The Deathworlders

Chapter 47: Fallout

Date Point: 15y6m1d AV Hell, Hunter Space

Captain Anthony “Abbott” Costello

The sky was boiling.

Costello had never seen northern lights before, and now sheets of silent fire were coiling languidly across the heavens far faster than he’d imagined they would, shifting hue like some fibre-optic Christmas tree or something. One minute turquoise, the next orange shading to green, or bright red…

All thanks to that goddamn bomb. He’d tried to follow the explanation of how it worked, really he had, but really it had just driven home to him that the Gao were an alien species with a few centuries of technological ground separating them from humanity. They knew things about physics that just didn’t fit Costello’s meagre scientific education.

Like how you fit four orders of magnitude more energy than the San Diego blast into something that a man could carry around. Sikes was adamant that Daar’s big bomb should have weighed more than fifty metric tonnes.

Daar had shrugged that off. “Reality gets angry when ‘ya fuck around with it in the right ways,” he’d said, and that had been more than enough to scare the HEAT into thoughtful silence.

He’d been proven right, though. They’d shafted the laws of physics good and hard, and the result was… well, frankly, a spectacular and unforgettable view. Aurora from horizon to horizon, as dense as comb teeth and vivid beyond the wildest fever-dreams of television advertisers.

All hanging silently over a landscape eerily reminiscent of Colorado in midwinter.

“Two hours, sir.”

Firth pulled him out of his distant thoughts just by reporting the time since detonation. Their best estimate said the Ring would shatter under its own shear forces once cut at ground zero, and to judge from the endless rain of shooting stars that process was well underway. The big bits wouldn’t be coming down for months, but tiny ultra-high-velocity fragments were being sprayed into the upper atmosphere as the Hunter megastructure tore itself to pieces.

He took a sip of his drink and cleared his throat. “Connection?”

“Still down.”

“Not impossible that the generator could survive on a big chunk with its own power supply, I guess…” Costello mused as he turned his attention skyward again.

Firth grunted. “We got a plan for that eventuality, sir?”

“Get our asses somewhere sheltered before the big bits start landing on our heads,” Costello replied.

Titan, who’d been watching their wormhole links suddenly lowered his tablet. “Looks like it won’t come to that. I have green lights for Minot and Sharman. Door’s open to go home.”

“Right.” Costello stood up. “Get the Great Father offa this rock. After that, we jump out in reverse arrival order.”

“Got it.”

Around their makeshift little camp the resting HEAT troopers and First Fang Brothers hauled themselves upright and grabbed their gear. The field Array had been up for nearly forty minutes, fully charged and ready.

Daar, predictably, did not agree to be made safe first. Instead he was setting up a kind of tube that one of his Brothers had been carrying. It looked a heck of a lot like a mortar.

“Sir, we really need to get you back—” Costello began.

“I heard.” Daar aimed his snout skywards and inclined his head slightly. There was a thoomp! and a silver-grey blur shot out the tube’s end much faster than any mere mortar round had ever gone. There was a brief blue flash of Cherenkov radiation.

“…What was that? A warp-based ground-to-orbit weapon?”

“Drone launcher. Figger if the spike an’ suppressor are down, I’m gonna do what I said an’ blow the whole fuckin’ Ring to bits. An’ I ain’t trustin’ nobody else with that. Sarry.”

More flashes in the sky.

“That right there were seven more bombs like the first one. We should prol’ly get outta here now.”

Costello turned to Firth. “Master sergeant—”

He needn’t have bothered. Behind his mask, Firth looked outright alarmed and was already turning to start shouting.

“Captain wants erryone’a you cocksuckers dick-to-ass on that platform right now!”

It worked. By this point such “gentle” ministrations by Firth had become well-known, familiar displays of his concern.

Daar did at least allow himself to be removed from Hell in the first wave, alongside Fiin and the largest part of First Fang. The familiar jump-thump heralded the arrival of a set of charged power cells so that the Array’s turnaround time was no longer than it took Titan, Sikes, Moho and Kiwi to efficiently grab a cell each and swap out one on each pylon.

Costello was promptly squeezed in the middle of the second jump, as close as close got. Japanese commuter trains weren’t so densely packed.

Another thump, and the anticlimax was complete. He got himself off the jump platform, making room for the third and final load to come through. Techs in hazmat gear were shepherding them through a decontamination shower.

For something so immense to pass so… correctly just felt wrong, somehow. It had been a fight, yes. A serious one. And the consequences were incalculable: Billions dead, and the war was just beginning.

He was cleansed thoroughly before being escorted through into the suit hangar to get his MASS off, a procedure normally full of banter and the release of pent-up adrenaline. Energy bar, recovery drink, clean clothes… hotwash.

Nobody was celebrating this one.


Date Point: 15y6m1d AV
Builder brood-barge, Hell system, Hunter Space

The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas

There were challenges to its authority, of course there were. A new Alpha-of-Alphas always faced them. But the Eaters were caught in a trap that had been generations in the making and had actually been triggered early and opportunistically. Every last one of them depended on the Builders for their cybernetics. It had been trivially easy to abuse that trust.

The challengers had all slumped to the deck, immobile and helpless, the instant they attacked. Incapacitated… but not dead. The wasteful days of unnecessary execution were over. Humiliation would keep the Alphas in line. Each had been left with a brand, a scar, something to remember the new Alpha-of-Alphas by. They would, perversely, be far more loyal than the unscarred who had simply stood back and apathetically allowed the throne to pass from one claimant to the next.

Losing the Hive was… a shame. But the blame had fallen on the former Alpha-of-Alphas, which had paid appropriately: Its skull now hung above its replacement’s throne.

Now came the strategic analysis, as the Alpha of the Steelfang Brood was reporting.

