied him would keep them in line, but Given-Men were Given-Men. They looked after their tribes, that was what the Gods had touched them for. If they tasted a threat on the wind…

Well. The humans would be forced to kill them in self-defence. They had rifles, the Given-Men did not, and the Singer had seen what rifles could do for herself. And that would be the end of the good will between their peoples.

In Yan’s absence, however, a strange thing had happened. She was the Singer of his tribe, and his niece as well. She carried his weight when she spoke, as well as the weight of simply being a Singer.

So, she put a day aside to speak to the Humans. It was a long walk to the bunker, after all. She would hunt on the way back, to re-blood herself and touch the male side of her nature again. She’d been neglecting that half of a Singer’s life of late.

Things had sprung up around the bunker like mushrooms. They were a lot like huts, but made of some strange sky-fabric. It wasn’t clay or sticks or hide: it was as hard and as sturdy as wood, but it had no grain and was oddly coloured. Plas-tic.

The heart of their camp was a number of broad, flat plastic planks on steel legs. Tables. Two hands of them, covered in weird tools and little bits of things and tiny, flimsy bags made from clear plastic.

She hooted a greeting-call at them at the edge of their clearing, as was polite. Work stopped, but she was pleased to see that they didn’t rush to hide anything or put anything away. Instead, one of them waved the rest back to their work and came to meet her.

She strained her memory for a name. Nee-mesh, or something like that. Nimesh. He was small, slim and neat and unlike the other Human men the Singer had met, the hair on his face was sleek and short.

[“Welcome!”] he managed in clumsy people-words. She smiled and replied in English.

“Hello. I brought food.” She hefted a basket—several jars of the eldest Singer’s preserved stew. It was hearty, delicious stuff that could fill any hungry belly.

Nimesh’s teeth shone in a genuine smile. “Ah! Thank you. Please, come in.” He stepped aside and escorted her toward the tables and plastic huts. “Did you bring enough for yourself, or would you like some of ours?”

“Usually, we trade. Human food is…interesting. Very strong taste.”

“Trade, right. I remember. Ah…food’s here, ladies and gentlemen. Courtesy of…I’m sorry, you’re a Singer, am I right?”

“Yes. Singer of Yan’s tribe.”

The Humans downed tools and made her feel welcome. Chairs were fetched, clean water was produced from somewhere, a shallow metal bowl was filled for the Singer with something that tasted truly strange in a delicious way—car-bon-are-a—and they sat down to share meat together like neighbors should. She knew it had a pas-ta in it so she would need to eat only a little, or else be prepared to fart all night long.

Still. It was delicious. Rich, warm, creamy and filling. She didn’t need to eat much to feel satisfied, either.

“Is interesting, this work you do?” she asked.

“Engrossing!” Nimesh replied, and she put that word in her pouch for later. It was a new one. “We’re sorry we haven’t shared it yet, there’s just so much. We want to be sure we don’t get anything wrong.”

One of the others—a skinny woman whose shirt was so soaked with sweat that the Singer wondered why the poor thing didn’t just take it off for comfort—spoke up around a spoonful of the stew.

“The music!” she said. “We keep finding more and more of it. I don’t think you could listen to all of it in a year.”

“Did you want to hear some?” Nimesh offered.

The Singer smiled at him. “Yes! Please. But we should talk first. Some trouble with Given-Men.”

The Humans looked at each other, and the Singer relaxed. Their expressions told her they really didn’t want anything bad to happen. These were gentle people.

“Nothing bad,” she hastened to add. “Just…Tribes worry. They not understand what you do, why you do it. Good if we can see more, I think. Pro-fess-or Hurt could help, yes?”

“When he’s back, I’m sure he will,” Nimesh said. “He’s away for another, uh…three days?” he checked with the others, who nodded.

“His second interview on That Show is tonight,” the sweaty woman said.

Singer couldn’t stand it anymore. “Why you hurt yourself, trapped in wet bag?”

“Uh…sorry?” The Human blinked at her. “I mean…Uh, I don’t understand what you mean.”

“That.” The singer pointed at her soaking garment. “Why suffer?” she pointed in turn to some of the men, who weren’t wearing shirts. “See? More nice.”

For some reason, the Human’s face turned an impressive shade of bright red, like a healthy man’s crest. “It’s…Uh…”

Nimesh spoke up. “It’s a weird foible we have.”

“Foible.” The Singer considered the word. She didn’t need to ask what it meant, she got that from when and how he said it, but it rolled strangely forward then back in the mouth. “So, no good reason why?”

The woman cleared her throat. Her face was starting to return to its normal shade. “Not really. Some human tribes think it’s rude for a woman to bare her chest.”

“Oh. Your tribe thinks that?”

The woman laughed. “Stupid, isn’t it? But, that’s how I was raised. And trust me, it’ll feel great when I put a dry one on later.”

“I don’t know stupid. Seems…unfair. Men get to be dry, you not? But, I see this with other Humans too. Awisun, Shyow, they wear more too.”

One of the men chuckled. “Hey, you’re in prestigious company there, Claire. Wearin’ clothes just like a famous person.”

“Jooyun, he only smart Human I think! He wear running shorts. Very small! Like loincloth!”

“Whew.” Claire fanned herself with a hand. “And here I thought the climate was hot.”

Singer didn’t quite follow the words but the meaning was clear enough. Jooyun was pretty to look at, in a strange, tall and strong way.

The other men found it funny too. There were laughs, the stew was finished off, and they drifted back to their work in ones and twos.

“Offer stands,” Claire said. “I could show you some of the music. And it’s nice in there. We have this thing called air conditioning.”

The Singer stood up. “I know air conditioning. Make air cold and dry, yes?”

“Hell yeah it does. That okay, Nim?”

Nimesh nodded and that was that. Blessing given. Humans were very casual about such things, sometimes.

Claire sighed the moment they were inside one of the plastic huts and the cool air washed over them. Singer wasn’t terribly fond of it; the coolness was nice but it was always too dry, and that made her mouth sticky and her skin itchy. Claire, though, flapped her drenched shirt then shrugged and opened a metal box next to a bed. In a few breaths, she’d quickly swapped out the soaking cloth for a dry one and made a happy noise.

“Much better,” she said, then grabbed one of the ‘tablet’ tools Humans were so fond of. She sat on the bed and tapped on it for a few seconds.

“Here. I think this is their version of your dawn song. The words are different, but…well, here.”

She tapped again and singing filled the hut.

She was right. It was the song for the dawn, but different. The Singer sat on her tail and listened intently as three voices danced around each other like blown leaves. She’d only ever sung the song for dawn on her own, and while Singers did have songs they sang together at meetings or for special rites, the way they sang them was…very different. They would pull notes together that weren’t the same, but which when held could make the air shimmer. Like weaving a cloth.

These other People, when they sang, tied the song around itself. Probably the Humans had words for it, they had words for everything.

In fact…now that she listened, was that a man’s voice?

“…I hear a man singing,” she said.

“Yeah. The lower notes, right? He shows up a lot. We think he was like…a male Singer, kind of. He had tattoos like yours.”

That was…wrong. It had to be. Didn’t it? A Singer’s role was to stand across the gap between man and woman, between Give and Take. To do it, a woman had to become more like a man. She had to learn their ways, learn to think and behave like them. It wasn’t easy—to a one, Singers were chosen from the little girls who preferred to play like the boys.

It was hard to imagine a boy who would play like the girls and go the other way. What would a man who was more woman-like even do for his tribe?

…Besides be a Singer, maybe? Hmm.

“Was he…did he look more woman-like?” She asked.

“Ohh yeah. We’ve nicknamed him Freddy.” Claire laughed, then petered off when the Singer just gave her a blank look. “…Yeah, you wouldn’t get that joke. Sorry.”

“Freddy is a Human name?”

“Yes, a shortened version. He was a very popular singer from many years ago. He was very manly, and a little feminine at the same time. Died young.”

“You don’t know this one’s real name?” The Singer asked, and waved a finger to show she meant the song they were listening to.

“Not yet. Don’t worry, we aren’t being disrespectful. Freddy was loved when he was alive.”

“…Can I see him?”

Claire turned the tablet around. The Singer was used by now to the thought that the tablets could make pictures that looked as real as life. It had taken a lot of thought, and some patient explanation from Professor Hurt that no, the tablet didn’t have tiny people in it. It just…remembered how things looked, and could weave them back to life from nothing but light. That was an unbelievable magic, but Humans treated it like it was an ordinary part of life.

“Freddy” was tall and his legs were strangely straight, more like a Human’s than the People of the forests. They weren’t strong and thick, and he’d be terrible in the branches because of it. Jooyun and Wawsh were much stronger. Even Heff had him beat!

He was a Singer though. A senior one! He had three rows of tattoos around his eyes and another across his upper lip, and his crest was woven with interesting bits of metal and bright colorful stones. He wore the marks of a rite of manhood, the marks of a singer who had seen two hands of babies through the birthing…he even had the tattoo of one who had sung the moonless night, from dusk until dawn. That was a truly sacred ritual.

“How long ago was this?” she asked.

“Generations. Your people had a story about the volcano—uh, the [high-forest-place]—spitting fire long ago?”

“Yes.”

“Before that.”

The Singer sighed and stared at the tablet a while longer. The words were so different she couldn’t really hear them well, they just slipped off her ears. But she knew this song intimately. To hear it sung by a man…

Suddenly, there was a powerful ache in her heart. She gave Claire the tablet back. “…Three days, you said. Before Professor comes back?”

“That’s what he said. It might be longer, something might come up, but he loves his work. He’ll be back as soon as he can be, I bet. Might be sooner than three days if he can.”

“…I tell Given-Men. Maybe we get to hear songs together, see things you found. Without Yan here, they need reminding sometimes.”

“I’ll get some things ready for you. Um…it was nice to meet you. It’s been weird, working over here when you guys were over there and not…y’know, getting to know you.”

The Singer trilled. “Humans do many weird things. Like wear wet shirt!”

Claire laughed. “Yeah. Yeah we do…But hey, some of your ways are weird to us.”

That caught the Singer’s curiosity. “Like what?”

“Well, you guys hate water, right?”

Singer dismissed that with a flick of her tail. “Humans loving water is strange.”

Claire laughed again, and stood up. “Hey, if you want to look around the bunker I can probably arrange that with Nimesh…”

“No. Not today. Later, when the Given-Men are here and you have time to make ready, yes?”

“That’s fair. By the way, that stew was amazing, do you have the recipe?”

Singer shook her head. “Is eldest Singer’s secret. I will tell her you like, though.”

The heat and moisture hit them like a whipping branch as they stepped outside and the Singer sighed relief. She’d been getting too cold in the air conditioning-ed hut. Claire sighed and put her hat back on. “Back to work, I guess,” she said.

They exchanged final thank-yous and parting words and the Singer flung herself up easily into the nearest Ketta for the return trip to the village.

She had good feelings about what the Given-Men would say.


Date Point: 15y5m6d AV
That Show With Steven Lawrence, New York City, USA, Earth

Daniel Hurt

“Well, last week I promised he’d be back, and here he is darkening our door again, please give another warm welcome to Daniel Hurt!”

Dan was feeling more comfortable on the stage now, though the nerves were still there. Steve had promised all week that the second of his two-part appearances was going to involve a more serious critique of his methods and objectives by people who were actually qualified to pick him apart.

He was looking forward to it.

The crowd was just as warm and eager to see him as last time, though there’d been an incident just before they’d gone live: Three or four people had stood up at the back and started chanting before being removed by security. Tension was a fact of life, there was no use in trying to escape it. Besides, if people like that wanted to shut him up…well, a lot of the time they needed to tell people who he actually was first, which was basically free publicity. It was amazing how many protesters had never learned about the Streisand Effect.

They didn’t matter. The people who mattered were going to engage Daniel in hopefully civil, hopefully informed discourse and he’d either defend his position or else he’d be introduced to a better one. Really, it was a win-win.

“Daniel! Daniel!” Steven welcomed him back onto the stage with a handshake and a grin. “How’re ya feeling? Got your boxing gloves? Got your ‘Eye of the Tiger’ playlist going on?”

Daniel settled into the front-of-stage seat for the *n*th time in his career and allowed a small chuckle. “I’m excited! This should be enlightening…”

“So, you’re familiar with your two critics today, we have Gina Bailey of the American Extraterrestrial Culture Institute—“ he waved to the discussion table stage right where Gina was waiting. She and Daniel knew each other of old, and had a robust relationship founded on having yet to find a single thing they held in common. He quite liked her in fact, though the feeling was decidedly not mutual.

“…And Doctor Trevor Hills, president of the First Contact Society.”

Daniel had never locked horns with Hills before. He’d read a few of the man’s articles and blog posts in preparation for this meeting, but had struggled to find anything he could really sink his teeth into and rip apart. A lot of what he said was…alluring, but founded first and foremost in idealistic fiction rather than in the daily realities that Daniel had run into when interacting with the Ten’Gewek in the real world.

There was polite applause and Daniel gave them both a courteous nod.

“You had the stage pretty much all to yourself last week,” Steven commented. “We got a lot of messages about that, how we should have cross-examined you some more, not let you have it all your own way…”

“I’m glad to see you listened!”

“So…run us through in your words what this is all about,” Steve challenged him. Daniel nodded and figuratively ran a finger through his mental filing to pull out the card he needed.

“At the core, our disagreement is over whether or not our intervention with the Ten’Gewek should have ended once they were safe and protected. As everyone knows, I’ve been involved in actively educating them and introducing them to…well, everything. The galaxy, the species in it, the nature of the war that almost killed them and so on.

“My critics,” he continued, and gave a small bow toward Bailey and Hills, “have raised many different objections, ranging from accusations of imperialism or even slavery, to the more…mm…staid suggestion that if we must interact with the Ten’Gewek at all, it should be calculated to interfere with their development as little as possible, and that my approach has simply been too aggressive.”

Steven nodded and consulted his prompt cards. “Now…you’ve said yourself that most of the objections you’ve heard are things you’ve worried about yourself.”

“That’s right.”

“Could you give us an example?”

This one was kind of a crunch time. Daniel had anticipated the question, but he’d only managed to narrow down his replies to a shortlist of three. Now it was time to choose one.

“…If you ask an average person to name the most dangerous human invention ever, most I think will mention a weapon of some kind. The nuclear bomb, or the AR-15, the AK-47…But the most dangerous things we’ve ever invented by far are all ideas.”

Steven inclined his head politely, and Daniel explained himself. “What’s a rifle? It’s a piece of metal. Somebody has to want to pull the trigger. What gets a person to that moment? What persuades them to take a life? Ideas do. Now…” He paused, cleared his throat and picked up the little glass of water resting in front of him. “…A lot of the ideas we’ve grappled with over the years are incredibly dangerous. Some of them have literally rocked the foundations of Western civilization, even threatened to topple us.”

He took a sip and continued. “There are people sitting at home right now thinking things like ‘so what? Western civilization was built on inequality and exploitation and it deserves to fall’ and that just proves my point. The right idea can persuade somebody that the best thing that could possibly happen is the total collapse of the country they live in, the mass rejection of its ideals, and the punishment of its living citizens for the crimes of their dead ancestors. Ideas are dangerous, so very dangerous…and here I am, merrily introducing our ideas to the Ten’Gewek.”

“You make it sound so irresponsible.”

“Under other circumstances, I’d even agree that it is,” Daniel said. “But…well, the real world isn’t Star Trek. High-falutin ideals like the Prime Directive are nice for a TV series, but they broke it all the time in the show. And the real world is a lot messier than a script writer’s office.

“The biggest problem is that the Ten’Gewek are intelligent. Devastatingly so. They learned our language so fast, the paper we’re drafting on that is going to blow linguist’s minds. They picked up a lot more than we deliberately taught them, I can tell you that. And the thing about a language is that it defines the shape of how you think, and the degrees of freedom you have to think with in the first place. Just by saving their species, we freed their minds. That is a terrible responsibility, and there’s no shying away from it.”

Steve nodded, then gestured toward his other guests. “Well. That’s your opening argument. Let’s get you on the rack, shall we?”

Daniel grinned and stood up. “Yes,” he agreed. “Let’s.”


Date Point: 15y5m6d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

No fear. That was the part that surprised Allison, in the back of her head. She wasn’t afraid of her dad any more.

