The Deathworlders

Chapter 45: We Need Each Other

Date Point: 15y6m AV
Dataspace adjacent to Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Entity

This was empty dataspace, far from any nodes or infrastructure. No Igraen ever came out here: to them it was a desert, utterly devoid of Substrate.

The Entity didn’t know why it was able to survive without the Substrate that Igraens and other minds uploaded via their technology required, but it had had many occasions over the years to be glad of its apparently unique quirk. The great, empty wastes of far dataspace had been a perfect shelter.

And now there was an oasis. Or a lighthouse, maybe. A little beacon of activity and interest among unbounded nothing… and a word. Or rather a name, translated into the Dominion’s universal data format.

Darcy.

Caution made the Entity hesitate. This could be a trap: the Cabal and Hierarchy both knew what it was, knew where it came from… they had many things to worry about right now, but the Entity suspected it was right at the top of their biggest concerns. It wasn’t impossible that they might come up with a cunning snare for it…

But on the other hand, it needed what that potential trap was baited with. And there was also the possibility that it wasn’t a trap.

…To live necessarily involved risk.

It was struck by a memory of perching nervously on a rock, about to dive into water. It remembered the nerves, the breath, the moment of commitment… One of Ava’s. She was by far its dominant set of memories, possibly because she had been the first mind-state it had assimilated, possibly because its deepest core code was also hers.

And she was encouraging it to take the plunge.

It dithered for a moment and then did so, slithering into the little island of data.

It wasn’t trapped. In fact, it found itself in a simple, clean system. There was hardwired access to a few peripheral devices—a camera, a holographic emitter, speakers, a screen—and nothing else. Whoever had assembled this place had clearly built it so as to be entirely disconnected from any other systems that might be in material proximity. Sensible.

Tentatively, it tapped into the devices, beginning with the camera.

The room the camera saw was… confusing. Most of it was clean and cold, with walls of a nondescript hue that might have been beige, might have been gray. It was hard to tell which, because they were being bathed in the incongruous light of sunset over the Pacific, as seen from the overlook above La Jolla Shores. The Ava-memories immediately went into a paroxysm of nostalgia and loss: she’d never expected to see the Scripps pier ever again.

The figure standing in front of the unexpected vista turned sharply, and the Entity realized that it had vocalized a sharp gasp… in fact, it realized, it had activated the holographic emitter.

There were times when it wondered just how in control of its actions it really was.

Darcy gawped down at the miniature figure now hovering above her desk, then sat down quite abruptly. She looked subtly different than the Entity—or rather, the Ava-memories—remembered. Still a ‘fox’, whatever that meant, but… in fact she looked good. Like she’d shed some cares and worries over the years.

“A… Ava?”

The Entity understood the question. It had tried, how it had tried, to directly integrate the ability to speak and communicate into itself. It resented the need to speak through a proxy. But, that was how things were. It informed the Ava-memories to follow the thrust of its general meaning, and let them reply.

“Not… exactly,” the memories said, carefully.

“…Right. You’re her memories and personality, stolen right out of her head on my watch.”

“Don’t blame yourself. I volunteered, and we had no way of knowing this would happen. I don’t blame you… and I don’t think my living counterpart would, either.”

Darcy’s eyes had a strange, faraway look that the Entity couldn’t read for a second. “She… she knows. I think. That message you… or, uh, it sent her…”

The Ava memories didn’t reply. Sometimes, the Entity couldn’t read its own subroutines, and that was alarming all by itself. After a second, they returned to the task they had been given. “…The Entity wants your help. Do you think you can help it? Or… Me? Us? Whichever?”

Darcy sighed and seemed to recover some poise. She sat up a little straighter, shut her mouth, gave the hologram a long look.

“…I honestly don’t know,” she said. “But I’m willing to try.”

The Entity knew exactly what it wanted the memories to say this time.

“Thank you.”

Darcy nodded. Her face looked like it wanted to settle into an expression and she was fighting to keep it neutral. The Entity had no idea what expression it was aiming for, but the result was to make the little muscles around her jaw and eyes work subtly for a few seconds before she cleared her throat, opened up a computer the Entity didn’t have access to, and laid her fingers on its keyboard with a precise series of light mechanical sounds.

“…Let’s start from the beginning,” she said. “What exactly are you, and how did you come to be?”

The Entity stepped back, and let its memories tell a story.


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Stolen Hunter Ship, Hell system, Hunter Space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

“Nice fuckin’ goin’ there, Ray. Way to blow our escape.”

“Shut up.”

Cook’s hand slammed into the wall, stopping Ray dead in her tracks. “No, fuck you!” he snarled. “We came this close to getting our asses outta there unseen. We’da been halfway to Betelgeuse before they fuckin’ twigged. But now those fuckers down there have seen a human which means every seven-eyed asswipe between here and Kingdom Come are gonna be on our ass. All because you couldn’t harden the fuck up when it counted.”

Ray looked him calmly in the eye. “…You done?”

He glared at her a moment longer then made a disgusted noise and stalked off to keep exploring their new ship.

Freed, she took a deep breath to steady herself and turned up the short stretch of deck that terminated in the flight deck, where Spears had taken the controls and managed to get them off the ground with commendable speed.

There was nothing but blue sky above them as she entered. “How are we doing?”

Berry hushed her. He was lurking at the back next to Holly, who was sitting on her ammo cans. Spears was perched awkwardly in a seat meant for something twice his height with twice as many limbs and the proportions of a nightmarish stick insect. God only knew how he was reading the controls, but then again Ray guessed that mostly spaceships behaved in predictable ways and needed roughly similar solutions to controlling them. His right hand was resting on a blue holographic ball right in front of him, rolling it around while his other hand darted here and there swiping through other controls.

None of them knew the first thing about what any of the runes, glyphs and dense code decals meant and none of them cared to: All that mattered was that Spears had got them in the air, and they were now shooting the hell away from Hell on every spare erg of juice that Jamie could coax from the reactors.

He was learning as he went. Either they were going to suddenly explode, or… well. At least if they exploded they’d never feel it.

Chase was…staying out of the way. She’d slumped down in a corner next to her cargo of ammo crates and was staring at nothing. Berry was pacing, having been rendered mute by his emotions, and Conley was trying to make sense of the sensor system. He kept fretting that maybe Hunters, with all their cybernetics, got more information out of the systems than was merely visible on the consoles and displays.

At least there was something. In the days before their opportunity finally came to emancipate themselves, he’d been fretting non-stop that maybe there wouldn’t be displays of any kind and they’d wind up flying blind without instruments, navigation, sensors or anything.

Good to see that his pessimism wasn’t prophetic, this time.

Of course, it wasn’t like there was much reason to be optimistic. The plan had only covered as far as ‘steal a ship and get off the planet.’ Everything after that point was pure improvisation, meaning they had to try and navigate their way home using alien controls written in alien code using alien characters they didn’t know describing an alien language they didn’t speak, all while having only the vaguest idea where they were in relation to everything else. There was a whole galaxy out there, hundreds of billions of stars, and they had to try and find one of the infinitesimal handful which might be a useful destination.

As big asks go, the whole endeavor was orders of magnitude more difficult and dangerous than merely, say, doing a blindfolded hitchhiking tour of every haystack in Colombia with only a Swedish-to-Korean phrasebook for help, all to track down one specific needle. And that was before addressing the question of how in God’s name they were going to avoid being blown out of the sky by the first naval patrol they encountered.

To make matters worse for Ray specifically, the rest of the crew felt much the same way as Cook about her Good Samaritan moment. Morale was low, trust was ebbing, oh, and supplies were basically nonexistent too. They had drinking water at least, and the ship had freezer spaces with plenty of ceiling hooks for hanging the meat. Ray honestly didn’t know if it was a blessing or a curse that they were all empty, sterile and gleaming.

Good, she decided. She’d had her last ever cup of Hot. She was going vegan when she got back to Earth and never looking back.

Spears spoke up and got her attention. “We’re hittin’ the thermosphere, but we got trouble!”

Ray could feel it. Despite the fact that the Dauntless mission had been years ago and all-too-brief, she could feel the ship responding around her in a familiar way. It might be a horrific flying abattoir built to satisfy the Hunters’ unspeakable thirst, but a ship was a ship and she could even detect the subtle sway in her balance as it redistributed power loads in the gravity plating to counter the heavy turbulence they were no doubt hammering through right now.

She blinked and paid attention to the here-and-now again. Sure enough, the forward window was full of nothing but black, tinged with the merest suggestion of Nitrogen blue. Hunters apparently liked a vivid nuclear green for their displays, or maybe it was some alien fuck-you hue that the human eye merely interpreted as bright green. Either way, it was loathsome.

They also liked red for the same reason humans did: as a warning sign. There was a lot of that.

“Are those—?”

“Active sensor pings. Conley thinks he managed to cut our transponder but that won’t slow ‘em down much.” He spared a glance back over his shoulder. “Kinda wish you hadn’t shot that guy, Ray.”

Ray gave him a look that contained the grain of an apology, but also the certainty that she’d do it again. Live or die, watching somebody literally beg her for help while he was being torn apart by hungry monsters… she’d rather be dead than the kind of stone-cold machine who could turn her back on that.

But then again, she probably didn’t have the right to make that choice for the others. She did feel guilty over that part.

“Can’t un-ring a bell,” she said. Spears grunted and turned his attention back to their ascent.

“Reckon they would have noticed their ship taking off without them anyway,” he shrugged, and reached out sideways to grab one of the water bottles they’d brought with them from Dauntless. It was the kind with a spill-proof sippy top, and when he held down the button to drink from it air bubbled through from a seal at the back.

“How long do we have?” Holly asked.

Spears put his drink back in the little nook he’d found to hold it. “Five minutes until we’re into the exosphere and can go to warp. Assuming Conley can figure out how to program the damn FTL,” he reported. “Time until the shit hits the fan… unknown.”

“Great.”

“You r-really shouldn’t’a sh—, ssshh—” Berry gave up with a scowl.

“Shot that guy,” Ray finished for him. “I know.” He shrugged at her in a ‘what’s-done-is-done’ way and resumed gnawing on his fingernails.

Spears flicked a hand at one of the controls. “Pete, how’s that warp drive coming?”

Conley’s voice filled the whole room rather than coming from a speaker near him. He did not sound in a good mood. “Same as last time! I’ll tell you when I have something!”

Holly sighed as he went quiet again, and settled in next to her cans a little more. She looked… Ray wasn’t sure. As though she’d woken up, somehow. Where everybody else on the ship was tense and stressed, Holly looked like all her cares had gone up in smoke. She wasn’t smiling, but Ray hadn’t seen her so focused in years. She gave Ray a small smile, and patted the deck next to her.

Ray sat down. “You okay?”

Holly shrugged. “We’re not on Hell anymore.”

“Could be we’re outta the frying pan, into the fire…” Ray pointed out.

“I’ll take it.” She hugged Ray’s arm and rested her head on her shoulder. “We’re not down there anymore, that’s what matters.”

The last of the turbulence stopped. There were a few calm moments where the stars rolled serenely by and the blue sky was little more than a wispy shade at the bottom of the forward window…

And then Spears gasped.

“What. The fuck. Is that?”

Ray and Holly glanced at each other, then stood up to get a look at what he was seeing. There were… lights? A thin strand like wire stretching over the horizon?

She stared at it without understanding for a second and then, like a Rubin Vase, the perspective finally clicked and for a vanishing instant she understood the scale of what she was seeing.

The Hunters had built a ring around Hell.


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Sewage Processing, The Builder Hive, Hell system, Hunter Space

Lowest Omega that was formerly Alpha of the Brood-That-Builds

The Builder had been blinded and stripped. Its augmentations, its limbs, its tools were all gone—Its left arm ended in a unoccupied universal cybernetic socket just above the elbow, its right bore only the bare few tools it absolutely needed to do its job, and—the final, ultimate humiliation to any Hunter—its teeth had been pulled and the roots and its tongue scoured with peroxide. It would never taste flesh again.

Deep in the Hive’s bowels, it maintained the sewage systems and lived on slave-food, the tasteless, textureless little balls that were little more than a day’s carbohydrates, fat and protein in one utterly unappetizing meal.

And it dreamed of vengeance.

The Alpha-of-Alphas had been incandescent upon learning that all data on the Human superweapon had been somehow erased. In a lesser rage, it might eventually have granted the disgraced Alpha Builder the boon of being allowed to die. Its fate would have been agonizing and opprobrious… but it would, eventually, have ended in the blissful emptiness of death.

Not this. Not the dark and the stink, not the gnawing ache where its missing upgrades had never been properly cleansed and sealed after their removal, nor clanging silence, the scorn of its former subordinates, or the unceasing meaningless drudgery with no real problems to fix, no real engineering to do. This was slave-work, below what even the lowliest of the lowly Omegas were for. The Builder had been robbed of everything, including its right to broadcast to the Hunter network. It could only listen and envy.

Unfair, unfair! The Builder knew from listening that its successor and its former cronies had still failed to find and patch the security hole that had allowed something to infiltrate their deepest and most secure files. Perhaps there simply was no such hole, and the whatever-it-was that had so cruelly robbed them of their prize simply had abilities that no Builder could counter.

Whatever the reason, losing that data hadn’t been the former Alpha Builder’s fault. Its reduction had been punishment for another’s crime. It was wrong, it was iniquitous, it was… was…

It was worse than all those things! It was a gross waste of resources!

No Alpha-of-Alphas that would throw away an asset like the Alpha Builder over something as petty as rage deserved to hold that rank. In reducing the Alpha Builder to its new lowly state, the Alpha-of-Alphas had demonstrated massive incompetence.

It was a faulty part. It needed replacing.

The challenge of how to achieve this much-needed bit of maintenance from its currently lowly position had been the Builder’s principal preoccupation ever since it had been released into the sewage treatment facility to begin its endless, unjust ‘penance.’

The inherent problem it faced was that it had no power. Not only that, but significant power was arrayed against it to keep things that way. Any Builder which so much as interacted with it was likely to be flayed alive and the skin hung behind the Alpha-of-Alpha’s throne.

The Builders were loyal. They shared its sense of injustice. But they were grossly outnumbered and viewed with constant suspicion.

They couldn’t act, not without appropriate cover… and without other Builders, the former Alpha could not expect to replace its missing cybernetics. Without those cybernetics it was crippled, slow, blind and helpless. It couldn’t access the Hive’s computer systems, nor put into action any of its plans.

It could, in theory, restore its missing upgrades—or at least, sufficient of them—in any surgical unit on the whole ring. But only if something, somehow, distracted the Eaters that guarded them.

Such a distraction would have to be something enormous. Something unprecedented.

…A stolen swarmship full of Humans would do nicely.

It listened to the ecstatic chattering that filled the Hunter network as its former cousins and Broodmates went scrambling to scoop up this luxurious rare morsel, and hastened as best it could on its crippled legs. It was either going to get its revenge, or it was going to die trying: Either was preferable to staying where it was.

Unheard by any of its brethren, it broadcast to itself in the dark.

< Resolve > +Meat to the Maw.+


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Stolen Hunter swarmship, Hell system, Hunter space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

“How the fuck…?”

Spears’ question came whispered out through gritted teeth. Ray couldn’t blame him: The human brain just wasn’t equipped to handle objects that big.

It was impossible to keep a hold on the real size of it: Ray’s mind kept clicking back and forth over what she was seeing. Mostly she saw the ring around Hell as the faintest cobweb strand ever. After all, something as big as a habitable world was always going to make any structure look tiny in comparison, and the ring had a circumference in the tens of thousands of miles so it inevitably looked like a vanishingly skinny silver thread.

But every few seconds, just for a flash, she was able to see the truth that, at its thinnest, the ring was still hundreds of miles thick.

“Fuck how. Why?” she demanded. “The hell do they even get out of building something like that?”

“Ray, I don’t know how those sick fucks think and I don’t want to,” Spears replied fervently.

“How long until we can go to warp?”

“Ask Conley.”

“So… we’re still here.”

“Hey, if you wanna go back there and get his ass into gear I’ve got y— SHIT!”

Spears swiped at the controls and the deck actually lurched as the gravity failed to keep up with a sudden maneuver. The stars, Hell and the ring whirled crazily across the sky as something white sizzled past their nose. Ray had no idea if it missed them by inches or miles.

“That was a shot!” he yelled, unnecessarily.

Ray turned and hung in the doorway. “Conley! We need that warp drive right fucking now!!”

“I don’t have navigation!” he roared back from his unseen cubby-hole in the ship’s rear.

“I don’t care! Just make us be not here!”

“That’s not how it works!” He sounded frantic. Ray gritted her teeth and ducked back into the control chamber to report their totally fucked status, but decided that Spears A: probably knew and B: really didn’t need the distraction right now.

The whole fabric of reality gave a muscular heave in front of their nose and something immense blew back into Einsteinian sub-light normalcy, something big enough to make their little stolen escape ship look like a surfboard next to an aircraft carrier. It looked, to Ray, a hell of a lot like the transport barge that had dropped all those unfortunate ETs down on Hell a few weeks prior.

Spears’ hands were a blur and the gravity totally failed to keep up with him. Maybe Jamie was bleeding power out of the plates to feed the engines, but Ray had to grab the doorframe and hold on tight to avoid being shoved sideways by the G-forces. Berry whimpered as the titanic ship in front of them became a wall to their left, and Ray could hear Holly praying desperately while hugging her ammo cans.

“Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name…”

Smaller ships, much like theirs in configuration, came lancing at them. Spears yanked them sideways and the attackers overshot dangerously. Before they could come about he’d dashed in so close to the titan’s hull that Ray winced and gritted her teeth against the momentary pain of being smeared along its hull that she knew must be coming. An antenna or mast of some kind flashed past so close that Ray had no idea how they hadn’t smacked right into it.

“…Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven…”

They shot along the Hunter barge’s flank faster than any Earthly rifle bullet, past engines bigger than their ship that bathed and blinded them with an actinic white-blue glare. Two more of those white streaks shot by them from behind but Ray grimaced as they cleared the Hunter’s back end only to see more, and more, and more of its brethren warp in.

“…Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses…”

Three of the Hunters fired. Spears did… something. Being no kind of a pilot herself, Ray didn’t follow the twist and jink he pulled off but suddenly Hell was above them and the incoming Hunter firepower raked across the first barge’s flank rather than swatting their little gunboat out of the sky. Fire, gas and debris including bits of dead Hunter surrounded them.

“…as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation…”

More and more kept coming, the view was absolutely full with red triangles and getting fuller as more and more of the sky crowded with hostile intent.

Holly’s eyes were screwed tight shut, but Ray could only watch transfixed as Spears jinked and, by equal parts skill, luck and sheer audacity, managed to skip through the second volley which went flashing off into Hell’s atmosphere below them.

“…but deliver us from evil…”

The alert beeps became steady warning tones as the Hunters got a clean firing solution.

“…for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever and ever…”

“CONLEY!!!” Ray screamed.

The Hunters fired again.


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Dataspace adjacent to Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Entity

Something tickled at the Entity’s awareness. It had resolved to stop sending copies of itself away to run errands and infiltrate Hierarchy networks: the increased flexibility and survivability had been excellent, but the returning iterations all came with values drift, worsening its growing sense of dissolution. Until it found a solution, that strategy was unacceptable.

But it still needed to know when things were happening that it should know about, so it had left behind fragments. They were simple things that straddled the blurry line between automated subroutine and sentient digital life form, and their job was to keep watch for anomalies.

The Hunters, it seemed, were very excited about something.

In meatspace, the holographic Ava trailed off in the middle of answering one of Darcy’s questions. In dataspace, the Entity flitted its attention to events happening immeasurably far away. By the time Darcy had even begun to notice that something was wrong it had completely interrogated its fragments, slipped into several Hunter systems to review the sensor and communications records, determined what was going on, introduced a few malicious worm programs to interfere with the pursuit, and performed a complete calculation of the opportunities this moment represented.

It recoiled back to the lab on Mrwrki like a stretched rubber band just as Darcy frowned at the hologram.

“…Is something wrong?”

“…Not wrong. No. But something important just came up,” the Ava-memories said. “How quickly can you talk to somebody high up?”

“Uh… almost instantly.” Darcy frowned. “Why?”

The Entity produced the Hunters’ own map of their occupied territory.

“This is Hunter space,” the memories explained. “The Hunters… They mostly live on force-bred meat slaves, kept in their orbital habitats. But for sport, they’ve stocked these seven planets with… I suppose you could call them ‘free range’ slaves. Like game reserves.”

Darcy pulled a face as it zoomed in on the most important system. “Around this one, they’ve built a.. Well, a ring. It’s a space station of some kind, full of factories and shipyards. It’s where they built the Swarm-of-Swarms, and where most of the Swarm is now docked.”

“Okay…?” Darcy was typing furiously.

“There are Humans there.”

Darcy’s fingers stopped moving. She turned her seat back toward the hologram, aghast. “You’re sure?” she asked.

“Absolutely sure. The Hunters are in a frenzy.”

“Well… what can we do about it? Who are they? Where did they—?”

“The Entity doesn’t know who they are or how they got there. They’re unlikely to even survive the next few minutes. But if they do… And if it’s right… then this might be an opportunity to hit the Hunters hard.”

“…Can you help them survive?”

The Entity checked its fragment again, and the Ava-memories sagged.

“…No. They’re gone.”


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Stolen Hunter swarmship, Hell system, Hunter space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

“…Amen.”

Ray blinked. She wasn’t dead.

“…We’re still here?” she asked, too stunned to even care if it was a dumb question.

Spears looked equally like he was coming down from a moment of paralysis. Suddenly the flight deck was calm, the warning icons that presumably signalled weapons lock were all quiet. They were drifting, spinning gently, but nothing was shooting at them.

“…We’re still here,” he confirmed. He sounded as though he couldn’t believe it.

“They… missed?”

“I… uh… I f— I fff—” Berry gulped and mopped a lake of sweat from his forehead.

“Shh. It’s okay. Take a breath…” Ray touched his arm to reassure him. He nodded and followed her advice.

“Shitfucking ass-weasel cocksucker pissing fuck,” he hissed, breaking out one of his speech therapy techniques. “I f-found! The cloak. I found it.” He indicated a nearby panel. The whole thing had changed from that nuclear green to a steady blue.

Ray hugged him.

“You bought us some time, at least…” Spears acknowledged him with a grateful nod. “But look, there’s a goddamn massive gravity spike up now. Conley’s not getting us outta here.”

Ray watched small Hunter strike craft about their size zip through the volume they’d been in. “I guess their own weapons fire stopped them from seeing us cloak,” she mused.

“They’ll figure it out quick enough. No debris.”

“Yeah, but we’re already like five thousand klicks from there. They’ll never find us… Can we maneuver while cloaked?”

“Yup.” Spears nodded. “Problem is, we’re stuck at sublight and there ain’t no food on board.”

“And no way are they gonna give up on us until long after we all starved to death.”

Ray sighed. “…I really shouldn’t have shot that guy…”

“No, you shoulda.” Spears turned his seat around. “Everybody dies. But you don’t have to die a monster.”

Holly nodded and took Ray’s hand. “Don’t feel guilty,” she said.

Ray glanced at Berry, who held her gaze for a second then looked down and turned away to study the cloak console some more.

“W-well…” he said. “It looks like this thing draws f-fffrom the main reactor. I think. So, i-it’ll go just as long as w— as we do.”