+< Grim > Nearly all broodships are destroyed. Nine out of every ten swarmships also. Slave stock loss is total. Manufacturing loss is—+

The Alpha-of-Alphas tapped one of its legs sharply on the floor.

+< Interruption > It will not presume to educate me about our manufacturing capabilities.+

+< Contrition > Of course. The overall strategic analysis is that we have suffered a terrible wound. The loss of the breeding pools alone—+

The Alpha-of-Alphas almost vocalized a frustrated hiss.

+< Sharply > What we have lost is irrelevant. Tell me what remains, and what we need.+

The Alphas looked around at each other, before the Alpha of the Gnawing-Brood spoke. It was one of the newly scarred, the mark on its throat a permanent reminder that it owed its continued existence to the Alpha-of-Alphas’ generosity.

Finally, however, it started answering questions to its new master’s satisfaction.

+< Calculating > Without the Hive’s population of meat-slaves, starvation will quickly finish what the Humans started. We have six of the sport worlds: the one below the Hive will shortly be scoured and dead. Each is sparsely populated and only a single slave transport remains. Populating them to sustain us is not feasible: We must raid.+

One of the others broadcast amusement.

+< Smug; scorn > You act as though the idea alarms you.+

+< Reminder > Raids are most effective when the Prey are vulnerable and their guard is down. The more we raid, the more well-prepared the Prey will be and the more casualties we shall suffer. < Observation > And in our weakened state, it will not take many casualties before raiding becomes unsustainable.+

The Alpha-of-Alphas stood from its throne.

+< Command > Raid infrequently against large targets, taking as many alive as possible. The Steelfang Alpha shall direct operations. Low-value Omegas and Brood are acceptable losses: Broodships, Builders, Betas and Alphas are not. If necessary, the lowest echelons will feed the upper. Meanwhile, the Builders will restore our industry.+

It stalked toward the exit, then paused and turned back.

+< Lecture > Fix this in your memories: Nothing is unassailable, everything can be broken. There will never be another Hive: From now on, we rely on redundancy. Each of you will find a home base for your Brood and I do not care whether you choose an asteroid, a moon, a station deep in interstellar space. We shall make each one self-sufficient.+

There was unanimity.

+< Fervor > It shall be as the Alpha-of-Alphas commands.+

+< Grudging satisfaction > Good.+

It left the chamber and returned to its sanctum, where the cybernetic wreckage of its predecessor still occupied the augmentation cradle. There would be time to modify that later: Remove the weaknesses and flaws that the Builder had exploited in its coup. It would not end as its predecessor had, helpless and immobile without so much as a twitching manipulator.

For now, it had more important concerns. The consolidation of its power, the security of the Swarm-of-Swarms…

And the secret behind those bombs.


Date Point: 15y6m2d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant-Commander Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: Mr. Damian Joseph Spears;
Dr. Holly Marie Chase;
Dr. James Choi;
Dr. Benjamin Richard Cook

These four individuals entered my care on an emergency basis following their recovery during Operation LOST CUB. They are employees of the Moses Byron Group, who will doubtless be handling their care going forward.

Initial assessment: All four are in a fragile state of mind having endured a decade of constant stress, not to mention witnessing the deaths of two of their colleagues and the grievous wounding of a third during their eventual escape. In addition, they resorted to consuming the meat of sapient aliens in order to survive. In the absence of a more accurate word, and in reflection of their own feelings on the matter, I shall refer to this as cannibalism from now on.

All four should therefore be considered highly likely to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the near future, and should be treated appropriately. Depression, anxiety and other conditions also seem probable.

Doctor Cook is unquestionably the worst case. Although his colleagues report that he held together well during their exile and escape, now that he is safe among humans he has lapsed into a catatonic daze. His attention can be briefly gained but is difficult to hold. Unfortunately, he has also twice now become violent and assaulted base staff. He is therefore currently sedated and it is probably worth keeping him on a sedative regime for the time being. I have started him on lorazepam. He violently rejected the assistance of our base chaplain.

Doctor Chase is superficially in a good mood but she is evasive with regards to the status of her colleague Doctor Wheeler, who is in intensive care, and changes the subject quickly whenever Doctor Wheeler is mentioned. Of the four, she spent the longest with the chaplain and requested a rosary, which seems to comfort her greatly. Although this is a welcome development, she should be monitored for signs of obsessive behaviour and I have prepared a script for fluoxetine should it become necessary.

Mister Spears is quiet and solemn, and was eager to escape from our infirmary when I spoke to him. Despite his malnourished and exhausted condition he seemed anxious to get out of bed and explore, or at least to have some activity to distract him. I started him on a low dose of Diazepam, which seemed to help, but he remains restless and finds it difficult to concentrate on anything for long. I am told that he threw a book across the room at one point, but he readily calmed down and apologized to the nurse. If his restlessness persists, he may need stronger diazepam.

Doctor Choi is objectively in the best condition both physically and mentally. He describes his mood as “both high and low” but his emotions and mood seem to be largely appropriate considering his recent history. He was very eager to be reunited with his parents, who are en route to Folctha at the time of writing. He spoke at length with the chaplain and me about what he should tell his parents and what he should leave out, especially vis-a-vis cannibalism. He was quite concerned over what their reaction might be, but did not strike me as inappropriately anxious. To be on the safe side, I have prepared a script for sertraline which I hope will not be necessary.

I do not anticipate that they will remain in my care beyond this letter.

-Lt Cmdr K. Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: 15y6m2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Martina Arés

Diego was asleep and Marty, like any remotely sensible parent, was trying to sleep at the same time. In a couple of hours he’d be awake and hollering for a breast again.