He still cut the same imposing figure she remembered. Not big, but tall, patrician in bearing and manner. He still had that same no-nonsense short back and sides haircut, though it had gone almost completely steel gray over the years. He still had those eyes, not blue like the rest of the family’s but a kind of dull green-gray.

But he was on her turf now.

And she hated to admit it, but it felt good having backup. Next to a bruiser like Julian, dad just…wasn’t all that imposing, not anymore. Vemik managed the same feat being barely five feet tall and had loyally stood next to her along with Julian. Xiù positioned herself strategically in the kitchen.

Yan stood out, slightly to the front, fully upright with his crest practically crackling with restrained hostility. Yan Given-Man wasn’t having any of dad’s nonsense.

Jacob Buehler paused at the end of the driveway and surveyed them for a second, then cleared his throat and took a few steps forward. He was just as clean-cut as she remembered in the way he dressed. His shirt and jacket were tailored, his shoes were as dark as midnight, and the crease of his trousers could have cut something. He had a small box under one arm, about the right shape to contain a dinner plate and gift-wrapped in simple silver paper.

He looked Allison in the eye as he reached the doorstep. “…Hello, Allison.”

“Father.”

He nodded slightly and cleared his throat, stealing a sideways glance at the Ten’Gewek. “…It’s…been a long time,” he said.

“Yes. It has.”

“May I come in?”

Allison let him wait a second while she stared at him, then stepped back and aside to make room. He glanced at Julian, climbed the steps and wiped his feet.

“You have a nice home,” he commented, once he was inside.

Allison ignored the compliment. “I’m sure you recognize Julian and Xiù,” she said. Jacob greeted them both with a nod. “These are Yan Given-Man and Vemik Sky-Thinker.”

“…Yes.” Jacob gave Yan the wary look of somebody who was being sized up by an obviously hostile man who could effortlessly overpower him. “You’re quite famous yourselves,” he told the two ETs.

Yan grunted. Vemik made no sound at all.

Stymied by the icy reception, Jacob cleared his throat again and put the gift-wrapped box down on the kitchen table. “A house gift,” he explained.

So, that was where they stood. He was treating her like a stranger. Honestly, Allison could live with that.

“Thankyou,” she said, not looking at it. She extended an arm and gestured toward the living room, where Amanda, Ramsey and Tristan were waiting. “They’re through there.”

“Thank you.” Jacob opened the door. Beyond it, the boys stared at him looking pale and tense. Amanda stood up slowly and smoothed down her skirt. His jaw moved slightly as he looked at them, then he turned back to Allison.

“This is a conversation for my family,” he said. “May we have some privacy, please?”

“No.”

Everyone looked at Yan, who’d growled the syllable with all the menace of an irate bear. He stumped forward with deliberately room-shaking steps until he was right in Jacob’s personal space. Even though he had to look up slightly to meet Jacob’s gaze, his crest and his sheer mass won out in every other regard.

“You say things, we all will hear them. A man who scares own woman, own children, no man at all.”

Jacob didn’t wilt but he did look away, toward Allison. “It’s your house,” he pointed out.

“And Yan is my trusted friend,” Allison replied. “You’ll listen to him.”

Outnumbered, out of his element and outgunned, Jacob paused a long while, then breathed out slowly and nodded. “…Fine.”

He brushed through into the living room, found the recliner opposite his wife and sons empty, and sat down.

Vemik sat himself down on the couch next to the boys, Yan sat on the floor in front of them, while Julian and Xiù took the love seat under the window. Allison closed the door behind herself and stood in front of it.

About the only sounds in the room for several seconds were those of breathing and the slight white-noise fuzz in the air as Xiù activated the privacy field around the window, sealing them off from the outside world.

Jacob spoke first.

“…Are you okay, boys? Been doing your homework?”

Tristan and Ramsey answered simultaneously, in the robotic, rote way of kids who knew exactly what answer was expected of them. “Yes, Dad.”

“Hmm.” Jacob grunted, then looked at his wife. “Amanda.”

“Jacob.”

The silence descended again, until Allison finally reached the limits of her patience and made a frustrated snarl. “Oh for crying out loud! Don’t either of you know how to talk to each other?!”

“This is a little awkward…” Amanda said, but Allison was having none of it.

“Then let me make it not awkward!” she snapped, and strode into the middle of the room. “This is a moment of opportunity for you two. Right now your family is broken, your home is broken, you’re broken. Both of you! You drove away your daughter! You’re driving away your sons! Now, do you want to keep going that way, or do you want to stop and ask yourselves just where it all went wrong and how you can put it right?”

Jacob opened his mouth to reply and she rounded on him. “I wasn’t finished!”

“You didn’t start!”

“Oh, I started. I started when I was fourteen goddamn years old, you just weren’t listening! I started when I got the hell away from you two and went to Boston! Answer me this, when I did that…did you lay all the blame on me? Was I just the wild child who’d have been trouble no matter what you did, or did you stop and wonder for one second whether maybe you went wrong?”

“Of course we wondered!” Amanda retorted.

“Then why are you still making the same mistakes?!”

Allison had to clench her fists to stop her hands from shaking, and she had no idea how her voice hadn’t closed up into an emotional croak. She returned to the door and took a deep breath before turning around. “Don’t you think maybe I wanted a family I could love?” she asked. “You think I wanted to have to leave? I wanted parents who loved me…what I got was Jacob and Amanda Buehler.”

“Allison, of course we loved you—” Amanda began.

“Bullshit!” Allison spat. “You don’t love your kids, you love whatever makes you acceptable to your neighbors and your church. You didn’t really want a family, you just wanted to tick that box so folks would think well of you!”

Jacob stood up. There was a creak as Yan, Vemik and Julian all shifted their stances and after a hesitant second he sat down again. He took a deep breath then glared at Allison.

“Is that what you tell yourself?” he asked.

“I remember a childhood filled with four words: ‘What Will People Think?’ Over the littlest, pettiest crap like what kind of music I listened to in my own bedroom with my headphones on. Or when my best friend was a boy.” Allison crossed the room, sat down on the love seat’s arm next to Xiù and took her hand for comfort. “So you tell me.”

They boys were nodding, but both of them went rigid and pale when Jacob turned his attention their way.

“…This isn’t about the past,” he said after a while. “It’s about the future.”

“Yes. Their future.”

“You’re at a crossroads,” Julian spoke up. He shuffled to the front of the couch and sat forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “And which way you go all depends on what you decide you value most. But be honest with yourselves: At least that way you can figure out where you go.”

Again, there was that moment of outrage where Jacob looked like he wanted to spring to his feet and re-assert himself. Allison had seen it many a time, often with him fetching a belt for good measure.

This time, Julian, bless him, used some of that bro-wisdom or whatever the hell he’d been learning from his friends and did…something. Allison didn’t know what, really. All it looked like to her was that he’d raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms, and somehow all the fight drained right out of her father.

Christ it was cathartic watching him not be the most powerful person in the room. The implication was clear: Violence was on the table if Jacob forced them to resort to it, and Jacob knew that was a futile war.

“What do you value?” Allison asked him.

“…I came here to get my family,” Jacob replied.

“Answer the goddamn question. Why did you come here for them? Was it because you genuinely care about them, or is it just about saving face for you?”

“Now wait just a minute–!”

“Oh, no. Of course, you’re just reclaiming your property.”

Jacob did something different this time. Rather than surge to his feet, he sat back in his chair and tapped his thumb on its arm for a few seconds, calculating.

Eventually, he took a shallow breath and spoke with care. “Would you believe me if I said I genuinely love them? I don’t think you would,” he said. “Maybe I want the best for my family. Maybe I wish things had been different with my only daughter. Maybe I’m a bigger monster in your head than I am in reality.”

He stood up. Julian did as well while Yan and Vemik stiffened, but this time he ignored them. “I didn’t come here for you, Allison: I came here for them. And I think emotions are running too high today. Perhaps we all need time to think.”

Xiù finally spoke up. “I agree,” she said. When Allison looked at her, she gave a supportive little shrug. “We were never going to fix this today,” she pointed out. “Not realistically.”

“We’ve barely begun,” Allison said.

“That still leaves the not insignificant matter of my children,” Jacob said testily. “I don’t intend to leave without them.”

“Well on that front,” Julian spoke up, “Things have been decided for you. The local police have been notified, as have CPS back in Salt Lake City. Xiù, babe, can you get the order?”

“Right.”

Xiù hopped up and vanished through into the little room out back of the living room that served as their collective office space. She was back in seconds, and handed it to Jacob without a word. He scanned it with a practiced eye and an expression of acute irritation flickered across his face as he saw the Folctha flag and court seal at the top.

“The order states that the children are to remain in the custody of their mother, who is to be supervised by agents of the court,” Xiù summarized. “Her passport will be denied at the jump gate, so she isn’t leaving…and there really isn’t anywhere else to go on this planet.”

“And who might these ‘agents’ be, I wonder.” Jacob’s tone of voice contained no suggestion that he was really asking a question.

“I hear you’re a smart fella,” Julian growled. “Figure it out.”

Jacob grunted and flipped the page. “There’s an appeal process? Could I get somebody else appointed as agents? Somebody without a personal stake in this?”

Julian shrugged. “I’m sure somebody at the courthouse can help you.”

“…I see. In that case, I’ll be staying at the Marlowe Hotel, on New Worlds Plaza. You know it?”

“Yes.”

“Then…I’ll come back the same time tomorrow. Assuming that’s good for everyone.”

“Tomorrow evening, after dinner.” Allison said. “I have work.”

“…I’ll come back tomorrow evening, then.”

“You do that.”

She followed her father out through the kitchen and down to the front door. He stepped outside and looked up—Folctha’s nightly rains were threatening to arrive soon, and the air was heavy with cool moisture before sunset.

“It’s a heck of a thing,” he said quietly. “You could almost forget we’re on an alien planet.”

Allison didn’t reply. Instead, she leaned against the doorframe and folded her arms until he cleared his throat and turned around. He looked like he wanted to say something…whatever it was went unsaid. Instead he took a step back, turned away and walked down the path with his phone out and vanished down the sidewalk.

Allison let out a long, tense breath and locked the door.

She was immediately swallowed up by Xiù, Julian…and Vemik. When Yan threw his weight on the pile as well, Allison had literally found herself being crushed under too much affection.

“I’m okay. I’m okay…” she promised, though she was deeply grateful and held them all close until it was difficult to breathe.

“So now what?” Xiù asked, as the knot slowly untangled.

Allison sighed. “I have work tomorrow, and to be honest the idea of getting away from this shit for a few hours is…It sounds like heaven.”

“We have a plan, there,” Julian revealed. “Something to take it out of all our hair for a couple hours.”

“Oh?”

“Well, your mother’s pretty religious, yeah?”

“I guess. I mean, fuck knows what that means now she’s been kicked outta the Temple and her house, but…”

“Well, we have a multi-faith center downtown, and if they don’t have any Mormon facilities I bet Gyotin would pounce on the chance to learn about it,” Julian said. “And while he’s working his magic on your mother…”

“…Some of the other folks down there can help Ramsey and Tristan,” Xiù finished.

“…I like it.”

“It was Yan’s idea. Sort of.”

“…Thanks, Yan.”

Yan just grunted, but he looked pleased. Allison considered the idea.

“You’d better warn Gyotin not to pull his tea ceremony act with her,” she said. “No hot drinks, remember?”

Julian chuckled. “I bet that’ll disappoint him a little. Gyotin’s gone full limey on all matters tea.”

“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with tea!” Xiù protested.

“Never said there was. I used to brew something on Nightmare, outta Mangrabber leaves. Kinda miss it, actually…”

“Cimbrean Tea infusions are pretty good, too.”

“…Yeah, but I think Imma gonna stay away from head trips,” he shrugged hugely. “After the Rite…it’s special, y’know?”

“…It’s the sap that’s psychedelic, shǎguā,” Xiù corrected him. “If you make an infusion it just tastes…kinda a little minty and a little bit like rosemary. No trip.”

“Oh! Well. Hell, that sounds kinda nice, actually.”

“I wonder where Mormons stand on Cimbrean tea?”

Allison shrugged. “I dunno. Herbal infusions are fine, but…”

“Strange rules these more-men have,” Yan grunted.

“You ain’t kidding, big guy. But I suppose they’d argue about all the magic plants you guys use to talk with the gods.”

Yan and Vemik looked at each other and shrugged. “Is plan. Shame we can’t bring boys to farm,” Vemik said. “Do them good to work!”

“Don’t write that off just yet, but yeah.” Julian leaned back and stretched his spine. “For now, little steps. This is as much about Amanda as it is about the boys. Let Gyotin work his magic.”

“What about you guys?” Allison asked. Julian shrugged.

“I gotta go back to the farm with these two, make good for the bull they ate.” He knuckled Vemik in the upper arm.

“I’ll supervise the trip to the faith center. I’ve kinda wanted to get to know the Starminds better anyway,” Xiù said.

Allison nodded. “Okay. Promise me we’ll get a chance to do something together once this settles down?”

“Promise.”

“Absolutely.”

“We throw a big feast!” Vemik agreed chirpily.

“I didn’t mean—” Allison couldn’t help herself: her face split into a smile and she laughed. “…Thanks, Sky-Thinker.”

Vemik grinned: He had Helped. Yan meanwhile waved his tail in the general direction of the living room, where Amanda could be heard clucking over her sons again. “Many things to do first.”

“Right.”

They got back to their various roles around the house, but Allison found herself feeling…lighter, somehow. She’d faced a man who used to terrify her, and found herself stronger than him. That was a liberation she’d never expected to enjoy.

She intended to make the most of it.


Date Point: 15y5m6d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

It was late evening on what had been a blessedly quiet day. The big news to cross Sartori’s desk that day had been an update on the quiet political wrangling between Russia and China over how best to divide up the planet Lucent for colonization. Apparently the Russians wanted a unified planetary Internet while the Chinese were digging their heels in and insisting that each colonial Internet should stand almost separate, linked only via their (narrow, easily monitored) connection to Earth. The Great Firewall of China was alive and well.

Let them work it out among themselves. If they wanted to get tangled in the weeds discussing communications policy while the first colonists were still living in tents and prefabs then that wasn’t America’s problem.

He took a sip of his whisky—one single, small glass of bourbon at night once he’d changed into his comfortable clothes—and swiped to the next report.

Ah yes. The leak. He smiled, set his tablet aside, and turned on the TV.

He found what he was looking for in the form of a studio full of four “experts” and one overworked presenter who was doing his best to keep the peace.

“…I mean, some of the leaked footage is horrifying! and yet there’s been no comment from the President all day! Doesn’t he care?”

“President Sartori’s a thoughtful man, he never rushes into these things, we’ve seen that time and again. I’m sure he isn’t ignoring this, just…taking his time to consider.”

One of the panelists gave an incredulous little laugh. “What’s there to consider?” he demanded. “This is…monstrosity! It’s evil on an interstellar scale!”

“For one, the costs of going to war.”

“We always knew what the Hunters are…” one of the other panelists began. She was interrupted.

“Exactly! And in any case, this is disturbing enough that the leader of the Gao personally oversaw this mission. Look at that. You can’t tell me anything that would prompt a dictator like Daar to personally intervene isn’t worth our President’s attention!”

Sartori grinned, and sipped his whisky. The footage didn’t feature much of the furry barge of murder, only a flash here or there really, but what little it did was definitely not safe for younger eyes. Which was good. War is hell, and the point needed to be made, forcefully.

“Exactly! What Tom calls thoughtful, I call cowardly. Say what you will about Daar but a coward he ain’t.”

Sartori chuckled and toasted his on-screen insulter. “Fuckin’ A.”

The presenter cleared his throat. “So, what’s the next step for the intelligence services? I presume they’ll want to find out how this got out…”

“That may not even be possible, depending on who leaked it, when, from where…AEC is an enormous international effort representing thousands of people from two planets!”

“So they should just give up?”

“No, of course not…”

The argument stretched on, with passionate and at-times contradictory points being made thick and fast, but all of it was exactly as Sartori had hoped for. People were mad, the media wanted them to be mad, and the narrative he wanted spread was being spread and made to look like it was in opposition to his wishes. All things considered, it was practically perfect.