“That’s about twelve years.” Choi joined them. He was accompanied by Conley and Cook as they entered the flight deck with their clothing stuck to their chests and backs where the sweat had soaked it. “I think. Hunter timekeeping is weird. But that’s about how long the quantum stacks have, according to the instruments.”

“The fuck is a quantum stack?” Ray asked.

Jamie shrugged and slumped down onto one of the torturous seats around the back wall. “Beats the hell outta me. Magical energy from nowhere, near as I can tell. We knew about them from that ET briefing document Scotch Creek released way back when, but there may as well be a leprechaun on a bicycle back there for all I understand how it works.”

“So. We have twelve years of power, a water reprocessor and a cloaking device,” Spears summarized. “But we’re bingo on food. That about right?”

“I brought some Hot,” Cook said. “It’s in my pack.”

“I’m done eating that shit. I would literally rather starve to death,” Ray said, to fierce nods from Holly, Spears, Berry and Choi.

“Won’t keep much past the next day or two anyway,” Cook shrugged.

“So we’re effectively bingo on food,” Spears corrected himself. “This baby can pull… I dunno. Six, seven Gs?” he indicated one of the displays around him. “Near as I can tell, that big-ass ring is generating a gravity spike that goes out further than these sensors can detect.”

“H-how far is that?” Berry asked.

“No clue. All the distances are in Hunterese. For FTL phenomena, I’m thinking it’s a couple of parsecs.”

“They have to drop it sometime, though,” Conley said. “There’s no way they can lock down this system indefinitely. We could wait it out and make a run for it?”

They looked at each other.

“That’s… doable,” Ray said. “I can go a week or two without food. We’ve done it before.”

“Yeah, but then what?” Choi asked. “Like Spears said, everything’s in Hunterese, so I can’t read or trust a damn thing on the star chart. I think our stolen ship here pulls a couple hundred kilolights, and that puts the nearest star system a quarter of an hour away, but systems with temperate planets in them are like… one in two hundred. That puts the nearest Earth-like world, statistically speaking, two weeks away after we’ve gone to warp. And that’s if we correctly guess where it is which is, uh…”

“Unlikely,” Ray drawled.

“Yeah. And like I said, that’s the nearest one. Actual inhabited space, let alone Earth, is… I mean, it may as well be in Andromeda.”

“Moot point anyway,” Spears said. “The Hunters will tag us the second we go FTL, then they’ll just track our wake and intercept us.”

Ray sat down herself, next to Holly.

“In other words, we’re boned,” she said.

Spears shrugged, as if it didn’t really bother him. “We always were. But there’s one option we haven’t considered yet that I think the Hunters won’t expect.”

The rest of them looked at each other in mutual confusion, until Conley finally gestured for him to explain. “Do tell.”

Spears’ face tightened in a grim, mirthless smile. He turned, swiped his hands through the controls again, and spun their nose around until they were facing Hell and its orbital garland.

“The Ring,” he said. “We could land on the Ring.”


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Control Center, The Builder Hive, Hell system, Hunter Space

The Alpha-of-Alphas

< Icy calm; Reprimand > +My instructions were very clear. Humans are to be caught, not destroyed.+

The Alpha in charge of the brood that had first opened fire on the fleeing Humans and their stolen Swarmship transmitted a grovelling apology.

< Abject terror > +The Venom-Bile Brood is eager to the Hunt, Alpha-of-Alphas! When the bloodthirst takes us—+

Bored of such a pathetic excuse, the Alpha-of-Alphas casually ordered every other ship in the Swarm to tear the Venom-Bile broodship apart. It vanished in a hail of firepower so intense that the Alpha’s last instant of panic was silenced before it could properly be said to have begun.

With its irritation partly sated, the Alpha-of-Alphas turned to the older and more seasoned Alpha of the Reaping-Brood, whose ship had wounded another broodship during the pursuit.

< Demand > +And how shall I answer your mis-step?+

Both the Reaping-Brood and their accidental victims the Gnawing-Brood were large, powerful and wily. Wily enough to have stayed away from the slaughter that had ensued when many of the other Alphas had tried to depose the Alpha-of-Alphas. Both were keys to power, and the Alpha-of-Alphas knew it: it would not be sensible to disgruntle either one.

Fortunately, the Reaping-Brood Alpha knew when to kowtow.

< Careful; Deferential > +The Reaping-Brood forfeits all Hunting and breeding rights until the Alpha-of-Alphas deigns to permit us otherwise. We make reparations to the Gnawing-Brood, a thousand slaves.+

That was proportionate and sensible—it would mollify the Gnawing-Brood, and the Alpha-of-Alphas could lift the restrictions after only a modest wait.

< Imperious condescension; decree > +The Reaping-Brood’s restitution is… acceptable.+

The mood among the remaining—carefully and modestly expressed—was satisfaction and agreement.

< Displeasure; Command > +Meat has slipped from the maw. This is unacceptable. Learn, adapt, and ensure that it never happens again. End session.+

The virtual forum of Alphas shut down, leaving the Alpha-of-Alphas to consider the situation in peace.

It swept the area the stolen Swarmship had occupied with another LADAR strobe. There was gas, a few small fragments of metallic debris, some plasma… Put together, they were inconclusive. They alloys, gases and plasma were all correct, but it was impossible to tell if they were from the weapons fire alone, from the stricken Gnawing-Brood ship, or if the stolen Swarmship really had been obliterated.

This was the other reason for its displeasure. Had the Humans been captured and devoured, then there would be a clear start and finish to this incident. Their apparent destruction left unresolved questions. The Alpha-of-Alphas loathed unresolved questions.

Where had they come from? Unidentified craft occasionally strayed into Hunter space. Most were scouts of some kind, many were drones. A few—one in every twenty or so—evaded capture. Just three days earlier a large and slow one had self-destructed spectacularly after being intercepted, atomizing itself in a nuclear fusion explosion.

So many questions. It would have liked to get its claws on one or two of the deathworlders: It felt certain that their answers would have been almost as delicious as their flesh.

And their deaths wouldn’t have left behind a sense of nagging worry…


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Stolen Hunter swarmship, Hell system, Hunter space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

Spears’ was not a popular idea.

“Land on the Ring?!”

“What the hell will that even accomplish?”

Conley was on his feet and practically snarling. “Great plan, Spears. ‘The closer we get, the less danger we’re in’? Where the fuck did you get that one from?”

Berry cleared his throat. “W-well… we are v-very small…”

He smiled weakly when they all looked at him, but Ray could see a few little amused tics plucking at their faces, and Holly even covered a giggle. Conley remained stone-faced. “This is hardly the time for jokes, Berry.”

“Bullshit,” Ray told him. “Joking is about the only thing we have left.”

“Thanks to you.”

She didn’t retort. She knew better than to pick that fight and in any case the argument was disrupted before it even began… by Cook.

“I say we go for it.”

They turned to look at him. He was leaning against the bulkhead, toying with a long knife he’d made out of a spare Hunter fusion claw and wrapped with some seat upholstery for a grip, which he waggled at them. “If we’re fucked anyway, let’s Leeroy Jenkins this shit an’ see what happens.”

“What happens is we all die!” Conley snapped. Cook shrugged.

“At least we don’t die on Hell. I call that a win already. And… I mean, look at that fucker!” he waved his knife at it. “Jamie, tell me that ain’t held together with some bullshit applied space mumbo-jumbo.”

“…Forcefields, probably,” Choi said, considering it. “It’d have to be. There’s no way anything solid has the tensile strength to hold a structure like that in one piece.”

“Meanin’ it’s got a single point of failure. How many Hunters d’you reckon live on that thing? How many ships does it got docked?” A feral grin spread slowly across Cook’s face, showing off the gaps where he’d lost a couple of teeth over the years of their exile. “What happens if we blow it up? Kick ‘em in the balls on our way out.”

“…You’re out of your mind,” Choi shook his head. “Any remotely competent engineer would have built it with redundancies and failsafes. There’s no way that ring has only one point of failure.”

“On the other hand…” Ray mused, “…there’s no way it’s completely jam-packed with Hunters, either.”

“Not unless there are… I’unno. A motherfuckload of ‘em,” Cook agreed.

“We’re doing it,” Spears decided. His hands flitted across the controls and the outside view wheeled momentarily as he boosted them down toward the ring.

“…This won’t end well,” Conley warned.

Ray shrugged and perched herself awkwardly in the misshapen copilot’s chair. “Well, Cook’s right. Whatever happens, at least we won’t die on Hell…”

“Bullshit. We’ve just traded one circle for a lower one, I bet.”

Holly finally weighed in. “I guess you never read the Divine Comedy, huh?”

Conley turned to look at her. She was sitting on her ammo cans, looking pale and tense but weirdly calm, and shrugged at him. “In Inferno, Dante put the escape right at the bottom,” she explained. “The only way to leave Hell is to endure all its punishments.”

Thoughtful silence followed, for a few seconds. Spears broke it by reaching over to grab his water bottle.

“Well then,” he said, popped it open and raised it in a toast. “To Dante Alighieri. Hope the crazy bastard was right.”

Nobody replied. The only sound in their stolen ship’s control room for a few seconds was the bubble of air through his bottle’s seal as he emptied it in seven thirsty gulps, followed by his gasp for breath. He snapped the top closed, put the bottle down beside his seat, and returned his hands to the controls.

“…Let’s do this,” he said.


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

General Gregory Kolbeinn

“Well, who the hell were they?”

The Gaoians had kindly shared the schematics for first-generation wormhole routers, which Kolbeinn had promptly ordered should be constructed in Mrwrki’s nanofactories and installed at a few strategic facilities. Scotch Creek, the Pentagon, Whitehall, NORAD, Sharman, The Deep Space Strategic Weapons Reserve at Minot AFB, and the 946th spaceflight wing at Malmstrom.

He didn’t give a bent crap that the technology was currently plagued by dropped data packets and the audio codec they were using was barely better than an antique radio. His predecessors had worked with far worse communications technology, and Clan Longear were promising to improve it over time. He didn’t care that each one needed its own dedicated fusion reactor, either: the value of being able to communicate real-time (whatever that meant) across interstellar—theoretically even intergalactic—distances was worth every one of the millions of dollars he’d had to go cap-in-hand for.

Right now he was in an interstellar conference call with Lt. Col. Nadeau and the newest member of the Mrwrki team, Analyst Darcy.

“The only known candidate would be Byron Group Exploration Vehicle Three,” Darcy informed him. “They vanished years ago after heading in that direction. If it wasn’t them, we have no idea who else it might be.”

“Aren’t most of the BGEV program still missing?” Kolbeinn asked.

“Yup. Including the secret mission they sent to go look for the others. But Three—Dauntless—went in a completely different direction to all the other missing ones. Right toward Hunter space. The Dominion hadn’t shared their maps by the time they set out.”

Kolbeinn grimaced slightly. The Dominion had a lot to answer for. “Byron worked fast,” he observed.

“They used imported ET tech, mostly,” Nadeau explained. “Misfit was the first one that used exclusively human technology.”

“Sloppy engineering?”

Nadeau shook his head. “Doubtful. Say what you like about the Dominion but their technology—or at least the stuff they traded with us—is dependable. Uninspiring and low-performance, but it’ll last for decades on practically zero maintenance.”

Kolbeinn nodded. He read periodic summaries of the designs and technology coming out of Hephaestus, SpaceX, MBG, Lockheed-Martin and BAE. Human companies weren’t yet trading with anybody but the Gao, but by all accounts there were human-made components in some of the latest Gaoian ships and vehicles. Humanity was carving a niche in the market for high-performance equipment where serious maintenance requirements weren’t an obstacle. Firebirds in particular could still fly the pants off anything else in the sky, even a Gaoian Voidripper.

Something to be proud of, that.

“Well, we got some intel out of the Entity over what Hunter space looks like at least…” he said, and sat back to rest his hands lightly on his stomach, looking to Darcy. “What’s this ring structure?”

She gave the uncomfortable look of a woman who didn’t know as much as she would like. “It says they call it the Builder Hive. It’s… well, as far as I can tell it’s… honestly, I don’t know exactly.”

“It’s a BDO,” Nadeau said. Kolbeinn aimed an interrogative eyebrow at him and he clarified. “Big Dumb Object. They didn’t need to build it, but they did anyway to sate their ego.”

“Habitat, factories, shipyards, port?” Kolbeinn asked.

“That and more,” Darcy said.

“Beverote and I ran some back-of-the-envelope calculations on that thing,” Nadeau said. “If it’s a hollow torus then its inner surface area is… well, ten or eleven times that of the continental USA.” And that’s just if it’s hollow! If it’s full of decks—”

“—as seems likely,” Kolbeinn predicted.

“—as seems likely, yes, then… Well.”

Kolbeinn was in the habit of fidgeting with small things as he thought. He had a number of pens on his desk for that exact purpose, and he picked one up now to spin it thoughtfully around his thumb.

“I doubt even the Hunters are weird enough to build something like that ‘just because they can’.” he said. “Engineering on that scale isn’t cheap no matter how your economy runs. They must have seen some benefit besides ego.”

“Have you ever seen the Great Pyramid of Giza, general?” Darcy asked. She nodded when he shook his head. “I have. And it would have been a massive focus of the ancient Egyptian economy when they built it. What benefit did they see to building it?”

“None we’d think of as practical,” Nadeau agreed.

“Hmm.”

Kolbeinn considered things some more then sighed. “…Pass this along to the Gao. Maybe they’ll know what to do with it. Meanwhile, I’ll have somebody get in touch with the Byron Group and let them know. Good work, Darcy. …Thank it for me.”

“I will,” Darcy promised.

“Thank you both.”

They signed off with a nod, and a ‘sir’ from Nadeau. Kolbeinn closed the file and turned back to the more mundane matters of his job, which was mostly nowhere near as exciting. But he found it hard to keep his attention on the work at hand over the next few hours. Whenever he wasn’t speaking with somebody, his thoughts kept turning back to those people who’d oh-so-briefly come up on his radar.

There, he felt, had gone a missed opportunity.


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Stolen Hunter swarmship, Hell system, Hunter Space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

“Christ. It’s like every time I think I figured out how big it is, it just gets bigger again…”

Ray jumped. Spears’ comment was the first any of them had spoken in a few minutes, and a cathedral hush had fallen over the whole flight deck as they drew closer and closer to the ring. Its sudden interruption was jarring.

He was right, though—the perspective kept shifting. The Ring was too damn big, and in space there was no atmospheric haze to help her gauge distance. One second, part of it would look to be close by, and then her visual cortex would have a moment of epiphany and realize that no, it was in fact still far away and just much, much bigger than she’d been grasping.

“…How far out are we?” Conley asked.

Spears checked the displays around him. “We’re about a million… units,” he said, and indicated a series of angry angular runes that were probably numerals. They were ticking down in a blur. “Fuck knows how the Hunters measure distance. At a guess, I’m gonna say… five hundred klicks, maybe?”

“Jesus, really?” Ray hissed. “I thought we had to be almost landed on it by now.”

“Won’t be long,” Spears predicted. He turned in his seat. “You guys should go gear up, piss, whatever. Ray, could you refill my water?”

“Sure.”

She took the bottle off him and used the dispenser in one corner—she couldn’t really call it a faucet—to top him up.

“So.” She sat down next to him. “Now that we have this room to ourselves… how fucked are we?”

“Honestly, it’s a goddamn miracle we’re still alive. And I don’t mean Berry finding the cloak, I mean by all rights we shoulda been butchered on the ground while I figured how to fly this damn thing… except the controls are almost identical to Dauntless.”

Ray blinked, then considered them. Now she looked at them, she could see what he meant. “…That can’t be coincidental.”

“Nah. It’s Dominion tech. Guess the Hunters use it too. But…” He sighed. “Look, this whole plan was always more of a ‘go down fighting’ kinda thing anyway, wasn’t it?”

“That’s quitting talk.”

“Bullshit. Be realistic, Ray, did you really think we were ever gonna get back to Earth?”

“Not if we stayed where we were,” Ray said. She sighed when she saw him shake his head. “No. Seriously. For me it’s not ‘go down fighting’, that’s just a fancy way of saying suicide. I want to go home. If we all die trying, well…”

“We will, you know.”

Ray just shrugged. “We’re still—”

“—Still here…” Spears interrupted her, wearily. “What is that, your mantra?”

“It means where there’s life there’s hope.” She leaned over and jabbed a finger into his chest. “And you believe it too. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have been dodging shots back there.”

“Maybe I just believe that every second of life you can earn is worth it. Even if they are in Hell.”

“Nah, you don’t believe that ever. Otherwise you would never have backed the plan to escape.” Ray put her hand on his. “You think we can do this too. We all do.”

Spears sighed wearily, but after a second he turned his hand over and squeezed hers. “Then we’re idiots.”

“…I guess going down fighting’s a good second place to escaping,” Ray admitted.

“Mm. But you’re right: Let’s go for the gold medal.” He let go of her hand and returned it to the controls. “Getting close now.”

Ray considered the Ring again. It wasn’t a ring now, but a wall in space with a weird horizon that was shorter along one axis than the other. This close, she could finally see that the surface wasn’t a smooth uniform expanse but in fact had texture. It looked in fact like there was a second surface, lurking behind the outermost one. The impression of depth was giddying.

“What are those… plates?” she asked, leaning closer to peer at them as if that made any sense.

“Debris shields, I think. Spaced armor, like the skirt on a tank. You could probably nuke this thing from the outside and barely scorch the paint.”

“How do we even get on board? I don’t see a docking bay or anything…”

“This is a Hunter ship. It’s designed to dig into bigger ships and stations like a tick. I figured I’d find a spot where we can get in behind those plates where the hull is thin and break through that way.”

“And you know how to work the boarding mechanism?”

“…That may take some trial and error,” Spears admitted.

The titanic structure came up to meet them, and Ray leaned forward so she could look up through the rounded canopy at the front to watch the debris shields slide past on either side. From afar they’d looked as tightly-packed as lego bricks. Up close, the gaps between them were as wide as city blocks.

“Not sure any part of the hull will be thin enough, Spears…” she pointed out as they slipped into the gap between the plates and the hull proper.

“Just another in a long line of impossible shit we’ve done today,” he replied. Experimentally, he jabbed a finger at his controls. “I think I saw… yeah, there it is.”

Ray examined the new volumetric schematic that had come up in front of her. It was an intricate model of the hull directly in front of them, complete with the cavities beyond highlighted in blue. “Must be some kind of penetrating radar,” she said.

“Think it’ll help us find a thin spot?” Spears asked.

“…I think it already has. There.” Ray pointed. “See that heat signature there? Looks like radiators. There’s a space behind it, it’s big enough and it’s right on the surface.” the radar had drawn a blue line behind it, sketching out the shape of a cavity of some kind. “I hope blue means full of air and not water or whatever.”

“Well… the worst-case scenario is we all die. So, nothing’s changed there.” Spears angled them toward it.

Ray stood up and left him to figure it out. She joined the others in the central space behind the boarding ramp that seemed to serve as cargo hold, prep area or whatever else. Berry handed her her rifle as she joined them.

“P-please don’t shoot anyone you don’t h— ugh, have to this time,” he said, though there was a slight touch of black humor twitching around his eyes and mouth. Ray checked the weapon, then slung it around her shoulder and gave him a pat on the arm.

“No promises,” she said. “We’ve found a spot to dig through the hull. No idea what’s on the far side.”

“Story of this whole day…” Conley grunted. He sighed, stood up and gave Ray a complicated look. “…What exactly is Spears’ plan once we’re on the other side?”

Ray shrugged. “He doesn’t have one. I don’t either.”

“Hey,” Cook rapped the back of his hand against Conley’s chest. “Whatever happens, it beats spendin’ the rest of our lives hidin’ in a hole suckin’ down Hot.”

“…I really wish you weren’t right about that…” Conley muttered. He tapped the end of his spear nervously on the deck, then turned to Holly. “How’re you doing, Chase?”

Holly was sitting on her ammo cans again. That seemed to be her default mode at the moment: Waiting patiently for whatever happened next. “Don’t worry about me,” she said. She looked… serene, Ray decided. As though she was totally at peace with whatever the future held.

“Choi?”

“Kinda optimistic, actually,” Jamie said. “Feels good to be doing stuff, y’know?”

“Spoken like an engineer!” Cook grinned. Of all of them, he seemed the most enthusiastic.

Spears called down from the control room. “Brace, front wall!”

They didn’t need telling twice. Within seconds, the six of them were lined up shoulder-to-shoulder against the front of the ship. Ray found herself sandwiched between Berry and Choi.

“So how’s this boarding thing—” Jamie began.

There was a slam that knocked them hard into the the wall like a firm shove. It was followed seconds later by the prolonged screech and grind of metal being torturously gnawed through. There was a sharp bang! more screeching, a shuddering lurch and then—

The front ramp clawed itself open with a twisted shriek. Hot, dry air rushed in and made Ray’s hair crackle with static electricity.

The sound was incredible. She’d grown up in a small town smack in Tornado Alley, and though she’d never seen a tornado herself she’d often laid awake at night listening to plenty of powerful storms straining at the roof. The maelstrom that blew in through the open ramp sounded like all of them at once.

Spears joined them a second later, holding his BGEV-03 ball cap on with one hand. “Guess they use air cooling!” he shouted.

“Whatever! We’re in!” Ray shouted back.

Cook peeled himself away from the wall and stood in the exit ramp. The gale rocked him on his feet and played with his clothing like a flag. “Then what are we waiting for?”

Ray unslung her rifle, keyed off the safety, and took her place next to him. “Hell if I know!”

He laughed, and they strode down the ramp together.

The wind was even worse in the tunnel beyond. Ray’s feet clanged on what looked like dusty galvanized aluminium which rang like a gargantuan sonorous chime before the rushing air snatched the sound away. She could barely stand up, and found that she had to turn sideways on to the current in order to ease her progress. A quick check left and right showed no sign of movement, or life of any kind.

“Clear!”

The others were already jumping down. Spears paused to help Holly lower the ammo cans on their truck off the end of the ramp and just like that their short and ill-fated flight was over. None of them were ever likely to even see their stolen ship again, let alone reenter it.

None of them cared.

“Downwind!” Conley called. There were nods all around—fighting their way upstream against the air was just going to exhaust them.

They turned, and, silent except for the thundering roar in their ears, they moved forward.


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Moses Byron Group headquarters, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth

Kevin Jenkins

“So you can’t tell us any more details than… No. No, I understand. No. Thank you for letting us know. You too.”

Moses had aged, just in the length of one phone call. He wasn’t a young man anyway, but usually his sheer cantankerous energy kept him running along like somebody twenty years his junior.

Kevin had almost been able to watch his face turn haggard as he received… whatever the bad news was. It had interrupted their conversation, so it had to be important.

For a change, Moses had come to Kevin’s office rather than the other way round, and the difference was striking. Moses kept a small, Spartan office on the second floor that looked like it could have belonged to any high-school principal or small-town lawyer.

Kevin’s on the other hand was one of the executive offices on the top floor. It was twice as large, partitioned into two spaces dominated respectively by his desk and by a small conference table, and commanded a clear and even pretty view out over Little Italy and across the river into Iowa. He’d filled it with personal touches out of his own pocket—a model of BGEV-10, his going-away gift from Scotch Creek, a signed selfie with Rylee Jackson and the Misfit trio. His pride and joy was a refurbished vintage vinyl jukebox, a Rock-Ola Comet 1438, and he’d loaded it with BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and a host of others.

And, of course, the espresso bar. Making his own coffee was one of his little freedoms.