What she achieved, sadly, was to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling with nightmare scenarios flashing through her brain. Heavy footfalls on the stairs and, rather than a knock, it’d be a liaison officer come to give her the bad news. Or maybe the phone would ring, or…

It had to be hormones, or something. She’d endured him being away on missions before without feeling half this nervous. Yeah. Just maternal hormones, making her anxious.

…Or just the reality of the tiny life asleep in the crib four feet to her left.

She gave up on sleeping and got out of bed. It was still early evening after all. Maybe she’d catch up on some reading she’d meant to do.

It worked. With a tablet in one hand, a hot chocolate in the other and the baby monitor on the table next to her, she quickly got lost in and soothed by a few highlights from the scientific journals she followed. There was an especially interesting paper titled “Long chain hydrocarbon interactions with forming stasis field boundaries” that she read twice.

After that, she finally got round to some poetry her dad had sent her.

”History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,

Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.

Women will still be women, but—”

The stairs on the first floor made the unmistakable groan they always did when several very large men stepped onto them, followed by an almost alarming squeal as Adam began his climb.

It was a genuine relief to hear his footsteps but…they were slow and heavy. More often than not he flew up the stairs in a few bounding, tectonic leaps. Not now. He was either exhausted, or had a lot on his mind.

Or, as it turned out, both.

He showed up at the door in a tank top and a pair of comfortable gym shorts. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“Still got my shield.”

She smiled and kissed him, getting a one-armed rib-breaker of a hug in return, then watched as he tiptoed across the floor to check on Diego. The baby stirred softly but didn’t wake in response to the softest of gentle touches as Adam brushed a finger as thick as his arm across his cheek, then thumped—gently, so as not to wake Diego—over to the fridge in search of a beer.

Dad had brought along some of his ale the last time he visited and Adam decided now was the time to finish it off. He padded toward the couch with his beer, gently laid himself out and melted into it with a great sigh of relief. There wasn’t much pleasure in it.

“That bad, huh?” Marty sat down next to him.

“…Yeah.”

Marty sighed internally. She loved her Beefchunk but he was, as ever, not the best with his words.

She cuddled up to his arm and rested her head on his shoulder, glad for the familiar heat he gave off. “Knowing you, you already beat the crap outta the gym trying to work it through…”

“Yup. Bent the barbell. Uh…into a pretzel, sorta. Imma have to replace it.”

“That’s why we have a monthly equipment budget,” she prodded his side. “But seriously, if you couldn’t slab it out, maybe you need to talk it out.”

“I don’t… Corazón. Right now, I just want this.” He demonstrated by pulling her into a full-body hug.

She wrapped her arms as far around his chest as they could go, and snuggled into him. Things weren’t necessarily right with the world, but at least they were right at home.

“Okay,” she said. “I can do that.”

Lulled by the silence and his warmth, she soon fell asleep.


Date Point: 15y6m2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

Long day. Tired… but happy. EV-Twelve was in great shape and getting better by the day, and Allison’s fingerprints were all over her by now.

Of course, the work had been a little more… intense, today. Everybody knew about the Dauntless crew. It had been a stark reminder that things had gone wronger than wrong in the EV program’s early days. A lot of the guys on the ship engineering team felt personally responsible.

Allison of course didn’t have any share in that blame, whoever it belonged to. But it had done a lot to focus her mind. She knew that the crew’s lives depended on their good work, but today it had been visceral, written in her cells. She was certain she’d put in her best day’s work.

Hell, she’d only come up for air when Clara had literally dragged her off the ship and ordered her to go home.

She drove home in silence, underlined by the patter of Folctha’s nightly rains, the thup-thup of the wipers, and the tick-tick of her turn signals. Normally, she thought electric cars were too damn quiet but tonight she’d been glad of it.

“Allison!”

Her brothers came thundering up to her as soon as she opened the door. Ramsey and Tristan were blossoming now that their parents weren’t looming over them literally every second of the day: They’d been enrolled at Folctha Comprehensive, they were making friends their own age and both of them had grown enormously in confidence and self-expression. Allison, being the coolest possible big sister ever, had accidentally helped them, there.

There were concessions, of course. Both Amanda and Jacob had access to the boys and the right to take them places, the family spent a lot of time together down at the Multi-Faith center where they were integrating into Folctha’s tiny Mormon branch. Despite her best efforts, Allison hadn’t been able to avoid becoming well-acquainted with the branch president. She quite liked him, actually.

She knelt to give the boys a hug. “Shouldn’t you two be getting ready for bed? It’s late.”

“Xiù never said to,” Ramsey supplied.

“Where is she?”

“She’s upstairs. I think she’s taking a bath.”

“Alright. You two get dressed for bed, okay?”

They didn’t protest much. They never did, though they had learned they could get away with being a little more willful in this house. Allison was being careful not to let them turn into unleashed terrors, though. She hoped the discipline she imposed was reasonable and fair, rather than the sit-still-and-be-silent tyranny they and she had endured under their parents.

In fact, when Allison went upstairs, Xiù had gone all-out on the bath: lights off, scented candles lit, a bath bomb and flower petals that gave the water and therefore the room a lavish lavender atmosphere. She turned her head, opened her eyes and smiled a little when Allison opened the door, sitting up a little straighter in the water.

Allison knew that smile: It was the one Xiù used when things weren’t completely okay in her head. She crouched down next to the bath and they traded a slightly soapy kiss. “…How was it?”

Xiù sighed. “Harrowing. They went through… well, a lot.”

“I bet. Where the hell were they?”

Something seemed to darkly amuse Xiù for a second. She waved a water-pruned hand vaguely at the towels she’d neatly folded on the radiator. “Yeah. Where the hell.”

“Hey?”