There were a few personal considerations. Daar’s most admirable and most difficult trait was his scrupulous, effectively absolute commitment to personal fidelity. He had no problems with a tactical deception but he, himself, would never lie, or permit a lie to be told on his behalf. The furthest he would go down that line was carefully-crafted silence, or the utterance of extremely precise and cautious truths. Even that was something he preferred to avoid, since he “wasn’t a Goldpaw contracting officer.”

Which meant the deception demanded very careful timing. For now, the Great Father’s office would remain silent and refuse comment. With luck the media would keep digging, and he would eventually be “compelled” make a public statement requesting military aid. Sartori would have his Cabinet defer until public pressure reached a fever pitch, and then with a show of reluctant determination…commit to the fight.

The first draft of his own first response should be ready and waiting in the oval office by morning.

Satisfied, he changed channel and put his feet up. Watching his beloved Mets lose to the hated Yankees would be just the appropriate spice to round off an odd evening.


Date Point: 15y5m6d AV
POW Holding Facility, Planet Gao

Cytosis

Interrogations broke the monotony, not that there was much of that nowadays. Cytosis’ compliance had brought him many luxuries: books to read, writing tools, even a small device that played music. It was loaded with an astonishing variety of songs, most of which were…

Well, they were alien. Music was alien in general; there was no equivalent in the Hegemony, it was a pursuit of senses that Igraens had left behind aeons ago.

Most of it was formulaic. Interesting at first, but once the listener knew the formulas, the underlying logic of it, the pieces grew dull. One of his books explained the history of Human music, and he’d learned that the genres that least pleased him were so-called “pop” music—the fact that “pop” was short for “popular” baffled him.

Harmonies, though…He could truly enjoy harmonies. The intricate interplay of subtly differing frequencies, which his sensitive, inherited Gaoian ears could sort and classify with surprising precision. The Gaoians had preserved much of their true Deathworlder heritage, and their keen senses had in fact improved over time.

The Humans, though, had voices that transfixed. Choral music especially held his attention, when the chords they assembled hung like shimmering fabric in the air, evoking mental images of cold stone and high architecture. He could listen to it for hours.

Being dragged away was irksome, but he knew better than to resist. He’d ned weeks of good behaviour before they returned his music if he didn’t “play ball,” so yet again he meekly let himself be hooded and led, turned and twisted so that he didn’t know where one room was in relation to the other, and sat down in the comfortable chair opposite his second interrogator, Homer.

Homer was nothing like Bill. Bill was built like a sturdy fortification, with a tubby belly and hairy arms. Homer didn’t seem to suit his name at all: he was slim, clean, precise and had long fingers. He was almost totally bald, but wore a rough stubbly beard that framed rather than softened his cheekbones.

“Good day, Cytosis.”

Cytosis duck-nodded. They never referred to the time of day. He’d decided that according to his own personal rhythm it was morning, though, so he replied appropriately. “Good morning.”

“What did you make of Spem in Alium?”

“It’s…astonishing. I count at least thirty distinct voices, all singing something different. I think more.”

“Forty, total.” Homer looked pleased: the piece had been his recommendation.

“Consider me duly impressed.” Cytosis coughed and adjusted his seat. “So, what’s our topic of discussion for today?”

“The Gao again. The Hierarchy’s intent was to use them as a contingency species, as I recall…”

Cytosis duck-nodded and settled in. Now that he’d cast off his inhibitions about sharing, he found he actually relished the chance to both educate and be questioned on Hierarchy operations. There was no point in feeling any guilt or shame over it, now, and he was actually learning things about their methods himself, from analysing them. “That is correct. Their purpose was two-fold. First, as a benign force of competition to stave off stagnation, and secondarily as the raw material to form a military if need be.”

“I’d say that plan backfired.”

“Indeed. Are you intending to gloat?”

Homer shook his head. “Not at all. But I am interested in the details. How long have you been planning this contingency?”

“By your calendar…” Cytosis consulted his mental look-up table, “…approximately twenty-five thousand years. We first observed them in their hunter-gatherer phase, after language nucleation but before any of the rudiments of civilization. They were highly tribal and clannish and their world was much richer at the time, with diverse, highly competitive life. In the modern scale we would have rated Gao a respectable class-eleven, and trending upward. It was in little immediate danger of becoming a Class-Twelve—the microbiology was relatively benign even then, the climate’s too predictable and the tectonic activity is relatively gentle. But engineering Gao back down to a Class-Nine was no small task.”

“What about their gravity? Doesn’t that figure into the scale?”

“Not as much as is widely believed. Very low gravity certainly matters, but Gao isn’t a low gravity world, either. It’s close enough to other Deathworlds that it enables most of the benefits, but low enough to enjoy the benefits of low-gravity evolution as well. You must be aware of how high-maintenance your own body is, relative to the needs of other species…An active Human eats as much as a Guvnurag, and the Gao might conceivably have grown just as large as some of your apex predators on Earth, in due time. Imagine Gaoians literally as big as a Kodiak bear! We didn’t consider that an ideal outcome.”

Homer raised an eyebrow at that comment but didn’t say anything at first. Amusement, possibly? It was difficult to tell.

He shook off his silence and glanced at his notes. “The Gao used to be full-blooded Deathworlders, then, rather than a marginal case. Isn’t your normal procedure to exterminate such species?”

Cytosis scratched at his wrist where his paws were restrained. “Our usual policy is to exterminate even the marginal cases,” he said. “However, we are always in need of contingencies and those require deep time to develop, and we found an excellent candidate in the Gao. Deathworld species make the best source material, but of course we can’t permit a contingency that is beyond our control. Therefore, we shape them.”

“How?”

“It depends on the species. A common theme, however, is to preserve the most desirable traits while slowly reducing the threat they represent to something more…manageable. It is a fine balance we must achieve. The contingency must be capable of great ferocity, adaptability, resiliency and cunning when needed, but must be controllable and docile at all other times. They should also be capable of absorbing heavy losses to their peoples and recovering quickly. And ideally, their instincts should be highly competitive.”

“…in other words, the Gao.”

“Indeed.”

“…what, exactly, did you do to them?”

“Many things.” Cytosis accessed his copy of the case file. It was an incomplete summary rather than an exhaustive itemization of every step the Contingency specialists had taken, but it was dense with information regardless. “The first thing we did was depopulate their world by initiating a gamma ray burst in a nearby star. Ninety percent of their land-dwelling life went extinct, and their world was reduced to a class-eight almost overnight. We also appeared amongst them in engineered biodrone forms to lead them through the difficult Formation period.”

“Explain.”

“Formation is the process by which we inculcate a desired social structure into the target contingency species. How we do this varies, but in the case of the Gao we appeared as, effectively, demigods. Their Keeda tales are a direct consequence of our intervention, and have a basis in ancient events. Remarkable, really. They preserved the kernel of what we wanted them to remember all this time…”

“…What else did you do?”

“All the Gao that survived had heavy genetic damage. This was by design. We used our biodrone forms to intervene with a suitable light show, repaired each member directly…and altered their reproductive scheme. That must have been obvious to you, once you learned of our involvement.”

“…What was the purpose of that?”

“Firstly, to shorten their gestation time. Secondly, to reduce the time between cubs. Thirdly, to speed up their maturation time and extend their reproductive lives, though that came at the cost of total lifespan. The result was a species that could very quickly produce large numbers of military-capable males, raise them to adulthood in acceptable timeframes, and produce many offspring per female. We also reinforced their fertility’s link to health, particularly the health of the sire. Our goals were a very high proportion of serviceable soldiers in any given generation. We succeeded, wildly.”

“…Did it not occur to you that their instincts may not adapt to such a wild change?”

“Irrelevant. Social conditioning can overcome any instinct.”

“Given that they broke free of your control, I’d contest that claim.”

Cytosis shrugged. “Their conditioning wasn’t broken from within, but by an external event, namely contact with you. Though, admittedly, they were more vulnerable to external influence than we’d have liked…The fatal crack in the armor there is probably the fact that we lost control of the Stonebacks over a thousand years ago.”

“Still, though. They did that themselves. Your ‘social conditioning’ didn’t take.”

“True, but one anomalous Clan wouldn’t have made a difference without a destabilizing influence.”

Homer didn’t reply to that. Instead he backtracked and asked another question. “…How did you lose control of the Stonebacks?”

“That’s complex. The short answer is they became opaque to us and bred their traits largely independent of our direct influence. That was fine because we had used our influence on the rest of their society to guide their development with reasonable success. With encouragement, they began breeding themselves into elite soldiers and builders. What we had not anticipated was the quality of their leadership.”

“I hate to keep rabbit-holing, but that one I need explained, too.”

“Their intellectuals had long ago split into Highmountain, a Clan we quite thoroughly infiltrated. We anticipated that the Gao’s eventual species-wide leadership caste would emerge from them. We had, in fact, expected it to emerge this generation, in the form of Loomi.”

“That’s the current Champion of Highmountain,” Homer checked.

“Indeed. He’d been groomed for the role since birth, but he proved…dissatisfactory.”

“How so?”

“He’s everything we believe a leader should be. But as you observed, we did not account for all their psychology, nor understand the consequences of that blind spot. The result was that Daar emerged.”

“…You missed him?” Homer’s tone was incredulous, and Cytosis had to agree. Daar had begun making waves almost from when he was a cub. Dismissing him as a quirk who would never amount to a real factor in the equation had been one of the Hierarchy’s more grievous errors.

“Indeed.” Cytosis emoted grim amusement via an ear-flick. “Suffice to say, our surveillance was…lacking. Daar is everything Loomi is, and much more besides. Beyond that, he possesses this…’spark’ of leadership we were missing. He also preserves all the other traits of a Stoneback and this has proven disastrous.”

“What traits?”

“They are a wild and untamed breed, deliberately so. Normally this would manifest as a passionate hot-headedness, for instance in One-Fang. Their Clan has always been on the edge of self-immolation. Stonebacks, conversely, have discipline. They’ve always needed and bred for it. We had not appreciated the degree to which that would undo our plans, however.”

“You also failed to account for his friends and confidants.”

“Of course. That was implied in having missed the cultural singularity.”

“Okay, you need to explain that, too.”

Cytosis cast his memory back to the moment the concept had first been explained to him, long ago now. “I believe the Americans of your people have a saying: ‘comes the moment, comes the man.’ It neatly summarizes a useful meme that we have used in our social engineering programs over the arc of our history. Our intent was to shape the Gao into a unified force under Loomi’s leadership, ideally by precipitating a crisis which would have sidelined Stoneback. Before we could achieve that, however, your species arrived—”

“—And we set in motion a series of events you could no longer control,” Homer concluded.

“Precisely. But more than that, you removed Daar from even our nominal influence. I do not know if you understood the depth of your victory at that point. The result is that he is now the greatest Gaoian to ever live.”

Cytosis shook his head bitterly. “We really should have had him assassinated when he was young,” he lamented. “Instead, he’ll likely live many more years given his dam and sire, and he may well live long enough to personally realize Stoneback’s ancient dream and destroy us all. Without him, Humanity would be alone, isolated, and frankly your eradication and erasure from the history books would be only a matter of time. With him…Well. It’s inconceivable to me you didn’t realize his value.”

He had to give Homer credit. The man gave nothing away as he slowly adjusted his posture and then checked his notes again.

“…You need to forgive me but this all seems a bit far-fetched.”

“How so? Genetic manipulation is direct and easy to do. One look at the Discarded should illustrate the claim. As far as social engineering, that is simply a matter of having enough agents in enough places who can whisper the right words to the right people at the right time. Given enough time, almost any outcome can be planned, iterated, and ultimately achieved. Stoneback was our great blind spot and it cost us everything.”

“You mentioned that before. How did Stoneback unravel your plans? And how is any of this their, as you said, *‘ancient dream?’*”

“…You’re either an excellent liar, or you really haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Answer the question, Cytosis.”

Cytosis flicked his ear again then sat upright. Well, well. Maybe Human intelligence wasn’t quite so omnipotent after all. Either that, or Homer truly was a most excellent liar…or had been kept in the dark. It was impossible to tell, but there was no point in playing games. Not if he wanted to have music to listen to when he got back to his cell.

“It’s simple,” he said. “Great Father Fyu discovered us.”


Date Point: 15y5m7d AV
High Mountain Fortress, Gao

Sister Naydra, Life-Mate of the Great Father

Daar, like most Males, was a creature of wild moods. That was the thing that gave males their exciting, slightly dangerous edge and was, at least for Naydra, a big part of what made them attractive. Some breeds like Whitecrests or Straightshields earned attention with their well-tempered discipline. Others like the One-Fangs or Stonebacks let their passion burn brightly for all to see. Some Females preferred the former, others the latter. Still others like Naydra found attraction at either end, and that more than anything was probably why she had fallen in love with Daar; he was both extremes at the same time and to a degree she had never seen matched by anyone, of any species.

In public he was the living model of crude, honest dignity and had truly steel-strong self restraint. He of course enjoyed coarse language and found immense delight in the simpler entertainments of life, yet nobody could deny his keen mind or his sometimes shockingly subtle humor. There was refinement, there. It was sometimes hard to see, and he picked his Civilized proclivities with great care…but it was there. Whether it be with his flowers, a keen love of the Gao’s history, or the crude yet clever little fables he had at first started writing for his friends as an in-joke, the Great Father was a creature who could not be easily defined.

His fables in particular were an interesting example of that duality held in careful tension. They were often raunchy yet not quite scandalously so; he rode that fine line with clever prose, groan-worthy puns, confidently self-deprecating humor—rarely if ever heard from a Male, that—and a growing body of complex, self-referential memes. His fables had no schedule or theme to them. He wrote just-so stories about whatever tickled his fancy at the moment, often as a result of a meeting, a particularly well-accomplished Gaoian’s achievements, or maybe the antics of a cub on a playground. With her encouragement they had become one of his chief means of public communication, and the public responded in kind. His fables had seeded a rapidly growing word game the whole of the Gao played, and Daar spent a few spare moments every evening to read through and reply to some lucky thread, building on the poster’s story or slyly picking it apart.

He’d actually broken the datasphere a few times with the avalanche of replies to his posts.

His other side, the wild, unrestrained engine of optimism, giddiness, rage…and sometimes a deep and unabiding despair…was not something the public ever saw. Not even in his most fierce moments as the Great Father or his most ear-waggling smarmy come-ons as the Champion of Stoneback, had he ever allowed people to see him at his unrestrained maximum. That was something he shared only with his most trusted friends and confidants; First Fang, a few of the Champions, Regaari of course…

And now Naydra, the first life-mate the Females had permitted any male for a thousand years.

For the moment she was relaxing in private and catching up on her reading while he entertained his consorts for the evening. It would be quite late before he wore them out and she found herself oddly grateful for the rest; the day’s activities had been tiring, to say the least. It was Daar’s fiftieth birthday today and that was a significant one for males, especially for a labor-bred brownie like him. Fifty was generally the age where males would retire and switch to light duties at their Clan or workhouse. It was supposed to be a reward for a long productive life, where they could live out the rest of their time in relative comfort and, for many, the heavy attention of Females. Old males were successful males after all, and simply living that long in the first place was a serious accomplishment for most brownfurs.

Naydra was many years Daar’s junior, and his admirable venerability had been a bit of a concern amongst the Females while they were still debating the propriety of the situation. She countered that they were obligated to support the Great Father, having created him in the first place, and that the duty of the thing would slowly kill him if they didn’t give him what he needed. She was right, everyone knew she was right, and in the end she won the debate.

Yulna’s support hadn’t hurt her case, either.

Of course it also helped that the big lout was in radiantly good health. He did have some handsome and dignified silver creeping into his cheek ruffs and along the outside of his massive forearms these days, but despite that he had the body, health, and vigor of someone effectively thirty years younger. And that was at the peak of the war, when he had been running himself ragged. His duties had made him truly despondent most days. But with time, love, care, and the victory at hand, everything had improved greatly. Now he was the best version of himself he had ever been.

He knew it, too.

Lately he had been carrying himself with a lighter, more playful gait—if “light” was a reasonable term for a male larger than a naxas stud—and had done so more and more as the Gao shifted to rebuilding their world. It was the little things, really. As the Females slowly, carefully peeked their noses back into public life, he in turn had regained some of the unabashedly flirty banter for which he had previously been legendary. He did that with every Female he met and that might have made Naydra jealous…except he did it the best for her.