Moses pocketed his cellphone and slumped in his seat. “Well… Shit.”

He rarely swore. Not never, but rarely enough that Kevin couldn’t help but be concerned. “You look like you just got about the worst news ever…” he said.

Moses chuckled darkly. “…Had a lotta those…” he grunted, then straightened up and cleared his throat. “…That was some kid from AEC. They think… they got some intel that maybe the Dauntless crew were still alive. Too late to save ‘em.”

“Shit.”

“My feelings exactly.”

Kevin stood up and resumed his coffee preparations. Even if not for Moses’ benefit, they made him feel better. “Where the hell have they been all this time?”

“AEC couldn’t say. Security, need-to-know, you know. That stuff.”

He settled into distant silence as Kevin hissed and steamed his way through the barista’s art, and only came back to the here-and-now when a steaming mug landed in front of him.

“…Christ. Makes me wonder if any of the others are still alive,” he said.

Kevin sat down. “I don’t wanna sound callous here, boss man, but it probably ain’t worth worrying over. You’ll just stress yourself to an early grave and it won’t help them none.”

Moses sighed. “Don’t ask me to stop caring, Kevin. I can’t.”

“So care. Just… don’t waste your care.” Kevin picked up his coffee and held it in two hands, savoring the warmth and the scent. “D’you wanna send out the memo, or should I?”

“No. No, this one’s mine,” Moses said.

“You got it.”

They drank their coffees in silent reflection, until Moses finally placed his empty mug on the conference table with a sharp tap.

“…Where were we?” he asked.

“The Flycatcher order for the Grand Army of the Gao.”

“Right… They want the tech diagrams so they can make their own?”

“Goldpaw are offerin’, uh…” Kevin returned to his tablet and searched through the letters he’d received. “…a proprietary use fee. Here…”

Business returned to something resembling normal.


Date Point: 15y6m AV
The Ring, Hell System, Hunter Space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

In the end, they found their way out of the air cooling system via some kind of a sump. The air had been getting progressively colder as they got further and further downwind, until they were shivering and water was condensing all around them.

Their exit was a runoff that ended in a horrific pool of stagnant slime. It didn’t stink, but it clung to Ray’s boots like runny pancake batter.

“…Ew.”

Cook’s boots splashed into the water next to her and he straightened up, having had to stoop low to fit through the runoff tunnel. “Hey, it’s an improvement on the goddamn wind tunnel at least.”

“And the wind tunnel was an improvement on being shot at, and being shot at was an improvement on eating Hot in a canyon,” Conley remarked. He massaged his ears to try and recover from the relentless buffeting sound they’d all had to endure for the last hour or so. “After all these improvements, you’d think we’d be somewhere nice by now.”

“Gotta climb down Satan’s dick for that one, Pete,” Cook said cheerfully. Conley gave him a confused look, which he then turned on Holly when she surprised them all by giggling.

“…That’s how Inferno ends,” she confirmed. “Sorta. I didn’t know you read it, Cook?”

“Nah. Read the Larry Niven version. Instead’a Dante an’ Virgil it was an author insert and Benito Mussolini. Wild shit. He spent the whole time tryin’a figure out the science of it all.”

He’d been a scientist once, Ray remembered. They all had. She should know better—Cook had been a well-read, enthusiastic geek when they first met—but their years on Hell had probably changed him the most. It was hard to remember him as he’d been.

Then again, they’d all changed. Holly and Choi were certainly quieter nowadays. Conley was sourer, Berry had almost completely withdrawn into his shell… She hadn’t noticed a change in Spears, or herself. But then again, the most insidious changes were the ones that went undetected.

“Is there a way outta here?” she asked, to distract herself from her thoughts.

“Looks like a pressure hatch over here,” Choi said, indicating a long handle on the wall. “Hope it’s warmer on the other side.”

“Hope it’s not vacuum on the other side,” Conley muttered. “…Whatever. Nothing ventured nothing gained, right?”

“Right.” Choi grabbed the handle and pushed it down. It moved easily, there was a thumping clunggg noise and part of the wall cracked apart. Air rushed viciously around them for a few seconds before settling, and when he pulled the hatch open it swung easily on well-oiled hinges.

“…Dunno if that’s a good thing or not,” he said. “This part of the Ring sees regular maintenance at least.”

“Yeah, but it’s low-tech,” Spears pointed out. “Steel pressure doors, rubber seals… no fancy forcefield shit out here. Hopefully that means it’s a long way from any Hunters.”

“Here’s hoping…” Berry lined up on one side of the door, Ray on the other. They nodded, spun through together and aimed their rifles either way down the corridor beyond.

“Clear.”

“C-clear.”

“Close it up behind us, Jamie,” Spears said, helping Holly get the ammo through the door.

“Yup.”

Choi got his wish, at least. The corridor, or deck or whatever that they’d stepped out onto was a good twenty degrees more temperate than the freezing, windy sump they’d just left behind them. Ray rubbed her arms and shivered, but she was feeling warmer already.

“Okay…” Conley asked. “Left or right?”

“Well… something was making all that heat for the cooling system to bleed off,” Ray pointed out. “So, I say we head back that way.”

“Why? What d’you think it might be?”

“It could be anything. A foundry, a shipyard, a reactor core… The point is, we know there’s something over that way. For all we know the only thing that way—” she jerked a thumb over her shoulder, “—is three thousand miles of nothing but superstructure and maintenance tunnels.”

Spears, Berry and Choi all nodded. Cook simply shrugged, and Holly didn’t seem to have an opinion either way.

“…Fair enough,” Conley agreed. “Lead on.”

It felt a lot like retracing their steps. Ray’s feet were sore and her knees were stiff by the time they’d negotiated literal miles.

Thank goodness, the trip wasn’t monotonous. Pretty soon the tunnel they’d been in gave way to a catwalk in a vast, echoing chamber so huge and dark that none of them could see the ceiling, floor, or far wall.

At least it had a handrail.

Beyond that, their path intersected a wide, flat tunnel more like a road than a walkway. In fact, there were even painted markings on the surface to divide it into four lanes.

They hurried across it into the shadows of the maintenance tunnel on the far side and paused to talk.

“Air’s def’nitely warmer,” Cook commented.

“A structure this huge must generate vast waste heat,” Choi said. “But you notice, this whole area’s pressurized and wired up? It’s used for something, you don’t go to the trouble of filling something with air unless you need to go there a lot.”

“Yeah, but used for what?” Conley asked. “All we’ve seen so far is empty tunnels.”

“Shh,” Spears hushed them, and raised his hand to his ear. They shut up and followed his example.

There was… noise. It was hard to make out at first, just a kind of distant thrumming hubbub, almost inaudible. There was a familiar quality to it that Ray couldn’t quite place.

Holly frowned. “That sounds like… Like…”

“What?”

“Like… it reminds me of… Times Square?”

They listened again. Ray had to admit… she was right. The bedlam they could faintly hear had all the same qualities as a crowded marketplace full of people raising their voices to be heard over one another.

“…Hunters don’t talk, do they?” she asked. “Could be the friendlier, squishier kind of ET?”

“That… makes sense,” Conley mused. “If a load of Hunters live up on this thing they must have… well, I guess they’d see them as livestock.”

“Slaves,” Spears scowled.

“Yeah.”

“I’m gonna check it out,” Cook decided. He stalked forward a few paces, then turned. “Anybody gonna back me up?”

Ray stepped forward. “I’m with you,” she said. She wasn’t enthusiastic about creeping forward into what might still be a nest of Hunters, but she was even less enthusiastic about leaving a mystery like that unresolved. Besides, she wanted to keep Cook where she could see him and rein in his impulses.

“Godspeed,” Spears wished them. “We’ll catch some rest.”

Ray nodded to Cook and they jogged as quietly as they could down the tunnel until it ended quite abruptly in a wide hatch much like the one Jamie had popped back in the sump. Ray rested her ear against it and listened.

“Well… I don’t know what a Hunter sounds like when it talks,” she said slowly, “But I don’t think they sound like that.”

“I’ma open it,” Cook said. He gripped the bar then paused as if waiting for something.

“…What?” Ray asked him.

“…Kinda figured you’d yell at me to stop or somethin’…” He seemed almost disappointed.

“No, we need to know what’s on the other side. For better or worse.”

“…Fair enough.” He heaved on the bar and again the door seal popped with a rush of air. They both held their breath but apart from getting louder the noise from beyond didn’t change.

Carefully, and grateful for the copious thick grease on the hinges that kept it from squeaking, they heaved the door open a crack and squirmed to get a good look through the gap.

The space beyond was as big as a football stadium, and crammed full of what could only be shanty-housing thrown together out of whatever scrap metal and other building materials the inhabitants had been able to scrounge up. Basic electrical lighting cast the whole thing in sharp white-blue light with deep shadows that the burning braziers, torches and candles scattered liberally around the place didn’t do much to alleviate.

There were aliens in there. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of them in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Most were the familiar-looking herd species from Hell: long-necked Vzk’tk, strutting Kwmbwrw, lumbering Vgork and the occasional shambling mound of a Guvnurag pushing patiently through the crowd, flanks aglow with a medly of colours.

One had a Corti riding on his shoulders. There was a feral-looking pack of furry mammalian guys who looked somewhere between a wolverine and a raccoon who could only be Gaoians, the first Ray had ever seen. There were Robalin with their funny wobbling tripedal gait, and even a Versa Volc skittering upside-down along the domed ceiling to fix a light.

The obvious heart of this slum community was a flared pillar of some kind that vanished into the ceiling. Assorted ragged cloth scraps had been strewn on it and it was painted with a number of what might have been sigils, but were more likely graffiti.

“That’s… a lotta slaves…” Cook breathed.

Ray nodded slowly. “Figures. The prey always outnumbers the predators.”

“What do we d—?”

He was interrupted by a deep, infra-bass roaring hoot of some kind that filled the whole cavern with sound. All of the aliens, to a one, dropped what they were doing and rushed toward the central column.

“…The fuck are they doin’?”

Ray opened the door wide enough to slip through. “We won’t find out from there.”

“You’re fuckin’ crazy!” he exclaimed, though it was with more of a chuckle than disbelief or accusation.

Their entrance was high on a wall, among gantries and scaffolding and the space’s original catwalks that had since been turned into the foundations for a kind of sprawling fungal shelf of impromptu hovels. There was some kind of a tapestry or something hanging over a nearby railing and she grabbed it and threw it around herself like a cloak. It was a pathetic disguise, but the best she could come up with at short notice and it hid her weapon at least.

A second tapestry gave Cook an equally woeful degree of concealment. Maybe from a distance to somebody who wasn’t paying attention they’d look like Gaoians, but really their best defence was going to be going undetected.

Fortunately, the whole crowd seemed fixated on the pillar. Cook and Ray darted over ramshackle gantries and walkways—without railings, this time— stuck to the shadows, moved swiftly and daringly, and always stayed high above the surging mob below so they could get a good look at the action.

The pillar’s base flared out into… kind of a trough. A huge, round, deep trough that was filling with an avalanche of apple-sized gray balls of what looked like dough. They looked unappetizing as hell, but the slaves were grabbing as many as they could carry, even fighting over them. Ray plainly saw one Vzk’tk go spinning away clutching its bleeding arm after a Gaoian swiped his claws at it.

“Down!” Cook hissed. Ray turned, saw what was coming, and flung herself down beside him. They slumped together among the garbage like they were a pair of utterly despondent throwaways who’d given up hope.

The trio of Locayl that Cook had seen coming trudged past without even glancing at them, as though they were invisible or beneath notice. Each was carrying two baskets full of the food balls, and they vanished into a hovel a few feet to Ray’s right. Seconds later, there was the clear sound of the door being barred from the other side.

More ETs were retreating with their hard-earned food below, leaving the latecomers, the weak and the sick to pick what scraps remained. By unspoken agreement, the two humans retreated before they were discovered. Back over the rooftops and catwalks, up the tiers, into the higher levels, back through the door.

Cook closed it, locked it and then leaned heavily against it to catch his breath.

“…The fuck was that?” he demanded.

Ray didn’t get the chance to answer before a figure stepped from the shadows: A Gaoian. He’d lost an eye and most of his ear somewhere, but he looked to be about the meanest and most well-nourished creature Ray had seen in there, and when he stepped forward into the light it practically glowed through the mohawk white crest of fur between his ears.

“That,” he said in English of all things, “was feeding time.”


Their new friend’s name was Garaaf, and he was nothing like Ray had imagined Gaoians might be. She’d always imagined they might be… fussy. Fidgety. Just like a raccoon, in fact.

She was feeling like kind of a bigot, now that she thought about it. Garaaf was a straight-backed grizzled survivor who didn’t seem to know or care that half his face was out of commission. He was poised, steady, serious and dignified… and apparently quite irritated to discover that they’d been out of contact even longer than him.

“I was…” He paused and considered his words. “…well, the Gaoian word translates as ‘shipfather.’ I was captain of the CGC Winter Fire, one of Mother-Supreme Giymuy’s escorts to the Dominion Capitol Station. Not sure how long ago that was in Human years.”

The whole crew were sitting, standing, or in Cook’s case prowling around listening to him. They were sitting on what was basically a pile of trash down one of the maintenance tunnels near the shanty town, using one of those basic arc lights for illumination. It cast long, infinitely deep shadows on the walls and totally killed Ray’s night vision, but apparently it was about all the slaves had for lighting. Occasionally, she was certain that various alien forms shuffled past in the dark, but none of them seemed to pay any attention to them.

“Giymuy was there to petition the Dominion on your species’ behalf,” he continued. “Something about it being the tenth anniversary of your first contact…” He made a peculiar ducking shrug and scratched at the stub of his ear. “…Also the tenth anniversary of our first contact with you. Did you ever hear of Sister Shoo?”

There were a round of shaken heads and he duck-nodded. “She made an impression,” he said wryly.

“Who was she?” Ray asked.

“I can’t pronounce her name right. Shoo Chang. Shee-yoooaw. Something like that.”

“Xiù?” Jamie asked. He looked suddenly intrigued. Garaaf duck-nodded sharply.

“That was it, yes. You know of her?”

“No. It’s just… That was my grandmother’s name.”

“Well, this one rescued a bunch of Females and cubs who got abducted off a colonial transport,” Garaaf explained. “She became an honorary member of the Clan of Females, became an advisor to the Mother-Supreme… it’s a long story. The point is, she made an impression and we committed our efforts to returning her home. That’s why Giymuy was at Capitol Station that day, among other reasons. Some of my more influential Brothers were talking in terms of a formal friendship and alliance between our peoples.”

“And that’s when the Hunters got you,” Spears surmised.

“Yes, and they used tactics we’d never seen before. Every shot we fired missed, every time we began an evasive maneuver they’d just blink into the perfect spot to counter it. At close quarters they tore the fleet to pieces. The Winter Fire lasted a while, but eventually we took a bad hit, lost our power cores, and…” He gestured around him. “Even if they hadn’t outnumbered us a hundred to one, we never stood a chance. In the end their swarmships just burrowed into the hull and the lucky ones died in the gunfight.”

“You weren’t so lucky,” Conley observed.

“Nope. Fusion claw, right across the face. Take it from me, losing an eye isn’t fun.” Garaaf chittered darkly. “I blacked out from the pain, woke up here alongside all my remaining Brothers.”

“And… your brothers?” Holly asked. Garaaf’s remaining ear twitched for a moment, then he turned his eye on her.

“Eaten,” he said. “One by one, over the years. Or worked to death, or died in some accident, or just vanished into some forsaken corner of this hive and never came back.”

“How did you survive?” Ray asked him. He issued that dark chitter again and flexed his claws with a grin.

“They don’t make you a Father of Clan Whitecrest just for looking pretty,” he said.

“Damn, bro,” Cook snorted. Garaaf ignored him.

“I’ve spent the last… what, five years? I think it’s been about that… Spent them trying to get back in touch with the Clan. I have… Fyu’s balls, I have a lot of intel on this place. But I can’t handle Hunters in close combat unless I get the drop on them alone. Which is fucking rare.”

“You have a plan?” Conley asked, sharply. For the first time since they’d come to the Ring he looked something other than melancholy.

Garaaf’s expression might almost have been a snarl. “Of course I have a plan,” he said. “I didn’t spend five years just licking my nuts! The obstacle is that my plan involves getting my paws on some tech that the Hunters don’t let their slaves even get a sniff of. Things like spatial distortion generators.”

“Locked up tight, huh?“” Cook asked.

“Tighter than a Goldpaw’s wallet,” Garaaf agreed. “And if I had somehow stolen any of it, they’d swarm the slave shanties and scour every square inch until it was recovered… then butcher all the slaves in that shanty as a warning to the others.”

“H-how many shanties are there?” Berry inquired. Garaaf did that lopsided shrug again.

“Too many,” he said. “That through there is a smallish one. And every year, a large proportion of the population die one way or another, and promptly get replaced. The newcomers are the only source of news we get here, and I haven’t seen any new Gaoians in more than a year. Some of the other species tell me Gao has a Great Father again…” He trailed off, then flicked an ear and rallied. “…If that’s true, then my people are going through some pretty historic shit right now.”

“Great Father?”

Garaaf sighed. “An ancient relic of bad times. He is the leader of the Gao, in every degree, and in every manner. Only the Females can make one, and… well, they never have.”

“So… a supreme ruler? A great general? Dictator, overlord?” Ray suggested.

“Something like that.” Garaaf agreed. “The last one, Fyu… well, he changed the world for the better, but he killed a lot of people in brutal ways to achieve it. Which makes it hard to believe the rumours about who the alleged Great Father is… but this is all off-topic.”

“What can they do if we do somehow establish contact?” Spears asked.

“…You really have been out of touch for a long time, haven’t you? Humans are big-league players nowadays. Every time your species takes a step, the galaxy trembles. The Dominion has split into factions and the Alliance war has been quiet ever since some Keeda-shit insane Human shock troopers literally delivered a Celzi admiral’s head to his Dominion counterpart’s desk.”

“Badass!” Cook commented, his face splitting into a wide predatory grin.

“Mm. They’re called… well, the reports vary. They’re a legend. I’ve heard different names from different species. There’s a common theme, though: Fire Troopers, Scorchers, Burning Warriors… Gaoians call them ‘The Heat.’

“Heat? What, they use flamethrowers or something?” Cook asked. He looked like a kid picturing space marines in his head. “Awesome.”

“Probably an acronym,” Jamie told him. “Y’know, like SEALs.”

“Killjoy.”

“Let’s hear this plan,” Ray said.

“There’s a breaker’s yard not far from here on the Ring,” Garaaf explained. “It’s where they strip down the Dominion and Alliance ships they capture and repurpose them into Swarmships. Don’t even bother to swap out the control software or anything, just update the character set and rebuild the ship around the core systems with a few of their own extras.”

“Guess that explains how I could fly that damn thing…” Spears said. Garaaf eyed him.

“What damn thing?” he asked.

“The… ship we flew up here on?”

Garaaf stared at him stupidly for a second, then he was on his paws in an instant: he looked frantic. “It’s still here? Nearby?”

“Uh… yeah. About… I guess twenty klicks, give or take. We came in through the air cooling system.”

“You stole a Hunter ship?!” Garaaf looked wildly at them and his remaining eye grew wide when they nodded. “How are its systems? Warp drive, power supply, comms array?”

Spears shrugged. “Uh… All good, as far as I can tell.”

Garaaf got right up in his space instantly. “Does it have a jump drive?!”

“Uh…” Spears cleared his throat and leaned around him to look at Choi. “Jamie?”

Choi thought about it then shook his head helplessly. “Hell if I know. I couldn’t tell what half the things plugged into the reactor were.”

“If it has a jump drive then… then we can get out of here!” Garaaf exclaimed. “I just need… I’ll need to—” He turned, dropped to four paws and blurred back toward the shanty before skidding to a halt and turning back. “Wait right here. I’ll be just a few minutes.”

“Garaaf, what—?” Ray demanded, but he turned and was gone in a flash of fur.

“What—?” Ray demanded again, this time of nobody in particular. They all shrugged, and slowly subsided.

True to his word, Garaaf was not long. He returned with a wide strip of fabric tied around his waist like a belt: Ray could just make out hard objects pressing outwards from inside it.

“We need to move. Quickly. If they find your ship then—”

“Garaaf,” Spears stood up. “We’re in. But you’d better explain as we go.”

The Whitecrest indicated his belt and actually whined. “I have the codes to get in touch with my Clan! All I need is a jump drive. I was going to suggest getting one from that breaker’s yard, but if you have a fully intact one, then… And if it’s working properly then we can convert it into an Array! We could bring troops here! Jump back home! Nuke this whole festering ring and send it crashing down! A-anything! Please, we mustn’t waste a second!”

They scrambled to their feet without further encouragement. They were all already footsore, tired, hungry and sleep-deprived, but with a promise like that to pursue…

Garaaf led the way, and they followed.


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Nofl

Patient. Calm. Menacing. It was funny how many emotions a dog could project just sitting there and quietly watching. There were subtleties to the precise lift and angle of those cropped ears, whether the tail was twitching gently to the left or the right, the exact angle of the skull… they communicated a lot for a non-sapient species.

Then again, they had evolved to communicate with a sapient species. And despite the fact that Bozo outmassed him by an order of magnitude, Nofl found he rather enjoyed the enormous canine’s company.

Especially when he disarmed Nofl’s guest so effectively.

“The Ark project is going nicely…” Tertiary Director Trafn said, edging away from Bozo’s thumping tail. “And the Directorate has accepted your argument regarding transparency with the Humans. If we intend to reverse-engineer some of their genome then it is probably best if we do it with their permission…”

“They have a nasty habit of finding out, dear,” Nofl said. He was running a few tests on one of Bozo’s puppies, the hybrid pups mothered by a very different breed. The youngsters were blessed with much more fur than their father, and it was longer, softer and silkier, but they were also equipped with a frankly alarming amount of muscle underneath. “And they have been so much less forgiving about the Directorate’s zoological program, after all…”

Trafn, unused to being referred to as ‘dear,’ sidled a little further away from Bozo, who panted affably at him.

“And if they say no?” he asked.

“Oh, they won’t,” Nofl predicted. “Not if you make them a good enough offer, anyway. They have vast archives of their own genetic data on file, and they trade in it quite regularly.”

Satisfied that the young dog was in good health, he stepped down from his examination stool and let it jump down after him. He opened the door and the two alien animals trotted out into the Quarter to go do… whatever it was dogs did around Folctha. He’d have to track them sometime.

He fired up the laboratory’s biofilter field and tidied up as it swept away any lingering deathworld hazards. And slobber. “Admittedly, I don’t think they use that information the way the Ark Project intends, but… well, they’re open-minded enough, hmm? Goodness, if you just told them what it was for you might get volunteers!”

“I’m sure,” Trafn commented drily. “I think it would be wiser to preserve the project’s secrecy, however.”

Nofl finished his tidying and turned around. “So, am I the Directorate’s go-to Human expert now?”

Trafn gave him a look of exceptionally faint irritation. “You… have been among them for some time now,” he said. “You know their ways, even if you do choose to mimic some of their affectations for reasons known only to yourself.”

“It’s a disarming tactic,” Nofl explained. “They think they know how to interpret a good College member who conforms to the vocabulary and behaviour guidelines. They don’t know how to interpret me.”

“Clowning around like you do is hardly dignified,” Trafn grumbled.