“They called the planet Hell. It’s, uh, in Hunter space. I guess it’s kind of a hunting reserve or something.”

“…A Hunter game preserve?” Allison grabbed a towel and handed it to her.

“Yeah. It’s just as grim as it sounds. And… well, you know how much food we had just for the three of us…”

“…I don’t think I wanna hear the rest,” Allison decided. “I mean… unless you really need to get it off your chest.”

That earned her a smile and a wet hug as Xiù stood up and stepped out of the bath. The water was no more than tepid by now: she must have been in there a long while. “I’m okay.”

“…Okay. You want me to cook tonight, or…?”

“Pizza,” Xiù decided. “Pizza and a movie.”

“Suits me! You wanna let the boys stay up, or…?”

“Sure.”

Allison left her to dry herself and get dressed, spun through the shower in the efficient way they’d mastered on Misfit to get the worst of the day’s grime off, and decided they may as well make a pajama party of it.

Half an hour later, the living room smelled of pepperoni and cheese, and was awash with the sound of cartoon lasers.

Xiù wasn’t watching the movie though. “Hey. Look.”

She angled her phone’s screen Allison’s way. Julian had sent a message full of pictures, mostly stunning shots of Monument Valley at dawn. Vemik and Yan seemed to be laboring in the heat but it was pretty clear that Julian was making good friends with their guides and thoroughly enjoying himself.

Allison smiled at the grinning selfie he’d taken with his newfound cousin, but it put a tightness in her chest. “…This is gonna be a long couple of weeks.”

“Yeah.”

They were still examining the pictures when headlights played over the curtains and, a few seconds later, the doorbell rang. Allison levered herself off the sofa to investigate.

They had a security camera above the door, and a little monitor on the wall next to it, and there was no mistaking the men outside. She opened it for them.

Moses Byron gave her a warm but troubled smile as he entered and wiped his shoes, with Kevin Jenkins just behind him. “Hope I’m not disrupting,” he said, shaking her hand.

“Just a little, but I guess it’s important, huh?” Allison asked. Behind her, Xiù emerged from the living room. “Come on in.”

“Very,” Moses shook Xiù’s hand too, and hung his coat up.

“Hey Kevin.” Kevin got a hug.

He returned it. “Hey, Al. Xiù. Y’okay?”

“Ah, hello! Who’re these young gentlemen?”

Moses had stooped to shake hands with Ramsey and Tristan, who’d naturally abandoned the movie to see what was up.

“These are my brothers,” Allison explained. “Ramsey, Tristan, this is Moses Byron. He—”

“Oh, wow!” Ramsey immediately looked starstruck.

“I see my reputation precedes me,” Moses chuckled. “You two aren’t giving Allison too much trouble, are you?”

The boys knew how to answer questions like that. “No sir!”

Moses chuckled again. “That’s what I like to hear. Now, I need to steal your sister and Miss Chang for a few minutes. I hope that’s okay?”

Allison waved him through into the kitchen. “You two finish the movie and go to bed, okay?”

“Yes, Allison.”

Moses seemed genuinely buoyed by the encounter, and sat at the table in the kitchen with a smile on his face. “Fine young men,” he commented.

“I hope so,” Allison agreed. “So, this is about the Dauntless crew?”

Kevin sat down opposite Moses. “It’s about a lot more than that. The SOR aren’t even trying to keep a lid on what went down over there on Hell.”

“Why, what—?”

“I haven’t told her everything yet,” Xiù pointed out, as she bustled to make coffees.

“Ah, right.” Kevin thought for a second. “Uh… short version? The Hunters had some kinda megastructure in orbit around the dang thing. Big enough to make the Death Star look like a lego kit. Daar just blew the damn thing up.”

Xiù set a mug down sharply and turned around. “…There are billions of slaves on that thing!”

“Were,” Moses grunted. The lines on his face that had almost vanished as he interacted with the boys had come back deeper than ever.

Xiù’s hand fluttered up to her temple for a second, and then her expression locked down and she turned back to making the drinks. Buying herself time to think, probably.

“I mean… that’s big,” Allison said, “but isn’t that kind of AEC’s ball to handle?”

Kevin shook his head. “We’re tied up in it. Our ship found the place, our people managed to scrape by out there for years. It was their escape that even made what Daar did possible.”

Xiù didn’t seem to know if she wanted to make drinks or just sit down. “I mean, why would he…? How could he even–?!”

Allison stood up and took over from her. “I guess he felt it was necessary. I mean, that’s why Yulna elevated him, right? Somebody ruthless enough to do what needs doing?”

“Āi yá…”

Kevin shuffled aside to make room for Xiù as she sat down.

“Look, here’s the crux of it,” Moses said. “We know what’s gonna happen. Right or wrong, whether that thing needed blowing away or not, we’re tangled up in it and people will be angry over it. A lotta people will see the mass death and that’ll be the end of it for them; nothing will ever be justification enough for them.”

“And we already got bombed by the APA once,” Kevin noted.

“We’re aware,” Allison said. It was why their house had a panic room and bullet-resistant glass on the ground floor, which had been expensive as hell. It had been a factor in her successful application to the Folctha police for a class one firearms license, usually only available to on-duty police and security officers. The three of them still received threatening messages at least a few times a week, which Mister Williams and MBG security mostly handled themselves.

“So what do you need us to do?” Xiù asked.

“Well, you mentioned Yulna. You’re still a Sister, after all,” Moses said. “And I think right now we need to know what the Gao are thinking.”

“I can’t imagine Yulna will be happy about this…” Allison agreed.

“Yulna’s pragmatic. I think that’s why Giymuy named her, actually,” Xiù sighed, but nodded. “But fine. I can do that.”

“We can do that,” Allison corrected her.