She didn’t know exactly why, but no other Female seemed to catch his interest the same way she did. With the others it was playful, with her…it was serious. He always looked at her with a singularly intense stare, as if he was captivated by what he saw. Then he’d snap out of it and find some ridiculous excuse to pose and preen for her, usually with a come-on line so awful that even his Champions rolled their eyes. It was cheesy, crude, stupid…and she adored it. He loved showing off for her with words and weights, kept his pelt perfectly trimmed and just short enough to show off the hard-earned lines of his unmatched body. The big Keeda knew exactly how to push a Female’s buttons and he took a special delight in pushing hers.

That renewed vigor had been the theme for the day’s celebration, and it had been one of the few but lately more frequent times she had seen Daar in an unreservedly, boisterously happy mood. He’d gone on one of his “walkabouts” with several workhouses and Clans that day, a thing he hadn’t been able to do for quite some time. Naydra had no idea how his security detail made it work but they did, and Daar spent the first part of the day rolling in the dirt with the hardest working, most flea-bitten, lowest, roughest…and genuinely kind, good-hearted brownies the laboring world had to offer. They had no shame speaking coarse and flattering things in her presence, and Daar was positively gleeful as he thrashed their hides in retaliation. It was absolutely no contest at all and yet somehow, no feelings were hurt.

In fact they seemed to love him for it. That maybe had more to do with their impressive new scars but the feeling was clearly genuine, and it was reciprocated. The working males of the Gao absolutely loved the Great Father and he loved them right back. She wouldn’t pretend she completely understood either the male or the brownfur mindset, being a female silverfur herself, but that didn’t stop her from being drawn to both. Their energy was magnetic. They shared their food, showed both of them their work, groaned when he tried his hand at the task and made them all look like amateurs. Then they drank Talamay together, sang Naydra’s praises in the crudest, raunchiest, most genuinely flattering terms she had ever heard…

There was even a friendly many-on-one brawl, with essentially all the Brothers of a Clan Ironclaw workhouse piling on the Great Father. Daar won of course, thoroughly but not quite instantly, and that small “victory” had cheered them greatly. Him too! He even gave them a crash course on how to handle large brawls, which they took very seriously, but Naydra noticed he had very cunningly kept some Stoneback secrets to himself. He told no lies, of course, but…why advantage his Clan rivals over his own?

She was reclining against her favorite floor cushion when she felt the gravity crank up. Daar must have been on his way back. He’d gone to so much effort building himself up to match the Deathworlders after all, it would have been both silly and wasteful to lose all that hard-earned strength and bone density to Gao’s weaker gravity. That meant he spent as much of his day as he could in either an Earth or even Ten’Gewek-level field to maintain his body; keeping up with proper Deathworlders was an enormous commitment.

Naydra could tell he was feeling frisky tonight because the gravity was definitely Ten’Gewek level or maybe more; she’d ended up growing accustomed to the daily needs of his training and had taken to some of it herself. After all, the life-mate of the Great Father needed to be worthy of him…and everything he could do…

She first heard, then felt the weight of his enormous paws smashing against the steps as he thundered up the long staircase towards their private quarters. She sat up and put her reader down as Daar thumped to a stop, opened the door, ducked under the ancient frame, hunched his shoulders together and squeezed somewhat sideways through the opening. He was pumped up, extra musky, and thoroughly lathered from his evening activities. She wasn’t complaining about any of that, oh no. As his life-mate it was her duty to give him a meticulous rubdown…

“Naydi!” He barked cheerily, momentarily interrupting her sudden fantasy and using his pet name for her. “I thought you might be sleepin’ by now!” He closed the door, thumped heavily down to all fours and wagged his tail furiously. Uncivilized, but adorable.

“And miss your return? Happy fiftieth, Stud-Prime.” She meant it, as strongly as ever.

“Aww, don’t remind me!” He pranced over with a heavy, bouncing gait while preening the biggest preen. “You’ll make me feel all old and stuff!” His movements were as impressive as ever, the heavy gravity seemingly doing nothing to hinder him. Naydra felt leaden and graceless under any of it but Daar…he moved just like a dangerous beast, same as always.

That didn’t mean she couldn’t tease him. “That was the goal! How went your evening?”

“Fun!” Daar flowed over to his rough-hewn wooden desk to quickly scan his evening updates. “We lifted a whole bunch! And then we raced, and we wrassled too! I won,” he grumbled smugly, implying with absolute certainty that he was victorious in all the things. “Then we ate! They made my favorites too, ‘cuz their mess hall was really good!”

Simple pleasures and simple living, experienced deeply. That was the very definition of who Daar was. Never mind his actually quite formidable intellect, at heart he was a simple being.

“You sound like you enjoyed yourself! That would explain why you’re so lathered up…”

“Naw, I lifted again jus’ before I came up.”

“What about your engagements?”

“They tired out too quick,” he said with an unbearably smug look, “And I still had a lotta energy from the food!”

Naydra chittered, “You always were a big eater!”

“The most biggest! I think we managed to eat their entire pantry bare, too. But! Then we went t’go look at a big engineering project they’re workin’ on. They’re borrowing a crazy idea from the Humans, something called a ‘Hyperloop’ or whatever. Dunno if we can devote resources to it just yet an’ I kinda think it’s a better fit as a Stoneback project anyway, but…”

“…but you’re the Great Father,” she finished for him. “You can’t favor your Clan.”

“Yeah.” The lay of his ears suggested he wasn’t completely happy with the idea.

“Why do you think it’s a Stoneback project?”

“Gotta dig lots of tunnels! ♫♭♯ [Diggy diggy hole, diggy diggy hooooOOooOWLLEE!!] ♯♭♫

Naydra grimaced and flattened her ears protectively. Daar had many charms, but his singing voice was legendary for all the wrong reasons. It was powerfully loud, entirely out of tune, and practically weaponized against the very concept of Civilization, or any Civilized form of music.

“…Ow.”

“Oh come on!,” he whined. “Nothin’ as fun as singin’ can be that bad, can it?”

“Right next to my ear, though?”

“But I’m all the way over here!”

“It’s not a big room, and you’re…big.”

Daar gave one of his deep rumbling chitters. “The most biggest! You love it.”

“I do, but still. Ow.” She stood up and gave him a playful swat on the muzzle. “You most biggerestest oaf.”

Daar chittered, and Naydra congratulated herself. She’d been studying English hard and had stumbled over a subtle bilingual pun in ‘biggerestest’ that she’d thought Daar would enjoy. He hadn’t disappointed.

“Well, the most biggest Gaoian anyway.” he said. “Maybe biggerest?”

“It loses the pun, though.”

“Too bad, it’s better sorta. Warhorse and Yan Given-Man are really the most biggerestest!”

Naydra chittered to herself; sadly, the pun only made sense in Gaori, and only if one also spoke English. But still. “…Bigger than you? That’s hard to imagine.” Daar was already big enough to fill most indoor spaces and make floors groan under his paws. More of that seemed frightening!

“It’s true! I got a ways t’go if I’mma catch up to ‘em. But! Besides those two, Me an’ Righteous an’ Baseball are way better’n anybody else! Base is super tough and never runs outta gas, an’ Righteous is really hard t’beat in a fight. But I’m stronger’n both of ‘em now! And faster too!”

“Anyone who could compete directly with you is formidable indeed.”

“Yeah! And then there’s bestest friend Tiny, he’s super smart and tough, and Highland…”

Naydra had heard him gush fondly about his friends before but Daar seemed to need to talk about them just then, so she listened attentively while he extolled their many and varied virtues. It was clear he missed them deeply. Listening to their antics and the stories about their training, combat deployments, various adventures…she couldn’t blame him.

The stories about Yan and his people caught her interest the most. “It’s good both species are our allies, then.”

“We’ll see ‘bout the Tangy-Work. Ten-ge-wek.” Daar paused and growled in frustration. “Ten’Gewek! That one-click sound is hard to do. Anyway. We gotta see how they do when they go to Earth, ‘cuz neither us nor the Humans have the means to take on a protectorate nation jus’ now…” He furrowed his brow in thought, “Balls, maybe if we just—”

“Bumpkin,” Naydra interrupted him with her own pet name for him, “you promised you would relax today.”

Civilized Males were extremely deferential to Females and Daar was no exception. He cringed in on himself and managed to seem two head-heights shorter. “…I did, sarry.”

“Let Father Regaari and the Champions handle this. It’s their job. You are our leader, you are not our taskmaster.”

“I know, I know…I need a break and I ain’t takin’ advantage.” Daar flowed over to the long padded bench and poured himself onto it. Naydra saw her opportunity to give him his favorite back-scratches and gently ran her claws down the length of his spine, with the result that he shivered in pleasure, melted further into his puddle, and soon thereafter was almost purring in contentment.

“Oh, ‘yer so good at that…”

She worked her paws into it and gave him the rubdown he needed. It wasn’t really a massage since his muscles were far too big and hard for her paws to loosen, but he enjoyed her attentions anyway and stretched out to his full length with his arms, shoulders and footpaws draped over the edges. She worked her way down from his mighty neck to his massive footpaws and across everything in between, and worked her way back up again. By then he had finally started to relax, but despite all her efforts he was simply too densely built for her to loosen him up; she’d need to be much stronger to manage that.

Naydra didn’t mind at all, even if her paws were getting very tired. She worked on his shoulders for a long while, then leaned in and nipped his ear. “You like that?” she whispered.

He grumbled contentedly in reply.

“Roll over, then.”

That was a small tease between them, knowing that dogs from Earth were often trained to do that on command. He did it anyway and Naydra rewarded them both with a good, solid belly rub. Daar grumbled again, deeper this time. He was so wonderfully responsive to her touch…and so wonderfully good to feel. The Great Father was a creature of huge, perfect shapes, hard as stone and covered in the dense velvet of his pelt. He grumbled happily as she started at his feet, worked her way up the heavy shapes of his legs, rubbed the great hillocks of his abs for a long while, and eventually ended up at his broad, thick chest. She spent a long time on his arms and neck, too. He had no will to resist her and before long was quietly growling in deep pleasure.

“It’s amazing how you can be so hard at work as the stud-prime, the one against which all others are measured, and then every night you come back all tense…” She chittered eventually. “You would think some of your engagements could get you to loosen up!”

“Most females…they never learn…how to do this…oh, right there!” He had a magic itching spot just off his chest and along either flank. One little scratch and he was kicking his massive leg so hard that the bench started to scoot across the floor.

“You like that?”

His response was a deliriously happy whine. Naydra chittered to herself and scratched harder for a long moment. She stopped just as it became unbearable for him, which caused him to pant in relief with his huge tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

“That’s a downright shame. I’ll just have to make up for their shortcomings…” She climbed on top and snuggled against him, snuffling deeply in the thick white ruff of his chest fur. The only thing better than feeling his body was smelling it, and he seemed to feel the same way; he pulled her up slightly, pressed his muzzle against the top of her head, and breathed deeply.

Contentment. For a long while they just lay together, holding each other and sharing warmth.

Naydra laid her ear against his chest and listened to his slow, powerful heartbeat for a long moment, but eventually her curiosity got the best of her. “Actually…how were they?” His duties as stud-prime were known to her, and she accepted it from the beginning…but that didn’t mean she wasn’t curious. Strictly out of concern for him, of course. She almost believed it, too.

He was carefully wary of the topic. “Naydra…” His paw came to the back of her neck and scritched just how she loved it. She melted into his grasp and he massaged a bit deeper. “…I love Females. Y’know that, it ain’t a secret. I love ‘em all.” He pulled back and looked her dead in the eye, “But I don’t love any of ‘em like I love you.”

She almost keened at that but she held her composure. “You didn’t really answer the question,” she pointed out, and gave his ear a gentle nibble. “How were they?”

“Nothin’ gets by you, huh?”

“Nope!”

Daar chittered somewhere near the infrasonic and flicked his ears resignedly. “Whaddya want me t’say? They were healthy, well-bred, beautiful an’ cheery. Exactly the kind of stock Stoneback wants their stud-prime to mate with.”

“…And?”

“And they’re young an’ stupid! I swear there ain’t a Keeda-damned working neuron to share between th’ three of ‘em.” Daar sighed, rolled off the bench and flomped onto the floor with Naydra in tow. They landed with a resounding crash and she yipped in surprise, but there was no escape as he wrapped his paws around her to pull her in close. She played at outrage and immediately found herself smashed crushingly tight against his body, his tail wagging furiously and a playful pant-grin on his face.

“I’ve got way better right here,” he said warmly. “I’m the luckiest male alive!”

“You big flirt! I bet you say that to all the pretty females.”

“Nope. Just you. Only ever you.”

The thing about Daar was that he was perfectly honest, always. It wasn’t just that it was his reputation. There was something in his earnestness and intensity that said it was so. When Daar complimented someone, he meant it, and that was special.

She didn’t have more than a moment to reflect on that before he rolled over the top of her and completely pinned her in place. Naydra nipped him on the nose affectionately, and in response he squeezed her just hard enough to ride the line between painful and exciting.

“Gently! I’m still recovering from the cub.” A shame, too. It was his birthday…

“I know.” He snuggled up a little closer and grumbled to himself. “I wish I could meet him.”

“Daar, we talked about this. It’s for his safety and his well-being. No cub should grow in the shadow of their sires, especially not a shadow like yours. You have enemies who would take advantage of the situation.”

“I know, I know.” He tried and completely failed to keep the sullen lay of his ears under control.

“It is cruel.” Naydra had decided that a while ago.

“Yeah…but at the same time, I can see now more’n ever why he needs to be his own Male.”

Something in the way he said it plucked at her instincts. She squirmed, he loosened up a little, and she pulled back from him a bit to try and figure out what was eating at him. He noticed, raised a paw to get his ears to stand up again, and cleared his throat.

“…Y’wanna eat somethin’?”

Naydra chittered in mild exasperation and shook her head. “Not now, you oaf! Something’s stuck in your fur. I can tell, you know.” She flicked the end of his nose affectionately.

Daar sighed hugely, cuddled her a little closer and looked off into the distance for a moment as he thought. “I been watchin’ some’a the news media from Earth,” he said.

“And?”

“Y’know how the Gao see me, right?”

Naydra considered that for a moment. “I’d say equal parts admiration, fear, and love.”

“Yeah! And that feels weird ‘cuz I was just this big sorta silly public figger all them years. I mean not really but I wasn’t gonna go outta my way and be all super serious alla time like Genshi or whoever. Weren’t who I was, y’know?”

“And now the world is a much darker place. You’re the Daar the Gao needs and we do love you for it. I love you.”

Daar keened very quietly and squeezed her warmly. “I know. An’ I love you like I ain’t ever loved anyone. But all that? I can get used to that. I gotta be like any Clan Father, but I gotta be the Father of everyone. With Humans though it’s different.”

“Different how?”

“They don’t like people like me. At all. In fact I think they’re fuckin’ scared o’me. I’m sorta like the villain in a lotta their news, and I guess they’re makin’ a digital ripoff version o’me inna comic book movie, now. I’m definitely the bad guy in it…they use words like ‘Tyrant’ and ‘Dictator’. An’ ‘Brutal,’ that one gets used a lot.”

There it was. He’d not quite reconciled the reality of who he was with the self-image he wanted to cling to. Time for some frank words, then.

“Daar, my love. You are all of those things. But you are much more. You are the Great Father. It’s not your fault the Humans don’t have a concept to match you.”

“They think my little stories are a ‘public relations’ ploy!”

Naydra considered him for a second and combed a rogue tuft of his fur back into place. “It’s not like you to be bothered by things like that…”

Daar wasn’t one to be at a loss for words, ever. He was too keen for that. Nevertheless it took him a moment to choose what he wanted to say, which he finally let out with an irritated growl. “It’s just so…cynical! They see the worst possible motive in literally everything!”

“They’re a cynical species.”

“I know, I guess…” Daar grumbled. “An’ it looks like I’ll be the butt o’ their jokes ‘till I die, too.”

“Surely that doesn’t bother you,” she teased.

“Depends on the joke, I guess. C’mon, ain’t nobody’s hide is infinitely thick.”

“Oh?”

“Eh. Better if I just ignore ‘em an’ forget ‘em…”

“Oh Bumpkin,” she nibbled gently at his neck, “It’s not all bad. Some of the caricatures are in friendly spirits! I liked the one where you tackled the President and slobbered all over him.”