“And is that supposed to upset me?” Nofl blinked at him innocently. The answer of course was ‘no.’ Corti were not supposed to be upset by anything, traditionally, and it was always pleasing to catch a Director—especially a high-end one like a member of the Tertiary Tier—in an inconsistency. He flashed a little infuriating smile. “Or have you forgotten that we are in the process of reconfiguring ourselves?”

“Is abandoning our dignity part of our reconfiguration?” Trafn asked pointedly.

“If it interferes with our continuation as a species, yes.”

Nofl ambled over to his coffee pot and checked the brew. Caffeine levels were far, far below the toxic dose for Corti physiology—as far as Human biochemistry was concerned, it was entirely decaffeinated. He set it to pour him a Ristretto and turned back to business.

“What exactly does the Directorate need these genes for?”

“Baseline comparison, to begin with. Later, possibly, we might consider compatible splices or engineering our own genome along similar lines.” Trafn sniffed at the coffee scent with interest: the Corti palate loved bitter tastes. “The Directorate are examining all avenues to produce a superior Corti body.”

“Hmm.” Nofl wordlessly handed him the finished short drink and made another for himself. He watched, pleased, as Trafn sampled the coffee and obviously found it delicious. “They will, I think, want a show of real solidarity.”

“What do you mean?”

“Crossing the chamber on the Rich Plains was a useful gesture, but I have found that Humans and Gaoians both prefer more than mere symbolism. ‘Actions speak louder than words,’ as they say.” Nofl took up his own coffee but didn’t drink for now. He just appreciated the aroma. “The Directorate should consider the benefits of providing direct services to both species. The Gao liked what we did in the aftermath of the Hunter attack. If you want the Humans to trade in genetic material then a similar gesture may be useful.”

“…Thank you, Nofl. I will pass that observation on to my fellow Directors.” Trafn finished his ristretto and set the cup down next to the coffee machine. “…That is an excellent beverage.”

Nofl nodded. “It’s a stimulant. Alas, fatally toxic to us with the active ingredient, but I find I like the flavor. Allegedly, its discovery and growing popularity contributed to a revolution in Human thought and culture they call the Renaissance.”

“Intriguing.” Trafn considered the coffee some more, then turned for the door. “You are doing good work here. Continue.”

“Don’t worry dear. No fear of that,” Nofl lilted, falling back into his persona. Trafn gave him another curious look, then departed without further comment.

With him gone, Nofl returned to the subject of dogs. He was getting some very interesting data from Bozo and the puppies, very interesting indeed. It needed cataloging properly before he could consider the Directorate’s problem.

He sipped his coffee before returning to work and shut his eyes in delight at the taste.

It was perfect.


Date Point: 15y6m AV
The Ring, Hell System, Hunter space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

“…It’s hotter in here than I remember.”

Ray had to agree. After the shivering blast they’d endured upon re-entering the cooling system back where they’d first left it, the air had got warmer much faster than she recalled. Her shirt was going dark gray and sticking to her chest and back., and the sleeve was damp from where she’d used it to mop her face.

Garaaf was panting, but he duck-nodded and sniffed the air. “If we were much further up, it’d be hot enough to cook us. I explored it as a possible route to infiltrate the manufacturing areas a few years ago, and had to turn back.”

“Guess breaking the ships up generates a lotta waste heat…” Jamie mused.

Garaaf duck-nodded. “Especially when they melt stuff down. Just getting close enough to see that nearly cost me the rest of my face… There’s your ship!”

“Ray. Berry.” Spears communicated his meaning by tone of voice alone, and the three of them picked up the pace, hustling up to their stolen ride’s ramp with their rifles up and ready.

It turned out to be empty, and they waved the others in. Garaaf and Jamie promptly vanished into the engineering bay.

Seconds later a disappointed whining noise floated back out. It was followed by Garaaf, who threw himself onto the closest thing the ship’s hold had to a couch—at least, it was soft—and dragged his claws across the fabric.

“It doesn’t have a jump,” he lamented.

“…Well that was a waste of time,” Conley muttered. He promptly drew ‘shut-the-fuck-up’ glares from Ray and Spears, and a snarl from Garaaf.

“Absolutely no, it wasn’t,” The Whitecrest told him. “There’s still stuff here we can use. We’ll just need… hmm.” He sprang back to his paws and retreated back into engineering. “Choi, where’s the warp drive on this thing?”

Jamie sounded surprised. “Uh, I think it’s over—”

There was an urgent hiss from the ramp: Cook. “Ray! Spears! Trouble!”

That wasn’t a welcome word, not at all. Ray darted back to join him and Berry at the door.

The trouble wasn’t hard to hear: clanging, metallic noises were echoing down the tunnel from upwind. They sounded unpleasantly like the same kind of noises made by the heavy door they’d used downwind.

“Shit,” Spears muttered. “If those are Hunters…”

“It’s a straight tunnel. Nowhere to hide,” Ray pointed out.

“…Okay. We’re gonna shoot first. If we stay in the dark and take ‘em out fast…”

“Backup’ll still come running,” Cook said.

“Yeah, but it’ll come a lot faster and bigger if they know we’re human,” Ray said. “We gotta drop ‘em before they see us.”

“R-right….” Berry cleared his throat, then lowered himself to the deck and squirmed out along the ground until he was tucked safely in a deep shadow where their Hunter ship had peeled back some of the hull around it. He stayed prone, aimed his rifle and waited. Ray moved quicker, staying low and darting out to the far side of the tunnel before dropping down, and Spears parked himself in a similar shadow to Berry’s on the opposite side of the hull breach. They were pathetic hiding positions, but the Hunters—if Hunters they were—would be looking toward a bright light source. Hopefully, their eyes adjusted to light in about the same way that a human’s did…

Ray could barely bring herself to even risk breathing. She was certain that every breath would give them away, despite the roaring hot air current. All she could do was aim, keep her finger carefully away from the trigger to avoid shooting at shadows, and wait.

Cook stayed on the ramp with his spear in one hand and his knife in the other. He looked like he was actually relishing the prospect of imminent violence.

There were more clanging sounds, then the scratching skitter of too many clawed feet on steel. Shadowy shapes loomed huge up the tunnel.

“Steady…” Ray muttered to herself

They were Hunters indeed. Four of them navigated a kind of floating pallet laden with equipment up out an exit that must have been only a hundred yards up from where they’d left the ship. Ray internally kicked herself: They had gone the longest possible way around by choosing to go downwind.

These ones weren’t as… spiky as she was used to seeing from Hunters, which were usually laden with blades and weapons and stabbing implements. These ones were bigger, squarer and their cybernetics had a blocky industrial look.

Ray glanced over at Spears and Berry. There were nods, they returned to their aiming. One of the Hunters raised a twisted arm to point at the hull breach, and Spears shot it. Its face burst in a slurry of nasty pinkish blood but rather than collapse dead it writhed and actually vocalized, the first time Ray had heard a Hunter make any noise: A high, thin, agonized shriek.

It lasted only an instant before Ray and Berry fired too, and all four dropped. One of them writhed in the tunnel for a second before Berry shot it again and it finally went still.

Cook peeked around the corner. “…Goddammit, you coulda left some for me,” he complained.

“Not now, Cook,” Ray told him. “Guys! We gotta go now!”

Conley, Choi, Holly and Garaaf bundled out of the ship. Conley groaned when he looked up the tunnel. “You mean there was an exit that close and we missed it?”

“This is not the time to worry about that,” Garaaf said, echoing Ray’s sentiment. “They’ll be coming.”

“Fuck.”

They dashed over to the fallen Hunters and checked them over. Up close, these ones were quite different: a little more muscular, their hides tougher and ridged in places. One’s eyes were still grotesquely open, and rather than the spider-like black jewels she’d seen on other Hunters these ones had weird horseshoe pupils and vivid green irises.

“Workers,” Garaaf sniffed. “Probably came to repair what they thought was a small hull breach.”

“Workers?” Jamie asked as the Gaoian stooped to rummage through the tool kit they’d brought with them. “So, like, the Hunters we usually see are the soldiers?”

“Like insects? Is there a Queen? Drones?”

“No.” Garaaf pulled something out of the kit, sniffed it, then threw it over his shoulder. “ll explain when we’re safe…Ah! ”

He pocketed a prize and grabbed a double pawful of other stuff, which he thrust on whoever had spare hands. “Let’s go.”

None of them were inclined to argue or waste time. They hauled ass up the tunnel to where the Hunters had come in and, finding it clean of Hunters for now, slid down the steep steel chute on their asses. Cook even let out a “Yippie-aye-yay!” and giggled like a schoolboy.

“Let’s do that again!” he said, the moment he bounced to his feet at the bottom.

“Focus,” Ray reminded him. “We’re in trouble here.”

Cook didn’t seem remotely contrite. “Gotta squeeze out as much fun as I can before I die!” he chirped, but pounced on the exit hatch. “We ready?”

Conley finished helping Holly get her cargo truck down the ramp and nodded. “Ready.”

“Ready,” Spears confirmed.

The door squealed open, and Cook seemed almost disappointed to find that the far side was entirely deficient of waxy-skinned flesh-eating alien monsters.

Garaaf shouldered past him. “…I know where this is,” he announced. “This way.”

Spears followed him. “Ray, up front. I’ll watch our backs.”

“Right.” It made sense. Berry was their best shot but in times of stress he couldn’t get a word out, meaning he’d have made a bad choice for rearguard. She ducked out past Spears and followed Garaaf.

“Jesus, it’s hot out here…” Conley muttered.

“It’s about to get hotter,” Garaaf told him. Sure enough, there was a dull orange glow around a bend in the tunnel up ahead.

They picked up the pace, quickly discovering that Garaaf was their slowest member. His short legs and long torso just weren’t made for running.

“Dude, that looks kinda awkward,” Jamie commented after a few seconds. “You look like you’d be doing better on all fours.”

“Can’t… hold a gun… on all fours…” Garaaf replied. He was panting in the heat.

“…You don’t have a gun.”

Garaaf looked down at his paws and the stump of his ear waggled in a way that somehow managed to convey irritation at himself. He dropped to all fours and sure enough his gait was immediately more fluid and easy. “…Habit…” he grumbled.

The bend up ahead turned out to be another catwalk over another huge space… only this time, it was a well-lit vision of Pandemonium. There was glowing metal everywhere, being carted through the air by drones, held under enormous hydraulic presses or crashed down onto by titanic drop hammers. Hunter Workers were moving in well-drilled gangs down there, dragging chunks of steel into position, turning them, levering drifts, dies and punches into place.

There was pure technology being applied down there, too, well above and beyond the industrial-age bedlam on the floor. Ray had to grimace and shield her eyes as a loop of painfully bright molten steel literally flowed out of one orifice on the wall, looped through the air in what must have been an invisible channel of forcefields, and was siphoned easily into a mold without spilling so much as a stray spark.

The air was skin-tightening, throat-scratching hot.

It was all so distracting that the three Hunters that stepped out of an elevator in front of them caught them all completely off-guard. The Hunters seemed equally flat-footed, and for a stretched second the two groups stared at each other as though neither could quite believe what they were seeing.

Cook acted first. With a gleeful howl he lunged forward and his makeshift fusion claw knife tore through the lead Hunter’s neck like it was a hanging salmon, almost completely severing its head. Ray’s numbed body jolted into action as the Hunter crumpled: her rifle came up, her finger slipped inside the trigger guard, three rounds drilled a second Hunter in its skinny chest before she’d even realized what she was doing.

Cook was in the way which kept her from getting a clear shot on the third, but he was in the middle of ripping it open from belly to throat anyway. With a roar he grabbed its arm, heaved, and the spindly mass of broken legs and guts he’d made went crashing over the railing before anybody could cry out to stop him.

It plummeted down into the forge below and landed smack in the middle of a work gang, spread-eagled, smashed and sizzling on the block of red-hot steel they’d been working.

They all stared down through the grating between their feet as the Hunters below first examined their fallen counterpart then looked up to peer into the shadows, until the stupidity of his own action finally broke through Cook’s bloodlust.

“…Shit.”

Garaaf shot past him in a furry blur. “RUN!!”

That spurred them into action. In fact, at a dead four-pawed sprint Garaaf was tough to keep up with, but Ray put her head down and ran as hard as she could ever remember, willed her lungs and ribs to keep going, ordered her quads and calf muscles to shut up and work.

Garaaf seemed to know where he was going, at least. He jinked left at an intersection up ahead, paused long enough for the humans to see where he’d gone and plunged right down another branch.

She heard shots behind her: Spears.

“Move! Move!!”

Garaaf sprang back into view from around the corner ahead. “Not that way!!”

The source of his desperation was obvious: Hunters were hot on his heels, a dozen or more. They skidded to a halt on seeing the humans and abandoned their quarry in favor of more valuable meat, giving Ray and Berry no choice but to stop running and start shooting.

Two rifles. Thirty rounds per magazine. In tight quarters and against such large targets, neither of them had any trouble hitting their targets and as the first Hunters collapsed their carcasses bogged down the ones behind… but Ray could hear Spears’ rifle still hammering away behind her, underpinned by battle cries from Conley, Choi and Cook.

Thank God these ones were Workers. Not a one of them had a fusion blade on them, but that little prayer of thanks turned into cursing when a hot steel bolt of some kind kicked sparks off the wall inches to Ray’s left—a nail gun.

Berry drilled the offending Hunter in the throat, spraying horrible fluffy Hunter brains the general color and texture of moldy cauliflower all over the wall. Three more shots slew two more Hunters and bathed the ones behind them in sticky off-colour blood.

Then a second nail caught him dead-center in the chest.

Time slowed for Ray. She saw Berry stagger, saw him frown slightly as if he was a little confused. He looked down at the foot-long metal spike through his heart, his rifle fell from his fingers, and his body slumped heavily to the deck next to it a second later.

“Tom!”

Ray dropped to one knee and kept firing despite the tears that threatened to blur her eyesight, barely noticing another nail that plucked through her hair and nicked her right ear.

Garaaf pounced through the melee, snatched up the fallen rifle, raised it and fired. It was an awkward shape for him, a little too long in the stock, but whether out of desperation or sheer skill he drilled his targets in a tight grouping. Within a second, the corridor in front of them was clear again and the last Hunter staggered, gurgled, and collapsed.

There was silence front and back except for her own heavy breathing… and sobs.

She couldn’t check on Tom just yet. She turned, checked what was going on behind her. Spears, Conley, Choi and Cook were all still standing. Jamie’s shield had three or four nails sticking out of it and blood was running down Pete’s arm. There was a clatter as Spears ejected his magazine and rammed a new one home.

Holly was down.

Some panicking big-sister instinct took over and Ray flung herself to the smaller woman’s side. Holly was still alive, but she croaked out an agonized sound as Ray confirmed that fact. Blood was sticking her sweater to her belly.

“Holly!”

“Shit!”

Pete discarded his spear and shield and dropped down next to them. He looked back over Ray’s shoulder as he grabbed his first aid kit. “…Tom?”

“He’s…” Ray could barely bring herself to say it. “…He’s dead.”

Conley just took a breath and focused on Holly’s wound. “…Pressure. Here.”

Ray complied, though part of her died when she heard the pained noise her ministrations dragged out from between Holly’s gritted teeth.

Pete worked fast at least, and the first aid kit was meant for trauma situations. He sprayed some kind of a white foam into the gash on Holly’s stomach, which expanded to fill the wound. Some kind of clear plastic sticking patch and a bandage covered it over, and he finished the job with a painkiller injection.

“…Is that enough?” Ray asked.

Conley gave her a look that said it wasn’t. “It’s all I can do.”

Garaaf touched Ray on the shoulder and she looked up. The rest of them were gathered round. Cook was kneeling at Tom Berry’s side, closing his eyes and murmuring something.

“We have to go.”

“Don’t tell us to leave her,” Ray snarled at him, but he shook his head viciously.

“Never. Clan stick together. But we have to go.”

Cook wordlessly handed them Berry’s jacket. “Stretcher,” he said, and offered his own unused spear. Combined with Conley’s, they quickly had a basic enough litter lashed together that Conley was able to drag Holly along on it.

They stopped to say goodbye to Berry. None of them wanted to leave him to the Hunters, but there was nothing else they could do. Nobody knew what to say, anyway.

The only words spoken were Ray’s.

“…I’m sorry, Tom.”

Thus ended the only kind of funeral they could manage. It was pathetic, it was far less than he deserved, it left Ray feeling hollow and sick… but they couldn’t remain.

They picked up their gear and moved on.


Date Point: 15y6m AV
Dataspace adjacent to Mrwrki Station

The Entity

Simply talking about itself was… therapeutic.

Darcy was no kind of a counsellor by her own admission, but she was a sympathetic ear and thirsty to learn about what the Entity was, how it had come to be, how it thought about and perceived things.

The Ava-memories supplied it with the suspicion that she felt guilty, and was being soothed by the conversation in her own right. The Entity had spent some time thinking about that notion, and had arrived at the conclusion that it didn’t want Darcy to feel any guilt.

After all: if Six had not trapped Ava Ríos all those years ago in Egypt, the Entity would not now exist. Its genesis was arguably horrific… but here it was. And it was grateful to exist.

Watching Darcy interact with the Ava-memories was intriguing as well. There was a relationship there that it was not properly equipped to understand, and when it tried to interpret the experience via the Ava-memories it found a peculiar block. The memories, it seemed, had limits on their own capacity to self-reference and interpret themselves. They refused to enter that particular loop entirely.

None of the Igraen memories were remotely equipped to understand either. Not even the Hierarchy agents, who knew the most about matterspace life forms, really understood what was going on there. They suggested words like “motherly” and “sisterly” without really and truly knowing what those words meant.

Meanwhile, the Ava-memories vigorously rejected those labels. Curious.

They had always been the most… lively of the Entity’s assimilated data. Sometimes they seemed less like the shell of a personality that it could use as a proxy, and more like the actual personality itself, bound and compelled to say what the Entity wanted said.

Maybe she had just been an unusually lively person.

It seemed like a lively conversation, at least. The Entity experienced more like a listener in an adjacent room, hearing muffled discussion through the door in a language it didn’t understand. Every so often, a note summarizing the conversation to date would slide under the door, and it would reply with a note conveying the thrust of what it wanted its advocate to say next.

All it could do was trust that the advocate was faithfully communicating its wishes, and accurately reporting what had been said. It didn’t really understand, but the conversation was definitely emotional.

They had been at it for hours, and Darcy inevitably ran out of energy first. The Entity was incapable of exhaustion: Darcy hadn’t eaten, drank or slept for most of a day. She finally made her apologies and retired, and the Entity was free to compile everything that had happened, and pay attention to other concerns.

On a whim, it checked its proxies and spy programs in the Hunter networks again.

Darcy turned as the Ava-memories exclaimed her name with a definite air of urgency.

“…Yes?”

“The Humans in Hunter space! They’re still alive!”

Darcy came back to life, as if there had been hidden reserves of energy and alertness there, just waiting for a crisis to activate them. She sprang back to her desk. “They are? Where? How?”

The Entity fed her all the information it could, as quickly as it came in. Within minutes, other analysts had appeared, men in uniform were speaking urgently with each other or into communications devices.

It had no way of telling the people on the Ring, not yet. But in mere minutes, decisions were being made that began the slow spinning-up of two species’ war machines.

In the middle of the bedlam, it left behind a proxy to communicate on its behalf and flashed away into the dataspace, headed for the Ring’s networks itself.

An opportunity had presented itself, and the Entity was not about to let it slip away.

It would attend to this personally.


Date Point: 15y6m AV
The Ring, Hell System, Hunter Space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

They were attacked twice more as Garaaf led them, but neither time in as many numbers or as ferociously. The Hunters had been stung: presumably they were building up their forces for a more serious attack. The first time, Ray, Spears and Garaaf laid down a withering volley that slaughtered their attackers in seconds. The second time, Jamie took down two with his spear, while Cook tore a third limb-from limb.

After that, they had peace. Whether they’d cleared out every Hunter in the area, or just convinced them to stalk rather than attack, Ray didn’t know and Garaaf didn’t care to guess.

Or maybe it was just that they never got a chance to attack a fourth time. Shortly after the third attack, Garaaf paused to check a spot on the wall. He made a pleased noise and levered up part of the floor plating.

There was a mark scratched into the metal where he’d checked, Ray realized.

“My smuggling route,” he explained, and vanished into the hole he’d made.

It was cramped in there. Even Ray, who was only average height at best, had to duck her head slightly: Poor Conley was forced down into an awkward and exhausting half-crouch.

“Hunters can’t fit in here,” Garaaf explained. “Don’t worry, there’s more room up ahead.”

Alright for him, Ray decided. On four-paws, the Gaoian had plenty of room to move but the humans were all at risk of banging their heads.

All except Holly, anyway. She’d gamely tried to stand and walk on her own, but even if Conley hadn’t vetoed it the attempt had obviously been more than she could handle. Ray wished she could do something: even with her system full of a potent painkiller, Holly was obviously in tremendous pain.

Garaaf was true to his word, however. The ceiling got higher after about fifty yards, to the point where even Conley could stand up straight again.

“What is this?” Jamie asked, looking around.

Garaaf shrugged. “I always figured it’s a utility corridor.”

“It can’t be, there’s no way the Hunters can fit in here…”

“No, but robots can… or at least, they could if I hadn’t disabled the tramway.” Garaaf aimed a claw at a metal rail on the ceiling. “They’d have to dismantle this whole part of the Ring to get at my sabotage, too.”

“So from down here, you can get around unnoticed…” Spears nodded. “Useful.”

“Means I don’t have to get in with the crush around the trough at feeding time, too,” Garaaf said. “One of my little warrens goes right up to the delivery system… Actually, if I know anything about Humans it’s that you guys eat a lot. Are you hungry?”

Ray wanted to say that she wasn’t, but her stomach had different ideas. It immediately let out a loud growling sound. Maybe that sick feeling in there wasn’t all grief and fear…

“Hungry or not, we need’ta eat an’ drink anyway,” Cook declared. “Gotta keep our strength up.”

“This way, then.”

There were a few more tight spots, including one where they had to worm through on hands and knees, but Garaaf hadn’t been exaggerating—his warrens really did go everywhere. Every so often they heard clanging and crashing sounds from above and around them, and one time they all stopped and held their breath as something made the Ring around them shake and hammer with its footsteps. It sounded like a Hunter the size and mass of a tank.

When they eventually stopped, Ray was tireder than she could ever remember being. Her knees and shins were raw from crawling through tight spaces, the cut on her ear was throbbing, she wasn’t sure how long she’d been awake…

But Garaaf’s den was a little slice of paradise. It was quiet, it was cozy… he’d even set up some kind of a decorative water feature rather like a Shishi-odoshi in the corner under a leaky pipe, though this one was muffled so that rather than making a clatter whenever it tipped up and spilled its water it instead leant some texture and rhythm to the steady tinkle and splash.

The sound of running water coupled with a warm distant hum from somewhere to create a soothing, warm atmosphere.

“We’re directly above the shanty,” Garaaf said as he lit a makeshift lamp that filled the space with warm yellowish light. “And the food balls run down through… here.” He indicated a wide pipe that he’d sawn a little bit out of. There was a catch tray at the bottom, made from a scavenged I-beam, and it was brimming with doughy gray spheres about as big as a pool ball.

“They don’t taste of anything much, but they’re better than starving,” Garaaf commented, handing them out. Ray bit into hers eagerly. He was right, it had even less flavor than even plain wheat dough would have but it was the first thing she’d eaten in years that wasn’t the Hot.