“You don’t have to–”

“Babe, I like Yulna. I wanna be there for her.”

That earned her a smile, and a nod.

Moses seemed satisfied as well. He smiled as Allison set a coffee down in front of him and picked it up with both hands to sniff it before taking a sip.

“Mm… You make good coffee.”

“Hey, how come you don’t compliment mine anymore?” Kevin asked, lightheartedly.

“Kevin, we both know you take it as a point of pride that you make perfect coffee. There’s no point in complimenting you on it.” Moses took another sip and set it down. “As for MBG’s reaction to this… We’re gonna back our people to the hilt. Whatever they need, they get. When they’re attacked, we protect them. They aren’t to blame for what Daar did.”

“The question is, do we think what Daar did was the right thing?” Allison asked. When Xiù looked at her she shrugged. “I mean… he must have had a reason for it. Must have felt that hurting the Hunters that much was worth all the loss of life.”

Xiù paused, then nodded. Allison wasn’t sure if she was aware she was rubbing her arm.

“I don’t see that we need to answer that question… yet,” Moses said. “In fact, I hope we never do. That kind of messy business is what elected leaders are for. Mine is just to take care of my people and increase shareholder value.”

“But we still have to pay attention to politics, which is why we need Yulna’s take,” Kevin added.

Moses nodded. “Gotta test the wind and know where the reefs are, no matter how you sail.”

“That makes sense,” Xiù nodded.

They were interrupted by the boys, who appeared at the door to inform them that the movie was over and they were going to bed, and the business conversation never resumed. Once they were gone, Moses changed the subject by asking about how EV-12 was coming along and they made small talk and caught up while finishing their coffees.

Kevin and Moses declined to use the spare bedrooms: Apparently they’d already got rooms at the Statler. There were handshakes, farewells, and at long last Xiù and Allison had some more time together alone.

Xiù sank onto the couch like she was twice her actual age. “Āi yá…” she repeated.

“Babe, you look about ready to fall over. Shouldn’t we go to bed?”

“Urgh, if I sleep now I’ll just have the worst dreams…”

“Well… we didn’t finish those pics Julian sent us?” Allison suggested. That seemed to brighten her mood, and Xiù fished her phone out of her pocket to call them up again. They snuggled up on the couch and started over from the top.

“I wonder what he’s doing right now…?”


Date Point: 15y6m2d AV
Monument Valley, Navajo Nation Reservation, Utah/Arizona border, USA, Earth

Yan Given-Man

“How is one place so hot and so cold on same day?!”

“We already covered that, big guy.” Yan was being grumpy but Jooyun, bless him, was a patient man. “Trees can keep heat in and keep it out. Also, our sun is a hotter star than yours.”

Yan grumbled and scooted a little closer to the fire. Jooyun didn’t mind the cold at all, lying against a rock while he warmed his feet. In fact, he seemed more comfortable than Mikey or Raven, who’d both thrown blankets around their shoulders against the night air.

“He’s got a point though,” Raven said. “It’s like forty degrees and your clothes are drying out in front of the fire. The day’s heat didn’t seem to bother you much either.”

“I’m a Minnesota boy,” Jooyun shrugged. “I like the cold, and a lotta fellas don’t remember that it gets hot up north, too. Also I’m, uh, a lot bigger than I used to be,” he added with the strange grin the humans sometimes used when they were both proud and embarrassed about something. “I don’t seem to get the chills much anymore.”

Raven quirked an eyebrow. “You’re not cold at all?”

Jooyun chuckled softly. “Well…” He stood up, fetched his “blue jeans” from the rack he’d built and carefully wriggled into them. “Maybe a little. Even I have my limits. But now I have warm pants! This is a good reason to make cloth, Yan. Easier to clean than pelts, too.”

There was a miserable sound from the pile of blankets to Yan’s left. Vemik was under there somewhere, having claimed Jooyun’s blanket on the grounds that Jooyun wasn’t using it.

Sky-Brother chuckled. “You okay, bud? It’ll be better if you crawl out and sit with us.”

Vemik lifted the front of the blanket with his tail, just enough to peek out. “Soup ready, yet?”

“Getting there.” Mikey gave it a stir. It was all made with food they’d acquired themselves during the day. Seeing just how much food the Humans could scrounge up from what had looked to Yan’s eyes like an empty dusty wasteland had been… well, he’d learned a lot. There wasn’t a lot, but there was enough to send them to bed with a full belly, which meant another tomorrow to find more food.

That seemed to be how Humans did things, in fact. Get enough food now to reach tomorrow. If you could get enough food for the day after, and the day after, and the hand of days after that then that was good, but Mikey had said something interesting to make Yan think.

“The thing is,” he’d said, “we’re not made for this land. We’re invaders. So we can’t live off this land forever. The point isn’t to build a life here, the point is to survive until you can get back home.”

“How did your people live here, then?” Vemik had asked.

“We made a home by growing crops and keeping animals,” Raven explained.

“Crops,” Yan grunted. “So… you change this land to fit you?”

“Don’t you?” Jooyun asked. “You built a village. You had to clear the site and mark the trails, didn’t you? You set traps, and take wood for the fire and huts, dig clay for pots and strip bark for rope and cord.”

“Every animal changes the land,” Mikey said. “Even if it’s just digging a burrow or marking its territory.”

Yan furrowed his brow and thought on that until the soup was served, which turned out to be delicious and warming.

It certainly brought Vemik out of his blanket pile.

[“Why so troubled, Yan?”] he asked, in People-words. [“You saw how Humans build their big towns, you didn’t object before.”]

[“Not troubled,”] Yan grunted. [“Thinking.”]