“I never did either of those things! And also, my muscles aren’t quite that ridiculous.”

Naydra looked down at the enormous legs that were carefully wrapped just shy of crushingly tight around her waist. She felt them with her paws and admired their rippling brawn for a long moment, trying and utterly failing to squeeze his bulging muscles. They were practically bigger than she was, harder than rocks, and he was hardly flexing them at all.

Naydra flicked her ears in bemusement. “Yes they are, dear.”

That got a quiet chitter from him; Daar was easy to flatter. “Fine, fine.” He licked the top of her head affectionately right in-between her ears, and she shivered happily in his grasp. “I ‘spose it’ll get worse when this little workhouse drama moves into the next act, too.”

“Why, what comes next? I thought you were done with it?”

“Nah, there’s a lot to come yet.” Daar scratched the spot on her back between her shoulder blades where no Gaoian could ever scratch themselves, and made her melt with pleasure. She half-shut her eyes and felt her ears droop as he satisfied itches she hadn’t even noticed were there. He had a shockingly gentle touch with those huge paws of his, and it wasn’t long before those great legs of his squeezed harder and his scratches moved elsewhere…

Daar grumbled in smug self-satisfaction. “Too bad ‘yer still recoverin’ ‘cuz there’s a lot more hours left in the night!” He growled low against her ear, “I could think’a how to spend ‘em…”

…Blatant, and tempting. Maybe. But first: “Don’t you distract me with your promises,” she chided him with a chitter. “What comes next?”

“Eh, a dumb Keeda game.” He didn’t stop with his paws while he spoke. “It’s all so Sartori can maneuver his enemies into doin’ what he wants ‘em to do. It’s clever enough but I don’t like clever strategies when a simple one would do, there’s lots more to go wrong.”

She had to fight against his wickedly skilled touch but she did manage to slip in a subtle tease. “So you like things dumb and easy, then!”

“Balls yeah! You ain’t gotta think too hard ‘bout an easy plan. It’s just, sometimes you can’t come up with one in time.”

Naydra duck-nodded and snuggled into his fur. “He knows his people best, I’m sure.”

“I guess.” Daar ran his claws down her back again, gentler this time. He was more chaste, just brushing her fur and not scritching with any intent. “Y’know, I lived with ‘em for a long damn time but maybe I didn’t pay enough attention to their politics.”

“Maybe. Worry about the Humans tomorrow, I never did give you your birthday present.”

He tilted an ear sideways in bemusement. “Oh? I thought you wanted to rest?”

“I do…” What she really wanted to do couldn’t possibly be more obvious, but Daar was a challenging mate at his gentlest and quite frankly, gentle wasn’t what either of them wanted. No matter. Instead she snuffled against his neck and licked along a particularly huge cord of muscle, then moved her attentions over to his throat, down along his chest…

He never failed to reward her with delighted little growls and groans of pleasure. Or with his touch. One of his great paws landed in the small of her back while the other rested gently on her head, kneading and encouraging her.

“Oh…I love you so fucking much…”

She felt like could spend forever grooming his chest. It was broad, thick, and hugely strong, and almost no part of him smelled so utterly male. But she had another goal. She worked her way lower and spent a pleasantly long time grooming the bricks of his abs…then lower…

And then lower.

His heat and strength, his smell and taste, the little whines and his encouraging paws…perfect. She knew what she was doing and prided herself on her work, so even with his legendary stamina he couldn’t hold out forever. She couldn’t hold out long herself, and the moment came for them both when he keened in warning, and those powerful legs of his squeezed down around her so hard she felt like her body might shatter. Another heartbeat later and his grip tightened hugely, he paused, snarled, bucked—

Panting from both of them, and eventually a long, slow climb-down from an incredible peak. Daar huffed in satisfaction and pulled her up along his body so they were nose-to-nose. Her ribs felt tender but that wasn’t important at the moment. The look in his eyes, the set of his ears, his very scent told her what words seemed inadequate to say.

“I love you.” He said it anyway.

“And I you, my love.” He keened like his heart was aching, and she keened with him. They held, no more words were needed. He groomed her in turn where his claws had pricked her…and almost immediately she felt his ardor rising, and strongly. She might regret it in the morning but right then, she knew what she needed. What they both needed.

“Please…” she keened desperately, “but be careful!”

Daar nodded seriously. “…I will.”

They didn’t even leave the floor. He pinned her utterly, wrapped her up in an absolutely crushing grasp, snarled from the bottom of his stomach right against her throat…and he was everything she needed and wanted until the early morning hours.

They must have dozed off at some point, because she woke sometime after sunrise, curled up and alone on the naxas pelt on the floor with another draped heavily on top of her. Daar had already risen for his duties. How exactly he managed that without waking her was a mystery for later. She got up, shook herself out and stretched; as predicted, the evening had taken its toll on her muscles. She winced and decided she would try some of that wonderful ‘Ibuprofen’ that Daar kept talking about, then headed for her morning ablutions. Right then she noticed a hastily-scribbled note on the bathroom door.

Naydi

Sarry I gotta get up too fuck damn early these days if I wanna want to get any kind o serious exercise in. I’ll be downstairs until eight ten-hour actually. You’re right, I can take time fer myself now that Gao ain’t isn’t on fire.

If you join me I’ll teach you some of what Myun knows! If you manage to land a swipe I’ll even cook for you!!

Bumpkin

He signed off with a ridiculous cartoon scrawl of himself gnawing viciously on a whole naxas, not yet expired and somehow only mildly displeased with the situation.

Well. Who could resist a challenge like that? Especially seeing as Naydra had already had a few lessons from Myun…and he enjoyed cooking anyway so it wasn’t like he’d be bitter about it. She rose and went to take a dust shower.

Maybe she could continue to surprise him.


Date Point: 15y5m7d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

Margaret White

Arthur was furious. And Arthur Sartori, while he was generally a gruff and straightforward kind of man, very rarely got angry. Seeing him genuinely livid was a rare and intimidating thing.

“Did the Gaoians know this?”

The latest update on their intel from Gao—and specifically, the captured Hierarchy agent being interrogated there—was being delivered today by Colonel Daniel Shiderly, who from what Margaret could guess hadn’t slept much in a day or two. Maybe he was just one of those men who worked until he fell down by nature.

“We think Daar knows some elements of it, or maybe some version of the truth. He’s kept his cards very close to his chest about it all but given his actions, and…really, the entire history of Stoneback, they were clearly protecting against something.”

“Meaning that Stoneback has potentially had inklings about the Hierarchy for…what, the last six or seven hundred years? Our years?”

“Maybe. We don’t know what exactly they thought they knew. It could have been something mythological. That era saw the virtual death of their mythology—”

“Oh,” enlightenment struck Margaret in the head. “Oh. Oh, actually, that explains something that’s been puzzling us.”

Arthur gave her a curious look. “What?”

“Daar is fascinated with Gaoian mythology,” she explained. “If the Stonebacks were preserving that mythology from antiquity then that would explain…certainly their indoctrination for young initiates, but a lot else besides. Look at the terminology! The Third Ring, the First Rite. Goodness, they have initiates. That’s not the product of an entirely dispassionate and rational people, that’s a mystery cult.”

“Well…at least I won’t have to break the bad news to him in full,” Arthur grumbled and sat down on a couch. “Christ, just when I think we’ve hit the bottom of the rabbit hole it opens up below us again.”

Margaret cleared her throat. “It does raise the question of just how much of the Hierarchy’s influence and potential we’ve really seen…” she said. “It raises other questions, too. Were they eying us as one of their Janissary species?”

General Kolbeinn was on video conference from Scotch Creek. “The fact is, we might never know,” he said. “But both Six and Cytosis corroborate each other that they only learned about us sometime around about the mid nineteenth century. Personally, I doubt it: The Gaoian male-female imbalance makes them pretty much ideal for breeding an army, if your idea of combat is just throwing a wall of bodies at a problem. We’re not as well-suited to that.”

“That’s certainly how the Dominion and Alliance fight…” Arthur muttered. He rose from the couch again and retrieved his thinking baseball from the desk.

“And you’ve seen how smart the Gaoians are about it, too. Hell, look at how fast they’ve learned from us,” Kolbeinn noted. “There’s a saying: Quantity is a quality all its own. If you can muster both quantity and quality…”

“…Good God. Think about that statement. Now, look at Daar again.”

A valid point, that. He was well-poised to head a military with all the advances the United States had gained in the twentieth century, and all the technological advantages the Gao had, and their sheer overwhelming numbers. A billion-strong army was nothing to sneeze at. Throw in that Daar was a HEAT-quality warrior himself, and amongst the best of them to boot…

That was a potentially unbreakable advantage the Gao had, if they wanted to use it.

“Fortunately for us, he’s singular. There’s only a tiny handful of beings who could match him in the first place and he’s the absolute leader of the Gao. He’s pretty much a one-time event. Still,” Arthur added, “Best to stay on his good side, I think.”

“And? What will he do with that opportunity?”

“Hopefully, he’ll do what he says he’ll do and retire once his work is done.” Kolbeinn sat forward, a little closer to his camera. “But truthfully? Once Daar’s work is done, if they wanted to the Gao could kick our asses. They have the logistics, the numbers…our physical advantages wouldn’t be enough in the face of that. We’re lucky as hell to have them for allies.”

“Cultivating their friendship was the luckiest thing that’s happened to us,” Margaret said.

Colonel Shiderly made a low whistle. “God. This makes that Warhorse character the most ‘strategic private’ of all time.”

“No kidding…” grumbled Sartori. “Thank fuck for Regaari, too…and Ayma, God rest her soul.” He turned around. “Let’s face it, PR doesn’t come much better than two people braving a deathworld because they’re worried about their friend. Those two made our people love the Gaoians just by showing up.”

“And Champion Genshi,” Margaret reminded him. “He clearly knows more than he’s let on.”

“All of which means we can’t keep this secret from them. Look at them. They’re Deathworlders who are now recovering from literally millennia of suppression. I suspect that they’ll regain much of what they were sooner rather than later, and when they do they’ll still outnumber us by at least two to one.”

“Mm.” Arthur spun his baseball from one hand to the other a few times, then set it back down on the desk. “So in other words, there’s nothing Earth-shattering in this revelation, it’s just more evidence on why we should double down on our alliance with them.”

“That does raise the matter of Champion Sheeyo,” Margaret reminded the room. “He’s again requested that we send a representative to the Rich Plains…”

Sartori sighed. “…Given this revelation, I don’t think we can afford to frustrate our allies. If they want a representative, let’s send one. It’ll help the Ten’Gewek, too. But this time, I think we insist on heavy personal protection at all times.”

“I’ll start drawing up a short-list of candidates,” Margaret promised.

“Who’s the first name that springs to mind?”

“…Hmmm…” Margaret thought for a second. “Well, the two at the top would be General Tremblay and Admiral Knight.”

“Admiral Knight makes the most sense. He’s familiar with the HEAT and, being frank, someone like this Righteous fellow at his side might be the kind of intimidation we need.”

Margaret nodded. “I’ll see if he’s agreeable to it. Maybe we can help him with his daughter’s care needs, perhaps see if this Nofl fellow on Cimbrean can help…”

“Telling Daar will need to be handled carefully. He’s…” Sartori chose his words carefully, “Well, he’s intimidating, even when he doesn’t mean to be. I think I need to do it personally. This is too important to be left to anyone else and I suspect he won’t be too mad at me.”

“Your Secret Service detail won’t be pleased by that. He doesn’t…respect certain boundaries.”

“Just because he could kill my entire entourage in a heartbeat doesn’t mean he will. Don’t underestimate him: He’s a good man underneath it all.”

“A good tyrant,” Kolbeinn reminded them.

“Yes. Recall, however, that he never wanted that. He was created the Great Father.”

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Mister President. No disrespect intended.”

Arthur snorted and a genuine smile crossed his face and chased some of the wrinkles from his expansive forehead. “Oh, can it. I’m the President, which means I’m basically just a mushroom: I live in the dark and my Cabinet feeds me bullshit.”

“Mister President–!”

“Relax. If there’s one thing I learned from Daar, it’s how to not take myself too seriously.” Arthur leaned against the desk. “I’m not worried about him. He understands power better than most. But that said…let’s make sure his interests align with virtue. Is there anything else?”

“Not from me, Mister President,” Shiderly replied.

“I’m jumping out to Erebor this evening for a look at the new proposed Von-Neumann scouts. I’ll send a report.”

“Thank you both,” Arthur thanked them, and within seconds Margaret and he had the Oval Office to themselves.

“…Well. I guess that’s the interstellar matters dealt with for now,” Margaret said lightly.

“Sometimes I think we need a second President just to handle all that stuff,” Arthur replied, shaking his head. “At least it was a quiet domestic brief today. And as far as the Russians and Chinese arguing over Lucent goes, I’m happy to let them sort it out themselves.”

“None of our business, we have no opinion, et cetera.” Margaret nodded in agreement. “There was one other thing I wanted to raise with you. Nothing vitally important, but…well, interesting.”

Arthur stretched his back. “Oh?”

“You are aware of this Cruezzir-derivative, Gaoian-specific formulation the Corti have been supplying at effectively no cost, I believe.”

“Refresh my memory.”

“It seemed to function much like the Crue-D our own species uses, except tuned to Gaoian physiology. The lab report came back on the sample we managed to acquire.”

Arthur sighed. “Let me guess. They’re using the Gao as a test-bed?”

“…More like a clinical trial. Obviously we’re a long, long way behind both the Gao and the Corti in our biological sciences, but…”

“What…what did they add?”

“We…I’m waiting on Clan Openpaw’s opinion, they’re much better qualified to research it than we are…. But once I got past all the ‘telomere’ this and the ‘cellular composition’ that, the researchers think that one of the compound’s side-effects might be to counteract aging.”

Arthur’s head slowly tilted to one side as he considered that. “That…is very interesting. You mean Gao who use it will live longer?”

“Possibly. Anyway, this one’s an open research collaboration with the Gao, so there’s no need to brief Daar on it. He’ll know soon enough as well, if he doesn’t already.”

“…Something to chew on during my evening walk, at least,” Arthur decided. “Is the team ready?”

One of the most difficult points of high office was the constant security. He didn’t begrudge the Secret Service their needs—they’d saved his life several times already, though the public didn’t know—but it did mean he didn’t have the freedom to simply go for a walk, even just around the Rose Garden.

“They know your routine. I daresay they were ready an hour ago.” Margaret stood up, smoothed down her skirt and collected the few items she’d brought with her. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Sure enough, she passed his security team as she left the Oval Office and headed for her own, smaller and much less famous office down the corridor.

They really were not going to enjoy another meeting with Daar so soon after the first…


Date Point: 15y5m8d AV
Rob Rollins Dairy Farm, Peake Lowlands, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Rodolfo Hernandez

Mama never would have imagined her son would grow up to be a farmer.

…Actually, she never would have imagined a lot of this. Farming on an alien planet, having a bull literally ripped apart and eaten by alien cavemen, and now those same cavemen were back looking very sorry and promising to put in some work as repayment.

That wasn’t going to bring Odin back from the dead, nor was the twenty thousand pounds in compensation promised from AEC. Until that arrived Mister Rollins would have to make do with imported genetics until they got a new bull, and the whole program was going back to square one. They were breeding dairy cows for a low-gravity planet, that was a whole headache all by itself.

On the other hand…the hay bales were getting stacked at record speed. He hadn’t counted on them moving the round bales by hand but hey, that just meant Rodolfo could use his payloader for something else, like digging a new wallow for his growing herd.

They helped with that too, once he’d explained it to the…well, smaller seemed the wrong word. Younger, nuclear orange crested one, anyway. He had questions about everything.

Julian Etsicitty was with them too which was something to write home about all by itself. He was a much bigger sumbitch in person than he’d looked on TV, which honestly was saying something, but he seemed like a regular guy and had hands that told a life story of hard work. Rodolfo could appreciate that. Julian took one look at the state of the farmstead, pulled off his shirt, and set to work on the smaller bales in the calving barn. For a guy who’d gone to Mars and spent time on late night talk shows, it turned out he know a heck of a lot about farming livestock and he almost didn’t need any direction.