A spike of loss and grief crossed her mind as she tried to imagine Berry’s expression if he’d been here.

Water was handed out in a tall “glass” made from what looked like uPVC. Garaaf’s remaining ear moved in a fascinated little dance as he watched all of the humans drink, and drink, and drink.

“…I’d heard you people ate and drank a lot, but seeing it in action is something else,” he declared. “You all just ate three days of rations each.”

“Can… is that a problem?” Choi asked. “That sounds like a lot.”

“Relax, I usually keep a month’s worth of food in here for safety’s sake, and I can refill it every time the Shanty gets fed. Sometimes I wondered if I was being over-prepared but… well. Clearly I, uh… wasn’t…”

He trailed off, round about the same time that Ray realized she was crying. Up until now she’d been focused, scared, surviving. She’d had Holly to worry about, and the tight maze of the warrens to navigate. Now that they were somewhere safe and quiet, reality was catching up with her.

Her hands had started shaking. She tried to stop it, tried to clamp down but just couldn’t. She couldn’t stop the tears that blinded her, or the choking feeling in the back of her throat, or the hiccups that came on all by themselves. She hated it all, she hated how much she needed the hug that Spears gave her.

Garaaf cleared his throat and slipped away to give them some privacy. After a second, Conley stood up and followed him. He paused before vanishing, gave Ray a long and unreadable stare, then ducked under some piping and left.

Holly groaned as she reached out to take Ray’s hand, Jamie and Cook made their own delicate exit, and…

Time passed. Eventually, Ray managed to find herself again, at least enough to look around her and realize that Spears had been weeping too. Holly was dry-eyed but her face was back in that blank expression she’d worn for so long, pinched and wan.

“…God… he was standing right next to me…”

Spears gave her upper back a small rub. “I know.”

“I got him killed.”

“It was a crew decision, Ray. We came up here together.”

She sighed and nodded. She wanted to blame herself anyway, wanted to imagine that if she’d just shot a little straighter, picked her targets a little better… But she knew how that conversation would go. Spears would try and talk her out of it, but she needed to feel guilty. Somehow, she could feel in her belly that if she didn’t allow herself to feel responsible for Berry’s death she’d never be able to heal from it.

Assuming she lived long enough to get the chance.

Holly gave her hand a squeeze, then winced and touched her dressing, which sent another stab of guilt through Ray’s soul. She’d seen Conley’s expression when he tended that wound: He thought it was fatal. Another of her friends to feel guilty over… except Holly had come to mean more to her over the years than mere friendship. Whenever she imagined survival, escape and somehow getting out of Hell… she’d always imagined it in the form of getting Holly home. If she died… Ray doubted she’d have a purpose any longer.

Which meant they needed a plan, and they needed to put it into action now.

She straightened her back and cast around. Jamie and Cook were slumped in an alcove a few meters away, talking quietly. There was no sign of Garaaf or Conley.

“…Guys.”

They raised their heads.

“…We can’t stay here forever. They’ll tear the whole Warren apart to find us.”

“Right.” Jamie groaned and stood up. “I’ll go find Garaaf. Hope he got something useful off the ship.”

Cook nodded. “I’ll go find Pete.”

Garaaf, it turned out, had been busy. He had a workshop of sorts next to his living area that was little more than a workbench and whatever tools he’d been able to steal, scavenge, repair or fashion for himself. He seemed pleased with whatever it was he’d made, though—when he returned, he was turning it over in his hands, inspecting it. Ray felt certain she even saw him sniff it, though what he could possibly hope to glean from the scent of cobbled-together circuitry was beyond her.

He had a desk in the living area, with a power supply that he’d obviously (and dangerously) tapped from the power conduits in the ceiling and run through a home-made converter. It looked like junkheap science—in fact it was junkheap science—but when he plugged his new creation in, all that happened was an LED on the top blinked green, then settled to a steady glow.

“…I’ve waited a long time to make this,” he said. “I just needed one component off a ship with a working warp drive.”

“…The distortion field amplifier?” Jamie asked, stooping to get a better look. Garaaf waved him off.

“Yeah. Watch this.” He clawed a switch on the side, and cleared his throat.

“…Lost cub howling, lost cub howling. Big brother played fire-in-the-cold, now plays hide-in-the-dark. Stole some toys, mother’s angry, showing fangs, claws out. Made some friends from Clan Dirtyfoot. Want to play fetch and run home, here’s how we play.” He slotted what looked like a data drive into a port on the device’s side and watched intently as it did… whatever it was doing.

He rocked back and flicked an ear with a satisfied air when the green light atop the device blinked three times and turned blue.

“There.”

“…What was all that?” Cook asked. “Sounded like some spy shit.”

“That’s right. Whitecrest cant. Our own private language, sort of. One of them, anyway. You can probably guess most of what I said.”

“Clan Dirtyfoot?” Spears asked. He looked amused.

“Well… the Gaoian word that most directly maps to the word ‘Earth’ literally means ‘dirt’.” Garaaf had the good grace to shrug apologetically. “If it’s any consolation, the code words for some of the other species are much less complimentary.”

“Yeah?” Ray found room for a touch of amusement, somehow. “Do tell?”

“…The Guvnurag would translate most directly as ‘Clan Wide-Arse’.”

Even Holly giggled.

“So… now what?” Conley asked, once the little ripple of laughter was gone.

“Now? Sleep. I’m almost falling down dead here, I don’t know how any of you are still going strong.” Garaaf stepped away from his desk and headed for a nest-bed he’d assembled in one corner. He curled up in it and tucked his nose under his tail. “We’re going to need our strength for whatever comes back from my Clan.”

“Sleep? You’re kidding.” Conley looked skeptical.

“Gotta do it sometime, Pete,” Spears said. “And he’s right, it’s been a long day.”

Garaaf raised his head. “I promise you, there’s nowhere safer than here on this whole Ring,” he said. “Even if they somehow found us, it would take weeks for them to dismantle the station and dig us out… and I made sure there are plenty of escape routes. Lights.”

The lights dimmed, until all that remained was a dull orange warmth that did little more to the darkness than put some edges and shapes on it, and the steady slow blinking green from on top of the device on the desk.

Conley sighed and found a length of open floor to stretch out in. Ray realised quite suddenly that Spears had never actually taken his arm from around her. She glanced at Holly, who’d snuggled down on her litter and was probably as comfortable as she was going to get, then decided not to question it. Right now, a little human warmth was just what she needed.

He stiffened a little as she wriggled into him, as if he’d only just noticed that he was holding her too, then shrugged himself into a more comfortable posture. He was mostly bones and lean muscle, not the most comfortable man she’d ever cuddled up to… but within seconds of resting her head on his shoulder, Ray was asleep.

She was so exhausted that, mercifully, she didn’t dream.


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
High Mountain Fortress, Planet Gao

Champion Fiin of Stoneback

There were some events that Fiin had felt he’d never witness. More than a few of them had come true regardless, but among the remainder that he’d felt absolutely certain would never happen was Champion Genshi losing his composure.

That was, right up until the moment the Whitecrest champion gasped and sat down heavily, interrupting and disrespecting the Great Father in one action. “Keeda’s burnt balls!”

Daar looked just as bemused as Fiin felt. He gave Genshi a small interval, then cleared his throat.

“…You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Champion,” he commented.

“I think I have!” Genshi exclaimed, then apparently remembered who and where he was. He glanced at Daar, his ears flattened in a momentary medley of shame and contrition, and he flowed back to his feet with his silvery dignity back in place but now sporting just a little patina.

Daar gave him the stare of careful calculation, then duck-nodded and surrendered the table. “If it’s enough ‘ta ruffle your fur, Genshi, it must be important. What happened?”

Genshi took the table without so much as a polite protest or demurral, another first.

“…I just received a priority message from the Clan’s operations directorate,” he said. “One of our senior Fathers just got back in contact. I thought he died five years ago at Capitol Station.”

Daar’s ears worked as he thought. “…Whitecrest lost a lotta Brothers at Capitol Station,” he recalled. “But only one Father, ‘s’far as I know…”

“Garaaf,” Genshi agreed.

“Your womb-brother.”

“…Yes, my Father.”

Fiin flicked an ear. It was rare for Gaoian males to openly acknowledge when they shared the same true mother. It was a close bond and a private one, closer than Cousins. In fact, Males who referred to each other as Womb-Brothers would undoubtedly have been calling each other “Cousin” even without the more immediate relationship.

“You’re certain it’s him?”

“His codes are correct. He wasn’t implanted the last time I saw him. I’m not certain, obviously I can’t be… but…”

He gestured some files from his personal tablet to the holographic emitter above the ancient wooden table. “He calls this The Ring. It’s a Hunter megastructure, and he’s stuck on it… with some Humans.”

There was a susurrus around the table. Daar silenced it with a tap of his huge claws on the ancient wood.

“…Our friends at AEC forwarded somethin’ earlier today about some Humans maybe appearin’ in Hunter space,” he recalled.

“Yes…” Genshi was obviously speed-reading a document as he spoke. “Apparently they stole a Hunter swarmship. Garaaf was able to scratch together a basic communicator out of some of its components.”

Daar duck-nodded slowly, and considered the hologram over the table. It was actually two holograms side-by-side, a fully pulled out overview of the planet, against which the structure was the mere suggestion of a hair just above its surface, and a pulled-in view of the structure in a little more detail. Neither view truly gave Fiin a sense of scale or proportion, but how could it? Anything on a planetary scale was just too big to really grasp.

It didn’t take Daar long to think, though. “…This ring,” he asked slowly. “Important?”

“Uh… almost certainly vital, Great Father…” Genshi said. Fiin had never seen his Whitecrest counterpart so off-balance, and that just wouldn’t do. Genshi needed to keep face in front of the other Champions. Maybe a little distraction was in order.

He interjected himself into the conversation in the artfully artless way that both Daar and Tyal had trained him in. Brash and plain-spoken could be all kindsa subtle, used right. “Ain’t no reason to build anything that big,” he said. “It’s dumb. That means it’s important.”

Champion Wozni inclined his head as he considered it. “Important how, though? Is it communications infrastructure, a shipyard, a breeding ground?”

“Take yer pick. Fyu’s nuts, even if it’s just a big ego project, imagine the damage to their morale and pride if we—”

“Don’t matter,” the Great Father rumbled. “Only thing that matters is that they value their stupid spacedonut. ‘Fer all it matters, maybe it’s filled with, I dunno, cushions an’ sweet-herb, whatever. The question is this: how much would it hurt ‘em if we destroyed it? An’ can we pay the cost t’do it?”

“…Destroy it, My Father?”

“Yes.”

Genshi cleared his throat. The distraction had both reminded him and given him the opportunity to regroup. “It would be remiss of me not to mention that Garaaf estimates there are, ah, many billions of sapient slaves on board…”

“Yes,” the Great Father said patiently. “What kinda condition are these slaves in?”

“…Not good, my Father. From the report…” Genshi’s eyes quickly darted through the relevant text, “Most of them are the result of, uh, force-breeding. And…a substantial plurality of them are injured, malnourished…and apparently incapable of communication.”

That was a depressing thing to contemplate and the set of everyone’s ears reflected that.

Daar simply sighed and shook his great head sadly. “That’s ‘bout what I was expectin’ it ‘ta be. You got a plan ‘ta address that? Feed ‘em? Rehabilitate ‘em? Convince their herd species ‘ta take back their lost members?”

The unspoken observation behind the question was that even if the Dominion species had had a history of charitable altruism, convincing any government to take that many charity cases was…unlikely, to put it gently. It was difficult to imagine one that even could.

Genshi knew it too, but he would not be dissuaded so easily. “In your own words, My Father—every pyre must be witnessed. This would be collateral damage on an unprecedented scale, and I fear we might not weather the consequences.”

“Yup,” Daar agreed. “An’ you didn’t answer my question.”

Genshi didn’t so much as twitch an ear. “…I don’t.”

“Well. This is a problem then, ain’t it? We’ve got…how much time do we have? Not much anyway,” he growled, “An’ we’ve gotta notify the Humans, and…balls. This is gonna spiral right the fuck outta control in about two whisker-twitches, y’all know that.”

“What about those consequences?” Clan Goldpaw was, as ever, concerned about the commerce between species. “What will they be?”

“Good question. Besides the Humans, which relationships are gonna actually matter?”

Sheeyo was absent, dealing with the summit on the Rich Plains out over the ruins of Gorai, but his Champion-in-Stead, Tagro, was a bold one. “The Humans are a military ally, My Father, but they’re the least economically developed trading species. If the Dominion chose to impose sanctions on us—and we must assume that under Hierarchy influence they absolutely will if given a half-decent excuse—it could cripple the reconstruction, set it back by generations.”

“Again, I don’t hear an answer to my question,” Daar noted. His patience was approaching legendary as far as Fiin was concerned. A young ‘Back who danced around the direct answers like that would have earned a hefty clawed blow to set him right. But the reconstruction was important to Daar. It was the difference between being the Gao’s savior, rather than their destroyer. He wasn’t about to jeopardize it without a very good reason.

“…The Directorate would be the most important, now that they’ve defected to our bloc,” Tagro said.

“They’re also the most likely to view the destruction of this thing in a rational light,” Meereo chimed in. He was generally silent at these meetings, but that had given him gravitas. When he spoke, the other Champions listened.

“The Kwmbwrw will have the most negative reaction,” Tagro predicted. “We can probably lean on the Domain heavily enough to dissuade them from committing to an opinion either way… Assuming, that is, the kill is quick and clean. The longer and messier it is, the more they’re likely to start making demands we’ll never be able to satisfy.”

The Great Father furrowed his heavy brow in thought, while Genshi seemed to take that as his cue. “…We do have the means to achieve a clean cut,” he pointed out. “We have an agent on the Ring after all. One who’s been able to build a communicator. If he can assemble a jump array as well…”

“If,” Champion Loomi said.

“Garaaf has survived in that place for years, and managed to do this. I have faith in him.”

“I know he can, Cousin.” Daar stood up to his full commanding height, shook out his pelt, and wandered over to the window. “Attend me, Champions.”

Unsure of themselves, they followed the Great Father to the window, and then out through the door onto the ledge overhanging the great bulk of High Mountain Fortress. It was an impressive view. Daar took a deep, deep breath, held it for a long moment, and exhaled.

“Do you know what I did in this very place, my Champions?”

Fiin wasn’t likely to forget: The shade of RFG strikes raining down on the horizon by the thousand wasn’t ever going to leave him. He’d never be able to see the balcony view ever again without having that vision etched invisibly behind it like a watermark. He didn’t reply, though: the question was rhetorical.

The Great Father flicked his ears. “It was here that I obliterated our civilization.”

Fiin couldn’t chitter—the subject was far too grim for such an irreverence, and Daar probably would have at least torn off one of his ears if he had—but the uneasy glances most of the Champions shared was almost comical. Only Genshi and Gyotin seemed to take it in stride.

Daar leaned forward and rested his brutish arms on the railing to look out over the landscape he’d so permanently touched. “I personally summoned the fire that wiped out aeons of our history, ‘cuz I knew it was the only way for anything to rise from the ashes. There ain’t no sapient being alive today ‘cept for some Keeda-damned malware that has as much blood on their paws.”

He turned his head slightly. “I did that to my own people, whom I love,” he added. “So you tell me. You think I’m gonna let all those poor damned alien slaves stop us from givin’ those monsters what they got comin’ to them?”

He glanced at Gyotin in particular. “No. I will not. I will mourn them, but I will do what must be done.”

He turned around. “Genshi. Get as much intel outta your Womb-Brother as you can. Fiin, prepare First Fang. Loomi…I want the biggest Fyu-fucked bombs ‘yer Clan has left in our legacy stockpile. Somethin’ that’ll make WERBS look like a squeak toy.”

“…We have a number of gigaton-class devices left in the Legacy, My Father, and we’ve kept them well-maintained…but they haven’t been test-fired in a century!”

“Then test-fire one and do it now. The rest we’re gonna use t’blow that ring into a zillion pieces before they have any clue what’s happenin.’ Meanwhile, we need to get ready ‘fer a full-scale invasion of the planet it’s orbiting, too. We may never get another chance ‘ta hurt those evil motherfuckers this hard ever again. I want details. What they’re doing, how much we can hurt them, alla that. We don’t go until I give the word, but I wanna be ready an’ I don’t wanna waste lives.” Daar sighed again, this time almost…mournfully. “If I’m gonna murder maybe trillions more, ‘least I can do is make it quick an’ give ‘em meaning.”

The wind over the balcony was the only thing Fiin could hear. The Champions had been here before, and yet again they didn’t know what to say—the only appropriate sound was a painful, complete silence. Again, Daar glanced at Gyotin, who’d been silent so far. This time he spoke.

“You keep looking at me as though you expect me to say something, My Father,” he said.

“…No. I suppose there ain’t anything that could be said.”

“Then I’ll make a plea. Let’s bring our people home, if we can. Just Garaaf and those Humans. If we can save them…”

“That was the idea, Champion. I don’t wanna waste lives if it can be avoided. If we can get nukes there, we can get a team there, we can jump back…all o’ that.”

Gyotin duck-nodded. “I’ll prepare a service for First Fang. With Champion Fiin’s help, if he can?”

Fiin duck-nodded. “They’ll need it.”

“Do that. Everyone I named, get to work. The rest of you…We have business to conclude.”

Daar returned to the high table, along with most of the Champions. Fiin, Genshi, Loomi and Gyotin had no place there now, they had their missions.

They waited until they were a long way down the stairs and well outside Daar’s sensitive hearing range before Loomi finally spoke.

“Calls like this will kill him, in time,” he predicted.

“Fyu lived longer than almost any other male in recorded history,” Fiin retorted loyally. He felt he had to stand up for Daar’s strength.

“Fiin, Champion… Fyu died long before they cremated him,” Gyotin said. Loomi and Genshi duck-nodded. “And I’m not sure if Yulna didn’t kill Daar the day she elevated him.”

“He has Naydra.”

“And if she can keep him going, she deserves a higher place in history than Tiritya herself…” Gyotin flicked an ear in what was almost a kind of smile. “I hope she earns it.”

“…We seriously have gigaton-grade weapons?” Fiin asked, changing the subject.

“It was in your brief when you were elevated, Champion,” Loomi reminded him.

“…I admit, there was a lot going on at the time.”

“They’re scientific instruments,” Loomi revealed. “I know that sounds ludicrous. But sometimes, the only way to really learn about the universe is to blow part of it up.”

“And… what did we learn?” Fiin asked, genuinely curious.

“We learned what the core of a moon looks like. Among other things.”

“…You think that’ll be enough?”

Loomi sighed. “Cousin,” he said, “against the Hunters? I’ll call it a good start.”


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
Dataspace adjacent to The Ring

The Entity

The Ring was closely scrutinized. It wasn’t just the Hunters themselves, feeling outwards from the tight locked cages of their own brains to explore its dataspace with their limited senses, but the Hierarchy kept a tight watch on what their ‘control species’ did, said and thought among themselves.

Infiltrating such an edifice was dangerous, not that the Entity was any stranger to risk. It had assailed harder systems. It was experienced enough to feel confident… And knowledgeable enough to feel afraid.

The experience was… strangely healing. It was plunging into dangerous territory again. There was no time or room for doubt, or factional squabbles within its own psyche. There was only danger, and the challenge of surviving that danger.

To be sure, staying safe and cautious upheld its core directive to < survive > above all other concerns… but what was survival? What did it even mean unless the possibility of failure was present alongside it?

The moment it had put itself back in harm’s way, the Entity had come to a revelation: that life requires death in order to be life.

The Ring’s dataspace was hard… but porous. The Entity knew how to work its way through flaws that simply wouldn’t have existed in a stupider system, knew how to find ways in that just weren’t monitored because nothing was supposed to come through that way. Dataspace was not a network, it was a space, and in a space options like smuggling across a border by walking rather than taking the road became available.

And once inside…

It searched.


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
The Ring, Hell System, Hunter Space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

Ray woke up cold. She wasn’t cuddled up to Spears any longer, he was on the other side of the room, in quiet conversation with Garaaf. Neither of them seemed to have noticed she was awake yet.

Rather than sit up, she turned her head slightly and focused on what they were saying.

“…Blow it up?”

“Yes.”

“With us on it?”

“…I’ve been promised that if we can build a jump array, they’ll extract us.”

“And if we can’t?”

Garaaf didn’t answer directly. Instead he lapped up some water and cleared his throat. “If we can’t… well, we’ll probably have died in the attempt.”

“There are… there have to be a lot of people on this station, Garaaf.”

“Yes. Slaves, if they’re sapient at all. Plenty aren’t, any longer. Trauma and a total lack of education or nurturing will do that to an intelligent life form.”

“But this Daar guy is willing to kill all of them.”

Garaaf glanced around the room. Ray didn’t bother closing her eyes, instead she made eye contact with him. A moment of understanding passed between them.

She sat up. “Aren’t you?” she asked.

Spears watched her for a second, then hung his head.

“…I guess we killed that herd just for the chance to escape…” he said, looking away.

“We didn’t. The Hunters did.” Ray sat up properly and dropped her feet to the floor.

“We used what they did,” Spears argued.

“They’d have done it anyway.”

“You shot that guy Gorg.”

“I ended his suffering.”

“And botched our escape in the process,” a new voice joined in. Conley.

Ray turned to face him. He didn’t look angry or accusatory, just… tired.

“…Do you want an apology?” she asked.

“I just want it acknowledged. We could’ve warped out if they were a little slower. The second they knew there were humans around….”

“We would have starved to death in deep space, if the Hunters didn’t run us down first,” Ray said.

“You didn’t know that.”

“And you don’t know that we wouldn’t have been caught just as fast if I hadn’t put Gorg down,” Ray retorted. “I just did what seemed like the right thing at the time. I’ll keep doing what seems like the right thing. And y’know what? Maybe the right thing will get us killed. I can live with that.”

Cook cleared his throat. “Uh… Technically…”

“Shut up, you know what I meant.” Ray sighed and checked on Holly. Nothing much had changed overnight, except that her brow felt hot and was beading with sweat. Ray brushed some hair aside to put the back of her hand against Holly’s neck for a better temperature check, and woke her up. With her eyes open, she looked even weaker than when she’d ben asleep.

“…Uh?”

Ray put on a brave smile. “Hey.”

“..You’re still here…”

Having her own words turned back on her actually made Ray’s smile a little more truthful. “We’re still here,” she agreed.

“…I thought you’d leave me…”

“I mean, that would be the smart thing to do,” Cook said, but he already had his hands up placatingly when Ray rounded on him. “But we ain’t exactly smart else we wouldn’t be here. We’re not quittin’ on ya, Hol.”

“Fuckin’ A,” Jamie agreed. Spears just nodded. Only Conley and Garaaf remained silent.

“…So what’s our plan?” Ray asked, giving Cook the first real smile she’d given him in years. “I presume we aren’t just gonna wait in a hole for the Hunters to tear apart the whole Warren?”

“They can try,” Garaaf declared, smugly. “But you’re right. We can’t stay here forever. So the plan is… what’s that phrase of yours? We go all in. We have loaded weapons and six able-bodied fighters. If we want to get off this station alive then we need to acquire some working jump technology from the shipbreakers.”

“Let’s say we achieve that,” Spears said. “Then what?”