“Anyway,” Julian finished his bowl with an appreciative slurp, “I think you two will like where we’re going next. First we’re going to Yellowstone and then the Badlands, so we can show you something like how humans, uh, ‘grew up’ I guess. The plains can be a lot like where we first learned to speak.”

“And where you learned to write?” Vemik asked.

“Nah, bud. That was elsewhere. But I think you’ll like it, and after that we’re going to Canada.”

“Can na-duh. Is another planet?”

Raven giggled. “Might as well be!”

“Naw, big buddy! It’s a lot like where I lived actually. It can get cold…but there’s strong trees, and big dangerous prey, and predators, too. Lots of bears for you to look at, Yan [Given-Man]. Though I’d not pick a fight with one.”

“Is it warm?” Vemik asked.

“This time of the year, it’s hard to say. Could be either, depending on what the gods have in mind. Some stories like to say it’s Old Man Winter and Spring fighting it out.”

“Old Man Winter.” Yan grunted. “…Good name for a god.”

Yan had long figured out that when a human talked about the gods—well, at least Jooyun, anyway—they didn’t necessarily use the word exactly like the People might. That was okay. Most of them still showed respect to the gods even if they didn’t call them gods at all.

It was comforting somehow to see that even a strong Sky-Tribe like the humans could be wrong about things.

“But yes, it will probably be pretty pleasant for the most part. Except for the mosquitos. I think you’ll be fine though with that thick skin of yours. Me, well…”

“Moss keet-oh?”

“They’re little insects that land on you and drink your blood. Like I said, you two should be fine. S’long as I don’t eat like crap and stay clean they should probably leave me alone…”

Raven found that amusing for some reason. “Sounds like wishful thinking.”

“Yeah, probably. They never bothered me as much as my grandpa, but this time of the year you’ll be able to cut through their swarms with a knife.”

Yan suppressed a shiver. He hated bugs. Too many of the People died to the shivering-sickness every year, and they all knew it was the little biting things that swarmed in the water that carried it. But what could they do? People needed to drink, and Ketta-water wasn’t enough for a whole tribe. They’d just have killed the trees.

“Is dark,” he noted instead of saying anything. “We should sleep.”

“Yeah, fair…”

In fact, not a lot of sleeping happened at first. Yan lay there with a head full of thoughts for some time, listening idly as Raven taught Vemik the names of the stars. He had to admit, he liked that the humans had named some of them after a great hunter.

His bedroll was warm and comfortable though. In the end, his thoughts drifted off, and so did he.


Date Point: 15y6m3d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant-Commander Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: Captain Anthony Costello

Captain Costello came straight to my office as soon as he was able following mission recovery and hotwash for Operation LOST CUB. He is clearly deeply troubled by the mission’s events.

To summarize: the estimated population of slaves aboard the Hunter Ring, which Costello and his team were instrumental in destroying, is estimated to have been in the billions. While he accepts the rationale behind the structure’s destruction, he describes himself as having a “troubled conscience.”

We discussed the situation at length, though mostly I think he just needed to vent his feelings. He has few other outlets, considering the need-to-know nature of the operation’s details and his shortage of true friendships among the SOR. I suggested that he might benefit from discussing the operation with his men, and he accepted that this was probably sensible. He also predicted that he’d probably be getting drunk later tonight.

I reminded him to hydrate before going to bed, which lifted his spirits and made him laugh. All things considered, I see no cause for alarm, though I imagine we will have a few more conversations on this subject in the near future.

-Lt Cmdr K. Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: 15y6m3d AV
High Mountain Fortress, Gao

Regaari

“They’re hurt right now, an’ they’re weak. Best intel we’ve got says they ain’t got much now that their stupid space donut is gone, but they’ll be raiding along space lanes and all that. We’re gonna protect every Dominion ship we know about, whether they want it or not.”

“Deny the Hunters their prey?”

Daar was apparently in a boisterous-humorous-sardonic kind of a mood, and reacted accordingly: he flicked an ear at Champion Goruu and produced an avuncular kind of pant-grin. “Exactly. Outstanding, some of y’all are catching on!”

Fiin inclined his head slightly. “An’ the more losses we inflict the less they can raid. It’ll snowball.”

Genshi raised his paw. “Dominion ships, My Father?”

“Yeah.”

“We are leaving the Alliance to fend for itself, then?”

“No. We ain’t. But ‘fer now, we’re technic’ly at war with the Alliance, ‘cuz technic’ly we’re still Dominion security council members an’ technic’ly the cease-fire never got upgraded ‘ta peace treaty. I’m still figgerin’ out how we get past that.”

“Outright ignore it?” Champion Goruu suggested.

“Yer thinkin’ it’s that easy, huh?” Daar asked him.

“Not to be flippant, My Father…” Goruu stood up. “…But if the Alliance were agile and capable enough to catch us then we wouldn’t need to worry about protecting them.”

Sheeyo duck-nodded thoughtfully. “And the Dominion is too politically fractured right now to give us much trouble over it. Indeed, with the Corti and Humans on our side, we probably can act with impunity.”

“Breakin’ the Dominion is something I ain’t sure we should do yet.” The Great Father flowed from his spot at the table and began pacing as was his wont. “We only joined them, what? Eighteen years ago?”

“And in that time they have treated us as something akin to enemies.”

“More like vassals,” Meereo commented. “A great many demands, very little honoring of their obligations to us.”

“Janissaries. It really is the bestest word for what we were made to be, huh?”

“On the other hand…” Sheeyo said, “…our trade with the Dominion is extremely valuable. Trade which becomes impossible except through the framework of their import/export regulations and market treaties. If they sanction us, then the coffers that keep the Grand Army fed and equipped will need filling from some other source.”

“We ain’t dependent on the Dominion,” Daar pointed out. “Never have been.”