Julian sent the other two down to deal with the second set of huge round bales, and in the meantime he and Rodolfo worked up a hell of a sweat getting things squared away in the calving barn. He’d almost have felt insulted at the casual way Julian just tossed the big rectangular bales up into the hayloft like it wasn’t any big deal, but honestly it was nice to finally have someone else who was strong enough to get some hard work over and done with. Too strong, maybe: Rodolfo had to damn near kill himself to keep up with him. A few hours later and Rodolfo was completely tuckered out, so Julian lightly flung himself upstairs and set about stacking the hay to the rafters to make more room for bedding straw.

Rodolfo decided he should at least fix some lunch for everyone and left Julian to it. When he returned with three huge platters, Julian had already managed to throw all the straw into the hayloft by himself. If it weren’t for him being so darn friendly, Rodolfo would have found himself shamed by it all; a celebrity Julian may have been, but he was big as hell, strong as shit, and could work damn hard without stopping at all.

He finally took a breather when the promise of food was made, but held off on eating until the Ten’Gewek were done and chatted over a drink mid-afternoon, when Julian was looking downright nostalgic. Rodolfo always had a beer with lunch but Julian politely declined and settled for a jug of ice water, which he downed almost all at once.

“I take it you grew up on a farm?”

“Nah, but I grew up in farm country.” Julian scratched at some of the strawdust clinging to his chest. “Had lots of dairy too, or at least there used to be. Now they mostly do corn, soy, beets, alfalfa, that sorta thing.”

“No livestock?”

“Not too much anymore, no. Most of the dairy scattered across the region. I don’t remember exactly why, but it was in decline when I was still a kid.”

“There was still some, though.”

“Yeah. Hell, I remember when I was…thirteen, twelve years old? This big-ass storm came through and next door was calving three heifers in the middle of the night. Grandpa took me round there and I held the light for ‘em. Then I helped him pull two of ‘em.”

“Fun.”

“Eh, it was work and I got paid. Every little bit for new shoes, y’know?”

“No shit? I always figured you came from money.”

Julian chuckled softly, “Oh dude, I was a poor ass fella growin’ up. I get it, man. I had to work hard and save up for half a year to get shoes every fall, ‘cuz Grandpa couldn’t afford it and I sure wasn’t going to school in moccasins or something like that. Every dime he made went to food, upkeep, and property tax.”

“I never had it anything like that bad. Kudos.”

“Eh, to be fair I’ve got really big-ass feet so I couldn’t exactly go shopping at Walmart or whatever, but still. I also spent more on food than I needed to, I guess. Commods aren’t exactly a fine dining experience. Now beaver tail, that’s something worth suffering for.”

In the field, Yan hoisted a whole wrapped haylage bail up onto one shoulder, took aim, and with an insulting degree of ease he tossed it onto the top of the stack. It landed perfectly at the apex. He looked around and apparently decided that nobody was watching, because he promptly danced a celebratory little jig. Julian grinned and Rodolfo stifled a laugh.

“Don’t let him know you saw that. He’s supposed to be all dignified and stuff.”

Rodolfo chuckled. “See, that almost makes up for Odin all by itself.”

“…Yeah. I feel like I gotta apologize for that a little too. I should have been there to stop them.”

“Well…It’s Mister Rollins who really bore the brunt of it in the end. He was a good bull, though. Even-tempered, docile…”

“Not the way Vemik tells it…” Julian noted. There was a mischievous side to him, then.

“Yeah, you see how docile any bull is when it’s attacked.”

Julian shrugged those massive shoulders of his. “No argument here. Still. There is something we could all learn from this, y’know? Take Vemik over there. He’s a hell of a bruiser, right?”

“Yeah.” The big man wasn’t kidding. Vemik was busy rolling those bales over to Yan like he was having the time of his life. It didn’t seem like it was hard work for him at all.

“Neither of them really need to do any of this,” Julian said. “They don’t need to be here, they don’t need us now that we sealed up their world, they didn’t need to spare us when we first met, either. And no matter what Allison says, Yan would absolutely have torn me apart before she could have done anything. But here they are, being civilized and stuff.”

“…It’s hard to stay mad at him, I’ll say that,” Rodolfo admitted. “The money helps, too.”

“These two are literally the only members of their people who understand the concept of money. And of farms or livestock at this point. And burgers. I made the mistake of giving Vemik a handful of twenty-pound notes a little while ago and he’s very carefully kept every pence…so he could spend as much of it on cheeseburgers as he could. And sketchbooks. But mostly burgers.”

Vemik’s ear twitched at that word, and he stood up tall to call back across the field. “We burging?”

“Nope! We need to watch your diet, too! All burgers’ll just make you fat!”

Looking only a little bit dejected, Vemik returned to his task.

“…Burging?” Rodolfo asked.

“It’s a language thing. He got it in his head that you use a burger when you want to burg, and a hammer when you want to ham, and…so on.”

“…I kinda like that.”

“Yeah, me too. I’m pretty sure he knows better at this point but he’s a sly fella when he wants to be. He’s been attracting a lot of attention at the park when he goes off to adventure. Especially from girls, apparently.”

“Wait, what?”

“Don’t ask me!” Julian chuckled and scratched the back of his head in embarrassment. “I’d not wish the wrath of Singer on any of ‘em…Anyway I’m not gonna stop him from making friends. He’s here to learn and represent the Ten’Gewek, so…that’s what he does. Pretty well, too.”

“What about the really big guy?”

“Yan? He’s their chief and I suppose Vemik’s minder, too. Yan likes to visit the park too, but mostly he just wants to show off for the kids and talk to people.”

“About what?”

Julian shrugged. “Anything and everything. He gets to know them. It’s amazing how folks open up to him.”

The last bale was stacked and ready and Julian finished his water with a touch of smugness. “And they know a thing or two about hard work, too. Anything else you need done?” The way he said it suggested he really wanted the answer to be yes.

Too bad, really. “No, no more. We got a lot done today.”

“Darn,” he chuckled and went to go soak his head. “Vemik! Yan! C’mon back!”

Yan knuckled himself back at a leisurely pace, while Vemik couldn’t help but explore every little detail as he bounced along the path up to the barn.

Julian returned with his torso soaked clean and his t-shirt over his shoulder. “Just remember, that big fella? Yan is the Chief of the Lodge. He’s the leader of his entire species, so…y’know.”

“…Mind my manners?”

Julian stretched his t-shirt over his head and gave Rodolfo a sympathetic look. “I would appreciate it. I know you didn’t wanna be dragged into all this intergalactic bullshit, but…”

“I get it. And…it means a lot that they came back to apologize.”

“Tell them that yourself. Here they come.” Rodolfo again wondered just how young Vemik really was, because no grown man had that much bouncy energy or curiousity. He paused to investigate and experiment with the wrought iron hinges on the gate, looked at them intensely, then looked at Julian with what could only be a snarly grin and charged at an alarming clip—

—And leapt into the air, and tackled Julian like a linebacker leveling some doddering abuelita. It was definitely to Julian’s credit that he only staggered back a single step, then turned on the balls of his foot and slammed Vemik to the ground with a hell of a thud; Rodolfo would have been flattened and likely hospitalized by either of those two.

“Jooyun!” The young alien struggled to break free of Julian’s grasp but he was having none of that and bore down hard with a grunt of effort. “Ow! I saw a strange animal!”

“Oh?”

“Long, thin! Urf, No legs! Grrrrmphf… Like in story!”

“Ah!” Julian chuckled and let Vemik go, then they detangled and helped each other stand with noogies added for fun. “I bet that was a garter snake. They’re from where I came from!”

“Really?!”

“Yeah, buddy! They’re pretty harmless though. They just eat small critters like mice and worms. Or, I suppose baby Bibtaw if they got loose on Akyawentuo.”

“They good to eat?” Yan swaggered up seeming pleased with himself and the hard day’s work. All three of them would be awesome farm hands, really.

“Eh. It’ll keep you alive. Snake’s not my thing, though. I guess some people like it.”

“Good enough for me!” Yan declared, then turned his attention to Rodolfo. “Good work. Interesting. Can see how keep animals close is useful.” There was something in the big dude’s tone that seemed…diplomatic.

“But?” Rodolfo immediately regretted his question but Yan didn’t seem offended.

“But. I think, we be careful. Hunting, Important. Prey should live, fight for self.”

Rodolfo paused and thought carefully about what to say next. Julian stood by with his arms crossed and a faint little smile on his face, watching to see what happened.

“I think there’s smart words there. But there’s eight billion of my people. It’s hard to feed that many.”

“Billion.” Yan frowned, glanced at his fingers, then at his feet and twitched his tail in circles. “Is…nine zeros. Yes?”

“Uh…yeah.”

Yan thought about that for a while and glanced at Vemik, who shrugged. “Is too big number to think about.”

“No argument there.”

“Maybe, we commune with gods when we one billion, ask about prey. I will be very dead by then.”

“We all will. Anyhoo,” Julian took charge of the conversation again, “I hope we were helpful today. We didn’t mean to hurt your breeding program and on behalf of, well, everyone but especially myself…I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well…” Rodolfo stuck out his hand. “You repaid it.”

Julian stuck his rough paw out and they shook hands like men ought to. Hopefully, feeling would return to Rodolfo’s fingers by Friday. Yan and Vemik’s handshakes were just as rough but merely very firm, thankfully.

Then they finally ate their lunch. Rodolfo wasn’t sure which one of them destroyed their plate the fastest, but it was clear all three of them were in the habit of eating big and eating often. Then they opened up the food they’d brought with them and devoured that as well. Rodolfo was a long-time farmhand, he could get behind that.

They thanked him for the food and minutes later they were back in their van and gone, three days of unfinished work finished up in one morning.

Rodolfo sighed, looked at his watch and thought for a moment. He had a solid four hours before any chores had to be done. May as well send a video message back home.

It wasn’t every day a guy met people like that.


Date Point 15y5m8d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Master Sergeant Derek “Boss” Coombes

Sometimes, rank didn’t matter one little bit. One of those moments came when Coombes felt the ground tremble beneath his feet, looked behind him and saw Technical Sergeant Adam Arés approaching him with his broad, goofy smile plastered across his face.

“Hey, Master Sargn’t, can we talk in private for a bit?” He draped one of those arm-slabs of his around Coombe’s shoulders, damn near sent him to his knees by the sheer weight of it, then effortlessly man-handled him towards a quiet corner in the gym and spun him around.

He wasn’t trying to be intimidating. Adam didn’t have to try at all, he just did it through the sheer power of being himself. Before he knew it, Coombes was trapped in a corner and being towered over by an utter giant of a man. Adam bounced in place and grinned, clothed in nothing but his laughably tiny Ranger panties while “freshly” dripping-wet from his third daily round at the weights. He looked like a hairy comic-book caveman and smelled like he’d just personally wrestled a herd of bison into a trailer with his bare hands, off to be slaughtered for his daily protein.

The trademark goofy smile just didn’t gel with that at all. In fact, he looked extra pleased about something. Best to keep things civil.

“Is there something I can do for you, Technical Sergeant?”

“You can call me ‘Horse if you want! Can I call you Boss?”

Coombes relaxed and chuckled. He had to admit, the young man was good at defusing his own innately terrifying presence. “…So long as you get to the point, maybe?”

“Ha!” Adam had two laughs. The first was an entirely incongruous lengthy wheezing Muttley snicker, which honestly belonged on a man a ton or three lighter and fifty years older.

This one was his other laugh: the seismic bark. If Bozo were a human, he’d be Adam.

…Or was it the other way around?

Anyway. “What’s up, ‘Horse?”

“You’ve been hangin’ out a lot with Ava.”

…Fuck. Coombes felt his heart leap in his chest.

Visions of “sparring” suddenly danced before his eyes, probably like someone on the verge of death who was re-living his boring, uneventful life…maybe one where he wasn’t crushed to death by a pretty-much literal superhero who could shake buildings with his every step.

Fuck.

Coombes racked his brain for an escape from his predicament. “Well, uh, let me—”

“When you gonna ask her out?”

That was…entirely not the question Coombes had been expecting, and it probably showed on his face, too. His heart hadn’t stopped trying to explode yet, but at least he remembered how to breathe.

“…Say what?”

That seismic rumble of his, again. Well, that one was different. It was…a chuckle. A darkly amused chuckle. And a very smugly dominant one, too. Well, shit.

“You heard me. You gonna ask her out? If you leave it any longer I’m gonna start thinkin’ you’re leadin’ her on.” He drove the point home by tilting his big blocky head on that absurd, leg-thick non-neck of his until it popped loud enough to echo in the corner. He sighed happily, then instantly tensed every slab-like muscle in his entire body.

“I mean, you ain’t, right?”

The kid could teach a master class in intimidation. Christ.

Still, somehow Coombes found it in himself to stand up a little straighter. “…Start from the top. You want me to ask her out?”

“Come on, the two of you hang out literally every day, an’ she’s crazy about you…An’ I’m pretty sure she made an impression too, huh?”

“…Well…uh, yeah. Hell, I—” being flustered was kind of a new one on Coombes. “But I mean…you and her—”

“Oh, bro! You ain’t gotta worry ‘bout me. Ava and me, we have…uh, a weird relationship. I wish it didn’t end like it did but I don’t hold it against her too much. I was kind of a dick to her for years and I didn’t even know it. Also,” he grinned smugly, “The little shit she cheated with is puny as hell and has a fuckin’ disaster of a life, so whatever. Her loss.”

Coombes cleared his throat. “…The age gap doesn’t bother you?”

“Bro, that’s between you and her. She don’t mind none.”

Coombes noted in the back of his head that Adam wasn’t using his customs and courtesies properly. “Bro” was not how one addressed a senior NCO, at least not outside some very unique circumstances. But then again…Coombes wasn’t going to push his luck at the moment. Adam had started bouncing on his toes again and that frenetic energy of his was legendary. Nobody wanted to be in line-of-sight when he decided on a little personal training for his next “client,” and right now he was sizing up the hopeful boyfriend of a woman he obviously loved dearly.

Well, there wasn’t any escape for Coombes. He relaxed and decided to open up.

“…Hell, you’re right,” he sighed. “I’d have asked her on a date months ago if it wasn’t for all the personal shit around her and the Lads and…everything…Let’s face it, she kinda saved my life. That made an impression, y’know?”

“You let me worry about that,” Adam offered. Once again, it was the little details. Just a quick motion across his ridiculous body to convey exactly how he’d take care of that problem, and Coombes felt both cowed and relieved. Tip-toeing around the Lads would have been a no-go.

Still. “Okay. I just need to be absolutely sure. You are okay with me pursuing Ava. You are, in fact, asking me to. You are going to make it completely fucking clear to everyone you are okay with it. You are not going to yank the rug out from under me over this.”

Adam frowned and looked faintly hurt. “Nah bruh, I say a thing, I mean it. I want her to be happy. I also like you and being honest, I think you both kinda need it, too. She needs somebody she can rely on, and you ain’t dated anyone since I’ve known you. And you’re an old-school operator, I know how it goes. Believe me.”

Coombes has heard the rumors on that front as well. In the span of less than a year, the bouncy hulk had pretty much literally plowed his way through the entire receptive population of Foltcha about four times over and somehow engendered no ill will for it, either. Coombes had no idea how Martina had tamed a man like Adam, but he wasn’t going to question life’s little mysteries.

Coombes was no wallflower himself, but his belt didn’t have anywhere near that many notches. Especially lately. “…I haven’t dated anyone since my divorce,” he confessed. “And that was back before EMPTY BELL.”

“Oh, hell. Okay. This bit is maybe overstepping the line a little, but can I offer you a tiny piece of advice, Master Sergeant?”

Ah. Adam had distinctly moved from one mode to another and done so masterfully. Honestly, he very clearly knew how to control a situation. Coombes knew exactly what Adam was doing, knew exactly why, and felt absolutely no will whatsoever to call him on it. Adam had definitely been paying attention in class. Hell, he could teach the class.

…That was maybe a thought for later.

Coombes decided to keep it friendly, and invite him to do so as well. “Go for it, ‘Horse.”

Adam grinned at that, happy and genuine. “Okay! Look, man. Most of the HEAT is still single. The regimen keeps us all like young men, so…y’know. Anyway, it’s really just me and Righteous who have any long-term thing going on right now, so why don’t you go down to Rooney’s this weekend with the Lads, get your pipes cleaned out, and see if you still feel the same way? I don’t want you starting shit with Ava unless you’re committed and you’re goddamned sure.”