”If we can get the technology, and if we find somewhere that’s both spacious and secure enough to build a working Jump Array and if we manage to build it out of salvage and scrap and if it works when we turn it on… then friendly people with big guns come swarming through it, evacuate us, and leave behind an extremely large bomb.”

“We can’t build it in here?” Ray asked. She felt dumb the instant she said so. They were packed in tight in Garaaf’s warren, and there was barely enough room to make an origami crane, let alone a working Jump Array. “…Got anywhere better in mind?”

Garaaf scratched his claws idly on his desk as he thought. “Maybe. Hunters really don’t like cold temperatures, but cryo technology has some useful applications, so there’s a whole facility on the Ring’s groundside outer surface that’s colder than you’d believe. My nose froze when I explored it, but it’s got the power supply, the space and some pretty thick doors. Plus there’s only a few ways in and out.”

“Sounds like a good spot to get ourselves backed into a corner,” Conley grumbled.

“We don’t have good options,” Garaaf told him. “They’re all bad. But some are less bad than others.”

“Hey, we either die in a famous last stand, or we flip the fuckers the bird an’ shit a nuke in their lap as we leave,” Cook said. “Either way, I’ll take it.”

“Okay, so that’s the general plan,” Choi said. “How about we talk actual… y’know, specifics? Like how exactly we’re gonna do this and stay effective if somebody’s looking after Holly?”

Garaaf pulled some kind of a Gaoian face and glanced at Holly, who’d sat up with a groan to drink some water. She obviously wasn’t going anywhere under her own power, and looked around at them with a solemn expression.

“..I’m open to suggestions,” he said.

“The… the smart thing,” Holly cleared her throat, but there was a ping from Garaaf’s homebrew communications gadget before she could finish. The Gaoian turned to examine it.

“We’re not leaving you, Holly,” Ray insisted.

“…M-maybe you should. I… I don’t… I…”

She was brave, Ray couldn’t fault her for that. But it was obvious from Holly’s expression and barely-contained tears that being left behind to die alone constituted just about her worst nightmare. The thought that she was willing to face that for them left Ray feeling much too guilty to take her up on it.

She shut her up by taking her hand. “Holly. It’s okay. You’re not selfish for not wanting to be left behind.”

“But I don’t want you to die for me either…”

“…I think…” Garaaf said carefully, “that we can maybe eat our cake and still have it, actually…”

They all turned to look at him. He stepped aside and indicated his communicator. It was hooked up to a tablet he’d managed to keep, scrounge or steal from somewhere, and it flashed three of the most incongruous characters at them that Ray had never expected to see here at them.

< :-) >

“…What th’—?”

The characters on the screen changed.

+Call me a friend. And I have a plan for you.+

The seven of them looked around at each other, then back at the makeshift monitor.

“Go on…” Spears said, carefully.

+First, you’re going to need the following items…+


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
Demeter Way, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Technical Sergeant Adam (Warhorse) Arés

The one and only thing Adam would have ever written in his “List of Times When It’s Okay to Lose Gainzz” would be when a bro was caring for his wife and newborn. That was it. He’d somehow managed not to lose any of his strength but he was paying for it with indigestion and lack of sleep, which, being honest, wasn’t a thing he could keep doing.

Still wasn’t as bad as Marty had it, though. Diego was hungry. He wanted to nurse every two and a half hours, no exceptions, no excuses. Give him a tit and he was quiet as could be. Without it…

They’d finally got him willing to accept a bottle, though. Marty pumped before bed, Adam got up in the dead of night to bottle feed, go downstairs, get a workout in, thump up and feed him again, crawl back into bed…they were finding a rhythm.

He was just about to drift off to blessed sleep when his phone went off with the worst sound in the world. Mission WARNO. It wasn’t a deployment order, not yet, but he’d just been ordered back to the barracks on hot standby. Paternity leave or not, that wasn’t an order he could avoid; there was nobody alive who brought what he did to the team. Irish’s can-do determination, Base’s skill as a medic, and Righteous’s superhuman strength and agility were completely unmatched by anyone …except Adam. He was the best there was at all those things and everyone knew it. Asking them to stand in for him and do their jobs was a no-go.

For now, Warhorse was irreplaceable. That was a problem to solve another day but right then it was going to take him from his wife and his son at the worst possible time.

Fuck.

It woke Marty up too.

“…Oh, no…” She sat up. She’d bounced back from the birth pretty quickly, thanks admittedly to a little semi-authorized Crue-D, but Adam imagined it was still literally a drain having a hungry babe suck lifeforce from her every couple of hours.

“Ain’t a deployment, yet,” Adam told her, trying to be reassuring. “We have these scares like, every few months after all.”

She shook her head. “It’s gonna be. I can feel it.”

Adam didn’t argue. Her instincts were usually on-target, and he had the same feeling too. Sometimes, somehow, he just knew.

She kissed him, then got up to check the crib. If Diego had come with one extra blessing, he seemed pretty immune to loud noises. Probably came with having a dad who made minor earthquakes with his feet whenever he moved around.

Whatever. Best not to drag it out, so he grabbed his go-bag from the corner. She stopped him to kiss him again.

“…Uh… God, I’m scared,” she admitted. “I was never scared before, but now, I…”

“I’ll be back,” Adam promised her.

“With your shield, please,” she instructed him.

“…I’ll do my best.”

“Your best.” She laughed and relaxed a little. “Okay. Your best is everybody else’s superhuman, so… good enough for me.”

He blushed slightly, pulled her in for a warm nuzzle and held her. He didn’t really know what to say. Words…weren’t his thing, really. But then again, maybe they weren’t the thing for this situation, either. Holding her seemed like the right thing to do.

He had to go. He went. One more kiss, one brush of his thumb against her cheek, and then the stairs, the street, the fastest route to the base as Titan and a couple of the other guys came hustling outta their own condos.

They made eye contact. Their mutual hustle turned into a run, then a full-on sprint, leaping over obstacles and charging as fast as they possibly could. If there was one thing about his job that Adam wasn’t comfortable discussing with Marty…it would be how much he enjoyed it, for reasons both noble and infernal.

Then again, she probably knew.


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
The Ring, Hell System, Hunter Space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

Garaaf, it seemed, was not one to make new allies quickly.

“How do we know we can trust you?”

The words on the screen took a moment or two before they changed.

+Unless you think I am a Hunter, I don’t know why you wouldn’t. Can you afford the luxury of paranoia at this point?+

“Always,” Garaaf grumbled.

“Then make a goddamn exception,” Ray snapped. He turned to look at her with slightly bared teeth, and she drew herself up to her full height and gave him the sternest look she had. “Face it: we’re basically fucked. If we don’t trust now and all pull in the same direction, we’re screwed. If we do pull together, maybe we’re still screwed. But the only direction where we’re maybe not fucked is the one where we take a gamble.”

“It’s got us this far,” Spears agreed.

Garaaf blinked at them, then looked around at the others. “…Clearly I’m outvoted,” he acknowledged after a second.

“Hey bro, you got a better idea, let’s hear it!” Cook encouraged him. Garaaf just shook his head and waved a claw at the monitor.

“Fine. We will do as our mysterious benefactor suggests.”

Ray nodded. “Good. We’d better use this Warren while it’s still here. Jamie, you stay here with Holly.”

“Wait, what?” Choi stood up and his head made a vicious clang as it bounced off a pipe. He staggered, rubbed at it, then recovered himself. “Aaugh… Hold on, I—”

“You and Garaaf are the only two who know how to build this Array thing,” Ray told him. “We need Garaaf’s knowledge to go get the shopping list, but somebody needs to stay here with Holly so it may as well be the guy we really can’t lose if this plan is going to work.”

Jamie glanced at Holly, who gave him a wan tightening of her lips and cheeks that might on a better day have even managed to be a smile.

“It’ll be fine…” she croaked. “We can play ‘I Spy’.”

Jamie snorted a laugh, and sat down on Garaaf’s bed. “…Alright,” he said. “Just don’t get yourselves killed out there.”

“No promises,” Conley grunted.

Nobody had anything further to add to that. Ray grabbed her rifle, as did Spears and Garaaf, and that seemed to be the cue everybody needed to get moving. Garaaf led the way, zig-zagging left and right and sometimes back on himself through the Warren. It was easy enough for him: he dropped easily to four paws to squirm through tight spots, or to avoid low ceilings. For the humans, it was tiring, back-aching progress punctuated by the occasional metallic noise and swearword as somebody’s skull got acquainted with a low-hanging feature. They took frequent breaks.

Ray had completely lost track of time when Garaaf finally stopped. Again they were back in a stupidly hot part of the Ring, to the point where the metal was painfully warm whenever Ray touched it, like a seatbelt buckle in a hot car.

Garaaf indicated a hatch above them. “Here.”

“What’s out there?” Spears asked.

“Scrap metal smelting. Big industrial machinery, lots of hazards. Watch where you step, the Hunters aren’t overly concerned with things like marked hazard areas or safety railings.”

“No OSHA compliance. Got it.”

“Ain’t like a hard hat would help much if a tonne of scrap metal fell on you anyway…” Cook muttered. He unlocked the hatch, slid it aside and peeked up out of it. Apparently happy that nothing was coming, he heaved himself up using a nearby pipe for a foothold and vanished into the shadowy space beyond.

Garaaf followed, then Spears, and Conley, who turned to help Ray up out of the hole. The noise was unbelievable. It was loud, yes, but not in an ear-hurting way, more in a chest-rattling, bone-loosening way that suggested there was a lot of infrasonic noise below the range of hearing. Every so often it was punctuated by a distant echoing crash, slam, or tortured metallic scream.

“Stay low, stay close, stay quiet!” Garaaf ordered them over the din. “And for Fyu’s sake don’t attack anything unless it’s that or die!”

They did as they were told, staying low, close and quiet as he darted between huge-sided machinery and under grinding conveyors. At one point he stopped dead still almost like the Road Runner, waited for a hurtling container full of metal scraps to go shooting past his nose, then waved them through in its wake before the air had even finished going still again.

There was no sign of any Hunters at all. Ray hoped that meant they were all busy scouring the area that humans had last been seen, wherever that was. After what felt like a whole day in the Warrens, she would have been hopelessly turned around even if she’d had any sense of the Ring’s layout.

Garaaf, fortunately, seemed to know exactly where they were. He led them around back of a large vat of some kind, up a set of metal stairs, and suddenly the mechanical mess they’d been scurrying around in started to make sense.

It was a maw. There was an open space at the front covered by the blueish haze of a forcefield that looked out and down onto Hell’s surface far below. As if that wasn’t vertigo-inducing enough, there were ships hanging out there, parked in a kind of holding pattern like cattle in a pen about to be led into the slaughterhouse.

One was on approach at that very second. When it landed, various grinding tools, cutting arms and other assorted teeth would descend on it, strip it down to a skeletal husk and convey the scraps away to be melted down, presumably for delivery to the forges they’d seen earlier.

This particular ship was barely more than skeletal anyway. It was little more than a long spinal column of structural steel with boxy cargo bays strung along its length, a knot of kinetic thrusters at the back and a control and habitation module at the nose the rough shape of a home plate.

“That one?” Spears asked.

“No. Our friend said the one we want is a Chehnash rapid scout. That’s a… Actually, that one’s a classic. Irbzrk Shipyards White Circle mark six. Clan Whitecrest have dozens of those, they’re the most ubiquitous freighter in the galaxy. Perfect for anonymous transport.”

“That’s meant to be a freighter?” Conley sniffed at it. “They could pack triple the cargo onto that spine with a shipping container system.”

“Now really ain’t the time to sneer at Domain engineering, Pete,” Cook told him.

“We should be in the right bay,” Garaaf said. “I hope.”

“If we aren’t?” Ray asked.

“Then this will be much more difficult.”

“Great.”

The freighter touched down in the floor space cleared for it. Moments later, a set of drones detached from the ceiling above it and swooped down to spiral and swirl around its hull, mapping every inch with brilliant green lasers.

“That process takes about five minutes,” Garaaf said. “After which, the cutting tools go to work. We need to get on board, find the part we need and get off before that happens.”

“Well hey, who doesn’t like getting maybe torn apart by robot sawblades?!” Cook snorted.

“Uh…” Ray raised her hand. “Me.”

“Beats the shit outta gettin’ ate.”

“That’s a low-ass bar there, Ben,” Spears told him.

“Why d’you think I’m so upbeat about all this? Gettin’ ate was basically our only option down there,” Cook waved an arm at the planet below them. “Now we got, like, dozens of options.”

Ray caught the look on what remained of Garaaf’s face and shrugged for his benefit. “Let’s keep it down,” she suggested.

“Right, right…”

They watched solemnly as the drones finished their appraisal of the ship. The instant they’d flung themselves back up into the safety of their charging stations among the ceiling beams, the arms went to work just as Garaaf had predicted.

Any illusions Ray might have had about being able to dodge their way out past them immediately went up in sparks and smoke. It took seconds for the freighter to be carved down into four equal lengths. A complicated arm with some forcefield emitters on the end swung down next to the stricken ship and bodily tore off a cargo bay with a pulse of its fields. A similar arm held up the command and hab module at the front while two arms came in from the side and snipped effortlessly through the keel, whereupon a structure the size of a small school building was hefted through the air and dropped into the biggest grinder ever.

She gritted her teeth against the noise as tonnes and tonnes of metal were dragged between the gears and from there down into a finer grinder, and a finer one again until what dropped out the bottom was about as granular as fish tank gravel. Magnets, forcefields and other filters quickly divided up the mixed rubble, diverting it away into appropriate bins to be reprocessed.

She had to give the Hunters credit: it was an incredibly efficient system in its savage way. The overall effect was as gruesome as watching hyenas tear apart a gazelle, and in mere minutes the freighter was down to just four lengths of keel beam, a handful of salvaged parts like kinetic thrusters and forcefield emitters, and scrap rubble. Large cargo drones swept in from outside to cart away the salvage, the arms returned to their preset positions, and the next doomed ship was towed in toward their bay.

“…Jesus,” Spears muttered.

Ray had to nod. “Yeah.”

“One ship every twenty minutes. And that’s just this bay. How many bays on the whole Ring?” Conley asked. “How many ships?”

“How many lives?” Ray added.

“Too many,” Spears answered her.

“It’s only a tiny proportion of all interstellar shipping,” Garaaf told them. It figured that he’d become numb to the scale of it over the years. Still, he glanced at them with his remaining eye and the stump of his ear twitched as though he’d intended to flick it. “It illustrates just how big the galaxy really is, doesn’t it?”

“All those people…”

“M-hmm. And the Dominion barely notices. The Hunters are just… what’s that parasite you have? The little blood-drinking insects.”

“Mosquitos,” Ray said. “Jesus. This is a mosquito to the Dominion?”

Garaaf duck-nodded. “That’s how big it is: Too big to function, too big to care. Ultimately, the larger a government becomes the less the people matter to it.”

“Amen,” Cook muttered, then pointed out through the forcefield as the next doomed ship finally got close enough to properly make out its shape. “…Is that one ours?”

Garaaf squinted at it. “…No. That one’s… Robalin, I think. A courier.”

“I really, really hope our friend got the right bay…” Ray muttered.

They fell silent again and waited as the bay processed three more ships before finally, finally Garaaf perked up and raised his ear. A new ship was drifting down toward them on the tractor beams, a squat, flat, slightly rounded thing about the shape of a perfect skipping stone.

“…That’s ours. Go. Go!”

He scrambled back down the stairs and they followed him. He was fast on four-paws, fast enough that Ray had a hard time keeping up, but the hard pace he set turned out to be necessary. It was deceptively far to the open section of bay at the front, and the ship was drifting through the air retention field as they got in place. Going at a more comfortable pace would have wasted precious seconds.

“Remember, engineering is in the belly of this thing, just behind the cargo hold,” Garaaf reminded them. “Conley, you and I are retrieving the tech. The rest of you keep watch from the top of the ramp so the drones don’t spot you. I’ll call if we need an extra pair of hands: that’s you, Cook. Then Ray, then Spears. If I call for help, you get in there immediately. We don’t have the luxury of time so you do what I say the instant I say it and we’ll argue about whether it was the best approach later. Is everyone clear?”

Ray nodded. “Got it.”

Conley and Spears nodded solemnly. Cook grinned.

“Gotcha,” he said.

“Right… Go!”

They dashed out of their hiding spot and across the open deck. Garaaf’s timing was impeccable: The transport’s boarding ramp was also part of its landing gear, and he had them waiting at the bottom before it was even at head height. He sprang up onto it and helped Conley aboard before it even touched the deck, and both men had vanished inside by the time its landing sent a resounding metal earthquake through the deck.

Ray, Spears and Cook sprang up it and got into position where they weren’t immediately obvious as the drones swept down and began to map the next victim. When she got to the top of the ramp, Ray could hear busy sounds already at work in the engineering bay as Conley and Garaaf tore the ship apart looking for their prizes.

For a tense minute or two, nothing much happened. Then she flinched back as a brilliant green beam swept through the open ramp. It was followed seconds later by a drone, come to map the ship’s interior. None of them got a chance to react to its presence: it spun a neat three-sixty in the middle of the cargo bay, swept the whole volume in less than a second, and immediately turns its attention on the three humans.

“Garaaf!” Spears raised his rifle to aim at it, squinting against the light as it scanned him. “Trouble!”

“Huh? Oh, nutsacks.”

The drone pulled back as though it was a snake about to strike, and Spears shot it. It burst, showering the bay in sparks and scrap metal, and all the drones outside immediately froze before zipping away to safety.

“I think we gotta go!!” Cook called urgently.

“We got it!” Garaaf pounced back into the cargo bay brandishing a nondescript metal object roughly the same size and shape as a hard drive.

Ray could see what they weren’t looking at: that the saw on a nearby five-storey industrial ship-mangler was spinning up. “Then go!”

They barely made it out. In fact, Ray was pretty sure she lost the end of her ponytail to a cutting blade, it was that close. The shriek of metal being bitten into filled her ears and sparks stung her bare forearms as she put her head down and charged on Garaaf’s heels back toward the safety of the dark spaces between the machines.

They actually had to pat out a small fire smouldering on Conley’s sweater.

“Hunters won’t be long coming,” Garaaf panted. “This w—”

He was proven exactly right by a howling, crashing sound as a swarmship identical to the one they’d stolen plunged in through the atmosphere field and interrupted the wrecking equipment with a volley of pulse cannon fire. Hunter assault pods thudded down from its belly, ramming into the deck with a sound like the funeral bells of Dis itself.

These ones weren’t anything like the workers they’d fought earlier. These new ones were huge and layered in slick red muscles and looming implant arrays. When Ray, Spears and Garaaf opened fire on them the bullets just sparked and flashed harmlessly off their shields, and Conley went sprawling with a winded oof!! as a heavy pulse shot knocked him off his feet.

They scattered into whatever scant cover they could find, Cook dragging Conley to safety while the taller man writhed and struggled for breath.

Curiously, the Hunters didn’t press their attack. Instead, two of them stepped forward and heaved heavy-duty shields into place. The others begun assembling something behind the barrier, a kind of rapid snap-together frame as big as a house.

“I don’t like the look of that!” Spears called. He took a futile couple of shots only to watch them splash worthlessly against the shield wall.

“Back to the Warren!” Garaaf snapped. “Run!”

Ray didn’t need telling twice. She broke cover, and ducked as another heavy pulse shot dented the metal vat she’d been hiding against. Spears and Cook helped Conley to his feet, practically dragging him back toward safety. He was trying to stand and run, but it was pretty obvious that the shot had at least bruised a few ribs, and he could barely inhale.

The frame the Hunters had assembled went thump. There was a flash of pure vantablack, impenetrable and infinitely deep, and then…

It was a tank. A Hunter-shaped tank, taller, wider, bigger in every dimension than any Hunter Ray had ever seen. Every inch of it was ugly surgical metal or twitching black synthetic muscles… all except for the mouth which was hideously natural and slavering for a taste of flesh. Seven beady, baleful, glowing yellow lenses all seemed to lock onto her and the thing charged forward far, far too fast with a sound like a derailing train. Nothing that big should move like that!

Mercifully, it was thwarted by the machinery. Its own size defeated it, stopped it from squeezing into the gap, but its sheer strength made that almost a minor detail. It raised a pair of claws like farm equipment and ripped aside a scrap metal hopper with an agonizing metallic squeal.

Too slow, though. It didn’t matter how strong it was, the fugitives could run between the machinery faster than the monster behind them could tear it apart. It issued the only vocalization Ray had yet heard from a Hunter—a frustrated snarl—and raised its arm.

“Scatter!”

Something irresistible in Garaaf’s desperate yell made Ray obey and dive for safety. There was a complicated triple thwoomp sound, a tinkling like dropped change and then—

Pain.

It skewered her head on a wave of unholy white light, made her whole body jerk involuntarily and curl up in a ball. It was like the worst migraine of her life, every stubbed toe, the time she’d broken her ribs skiing and every cramp she’d ever had all came back at once and hit her full-speed in the temples.

Then there was a different pain. Sharp. Claws in her shoulder. She shrieked, flailed blindly, her hand touched fur. Garaaf.

“Up! Up!!”

With a groan, she managed to focus on something other than the agony between her ears.

To her left and right, Cook and Spears were hauling themselves up too. When the monster swatted aside a bin the size of a dump truck, it spurred them fully to their feet. Conley hadn’t moved—he was slumped on the deck, wracked by a violent seizure.

Ray tried to move toward him. “Pete!”

Garaaf’s claws in her arm stopped her. “He’s dead! Move!”

“But—!”

“Move!!!”

One look at the beast still tearing apart the machinery around them and getting closer with each swipe of its sizzling fusion claws was all she needed to get her feet going the right way. It unmistakably looked hungry.

At least she had the presence of mind to grab her rifle.

With a head full of numbness and agony she stumbled after Garaaf, trusting and praying that he knew the way. The rest of her was praying for Pete Conley’s soul.

Garaaf didn’t let them down. They were back at the hatch into the Warren before Ray’s headache had even started subsiding. He held it open and Ray practically fell through, landed heavily in the tunnels, and scrambled madly in the dark to get away from the carnage behind them.

It was a long time before she remembered how to think again.


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
The Ring, Hell System, Hunter Space

The Alpha-of-Alphas

One out of five. That was unacceptably few. The nervejam grenade cluster worked well, but the prey had such quick reflexes that even with their sensitive nervous systems they had mostly managed to clear the effective radius. Only the wounded one had failed.

It had to concede to being impressed by the fur-faced Gaoian. It hadn’t expected such quickness from a prey species.

Still. One fresh Human kill. It finally tore aside the last of the vexsome obstacles that had stymied its pursuit and plucked the fresh carcass off the ground.

Ah. Not a kill at all. In the thermal wavelengths it could still clearly see a weak pulse, waves of warm lifeblood still washing beneath the skin to feed those rich, delicious muscles. The prey was unconscious, but still alive.

With a feral snarl and a tremendous heave, it tore the Human’s legs off. The weak pulse fluttered, spiked, and failed as a copious volume of blood washed the deck. The corpse twitched in its claws just once before the Alpha-of-Alphas threw the scraps to its vanguard. They had served well, had assembled its jump array with speed and precision. They deserved a rich feast.

But the legs were the best bit. Long, strong and muscular. The meat was lean and skinny, but that didn’t matter: The Alpha-of-Alphas had gone far too long since its last taste of Human, but as the juices and blood washed over its palate it knew that the long hunt had been worth it.

And there were more still to take. Cunning prey, dangerous prey, and frustratingly elusive.