“Indeed not, My Father. But it would be a blow to morale and an extra weight pressing down on our already-laboring economy. We may not be dependent on our trade with the Dominion, but losing it would nevertheless hurt.”

“And there ain’t nobody else we can trade with to make up the difference,” Daar duck-nodded. “But you sound like you’re contradicting yourself, Champion Sheeyo. Are the Dominion too fractured to trouble us, or could they make our lives difficult?”

Sheeyo twitched an ear. “Both, My Father. They’re paralyzed by indecision and internal turmoil, but all it takes is one moment of backbone, one charismatic leader to show them the way…”

“Hrrm.”

There was a prolonged silence as they all considered the problem. Regaari broke it.

“…Is there… any reason why we couldn’t find a charismatic leader with backbone of our own?” he asked.

Sheeyo gave a frustrated gesture that was equal parts nod, headshake and shrug. “I don’t think they’ll accept a Gaoian leader at a time like this. Or a Human.”

Feeling a little bit smug, Regaari stepped up to lay out his idea. “I wasn’t thinking of a Gao or a Human—”

“No.” Daar’s tone brooked no argument.

“…My Father?”

“I ain’t interested in manipulatin’ the internal affairs of another species. Not after what was done to us.”

Wrong-footed by not even being heard out after a lifetime of brotherly trust, Regaari verbally tripped over himself. “Ah… Fortunately, My Father, I don’t think that will be an issue. Let me tell you who I have in mind…”

“No. I will not speak my displeasure again.”

Cousins or not, Brothers-in-arms or not, Regaari took one look at his old friend’s expression and claws and decided that he wasn’t suicidally ambitious in this matter. He made himself small and stepped back, too stunned and upset to reply properly but determined not to show it.

Genshi put a reassuring paw on his back as soon as the Great Father’s glare had finally turned elsewhere, and the remainder of the meeting passed without Regaari paying much attention to it. He felt like he’d been punched in the gut followed by a kick or three in the nuts for good measure.

He didn’t look at Daar as he left the chamber, and walked with Genshi down the stairs and out into the courtyard in silence. The garden there had been a place for reflection and peace since the time of Great Father Fyu, and Regaari wasn’t sure if he’d intended to go that way himself, or if Genshi had subtly guided him somehow. Either way, he was glad for the tranquility.

“I take it that hurt,” the Champion commented after a while.

“That… did not go as well as I’d hoped,” Regaari confessed.

Genshi duck-nodded solemnly. “…Out of interest, who did you have in mind?

“I thought the Great Father made it clear that we weren’t to discuss the matter further.”

Genshi casually turned to face him. Ostensibly an innocent and easy gesture, but Regaari saw him check the whole courtyard for eavesdroppers as he did so. “Regaari, even Great Fathers can blunder. Maybe he’ll rip our hides off—yes, even yours—if we go behind his back, but you have to ask yourself. Do you put your hide ahead of what’s right for Gao and the galaxy?”

“…Duty first,” Regaari admitted after a second, then chittered. “Though I hope he’d at least do me the courtesy of making it quick and painless.”

Genshi flicked an amused ear. “I’m sure for an old Cousin he can be merciful. So: Who did you have in mind?”

Regaari told him.

The way Genshi’s chittering rang off the ancient stone walls was all the approval he needed.


Date Point: 15y6m3d AV
High Mountain Fortress, Gao

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

Daar was pretty much certain Regaari would disobey him. That…hurt. It hurt for lotsa reasons, but that couldn’t distract him. What mattered was how carefully his Cousin threaded the needle, if he chose to attempt it. Daar hoped he chose wisely, because he dearly loved his idealistic Cousin and couldn’t think of much worse than being forced to break him as an example to all.

That was a worry for another day. Right then, the beatdown of the mission and the ensuing aftermath had taken its toll. Daar needed three things: he needed to lift, he needed to eat, and he needed to sleep. He hadn’t had a moment’s rest since the mission and he was starting to butt against the edge of his mental endurance. He was stressed out and angry, and the last thing anybody needed was a rampaging Great Father who couldn’t control his temper.

So, Daar did what he needed to do. He dragged Fiin and the Warleaders of all four Fangs off to the gym, then proceeded through a murderous ‘lil routine ‘Horse had sent him the other week. It was long, painful, exhausting, and just the thing to prove he could still whup the young pups on anything. That felt good and mellowed him out some, ‘specially since the gap ‘tween them was maybe just a bit wider than usual today. Pro’ly it were all the anger; none of ‘em had the same kinda rage Daar had.

Small blessings.

Once Daar was good and tuckered out, he dragged them off to the mess hall ‘fer some grub and ate himself full to bursting, then commiserated with his thrashed Brothers and complimented them on their ‘Back-strong improvements. It was important they didn’t get discouraged or hold him in any kind of subservient awe, so he pointed out the little nips he let them get in to soothe their wounded pride. He didn’t allow ‘em anything too big, though; he weren’t about to let ‘em think they stood any chance against him in any way. The only people that could whup him—sometimes, ‘fer now—were all aliens: Yan, Arés, Firth…and Murray, too. Somehow. The Keeda-shit crazy ninja.

…Could bestest friend Tiny still get a trick or two in? He’d need to find out some day…

Anyway. All of that felt damn good and were exactly what he needed, but balls if it didn’t suck the very last of his energy outta him. Sensing his oncoming crash, Daar attended to the last-minute business of the day, made it very clear he weren’t to be disturbed “even if my tail was on fire,” and at last managed to thump tiredly up to his quarters. It was all he could do to drag his mangy tail through the door.

Naydi was waiting for him. He felt some energy return to his body and his tail wagging of its own accord. He pant-grinned, pleased as a fat cub to see her, but she of course saw right through his honest happiness and into the weariness underneath. She didn’t say anything and she didn’t need to, she just flowed over and nuzzled him right against his nape. They held for a long time.