Coombes’ gut did something interesting—it balked at the idea. Just hearing the suggestion made him feel guilty, which if he stopped to listen to himself meant he already knew his own mind.

…And Adam knew. Coombes could tell just by the way those dark brown eyes bored into him.

“…Or not! You could just go for the ambiance. Only reason I don’t go is ‘cuz I love Marty too much, y’know? She’s gonna pop any day now, and it’s been months…”

…Ah. That explained everything about Adam for the last few months, and was probably the reason everyone’s training across SOR had progressed so much, especially his; Adam was a fanatically attentive personal trainer and had been inescapable since the beginning of the year.

“Don’t want the temptation?”

“Yeah. I wouldn’t ever, not after what happened between me and Ava but, y’know. Also there ain’t no point in me blue-ballin’ myself. More.”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway!” He’d shifted mode again, and now somehow he was a light, bouncy engine of happiness who led Coombes out of the corner and effortlessly directed him toward the serious end of the gym, with himself sauntering comfortably alongside; the man was so utterly fucking huge that a confident, leg-swinging swagger seemed to be the only way he could thump along. Clearly, this conversation wasn’t going to end before he’d exercised his authority to PT people to death.

Like a condemned man commenting on the weather as he was led to the gallows, Coombes ignored the impending unpleasantness in favor of a more agreeable topic. “…Got any more advice? Say, about what she likes?”

“You’re askin’ entirely the wrong man. Shit, you probably know better than me.”

“…No…uh, um…” Shit. How would he broach the subject—?

“Good, hard, as long and as much as you can stand. You gotta compete with me after all!”

There was a mental image he hadn’t really wanted. There was a twinkle of mischief in Adam’s eye, too. Martina had clearly rubbed off on him, a little too much.

…Maybe that was the wrong turn of phrase.

“Also!” Yet another strategic shift. “One thing I’ve noticed is you’re not particularly flexible and you wind too easily under load. Big part of that’s your diet—you eat like shit, Master Sergeant—but the rest is your training. We’re gonna fix that. Tonight, let’s get you stretched out properly,” He squeezed his fists closed and cracked his knuckles, “And then we’re gonna work on your endurance…” There was the trademark Arés Grin of Pain. “…You’re gonna need it.”

Coombes sighed, but didn’t object. Nothing good ever came without a payment…And for this, he’d gladly pay his ton of pain.

At the end, though, Adam was kind enough to carry him upstairs to a clean bed. Whaddaguy.


Date Point: 15y5m8d AV
Chiune Station, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Clara Brown

Astonishingly considering the family drama unfolding back in Folctha, Allison arrived for her first day of work at Chiune looking chipper, fresh and stress-free. She was driving one of the company cars, an electric SUV with the MBG logo emblazoned on the doors and hood, wearing a company polo shirt, but she was wearing her BGEV-11 patrol cap and her Oakleys as she pulled in and bounced out of the car with a grin.

Clara greeted her with a hug. “You’re looking chipper!”

Allison snorted. “Are you kidding? I got a whole forty minutes away from my fucking mother on the drive over here! I feel great!”

If there was some brittle humor in the way she said it, Clara decided not to comment. Instead, she pointed over to the fitting hangar, where BGEV-12’s chassis had just been installed. The AAAF had been repurposed to churn out the ships in bare-bones format as fast as it could, and Chiune’s role going forward was outfitting, mission-specific equipment installation and final tests.

Moses Byron was banking on the Misfit-class. It was a proven success and it combined small size with huge power and a versatile mission profile. The starboard bay could be almost anything: *Misfit*’s was a sample preparation lab for recovering specimens from alien worlds, but in theory it could be anything and the ship design team had sketched out variations that could serve as a flying clinic, a disaster relief first responder, an ambulance, and all manner of niche scientific applications.

“Let’s go meet your team.”

Allison grabbed a gym bag from the car and locked it behind her as they entered the hangar. “How big is the team?”

“Well, there’s the team lead, four primary engineers, two quality engineers, a crew consultant - that’s you - and a team assistant.”

“What’s the assistant do?”

Clara shrugged. “What doesn’t he do? He makes your jobs easier. Runs for stuff you need, makes sure you stick to your scheduled breaks, keeps you fed, takes notes…”

“He assists,” Allison summarized drily.

Clara laughed. “Heh! Yeah.” He paused before opening the door. “Be warned, your team’s assistant is Micky and he’s…fizzy.”

“Fizzy?”

“You know how I said they’re all geeking out to meet you? Micky’s the worst.”

“Ah.” Allison shook her head with a smile, then took a deep breath. She took off her Oakleys and hooked them into her collar. “Let’s do this.”

Sure enough, the team were nerding out hard when they got to shake Allison’s hand. They all showed it in their own ways—Chuck Gifford, the team lead, was polite and professional but he didn’t break out even one of his painful dad-joke puns the whole time, which was a sure sign of nerves.

There were handshakes, selfies, jokes and Allison…turned out to be pretty good at putting the team at their ease, once she’d worked through her own awkwardness. Xiù was rubbing off on her, it seemed.

“So…why don’t we take a look in the ship?” she suggested the moment a silence settled on them that threatened to become awkward. Chuck nodded vigorously and led the way, chattering enthusiastically about what they’d learned from Misfit and were doing differently this time.

Clara smiled and left them to it.

Her own work involved schematics, calculations, reviewing the latest patents and prototypes coming from their associates, and spitballing new ship concepts with her colleagues in her spare time. Hephaestus had the market basically cornered in terms of the military vehicles, between their naval contracts, the Firebirds and the Weavers. Moses wasn’t interested in competing with that, not when the civilian sector was still wide open and largely unexplored.

So, scientific vessels, space tourism, rapid couriers…anything that didn’t actually need a shipyard to build, basically. It was all up for grabs, and every morning Clara’s inbox was full of new ideas about what specialist niche they might choose to fill.

She was among the overwhelming majority who advocated for flexibility and versatility in their design philosophy. Make something that could do anything, then equip it for the job at hand, that was the way. That was just common sense, so the two or three guys who persisted in arguing for hyper-specialization of every facet of a ship’s function just baffled her.

Most of her morning was spent wrangling with the Bartlett Equation, trying to figure out a useful forcefield shape that could be used to catch space debris and start cleaning up Earth’s low orbit, without requiring utterly crazy power. They knew it was possible, the system containment field proved it. But nobody yet really knew how the SCF did what it did.

It was so gratifying to be genuinely on the cutting edge of whole new unexplored fields of technology, and to be able to look forward and see how far ahead of them those fields extended. But Clara had a tendency to lose herself in her work, so she had an alarm set on her phone to remind her to get up and take a break. It went off three times, as insurance against dismissing it and “just one more minute”-ing, but she’d learned long ago to get moving on the first one.

She went back down to the hangar with her lunch in hand, and nearly got bowled over by Micky Hills as she tried to pass through the same door at the same time as he was coming out of it.

He picked up her scattered and ruined food for her. “Aargh, sorry doctor Brown!”

“It’s alright…” She hadn’t really been looking forward to more chicken and quinoa anyway. She loved Dane, but she was definitely going to get more assertive with her cheat meals from now on. “Tell you what, grab me a burrito and a snickers bar, and we’re even.”

Micky nodded. “Can do!”

“How’re they doing?”

Micky paused as he finished scooping up the spilled lunch. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t understand half of what they were saying today. And you know, usually I can kinda-sorta keep up. But today…I mean, damn, Allison really knows her stuff!”

“Like how?”

“Just…little details, y’know? She took the tour and she had a list of little things at the end of it where Chuck just slapped his head when he read it. Right now he’s helping her tweak the ventral systems duct.”

“Tweak?”

“Nothing big, they said. Just a little somethin’ that makes it easier to crawl in there. See for yourself, I’ll get you that burrito.”

“Thanks, Micky.”

True to Micky’s report, Allison was shoulders-deep in the ventral ducting crawlspace under the ship’s central corridor and she looked as happy as a pig with a bucket of scraps.

“Yeah, I did this on Misfit while we were landed on Lucent. Took all day with just me, ‘cuz Julian and Xiù had work to do, but it made life way easier—hey, Clara.”

“Hey.” Clara squatted down next to the crawlspace and gave Chuck Gifford a grin. “Redesigning my masterpiece?”

“Nah, just…nngh…a few tweaks.” Allison did something in the crawlspace that made a deep clonk sound. “There! Good. Just three more.”

“Dare I ask?”

“With a bit of leverage, you can get the grav plating cable to tuck up under the framework here. Gives you just that bit more wiggle room.”

Clara considered it. “That’s…okay, I can see it, yeah.”

“Might make the difference in an emergency,” Allison shrugged. “I know, it’s kind of a small detail, but I found Misfit ran on small details, y’know?”

“She ain’t wrong,” Chuck agreed. “Oil rigs were the same way. Back when I started out on ‘em, our supervisor had this cautionary tale about how a rig damn near went up in flames ‘cuz somebody didn’t put their boots away right.”

Allison nodded. “Yeah, Drew Cavendish—you remember, the spacesuit engineer from Hephaestus? He said about the same thing.”

“You don’t hear me arguing, do you?” Clara asked. She opened the ship’s design documentation and made a note of the ‘tweak.’ “Hell, this is what I wanted you on board for. Tuning and optimisation.”

Allison wriggled a little further under the deck.“Feels good. Multimeter, please?”

Chuck handed it to her. Clara was at the wrong angle to see what she tested, but she seemed pleased and handed it back seconds later.

“Break for lunch, guys. Otherwise it’ll be going-home time before you know it.”

“I’ve only got three more to do—”

Clara caught Chuck’s eye, laughed silently to herself, and put on her command voice. “Allison. Out of the damn hole.”

“…Fiiine…”

Micky arrived with lunch a minute or two later after they’d cleaned up with wet wipes and hand sanitizer, and Clara sat back to listen as the team got to know their new member and she got to know them.

She didn’t share her family troubles, but that was hardly surprising.

“So what was Mars like?” Micky asked, a few minutes in.

“…Cold. Really cold. Like, the excursion suits were heated but you could still feel, like…I dunno. You guys ever gone walking in deep snow with a pair of thick boots on?” there were a couple of nods. “Like how your feet don’t get cold, but you can feel that it’s damn cold out there. We were all snug and toasty in those suits, but I tell ya we knew it was wicked cold out there.”

“That’s your first answer, though?” Micky asked. “One of the first crew to land on Mars, and you’re just like ‘yeah, it was cold’?”

Allison laughed. “…It was crazy. I mean, sometimes I think it musta been a dream or something, looking back. It was so easy in the end!”

“We built a good ship,” Chuck said. He wasn’t prone to false modesty.

“Yeah, you did. You built a great ship. I’m really gonna miss her.”

“…Did you know the Big Words before you landed?” Micky pressed, before the moment could turn maudlin.

“Nah. Xiù kept ‘em a secret the whole way there. We first heard them about the same time as everyone else did…Good, weren’t they?”

“Referencing Armstrong was a nice touch. ‘Course, Hephaestus beat us to the punch when it comes to landing on another body in the solar system. You ever been to Ceres?”

“Nope. I hear it’s quite an achievement, though.”

“Well, they’ve got more money than we do,” Clara said. “That’s all.”

“Fuckin’ A,” Tony Carver agreed. He was one of the QA engineers, his job was to follow up on everything and test it. To the same degree that Chuck wasn’t given to false modesty, Tony wasn’t inclined toward false enthusiasm. There were other nods as the team agreed with the sentiment.

“I hate to admit it, but this ship’s gonna be even better,” Allison predicted.

“It better be.”

“It will be.”

That ended lunch. They were all too fired up to get on with it, and Clara couldn’t blame them. The last of their food vanished, Micky jumped to the task of dealing with the trash, and the team scattered back into the little nooks and crannies around the ship where they’d been installing and tuning her systems. Clara returned to her office with a spring in her step.

She was looking forward to writing her evening progress report.


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Peake Lowlands Training Ground, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Chief Special Warfare Officer Daniel “Chimp” Hoeff

Three weeks. Three weeks was all it took for Hoeff’s “most favoritest” gorilla-bros to make best friends with the JETS teams, and in that time a shocking amount of work had gotten done. First and foremost was the friendships, actually. The JETS teams would need to trust that the Ten’Gewek could actually teach them useful skills, and that evolution got underway on their second trip out to the range. Yan and Vemik had a scary eye for anything in the bush that might be useful. They showed that by trekking out into the range with nothing but their knives, without even the tiniest bit of useful leather or stone on their person. They then built themselves a serviceable camp in the span of about an hour, a comfortable little spot in another, and an invisible one shortly thereafter.

“A good man, not even need knife,” Vemik had said with Yan’s nodding approval, while they put the finishing touches on a completely smokeless fire. “But flint-knap need much practice. Knife faster for now.” The JETS teams didn’t say much but it was obvious they were very impressed.

During that time the Ten’Gewek were busy, busy, busy. They didn’t stop for a moment except to slam down water or eat food, which the Gaoians had gone off to hunt with their human teammates. Once they had their camp built out, and had taught the logic of exactly why they did this and that—sometimes couched in mildly religious tones, admittedly—the group sat down around the campfire and began telling stories.

The Gaoians told stories, too. If there was a common thread between any species, but maybe it was particularly of predatory ones, it seemed to be storytelling. Everyone seemed fascinated by each other and it wasn’t until Hoeff came back to tell them off that they reluctantly went to bed; Ten’Gewek weren’t used to keeping hard schedules.

After that, things snowballed quickly. Physical strength was very important to all of this, both for the Ten’Gewek who absolutely could not afford to lose anything, and to the Gaoians who had to build themselves up. Much of each day was devoted to that problem. Every single day they had physical training with ‘Horse—Yan and Vemik especially enjoyed that. Depending on the schedule, the second part of their training might include hiking, Gravball, simple “fun days” of competitive work, maybe extra lifting, maybe practical skills. Hoeff played it by ear while Walsh stayed on top of the numbers, and Coombes kept the overall direction on task and target.

Hoeff had nothing to complain about, really. Yan had ended up in charge of the group by the sheer force of his charisma. They’d thought at first it might be best to see how he did as a subordinate, but he really was a natural leader and in any case, there was no point risking a diplomatic incident just yet. Ten’Gewek still had a lot of headspace to grow into.

There were, however two sticking points, both of which ended up being manageable. The first was ‘Horse; Adam was about to be a brand new father any day now. Diego was a big baby, and everyone knew the birth was going to really take it out of Marty, which meant that Adam went on paternity leave halfway through week two to attend to her every need. Which apparently meant lots of jalapeno poppers and egg fu yung.

He still popped his head in every day to check in—no doubt because she wanted some breathing room every now and then—but for the most part, his training duties had shifted to Righteous and Baseball. Firth was definitely more focused on combat function over raw power, but he knew the strength game as well as the Protectors and was utterly remorseless in the gym. Burgess in turn had a strong focus on rehabilitative training, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Gaoians; Righteous would break ‘em, then Burgess would fix ‘em.

Carebear and Irish ended up getting lots of practice, keeping everyone healthy.

Then there was was the ongoing drama in Julian’s life. It didn’t affect his work but it did restrict his schedule sometimes. Hoeff stayed out of it as much as he could but it was impossible to not get the basics. Hell-parents had shown up, dragging two unfortunate kids, there was legal wrangling and negotiations and meanwhile the kids were being educated in Folctha’s high school because the government took an…interesting line on homeschooling. In fact it was so heavily monitored and regulated that Hoeff sometimes wondered why they didn’t just go the whole hog and outlaw it. Probably some of the American contingent in the Thing, he’d wager.

That didn’t even touch on the custody battle. The Court had little experience in family law, but decided fairly quickly that the situation was untenable. Salt Lake City agreed as well and the real hangup was simply the mechanics of Court supervision. In the end Folctha appointed Julian, Salt Lake City sent a case worker, and neither of the parents were allowed unsupervised visitation with the boys until the case had been settled…somehow.

Interim custody was given to Allison, for the short term. Hoeff didn’t know the rest of the details but both Julian and the cavebros seemed reasonably satisfied with the state of affairs, so Hoeff didn’t pry. As long as mission effectiveness wasn’t curtailed, he didn’t care.