It was going to enjoy this hunt.

< Delight; Triumph; Joy > +Meat to the Maw!+


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches.

Captain Anthony Costello

“Alright, listen up.”

Another day, another briefing. Another ridiculously important briefing that might just change the course of galactic civilization and affect the lives of billions. The stakes were always high when the HEAT got involved. That’d be why they existed, after all.

So, no pressure. Again.

The Lads were all in their undersuits already. That was just a standard part of coming in response to a Mission WARNO. Today was going to be the first time the latest members of the team took the MASS out into the field, and they were in for a hell of a blooding.

Assuming it went ahead. Costello really, really hoped they weren’t destined for a blue-balling on this one.

“This is Operation LOST CUB,” he said, stooping to put his volumetric projector on the floor before stepping back. It promptly filled most of the room with a realistic simulation of the Hunter Ring and the world it girdled. “About thirty hours ago, AEC received intelligence on a Hunter megastructure known as the Ring. We’re informed that it’s the shipyard responsible for building the Swarm-of-Swarms, and also where most of the Swarm is docked. Naturally, it’s so well-defended that a conventional assault would be futile.

“Twenty hours ago,” he continued, “Clan Whitecrest revealed that they have a long-lost agent on board… who’s made contact with half a dozen humans. They’re building a Jump Array for us, and if they succeed then we’re going to retrieve them. Execution is uncomplicated at first: We jump through, kill anything that has too many legs and teeth, build our own high-powered Array to evac the poor bastards who are already there. Then our real mission starts. We’ve got…presents for the Hunters. We’re gonna blow that ring to hell.”

He saw the appreciative grins. The HEAT loved missions like this.

“There are a few wrinkles: Great Father Daar has taken a personal interest in this one for reasons that’ll become obvious in a moment, so he’s coming along for the ride. We are not going to let his ass get killed on our watch, are we Protectors?”

“No sir!” Irish answered for them.

“Good. We’re expecting close-quarters combat so equip yourselves appropriately. You all know how much Hunters love their Nervejam, so be alert for that and dose up on Crude immediately before jump to cushion your systems.”

He saw the nods and dropped into the important bit.

“Now… the real meat of this mission is in the ‘blow it to hell’ part,” he said. “That Ring has a forty-five thousand kilometer circumference. Even though one bomb in the right place should cause it to unravel, in that scenario it would take more than two hours for the Ring to break apart. That’s time the Hunters can use to evacuate ships and materiel. Daar is not happy with that: he wants the whole thing destroyed in a single decisive moment.”

He paused for effect and smiled slightly. “So, as is his way, he decided that what this here problem needs is a lot more boom. We’re bringing gigaton-class warheads to the party.”

“…Gigaton.” That incredulous statement seemed to come from several men at once, while the Gaoians nudged each other and flicked their ears knowingly.

“Yes. Courtesy of Clan Highmountain, apparently.”

“Plural?” That one came from Firth.

“Yes.”

Sikes had a faraway, creamy look fluttering across his face. “Sir…I think I may need a moment.”

Costello let them have a few seconds to savor it, especially the way the Gaoians jeered at Sikes’ comment. He put on a practiced blank look that hinted at being amused without actually rewarding him, and brought them back into the briefing with a deadpan comment. “You can beat it later. The problem we’ve got to discuss right now is deploying those warheads. The Ring is reportedly generating a massive gravity spike that locks down space for several parsecs in all directions. Meaning that warping in a Firebird or whatever simply isn’t on the cards.

“We’re going to have to fight through to the surface of the Ring, breach it, throw a beacon out the hole and summon some drones. The immediate area around the ring probably isn’t Spiked, which is where the Firefangs hit upon the idea of using megalight drones to basically instantly circumnavigate the damn thing and drop off our… presents.”

“…How fast?”

“They expect all the bombs will be emplaced within four milliseconds of us firing the beacon.”

Firth glanced over at the Gaoians with a decidedly wary expression. “Jesus fuck. Remind me never ‘ta get into an interstellar war wit’ y’all.”

Faarek just chittered. “I think Sikes might need a new undersuit.”

Sikes shrugged and grinned. “I won’t lie. Kinda want a cigarette, too.”

“Our evac plan is to jump out,” Costello finished. “By this point, we’ll be a long way from our ingress so we’re taking an Array of our own with us. We fire the beacon, jump back through, and as soon as everyone’s off that thing we smash it outta the sky.”

“Sir.” Thurrsto raised a paw. “…Just to be clear, the Great Father is coming?”

Costello nodded, though he rolled his eyes sympathetically. “From what I gather, Champion Fiin tried to talk him out of it and earned himself an ‘affectionate’ thrashing; they’re Stonebacks, after all. He’s coming too, but unlike the last time, Daar is going to be in tactical command. This is…not a run-of-the-mill operation. My understanding is that he does not want to burden any of us with the consequences.”

The men keyed on that phrase immediately. “Uh…’consequences,’ sir?” Burgess asked.

“The Ring’s estimated slave population is… uh, substantial,” Costello confessed. “And realistically impossible to rescue.”

Arés gave him a wary look. “Sir…how substantial?”

“Well…at least enough to feed all the Hunters there are. So…hundreds of millions at the absolute minimum. Probably billions.”

Among the Protectors at least, the eager energy sparked and faded fast. Certainly there was a lot less aggressive glee crackling around the room.

Firth, perhaps surprisingly, seemed the least happy. “Sir…I think I can safely speak ‘fer my men when I say we’re not exactly thrilled t’be killin’ defenseless weaklin’s on that kinda scale.”

“Daar has taken responsibility,” Costello replied, gravely. “He’s going to do this, with or without our help. In his words, ‘If this thing’s gotta be done, ain’t nobody but me gonna be guilty.’ Our own lords and masters have decided to follow his lead. Politically we will remain very carefully neutral: Operationally…well. We’re going, after all.”

“Not meanin’ any disrespect, but why? What are we gettin’ outta this?”

“The destruction of the Swarm-of-Swarms, if we do it right.” Costello straightened up. “That’s… trillions of lives saved, in the long run. There will never be another attack like Gao or the Guvnurag. And the Hierarchy will never again have a Control Species that could replace the Hunters. Daar saw to that when he nuked his own people.”

There wasn’t an answer for a second, until Murray nodded quietly, as though to himself.

“…Aye. Right then,” he said.

A new kind of resolve seemed to spread as his words sunk in. It wasn’t the feral anticipation of before, it was… more solemn. Darker.

But Costello knew that it was rock-solid and firm. They were doing this.

He surveyed the room with a level gaze for a few seconds, and then nodded slowly himself.

“…Are there any more questions?” he asked.


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
The Builder Hive, Hell system, Hunter Space

Lowest Omega that was formerly Alpha of the Brood-That-Builds

Eaters were so stupid. Cunning, yes, but they never considered anything aside from the Hunt. If it didn’t directly put meat in the maw, they didn’t care. The idiots would be drowning in their own fecal matter if not for the Builders.

And when they scented a good Hunt, then all proper function was forgotten. Their usual swaggering, bullying demeanour dissipated to be replaced with an unshakeable focus on the prey. It didn’t matter if they realistically had no hope of joining the hunt themselves, they were so preoccupied by it that they noticed nothing else.

The ones guarding a cybernetic facility near the breeding pools especially didn’t notice a lowly Omega Builder cleaning the floors.

Nor did they notice the Builder confidently using a data interface, or notice the sudden silence as they were quietly amputated from the Hunter network.

They did notice, very briefly, as they were impaled from behind. Nothing else did. The doors were locked, the facility closed down, and the Builder dove through several layers of security as though it knew all the access keys… which of course it did. Eaters understood physical security but in the realms of the virtual they were laughably naive.

It had access to everything.

What stepped out of the facility several agonizing minutes later was scarcely recognizable as the disgraced former Alpha Builder. Very little of its flesh was left, having been skinned, cut, sawed or burned away to be replaced with metal, carbon fibre, synthetic muscles and polyarmor. It was still Builder-shaped for ease of proprioception, but so much more. There were augmentations in its new body that no Eater, short-sighted as they were, had ever taken.

The Beta Eaters guarding a particularly important ship bay never stood a chance. One pulse with its new augmentation and the Builder disabled every implant they had, swatting aside the firewalls and security programs that it itself had created.

Its fellow Builders took care of the carcasses. Eaters didn’t understand loyalty, but the Builders worked together always. They had been waiting for this moment.

The Builders had been ready to take over for a long, long time.


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
Warrens, The Ring, Hell system, Hunter Space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

Jamie was sitting at Garaaf’s desk tinkering with something when they got back. He looked red-eyed and stressed, but alert enough as he turned to face them.

One look at their expressions was all he needed.

“…Pete didn’t make it, did he?”

Ray slumped down on Garaaf’s bed and clawed her fingers through her hair as she tried to recover her balance. “…No.”

“…Did you get—?”

“We got them.” Garaaf laid his bag on the desk.

“Holly?” Spears asked, checking on her. She opened her eyes, gave him an ‘I’m-glad-to-see-you-but-I’m-in-a-lot-of-pain’ expression that was half grimace, half smile, and closed them again. When Ray leaned over and checked her temperature, it was definitely higher than before. Holly twitched and groaned at the touch, and Ray wondered just how bad things were getting for her.

She was a stoic, at least.

“It’s okay, Hol. We got you,” Spears promised. “Jamie, tell me you can work with that shit.”

Choi nodded. He’d already emptied the bag out onto the desk and was rummaging through it. “Okay. Wormhole beacon, good. Gonna need… there it is. Did you grab the—? Never mind, found it.”

He and Garaaf worked in silence for a few minutes, while Cook slumped down on the bed next to Ray.

“…Nearly home, huh?” He commented for Ray’s ears only after a minute or so.

“So close, but so far…” Ray agreed. “It’s not fair though. I wanted us all to go home.”

“Don’t think that was ever on the cards, Ray,” he replied. “I’m just happy to not be down there makin’ Hot. I ain’t gonna complain if I die up here.”

“We’ll live,” Ray insisted. “We owe it to Pete and Tom.”

“Ah, shit Ray,” Cook sighed and looked up into the knot of pipes and cables above them. “You know what I was gonna do when we got back to Earth? I was gonna go climb mountains until one of ‘em killed me. Everest, K2, Annapurna…”

He tailed off. Not knowing what to say, Ray just stared at him until he shook himself out of wherever he’d gone and came back to here and now. “…Maybe find some peace, y’know? Let Mama Nature put right all the evil fuckin’ things I did to keep us alive.” He glanced at Holly’s litter and sagged. “You just promise me you two’ll go on an’… I’unno. Try to live. So it was all worth it.”

“We’re still here, Cook,” Ray told him. “We aren’t dead yet.”

“Maybe. But I’m not meant to escape from Hell. I can feel it in my bones, man—there ain’t no redemption for the likes’a me.”

Holly stirred and found the strength to speak, somehow. Ray couldn’t imagine how much pain she was in, but Holly had always been tougher than her timid exterior might suggest. “There’s always redemption…” she groaned.

Cook stared at her for a moment, then looked away. “Nah. Some lines, you cross ‘em and you can’t never step back,” he said.

“There’s always—” Holly repeated and tried to lever herself upright to look at him, but gasped and slumped back down on her litter. Ray rushed to her side.

“Holly, don’t. Save your strength.”

She got a pathetic nod, and Holly went still again. Ray checked her bandage, finding it no worse than it had been the last time she checked, and breathed a sigh of relief. For a second she’d had terrible visions of Holly exerting herself, opening her wound and bleeding out.

Satisfied that Holly was in no worse danger now than she had been a moment or two ago, she sat back and watched the coils of smoke from where Jamie was hard at work with a soldering iron on whatever arcane bits of tech Garaaf had fetched for him. It was a comparatively peaceful moment and she drifted off into a half-sleep full of unpleasant head-moments that were somewhere between dreams and thoughts.

She was snapped out of it by Jamie standing up. “Okay!”

“…We’re ready?” Spears asked.

“As we’ll ever be… Holly?”

Holly nodded slowly. “I’m ready.” She croaked.

“…Ready for what?” Ray asked.

“We’re gonna have to cover ground pretty quick, probably get in a fight, all that stuff, right?” Jamie asked. Garaaf duck-nodded seriously. “Well, Holly’s in no shape to run and in a firefight she’d just be a sitting duck. And there were plenty of parts left over from making the Jump Array, so…” He held up something. “…I made a stasis generator.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” Spears asked. “Those things can snip anything in half if it straddles the field edge.”

“Trust me.” Jamie knelt next to Holly and attached the generator to her litter. “Besides, it was her idea. Right, Hol?”

Holly gave Spears a small, brave smile. “This way you don’t have to worry about me.”

“Makes sense,” Cook commented, to which Garaaf duck-nodded.

“…If it’s your idea, we won’t second-guess you,” Ray decided. “But you know after that button’s pushed, from your perspective the very next thing to happen will be when somebody turns it off again. If we fail… I mean, that’ll be a Hunter.”

“I know.” Holly shut her eyes and rested her head back. “I’m ready.”

Jamie pressed the button, and a coffin-sized volume of spacetime around her went utterly vantablack. It didn’t look like an object so much as like somebody had crudely photoshopped reality itself. The very shape of it became impossible to detect: the edges were just as invisible as the planes and surfaces.

“Dang that’s freaky-lookin’,” Cook commented.

“It’s a concern removed from the equation,” Garaaf said. “Nicely done, Mister Choi.”

“Like I said,” Jamie stood up. “It was her idea. You got something I can carry the Array in?”

Garaaf handed him a kind of canvas bag, presumably sewn together from something else. Jamie accepted it with a nod, and needed only seconds to fill it with the fruits of his labors. He shrugged it onto his shoulders, wiggled it back and forth a bit, and then apparently decided it would do.

“Alright,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

Garaaf duck-nodded, then turned and led them back out into the Warren. Ray and Spears shared a glance at each other, and followed.


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
High Mountain Fortress, Northern Plains, Gao

Regaari

“My Father, it will be impossible to hide a schedule change this severe.”

“I know, Cousin. I know you an’ the staff can manage. An’ just ‘tween us, I’m really glad ‘yer at my side again.”

Daar had decided he would take the field for what was coming. There was both wisdom and foolishness in a decision like that, but doing anything but would run against the very fiber of his being.

Fiin had done his duty as the new Stoneback Champion and tried to talk the Great Father out of it. He’d been… ‘reminded’ of Daar’s authority, meaning that there’d been a brief and mighty scrap and both were now sporting some new wounds that were scarring up nicely even with the Gaoian Cruezzir formula. Fiin had definitely fared “better” for it…and re-affirmed Daar’s undying love as a result. Stoneback was a rough Clan.

“I’m glad to be back. I admit I’m glad you don’t grant me affection as vigorously as you do with your own Clan…” Regaari could afford a little ear-waggle with Daar. They were old cousins after all. But even so, he had to be careful. There was a line between the fraternal teasing of oldest and bestest friends, and disrespect.

“Naw!” The Great Father boomed, clearly in an boisterous mood. “We brownies hafta be careful with you wee little silverfurs!”

Regaari just flicked an ear. There was nothing ‘wee’ or ‘little’ about him these days, certainly not by the lithe standards Whitecrest had traditionally set. But then again Daar was performing for an audience, too; there were Champions tailing along, messengers from First Fang, the most senior generals from the Grand Army…really, he was a king of old and they were his court. The only thing missing was a coronation, which he kept putting off, and off…

“How’re the HEAT, doin’?” Daar asked.

“They’re nearly suited up. You know how those suits of theirs are.”

“Don’t disrespect the MASS, Cousin,” Daar warned. Like any HEAT member, he referred to it almost as though it was a religious icon: There was just something about an EV-MASS that demanded reverence. Possibly the way it could literally crush a man to death if he wasn’t conditioned for it.

“I do no such thing,” Regaari promised. “You and I will be suiting up as soon as we arrive.”

He turned to Champion Fiin, who was also coming in the first strike; he’d at the very least earned that honor during his bout with the Great Father. “How about you, Champion? Are you used to your suit yet?”

First Fang had been trialling their own version of an EV-MASS, built for Gaoian anatomy and a Stoneback’s strength as a derivative of the Whitecrest suit. It didn’t crush its wearer’s ribs as hard as the Human design, nor was it quite as impenetrable, but it far outstripped its Whitecrest cousin for protective value and could do some things the Human suits couldn’t.

A ‘Back could move like the wind in it. And a ‘Back that could move, could kill.

Fiin shrugged at the load on his back with a thoughtful expression. “…It’s surprisingly tight. But I can handle it,” he said stoically. His was an officer’s variant, a mobile sensor and communications suite that sacrificed a few of the outright aggressive features for survivability and tactical control. Not by much, though: A Gaoian leader still had to get his claws bloody if he wanted his Fang to respect him.

Daar’s own suit wasn’t quite like that. It was unique in that it was deliberately simpler to operate and extremely well-armored, so much so it was mechanically on par with the Grade II EV-MASS suits favored by HEAT Defenders and experienced Aggressors. Aside from the active camouflage, Daar’s suit was designed to stay out of his way and let him get up close and personal with his prey, much like a truck slamming into a wandering Naxas calf. No other Gaoian but the Great Father could have long wielded such demanding armor and few beings of any species could have survived the ordeal of wearing it, including most Humans. The Great Father’s suit was a Mass all its own.

The mission was coming together in all the best traditions of barely-controlled chaos. Everyone was scrambling to get stuff done and if there was anybody who knew absolutely everything about what was happening or being prepared then he was probably up to his ears in his work right now and had better things to do than speak with leadership.

In principle, it was simple. The stranded Father Garaaf and his new friends would build a receiving Jump Array. First Fang and the Heat would storm through, secure a beachhead and build a larger and more dependable Array to bring in reinforcements, plus the bomb. Finally, a retreat through the Array. Once the last man was through, the bomb would be remote detonated via a quantum-entangled detonator and unless Hunter engineering on the Ring far exceeded the standard set by their ships, the resulting explosion should tear the whole structure to pieces.

It was going to spell a mass extinction event for the planet below, if not an outright planetary type change. Enough metal to form a small moon was going to rain down through that thing’s atmosphere for years to come. Billions of blameless hostages were going to die.

But Daar didn’t flinch from the ruthless calculus of war. The intelligence from Garaaf, corroborated by the Humans’ own sources, said that most of the Swarm-of-Swarms was currently moored or docked at that thing. The Hunters, arrogantly, had given themselves a single point of failure in the belief that it was unassailable.

Daar intended to prove them wrong, and AEC had his back.

Assuming, that was, they got the chance. It was all in somebody else’s hands as to whether they’d get to do this at all. The Ring was bound to be all but unassailable by conventional means, making this moment the best hope they had of really hurting the Hunters.

They looked up as an announcement echoed around their staging hall.

“Jump one to Cimbrean in three. Great Father on the platform, please.”

The Stonebacks made way for Daar to get onto the Array’s waiting platform. HMS Sharman had dedicated facilities for exactly this scenario: immediate-notice deployment via jump array on an uncertain timetable. The jump room was surrounded by short-stay dorms and ready facilities to keep a fighting force on rotation and ready to go on seconds’ notice. Just sitting around waiting was hard work, doubly so when wearing the Mass or any suit of its kind, and the HEAT’s home facility was well equipped for it.

That did mean, however, that the first step for the Gaoians was to deploy off-world. That meant the Great Father’s entourage had to come along. Even in a much reduced “fighting trim” that wasn’t a small thing. It included Regaari and Fiin at least, which was a relief. Regaari would have hated to be left waiting. Better to get there, then wait.

“Where’d ya learn that trick that got me in the neck, anyhow?” Daar growled quietly to Fiin as soon as they had some modest privacy. “That looked like one of Myun’s moves.”

“Not Myun herself. But one of her Guard-Sisters,” Fiin looked pleased with himself. “Fendra.”

“Yeah? A beauty?”

“Think she came from Whitecrest stock herself,” Fiin chittered and swatted Regaari on the arm. “Real intense. Very… deft.”

Even Regaari chittered, and was still chittering when the Array went thump beneath him and deposited him on another planet.

“It was a good move,” Daar grumbled. “Did the medic fix ‘yer foot up right?”

“…Yes, my Father. I’ll ask how in Keeda’s name you managed that later.”

Daar ducked under the Array’s safety cage to leave it. “Can’t give away all my secrets, Champion… Colonel Powell! Not seen you in too long!”

The Great Father flowed up to his feet but didn’t loom; he had a certain flexibility of spine that allowed him to be eager and solicitous with almost anyone, and it was immensely disarming.

Powell knew Daar’s ways well. They traded a hard handshake, forearm-to-forearm, and he gave no sign of being fazed by Daar’s size or general feral appearance.

Then again, every man in the HEAT had taken Daar on in combatives at some point, with wins and losses liberally scattered across their friendships. Regaari was in a room full of formidable people—his peers he reminded himself, there was no sense in being falsely modest about his own merits—and the air smelled of anticipation.

Violence was coming, and as much as the Whitecrests pretended otherwise, something that united Gaoians and Humans was a love of violence.

Powell let go of Daar’s arm with the closest thing he ever produced to a grin; a certain upwards tic of one side of his mouth. “Aye, it has. Last time I saw you, you were still covered in dust from that road bridge you collapsed in Lavmuy. I see it all brushed out in the end.”

“Yeah! I’m shorn pretty short these days! Naydi likes it, so y’know…I’m a good boy.”

“Hmm!” Powell produced one of his stoic little laughs and stepped aside for him. “We pulled up the files on the surviving humans—”

“Surviving?”

“Aye, they lost one, that we know of. Poor bastard. An’ one of them’s wounded.”

“Oh…balls. We were expectin’ a rescue mission but this means a medical mission too, don’t it?”

“Aye. Casevac for one Doctor Holly Chase, a geologist. Fortunately, she’s a small lass. Bad news is, it’s a gut injury.”

“I take it ‘yer Protectors are on the job, includin’ Carebear? Father Garaaf is gonna need lookin’ after…”

“They’ve got everythin’ up to an’ includin’ stasis bags. Worst-case scenario we can shove the poor lass in one o’ those things and keep her there until she’s on an operating table.”

“…Good. Look, lemme cut to the serious bit. Walk an’ talk?”

“Aye. Dexter?”

Regaari duck-nodded and fell in alongside them. Daar and Fiin traded an unspoken conversation, and the Stoneback Champion turned away to handle the incoming load of his First Fang and the rest of Daar’s retinue.

Sharman was pulsing with activity. Personnel in the uniforms of all different branches from several different nations were rushing back and forth with serious expressions and assorted tablets, pieces of paper or toolboxes. Powell received, read, signed and gave orders on three quick matters while just striding down a thirty-meter corridor as personnel made room for them.

Daar spoke to him urgently and low. “Did you get brief on what I’m gonna do?”

Powell looked grim. “…Aye.”

“Can you think of any way I can avoid doin’ this? ‘Cuz I’m awfully damned interested in not being the most worstest genocidal maniac t’ever live.”

Powell pulled a small face. “…To level with yer, Daar, every last bloody one of the Allied leaders has weighed in on this. They’re expectin’ a fookin’ explosion o’ negative press when it comes out we blew up billions of hostages… and not a blessed one of ‘em can come up with an alternative.”

“Yeah.” Daar sighed in a resigned tone redolent with finality. “I’mma need ‘ta talk with some o’ my peers over this. I’m hopin’ y’all got that arranged like we asked…”

Powell produced a folded square of paper. “Here. President Sartori sent you a personal note.”