It wasn’t like he had any authority over the three anyway. Special operations was so weird sometimes.

He met the kids just once. They were quiet and straight-laced but they seemed to positively cling to Julian, Yan, and especially Vemik. And it was clear they were awe-struck by their sister and Xiù, who in turn seemed to have recruited the whole town to their side. Hoeff wasn’t sure if they even knew how much real power they’d so casually used.

That distraction aside, though…things progressed fast, and smooth. JETS teams Two and Three blossomed under the wilderness education they received, the two Ten’Gewek learned a hell of a lot themselves, and every now and then there’d be an officer kicking around, watching things and wandering away with an impenetrable, thoughtful expression. God only knew what kind of thoughts and machinations were grinding away at the top.

There was a day or two just for fun, too. Adam vs. Yan II: the Re-Slabbening was something Hoeff probably should have sold tickets for. They wrestled ‘till evening but in the end, Adam’s superior strength and endurance carried the day over Yan’s super monkey grip and his sheer unbreakable toughness. He valiantly fought until he could fight no more, and even then he didn’t surrender. It only ended when Adam had managed to lock him up in a vicious pin and literally squeezed the fight right out of him. Yan couldn’t breathe, Adam was merciless, and eventually, the Given-Man ran out of oxygen and went limp. Adam remained the undisputed King of Bros.

Though honestly, nobody could say Yan had suffered any real embarrassment from the loss. Only two, maybe three people anywhere could make Adam actually work for a victory, and one of them was too busy rebuilding the Gao to drop by and prove the point. Yan had actually managed to tire him, so much so that there might have been the tiniest of wobbles in his step as he carried Yan out of the sandpit and up towards the barracks. The two hugged it out, devoured the whole kitchen then retreated to the Couch, having decided they would forever be the most very bestest of friends.

Daar, Warhorse, and Yan in the same place at the same time might just form a singularity of testosterone poisoning, assuming the building and the local food supply could withstand them. Hoeff wasn’t anything like that kind of awesome and never would be, but that was okay; non-Slabs were useful too. He could only marvel at the crew he found himself working with.

Yet their energy was infectious, and even his stubbornly small-man physique had responded to it all. Under the cheery and utterly relentless attentions of ‘Horse, Tiny and eventually Julian, Hoeff had somehow managed to put on enough weight that “small” wasn’t the right word for him anymore. He certainly wasn’t huge and he’d never be anything but tiny next to Tiny or especially Playboy…but maybe he was some flavor of big now, at least in normal-people terms. Stocky. Yeah. Strong. He liked the feeling, too. He felt younger and more energetic as the daily grind ground on. He was quicker and lighter on his toes too, he could climb like he was born to it, deadlift triple his own weight for sets and was still small enough he could eat like a normal human being…

Maybe he would give up his dip. And junk food. More impossible things had happened.

On the learning front, Vemik had started writing the names of things on sticky labels and, well, sticking them to everything…in both English and Ten’Gewek letters. Or the beta version of them, anyway, which was a rough and ready system grounded in trying to capture phonemes based on Vemik’s idea of whether a syllable sounded “round” or “spiky” or “flat” or any one of a dozen other descriptors. It sure looked the part, though. He was probably on the right track too because Hoeff had even spied Yan attempting to scrawl a few of the symbols when he had a moment to sit down with a sketchbook. They’d need to find something stronger than a pencil for him; he kept breaking them without meaning to.

All of that was good. Sadly, Hoeff didn’t get to participate in most of the fun. From his perspective, most of the exercises involved sitting around in the van, watching through transponders, trail cameras and Flycatcher drones. Good thing he was a patient man, because Hurry Up And Wait spared no man in the service, no matter what they were doing.

Then there was the upcoming dance where the two went home, brought more men and Given-Men to visit, rotated them through, brought Singers…ugh. Hoeff would be the one to manage it and it was going to be a logistical nightmare of an evolution, especially since the two cavemonkeys would be on Earth for most of it, learning everything they could.

But that was for later. Right now, Hoeff nodded to himself. He liked what he’d seen.

“…Well. I think we’re ready.”

Coomes glanced over at him and nodded. “…Yup. Next step?”

Hoeff grinned. “Yup.”

“…Call ‘em in, then. I think it’s time we head back to Earth.”


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Arés apartment, Demeter Way, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Senior Airman Rihanna Miller

“My right hand to God, I never thought I’d have a regular crochet group.”

It had somehow become a weekly event. Visit, watch a movie, catch up and make something out of wool. It was the precise opposite of everything Miller had ever thought about herself, but she had to admit: it scratched her creative itch. Making stuff with her hands had always been addictive.

Deacon snorted as she settled on the couch. “Ah, quit bellyachin’ about it. If you didn’t want to be here you could just say so.”

“Whatcha workin’ on, anyway?” Marty asked. She was overdue by a few days now, and had sounded like she was going stir-crazy on the phone when she called to invite them round.

Feeling a bit like a traitor to herself, Miller fished in her bag and pulled out a mostly-finished baby-sized blanket. Mostly her creations were pretty basic—she was still learning the craft, after all—but she’d got ambitious with this one and downloaded an app to help her plan a pattern: the USAF symbol, blue on a white background. With care and attention to detail she’d managed to not fuck it up, too.

Marty lit up when she saw it. “Aww!”

“Not bad!” Deacon admitted. Being Army she probably had some snark to follow up with, but instead she looked over when Marty made an oof noise. “…He kickin’ again?”

“Uh…No. Actually…No, that…” Marty grabbed a towel that was draped over the back of the couch. “…I think that was a contraction.”

Miller shot to her feet. “I’ll call for a…. Cab, I guess?”

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Oof… Actually, no. Call an ambulance. Diego wants out.”

“Guess I’d better drag your husband outta the gym…” Deacon vanished downstairs.

Things moved quickly after that. Very quickly. Adam didn’t fit in the ambulance so he simply ran to the hospital on foot and somehow beat her there. A couple of nurses gingerly suggested that maybe he should shower and put some clothes on before they allowed him in the delivery ward. He flashed Miller a desperate look and she decided she would head back to find him something at least a little decent.

Then there was the fact that despite a couple months of sedentary activity, Marty was still…well, she was one of Adam’s projects. Meaning she had core muscles like a trapeze artist. Poor Diego was almost fired into the world in the end and the midwife, Charlotte, barely managed to get into position in time.

Poor Adam didn’t get to be there for the birth, it happened so fast. They did at least relent and let him snuggle his new family, despite his gym-bro state…Miller returned too late with one of his tank tops, a pair of shorts, and his ridiculous sandals; they happened to be right at the door.

Deacon was the first to burst into the family’s bubble, after a few minutes. “Well. He looks like his daddy.”

Marty was exhausted. Diego was already suckling contentedly, and Adam was desperately trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to his life. His expression was one of pure, almost childlike wonder.

Miller and Deacon politely made themselves absent as Grandpa Arés and Aunty Ríos arrived, followed not long afterward by as many of the SOR as were off-duty until finally the ward Sister put her foot down and demanded that mother and baby be allowed to rest. Watching half a dozen half-tonne elite supersoldier operators scatter rather than face the wrath of a tiny nurse was going to be a memory to keep Miller warm on cold nights for years to come.

“Bloody Christ,” Murray commented as they left. “Forget the Grand Army of the Gao, let’s just set her on the fuckin’ Hunters.”

“Don’t fuck with the maternity ward,” Righteous intoned. “Dem’ nurses’ll break ‘yer soul.”

“How do you know?”

“Uh…well, uh…Freya’s an orthopaedic nurse, and, uh…” his ears actually went red, “…I ain’t supposed to say anythin’ yet, but…”

“Shit, you too?”

He nodded, and seemed genuinely intimidated by the revelation. “…Yeah. Uh, also we’re gettin’ hitched pretty soon but I ain’t supposed to say anything ‘bout that, neither. So…act surprised? Please?”

The response was a surprise rib-shattering hug from Adam, who’d tackled him from behind and smashed all the air out of his lungs.

“Dude! You’re gonna be the best dad, bro.”

“…I hope so. But, uh…I’ve got you guys t’help me. An’ I don’t think a man could ask for better.”

Deacon and Miller exchanged a Look. When men got this kind of emotional, it was the most adorable thing, and with this crowd in particular it was like laying eyes on a majestic unicorn. None of them were small emoters, but their usual catalog was…coarser. Boisterous, violent, aggressive, playful, and weirdly affectionate…Never sentimental. Or awe-struck. Or humbled, that one was especially poignant to see on Righteous and Warhorse.

It was a privilege to witness, honestly.

The most majestic unicorn, however, turned up when Adam relaxed and spoke a heresy. “…Alright. Fuck my meal plan today: We’re celebratin’. And I’m gonna have a cigar.”

Miller wasn’t sure if her worldview could have survived such an earthquake in any other circumstance.

The party didn’t get started right away, of course. It took all of Marty’s persuasive skills to convince Adam that she could be left in the hospital for an evening, that everything was fine, that the nurses already said he could sleep on the floor as long as he showed up hygienic…

And so on.

It was a hell of a party, too. Rooney himself had participated, and somehow laid out a spread that made the men’s eyes moisten with joy. It was Carboriffic, fattylicious and full of all the very worst in good food.

They had to get seconds. And thirds. And…maybe they could burn some goodwill and sleep in the next day, too. It was Friday, after all…

What better way to celebrate life?


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Hell, Hunter Space

Gorg Odvrak-Bull

It had been a tough decision to stay close. Most of the Herd had overheard the Humans’ stern warnings and imprecations and the prevailing feeling—which Gorg had sympathized with—was that the deathworlders probably knew what they were talking about and that the best place for all of them was as far from the canyons as possible.

Then there had been discussion, and other ideas had filtered in. Ideas like:

The other herds and species were all fleeing the area. That left plenty of rich grazing for Herd Odvrak.

The canyons still provided cover and protection they could flee into if there was an attack.

There was nowhere safe on this whole wretched planet anyway. So they may as well stay close to the only thing they knew of that might give the Hunters any kind of pause.

In the end—barely—Gorg had been persuaded to stay, and the rest of the herd had unified behind that course. They moved a respectable distance from the canyons and set about doing what they could to meet their needs. They managed to drop a few trees, construct some rough shelter, even tilled a small patch to start growing the best of the local plants. Most everything was edible, though the grass was tough and bitter and the local trees had needles rather than leaves…though at least the needles added a pleasant heady spice to a salad or stew.

There was no sign of the Humans, but just knowing they were around made Gorg feel better. As the days trickled past, they settled into a rhythm and it almost became possible to forget that, on this planet, the Hunters were master and god. They worked hard, managed to turn their rough shelter into a kind of hall or barn, set up soft bedding and a proper stockpile. They began, in short, to live rather than merely be present.

The Hunters attacked a few dozen days after they landed.

Gorg was out in the field, tilling more land to plant a variety of native bean-like thing, only to find himself taking root more effectively than the plants were when the double-crack sonic boom of a spaceship slowing to low atmospheric speeds bounced and rippled off the terrain.

One of the younger males, Bor, raised an alarm cry and the Herd dropped their crude tools—little more than fire-hardened wood poles—and stampeded back toward the pathetic safety offered by their house of sticks.

A Hunter ship like the evil fusion of an insect and a scalpel left a ragged wound in the clouds as it descended into view, turned, sliced the sky and slashed overhead with a shriek. There was a ground-shaking thump and the shelter they’d built, all of their hard work, was flattened by a pulse shot that left behind nothing but a crater full of splintered wood and the liquefied remains of whoever had been inside.

The Herd recoiled and milled about, confused and panicking.

“The canyons!” Gorg roared, trying to make himself heard over the screaming engines and the panicked bellowing. “To the canyons!”

A few of them listened. A few more followed those first few simply because they needed somebody to follow. In moments, the whole Herd was running for the nearby rocky terrain at a full stampede.

The Hunter ship buzzed them, passing so low overhead that Gorg could imagine the sharp structures that depended from its hull catching one of them and slicing the unfortunate victim in half.

Another pulse shot cratered the ground ahead of them, but they just veered around it rather than turning back. This wasn’t a blind panic, this was panic with a focus. They had a plan.

That plan lasted right up until the first assault pod smashed into the earth in front of them. A particularly huge Hunter, infected and gross with disgusting red meaty flesh rather than the maggotty white of ordinary Hunter skin, swaggered out of it and spread its arms wide. Long fusion scythes whipped out to either side.

The stampede could—should—have crushed it. A Vgork at a full charge had once been the most physically imposing thing in the Interspecies Dominion. But those scythes would bisect anyone they hit, without effort. Gorg tried bellowing for them to charge, but it was no use. The Herd balked, turned away…right towards the second assault pod as it came down.

This one had a couple of ordinary Hunters in it, smaller but no less monstrous. They both brandished claws and blades and circled to corral and guide them.

A third pod, a fourth and a fifth closed the circle around them. The ship thrummed to a halt above them and alighted, perching itself on its spindly knife legs and disgorging the last of the Brood. They were penned, caught, hunted. They were just…meat.

Gorg personally would have chosen to go down fighting. He lowered his head and prepared to charge, figuring that at least he could force the Hunters to kill him before they started feeding, but a glint of movement in an unexpected place caught his attention.

The Humans had come, moving quickly and low through the brush. They were armed with those same rifles and spears as before, and their expressions were locked down and fierce. Gorg flew on wings of hope, anticipating that at any moment the first shot would ring out and one of the Hunters would be torn down by Deathworlder bullets.

But no shots came. Instead, the Hunters pounced.

Young males died first, sliced to gory ribbons. One of the white Hunters—the smallest, least augmented one—slashed inexpertly at Gorg who reared back, then heaved himself forward and tossed the nightmarish thing on the point of his brow ridge. It flew into the air and landed with a fragile crunch.

Why weren’t the Humans attacking? He turned to face them and saw.

The cowards weren’t there to save them at all. They’d snuck onto the ship’s boarding ramp. They hadn’t fired a shot.

He turned to plead with them, screamed louder than he’d ever shouted in his life, “Help us!!!”

No help came. Instead, the distraction let the red Hunter bowl through the carnage and crash into him from the side. There was a humming sound, a slice, and agony unlike anything he’d ever imagined. He toppled sideways into the void where his right legs had been and crashed heavily to the ground.

With his vision greying, Gorg looked up at the Humans again. They were slipping into the ship unnoticed: only the older female remained on the ramp, staring at him. The one known as Cook put a hand on her shoulder, tried to guide her inside but she stood fast, watching him.

Too blinded by their feeding frenzy to notice a few skulking deathworlders, the Hunters descended gleefully on their prey. One sunk its teeth into Gorg’s haunch. He tried to kick, but only succeeded at flailing weakly. Another latched onto his shoulder, bit, ripped, tore. They were eating him alive.

He was still staring at the Human, still unable to believe that they would really betray them like this. It was all he could do, the only thing he had left was the hopeless hope that they weren’t the kind of monsters who would just abandon him and his Herd to their fates.

“Help…” he croaked again, though he knew it was too late.

Her expression didn’t change…but after an eternal moment, she raised her rifle.

There was a flash, and Gorg felt no more pain.


++END CHAPTER 44++


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Thirty Humans

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Fifty-one Deathworlders:

galrock0 Austin Deschner Brian Berland Adam Beeman Adam Shields Andrew Ford Aryeh Winter atp Bartosz Borkowski Ben Moskovitz Ben Thrussell C’tri Goudie Cadwah Chris Bausch Chris Candreva Coret Trobane damnusername Daniel R. Dar Darryl Knight David Jamison Devin Rousso Doules1071HFY Eric Johansson Ignate Flare Jim Hamrick Jon Krit Barb Laga Mahesa lovot Matt Demm Matthew Cook Mel B. Mikee Elliott Myke Harryson Nicholas Enyeart Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Oliver Mernagh Owen MYers Parker Brown Patrick Huizinga Peter Bellaby Peter Poole Richard A Anstett Ryan Cadiz Sintanan Stephane Girardin Sun Rendered theWorst Woodsie13

As well as 62 Friendly ETs and 291 Dizi Rats who combine all the best features of a hamster, a pug and a water balloon full of buffalo sauce.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in Chapter 45: “We Need Each Other”