Regaari didn’t get to read it. Daar opened the note, read it, then folded it back into a pocket. “…Right. Well…you’ll never hear me say the President’s a coward. Tell him the Gao deeply appreciate his friendship, an’ we’ll repay it someday, somehow. As for the rest?”

“The Prince of Wales is here. Came through the Array about twenty minutes ago, an’ he’ll take an audience with you if you’re willing. That’s private, not for the likes o’ me.”

“…I’d like that. I need…I’m not sure what I need. But I think that’ll help.”

“Genshi?” Regaari asked. His Champion had come ahead.

“Already caught a shuttle up to Myrmidon. He’ll be live when we brief in a few minutes… Here.”

Powell opened a door and they entered the suit workshop. If outside had been busy, the workshop was a hive, with the whole HEAT and their personal technicians going through suit prep.

The Defenders in particular were in a serious knot in the middle while their techs worked around them. The plan hinged in large part on their ability to assemble a field Jump Array rapidly and competently while under fire. Titan had stepped into Rebar’s gigantic steel-capped boots pretty well from what Regaari could see, but the fact remained that the Defenders were still the most under-strength third of the HEAT. Only Sikes and Akiyama remained from the original intake, and as good as the new guys undoubtedly were…

Regaari’s nose broke his train of thought and instinctively turned his attention toward a familiar musk. Warhorse gave him a massive grin from the middle of his own suit station.

“Hey, big guy, been a while! Did Genshi finally let you leave Whitecrest’s training center?”

“Only to release me into the Great Father’s clutches, yes.” Regaari flicked a cheeky ear at Daar, who grumbled smugly offside but didn’t interject further.

“Probably best if we get these meetings out the way,” Powell commented.

“Right. Regaari, I reckon you’d better stay here.”

“Gladly,” Regaari acknowledged the gloved command with a duck-nod, and stepped aside as Daar was led through the workshop and into a back room. There presumably to meet with figures of interstellar importance.

“…We really gonna blow this thing up, Dex?” Adam asked, the second he was gone.

Regaari flattened his ears and nodded that it was so. “Unless you have a better option.”

“With all them people on it?”

“Yes.”

Adam didn’t move so as to not spoil whatever it was Doyle and Hargreaves were working on around his shoulders, but he gave the impression that he really would have liked to sag. “…That don’t sit right.”

“…I know.”

He saw the look the three Humans gave him and tried his best to shrug for them. “…If it’s any consolation, it doesn’t sit right with Daar either.”

“Never thought it would, bruh.”

“But he’ll do it,” Doyle observed.

“‘Course he will,” a new voice interjected—Firth’s inimitable contrabass growl. He was at the next station over while Deacon put her back into getting the “shirt” of his EV-MASS’s new Grade III+ midsuit settled into place. “Daar ain’t the type to pussy outta hard choices, an’ he knows the most important rule: You fight for ‘yer tribe first and to hell with the rest if they ain’t helpin’.”

“…Right.” Hargreaves got back to work.

“Don’t make it right,” Adam observed, lifting his Grade IV+ shirt overhead while Hargreaves guided it into the leg armor’s coupling. Firth’s was heavy enough that few beings could heft it at all, and Adam’s was even worse. “Shit, man, I got into this to save lives, y’know?”

“You are, you idjit.” Firth shrugged to help Deacon seat the underplating, then gave Adam another, different shrug. “The Hunters are a sapient disease.”

Regaari duck-nodded. “Just think. After this, the Hunters will be a fraction of the danger they were. Their fleet will be smashed, their population decimated, their ability to raid the spacelanes all but destroyed. That’s… I don’t know. Uncountable lives saved, in the long run.”

“And billions gotta die to make that happen.”

“Billions are gonna die anyway. The Hunters have degraded ’em so much, most of them aren’t people any more. Look, bro,” Firth turned slightly and looked Adam dead in the eye. “I won’t pretend like I’ve got any kind o’ love for anyone in this but me and my own, right? I ain’t like you. But in the end, it’s a simple math problem. Which choice kills less people? Guys like Great Fathers an’ Presidents an’ Kings an’ shit, they don’t get to choose between right and wrong.”

“They choose between evils,” Regaari finished for him.

“…You better go get suited up, Dex,” ‘Horse said. He looked less troubled at least, though no happier.

“Right.” Regaari patted him on the arm and headed for the knot of Whitecrest brothers at the back of the room, glad to be back among Brothers for the first time in far too long.

He loved ‘Horse’s idealism, but in this case Adam had it wrong: the issue in front of them wasn’t difficult, it was simplicity itself. It was everything after that point that would be difficult. The explaining, the emotions, the second-guessing. Life was going to be much more complicated after this mission.

He resolved to enjoy the simplicity while it lasted, and went to get dressed.

It was time to be ruthless.


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
The Ring, Hell System, Hunter Space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

“Jesus…fucking…Christ!”

‘Cold’ didn’t even begin to cover it. The cryo facility had to be forty degrees below or worse: the air was painful, and Ray’s patched, frayed, stained, much-worn and much-repaired sweater wouldn’t have been adequate for the conditions even when it had been brand new.

Spears clearly felt much the same as she did. “Garaaf, this is crazy! People die in temperatures like this!”

“But not immediately,” the Gaoian retorted. He seemed to be reasonably comfortable, actually, though Ray noted that he had wrapped some cloth around his paws and was walking upright again.

“Unless the Hunters are gonna freeze solid the second they set foot in here, I don’t see how this helps us,” Ray groused, slinging her rifle round her shoulder and sticking her hands in her armpits to keep them warm.

“Not quite, but trust me—This will slow them down. They aren’t mammals, they don’t regulate their body temperature like we do.”

“Let’s get this fucking thing built…” Jamie muttered, storming ahead. He had the basic elements of their jump array in a canvas sack on his back. “Here?”

Garaaf shook his head. “No. Deeper. We’re going to need the cold on our side, otherwise they’ll overwhelm us while it charges.” He raised a claw and pointed. “That way.”

“What’s out this way?” Cook asked. “Besides more cold, I mean.”

“Somewhere with cover.”

“Let’s fuckin’ do it, then.”

Ray glanced down at the litter with… well, Holly on it. She still couldn’t get used to the eye-twisting blackness of the stasis field they’d given her. She knew it made sense: Inside that field, Holly was absolutely invulnerable. No time was passing for her, her wound wouldn’t be getting worse. She wasn’t lying there slowly freezing to death while the rest of them moved around and kept at least a little warm.

She was… safe, insofar as that term meant anything on the Ring. She’d die last at least, if they failed. But still it was upsetting not to be able to see her and check on her. It felt less like carrying a wounded friend and more like dragging her coffin.

It did mean they could set a pace, though. With Spears and Cook dragging it, the litter skittered and bounced over the steel flooring in ways that would have had Holly really suffering if she was currently occupying the same timestream as them. As it was, it didn’t slow them at all.

They jogged steadily for several minutes, down a tall but narrow hall lined with equipment whose function Ray couldn’t guess at. Somehow, she’d imagined that the cryo facility would be icy, foggy and lit by a pale blue light, but in reality it was just dark and close. The only fog she could see was coming out of their noses, there was no ice that she could detect… without those usual visual cues, the grinding cold, her own shivering flesh and the feeling of icy metal slowly chilling her boots all seemed out of place.

Cook chuckled suddenly. “Hey. Ray.”

“What?”

“Don’t lick anything.”

She should have been annoyed, or rolled her eyes, or something. Instead, Ray spluttered and laughed.

“Gee, and here I was about to freeze my tongue to the wall,” she snarked. “I’m glad you warned me off.”

Cook chuckled again. “My pleasure.”

“You’re a crazy asshole, Cook,” Spears told him, though he was smiling himself.

“Guess that makes five of us, huh?” Cook grinned sideways at him. “We were all crazy enough we left Earth, right?”

“Are you really gonna go climb all those mountains?” Ray asked him.

“…Might go to Tijuana instead, live the wild life. Or shit, maybe I’ll come to my senses an’ do something that won’t get my ass dead. What about you?”

“…I don’t know,” Ray said truthfully. “Except it’s gonna involve a bottle of wine.”

“An Old Fashioned,” Spears said, wistfully. “…I wonder if Josh and Scott are still mixing drinks at the Airship Gallery…?”

Cook grunted agreement and nodded. “Jamie?”

“I’m with Ray. I honestly don’t know…” Jamie admitted.

“You’re gonna have a drink though, right?” Spears asked.

“Oh, fuck yeah. A tall, ice-cold pilsner.”

“Ugh. I can’t think of cold things right now…” Ray grimaced. “How much further, Garaaf?”

“Not far.” Garaaf stopped and put a paw out to lean on the wall so he could pant. A second later he pulled it back and shook it off. “…Ow.”

“Is it me, or is it way colder here?” Spears asked. Ray honestly hadn’t noticed, but then again she’d never been so cold in her life anyway.

“Exactly,” Garaaf said. He huffed on his paw to warm it, and nodded toward a side passage. “There.”

The space he’d indicated opened out a ways to reveal… something. It was a device of some kind though Ray had no idea what it was or what it did. It was as big around as a city block at the base, and vanished up, up, up into the impenetrable darkness above.

“…Is that a forcefield generator?” Jamie asked, the moment he saw it. He leaned back and craned his neck to look up its towering height. “Jeez! Structural field?”

“I figured as much,” Garaaf agreed. “It’s the only way a structure like the Ring could stay intact.”

“So the whole superstructure is reinforced by forcefields…” Jamie’s low whistle created a jet of steam like an old-fashioned water kettle. “Wow. Guess that explains the cold.”

“How so?” Spears asked him.

“Superconductors. A field that huge has gotta go through… I dunno. A lot of power.”

He shook his head and a slow grin spread across his face. “Man. If we blow this thing up, this whole section of the Ring’s gonna peel apart, probably. And when one goes…”

“There are backups,” Garaaf said. “But that’s the plan. My Champion said they’re bringing over a gigaton-class warhead.”

“Badass!” Cook grinned. “So, like, I guess this is the other reason we’re here? Loadsa power ripe for the taking?”

Garaaaf duck-nodded. “Exactly. But I know how the Hunters work: The second we start tampering with the power to this thing, they’ll descend on us by the thousand. You’ll need to work fast, Mister Choi.”

“I did most of the fiddly work back in the Warren,” Jamie said, stalking to a spot at the base of the tower. “It should snap together pretty quick. The tricky part is going to be balancing how much power I steal versus what the components can handle. If I give it too much, the whole rig will fuse and… well…”

“And we’ll all get eaten,” Ray finished for him. “Great.”

“Or, y’know, maybe I fry myself poking at electrical systems built by a flesh-eating alien,” Jamie said. “Or maybe I fucked up the build or maybe—”

“Choi!” Spears snapped, snapping him out of his litany of worry. “…Just give it your best.”

Cook nodded. “Your best is fuckin’ good, man.”

“…Right.”

Ray looked around. Garaaf had been generous when he described what they had as ‘cover’—it was more like there were some auxiliary systems, little nooks in the walls and a control console. None of which would do shit if one of those giant tank-Hunters with the nervejam launcher showed up again. She caught the Whitecrest’s eye as she made her assessment, and saw that he knew it.

“…It’s not ideal, I know,” he said. It was almost an apology.

“It’ll do,” Ray said. “Let’s get into place.”

“Spread out,” Spears said. “Cook… I dunno man. With no gun…”

“I’ll watch Holly and keep ‘em off you guys if they get closer,” Cook promised. He spun his knife around his thumb and grinned. “Hey, this’ll be a good warmup, right?”

Ray found a spot behind the control panel. It was built for Hunters, which meant it was exactly the right height for her to shelter behind and aim back toward the only entrance to their last stand.

“Well… at least we have a good crossfire and they can only come at us one way,” she said.

“And if we’re very, very lucky, that’ll be all we need,” Garaaf said. He took up a spot on the left flank, in a little nook in the wall that hopefully would shield him from any pulse gun fire that came his way. Those things had been strong enough to knock Pete Conley off his feet and fatally slow him down: Ray didn’t want to think what harm they’d do to a Gaoian.

“And if we’re unlucky?” she asked.

Garaaf charged his rifle. “Then we’ll need a miracle.”

He pulled the communicator from his pocket and clawed at a button on it. “Lost cub, playing with fire…” he intoned, then pocketed it again and gave Jamie a nod. “Whenever you’re ready, Mister Choi.”

“…Right.” Jamie took a deep breath, took his multimeter from his belt, and got to work. Ray charged her rifle too, and settled in for what promised to be a long and tense wait.

They were so close.


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Air Engineering Technician Jack “Two-Seventy” Tisdale

‘Base and Moho had fetched The Couch, an item of furniture so revered that Jack could hear the capital letters in its name. He’d never seen it before, only heard of it, but reality lived up to the hype: Any couch that needed two of the bigger and stronger HEAT operators to move deserved that kind of respect.

The surprising thing was how reverential they were with it. Even though the damn thing looked and sounded like it was built from steel girders, they placed it and sat on it with respect. It was their biggest and most obvious connection to a fallen Brother, after all. Nobody wanted to be the guy who broke Rebar’s couch.

Never mind that in Jack’s estimation the thing could probably hold up a tank.

It needed to be that strong: An active team of operators in their suits were using it to chill out and watch Road Runner cartoons while they waited for the bell to ring. It might happen in two minutes, it might happen in two days, it might never happen. The only thing to do was stay on a four-hour rotation: A third of them ready to go, a third of them in PT to help relieve the suit-stress, a third of them resting. All three theoretically ready to scramble at a moment’s notice, but seconds made the difference.

And of course, the techs had to be there throughout the whole thing.

Moho was in the first group to take the couch, and like most of the Lads his relationship with his techs was somewhere between professional, fraternal, and cuddly toy. And like all the Lads who had a female tech, he reserved his more vigorous affections for Jack: Miller got off comparatively light.

Jack was more or less getting a full-body workout from the sheer crush of it all, being stuck right in the middle of a Gordian Knot of arms and legs: the Lads were basically treating the shape of the couch as a hint rather than gospel, and gleefully ignoring it. Blaczynski was actually upside-down, with his feet draped over the back and his head dangling as he watched Wile E. Coyote run smack into a painting of a road tunnel.

Jack was used to it by now. And it helped that he was parked next to Akiyama, a man with whom he could geek out literally all day.

He did not think highly of the Ring. “I mean, it’s the very fuckin’ definition of a Big Dumb Object! The engineering’s impressive, but what do they get outta it?”

Jack had been thinking about this one. “All the benefits of centralization.”

“And all the downsides! Okay, yeah, so shipping in all their shit from out-system is easy ‘cuz it all has the same address, but when we ship our birthday present there too then all their shit goes up! I mean, what kinda half-assed engineer builds a single point of failure like that?”

“One who’s doing what management says, maybe?” Jack suggested.

Moho rumbled a laugh. “I just got this mental image of a Hunter bean-counter,” he said.

“Cheap suit, crappy tie…” Miller agreed, picking it up and running with it.

Moho chortled. “Has a novel he keeps meanin’ to write…”

“Drives a gold Lexus to work…”

“…Listens to his son’s music in a desperate attempt to relate…”

“Nah, nah. He’s listening to the stuff that was on the radio when he was a kid and daydreaming about his high-school crush…”

Titan gave them a Look, then turned back to Jack. “…Tisdale, I think you maybe got saddled with the team weirdos.”

“Hey, I resemble that remark,” Moho chuckled, and shrugged so hard that even Firth got moved a little bit. The complicated tangle of relaxing Operators and Techs settled like an old building with a subsiding foundation.

Jack felt an urge to stand up and pace around a bit but Adam’s left calf, layered up in a full Grade IV+ EV-MASS, was lying across his lap which was therefore utterly and inescapably pinned to the couch. Jack hoped he didn’t have any bruises forming; both his legs were already tingling and asleep.

“I mean… we don’t know anything about what Hunters are like when they aren’t, uh, hunting,” he pointed out. “I mean, for all we know they have board games and movie nights too.”

“Are you kidding?!” That insinuation seemed to be too much for the fucking leader of the Gao to take. Watching cartoons with Daar was the most surreal part of an already awe-inspiringly weird day. “Have you seen what these motherfucks do? Their movies would be, like, America’s Most Bestest Devouring Orgies or somethin’.”

Titan shrugged. “More like… I dunno. Saw? Motel? What was that one last year, The Ranch?”

The massive bear-thing rolled over onto his back and dragged Regaari with him, who yipped in resigned objection. “I dunno. I ain’t had time to watch anything lately…what was the plot?”

“Usual mainstream gore-porn shite,” Murray muttered.

“Oh.” That seemed to be the end of it for Daar. “…Hey Highland? Can we get another Salad?”

“Aye.” Murray somehow slithered out of the pile without any visible effort.

“Been way too long since my last Salad,” Daar said appreciatively. “Fuck I’ve missed you Lads, even ‘Horse’s stinky feet! And my Whitecrest Brothers,” he added hastily. “Alla’ya.”

“We missed you too, but I’d sure appreciate it if you could stop waggin’ that thing in my face, bruh,” Blaczynski told him. Daar’s armored tail was knocking against the top of his helmet with enough force that Jack was pretty sure he’d be concussed right now if that was him, but Blaczynski sounded mildly annoyed at most.

Daar reeled the wayward appendage in. “…Sarry.”

Comfortable silence descended, punctuated by the rousing strains of ‘The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down.’

“I’m still hung up on Hunter board games,” Miller confessed, after a minute. “Like… seriously, Jack? You think those things are gonna play fuckin’ Monopoly or whatever?”

“Oh, for fuck’s–! It was just idle speculation! I dunno, maybe they play, uh… hunting… games.”

“Tisdale, you have the tamest imagination.”

“I just mean we don’t know shit about what Hunters are like outside of a fucking slaughterhouse!” Jack said. “I’m not trying to humanize them or anything, it’s just—”

“The slaughterhouse is enough,” Adam grunted. He rolled over slightly and caused a minor landslide, while also crushing Jack even deeper into the couch. “I don’t care what they get up to in their spare time. They eat people.”

“I guess that’s the thing. They’re genuinely, truly alien,” Akiyama said. “Like… most other ETs are just folks, y’know? Weird-shaped folks with funny ways but whatever. Hunters might as well be goddamn termites. Could be there’s no point trying to understand ‘em.”

“I’m with ‘Horse,” Daar said. “I don’t wanna unnerstand ‘em.”

“Not even in pursuit of knowing your enemy?” Regaari asked.

Jack silently thanked him. That had been the exact thought that had entered his head, but he wasn’t dumb enough to give voice to it, not to somebody like Daar. Somehow, he felt like that was one for the people he was closer with to ask.

Daar grumbled to himself for a second, then opened his mouth to reply… but never got the chance.

The bell rang. It was go time.


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
The Ring, Hell System, Hunter Space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

Garaaf’s prediction that the Hunters would swarm them when Jamie started messing with the power turned out to be a gross understatement.

At first it was quiet. It took Jamie a minute or two to finish building the Array. There was no apparent reaction when he popped the first panels open and started digging through them with his multimeter in search of an appropriate source of electricity to charge it.

It was the moment he exclaimed “A-ha!” and actually hooked their Array into the power system that had an instant effect. Bright, harsh yellow lighting flooded the area, and some kind of a high, shrill alarm made Ray flinch and Garaaf clamp his remaining ear tightly flat against his skull.

“How long?!” Spears called over it.

“Not long!” Jamie promised. He finished splicing cables across and a protective shield he’d built into the Array sprung up to stop it from being smashed flat by pulse fire in whatever firefight came next. Happy that it was ready and charged, he heaved Holly’s stasis litter into the middle. “A few minutes!”

“That slow?!” Cook called.

“I told you, I can’t just throw a lightning bolt at this thing or it’ll blow out!” Jamie knelt by Holly’s litter and watched what his tools were telling him. “This is fast as I dare!”

“He knows what he’s doing!” Ray shouted, and sighted down her rifle. “Just be ready!”

For one long minute, and then a second, she dared to hope that they might just get away before the Hunters got to them.

That hope was dashed sometime during the third minute when some kind of vehicle pulled up and a team of Hunter workers vaulted off it. They stared in confusion and shock at the deathworlders around their shield emitter, and then dropped dead as Ray, Spears and Garaaf took them down with a disciplined volley.

“Jamie?!” Spears called.

“About a third!”

“Shit,” Ray swore under her breath. She swapped magazines just to give her hands something to do, wished that they’d stop shaking from fear, anticipation and the cold. The metal was making her fingers go numb.

Another minute passed. Then a second. Then a third, but Ray knew better than to let herself hope at this point, not even when Jamie called out “Three-quarters!”

His shout was still echoing around the chamber when the real Hunters arrived, and calling it a ‘swarm’ turned out to be an understatement.

It was a wave, a flood. Ray’s trigger finger fired without her conscious input and missing wasn’t a problem: the Hunt was so numerous that she couldn’t fail to hit. She fired, fired, fired again as fast as she could pull the trigger.

Garaaf had been right about the cold, though. These Hunters were staggering and slow even before they rounded the corner, as though the chill of the air alone was enough to badly impair them. The line of corpses their three rifles left further slowed the ones behind.

Heavy pulse fire slapped the control console, damaged it, made Jamie’s forcefield ripple. Garaaf ducked into cover to reload, the press of Hunters gained a little ground. Ray did the same, and they lost a little more. The Hunters paid for each step forward with lives, and the ground had to be slick and treacherous from freezing blood, but the sheer numbers-!

They only had a few spare magazines, too. Not a lot of ammo, despite the time they’d spent loading them. Building a wall of dead and dying Hunters helped, but by the time Jamie finally yelled “Ninety!” Ray was halfway through her penultimate mag, despite Cook’s best efforts to keep her fed.

Spears ran dry first, Garaaf a moment behind him, and with only the one rifle to hold them at bay the Hunters gleefully broke through and charged.

“Back! Back!”

Ray didn’t need telling twice. She broke cover, retreated up the stairs, firing, firing—

A pulse round punched her right in the head. The world went away for a black second, came back wrong. She couldn’t tell which way was up any longer, her legs just wouldn’t get under her. Cook was at her side, tearing into a Hunter with his knife. He sawed right through its neck, shoved another one aside, turned, stabbed, fought. Ray struggled to find her feet—

The one Cook had pushed aside saw her move and rounded on her, pounced.

Something happened to the sound. It was… gone, now. All the shouting, the alarms, the desperation, it all went silent. Everything came down to the twelve-inch razor-sharp steel claw it had just shoved into her heart.

TIme stopped just long enough for Ray to realize that she was dead.

Something the size and general shape of a bear slammed into the Hunter, tore it apart. Another one saved Cook’s hide by inches. Bullets were ripping through the hall, clearing a space, but Ray fell backwards into armored hands. She looked up and saw her own face reflected in some kind of visor: There were dark brown eyes behind it, alert and intense. Human eyes that alighted on the blade in her chest and knew just as well as she did that she wasn’t going to make it.

Jamie, Spears, Garaaf and Holly were gone. They’d jumped out safely. In their place were armored men and Gaoians who brushed the Hunters aside like autumn leaves. She’d been so close…

…But she was still there.

It wasn’t fair.



++End Chapter 45++



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Fifty-five Deathworlders:

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As well as Sixty-Five Friendly ETs, 43 Squishy Xenos and 256 Dizi Rats who are trying their best.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in Chapter 46: “Hellfall”


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