He could smell everything, especially that close up. Normally that bewitchin’ note he were smellin’ on Naydi would have led to the most predictablest outcome ever, but for the time being Daar was so far beyond exhausted he found himself committing somethin’ like a personal heresy.

“…Naydi, uh, don’t take this personally…but tonight I just wanna sleep.”

She duck-nodded knowingly. “I understand.”

Gods but he depended on her strength. What a blessing she was! They didn’t say much more, just padded over to their nest-bed, curled up, and lay quietly together for a nice, long time.

He was starting to feel drowsy when Naydi pounced on him, all clever like she always did.

“You had an interesting letter, Bumpkin.”

She’d taken it on herself to handle most of his personal correspondence. Daar was sure there was some kinda behind-the-scenes power struggle between her and Regaari, but right then he didn’t care. Both of ‘em knew his mind better’n he did, sometimes.

She also knew not to burden him with details, so when she decided some note was important, Daar paid very close attention.

“Oh?”

She spoke. He listened. He nodded along, growing increasingly enthusiastic with each sentence.

“I’m in,” he said.

Despite his best efforts he drifted off to sleep. He woke again sometime just before dawn, and took a moment to consider the burgeoning orange sky outside. Really, he should probably get up and sort out some of the endless demands on his time.

Instead, he curled up around Naydra and fell asleep again almost instantly.

Sometimes, even a Great Father could indulge.


Date Point: 15y6m3d AV
Riverside Park, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Master Sergeant Derek “Boss” Coombes

“Well hey, stranger.”

There was that smile. God he’d missed that smile. It lifted him right up and brought a wide grin to his own face.

Of course, he had to say hello to the dog first.

“Hey.” Derek knelt down and made a fuss of Hannah, who wriggled ecstatically around him before flopping on her back for a chest rub.

He could appreciate a lady who knew what she wanted.

Ava laughed and crouched down next to him. “So what was the delay? I thought you’d be free as soon as the Ten’Gewek were on Earth.”

Derek shrugged apologetically. “I had to secure permissions and reassure a buncha government types and… Shit, I think if I’d tried to do it all by email I’d still be stuck in my office. I spent the whole time visiting folks in their offices.”

She scratched the dog. “Taking two aliens on a tour around the national parks and stuff is hard work, huh?”

“You have no idea. Got some good news for you, though. Or, well, an opportunity.”

She raised an eyebrow slightly. “Oh?”

“Dinner, tomorrow. A real dinner, you and me. And a show or a movie or an art gallery or something first if you want.”

Somehow, he managed to pull off a no-big-deal, casual kinda attitude and the look on her face was completely worth it: just for a second, she was totally off-balance.

“…Wait, really?”

He grinned. “Really.”

“Like, a date?”

“A date.”

“With me?”

“With you, yes.”

She stared at him for a moment as if he’d just suggested they should go order a deep-fried groundhog.

“…Are you sure?”

He grinned wider. “Absolutely sure.”

“I thought… I mean, the Lads and…”

“Ava,” he chuckled. “Is this a yes or a no?”

“Uh… yes! It’s a yes! I’m just… I kinda figured that…” She trailed off, stared at him for a second longer, then kissed him.

Considering they were both still crouched down next to Hannah, the result was that they both fell over. She landed on his chest, and Hannah scrambled to get away then circled warily around to check they were okay.

“Ow.”

“Sorry, sorry…” She didn’t climb off him, though. “Are you okay?”

Derek rubbed the back of his head and picked a little fleck of gravel out of his hair. “That ain’t how I imagined it going.”

“ Was it okay? I mean, you hit your head, that’s… and you only asked me out and I… did I read too much into—?”

“Ava.”

“…Yeah?”

It was his turn to kiss her. She melted into him with a happy sigh and considering they were both already on the ground, it lasted much longer this time.

After a while she straightened up and looked around. “I, uh… Hmm. Good thing it’s early in the morning.”

They helped each other to their feet, where she recovered her composure by adjusting her hair, and he recovered his by adjusting his clothes. She was right, one benefit of their just-after-sunrise routine was that the park was basically empty and as far as he could tell their public display of affection had gone unnoticed.

“Whew. Uh… Hmm.” She turned to look at him and finally seemed to have got her balance back. “…Yeah. You can take me to dinner tomorrow.”

Derek snorted and laughed. “Real casual. I’m convinced.”

She rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “…Really though? I… I mean, my relationship with the SOR has never been great…”

“Bro Prime stepped in and basically demanded I ask you out. I’d have done it sooner, but this was literally the first opportunity.”

“Adam did that?” She looked distant for a second. “…Wow.”

“He cares about you a lot. Said he’d smooth everything over with the Lads, and… well.” Derek shrugged. “The big bastard is pretty persuasive.”

“I bet,” she said drily, and dusted herself off. “Uh… we should probably…” she gestured down the path.

“One last favor to ask you…” Derek said, though he set off jogging alongside her.

“Uh, sure. Name it!”

“If I had, like… a message I wanted to get out. About things. A thought I wanted to share, kinda thing…”

“Like what?”

“Well… I was thinking about what you said about art. And I was thinking… artists mostly think a certain way, right? Like… your average artist is probably college educated, Left-leaning, that kinda thing.”

“Eh…you’d be surprised, but…that’s mostly what I see, yeah,” Ava agreed. “Especially the ones who do gallery shows and stuff. Who’re into the whole art scene, y’know?”

Derek nodded. “Seems to me like there’s things not being said that need to be said.”

“Maybe. If there’s something you want to say, I’d love to help, but uh… if it’s about what I think it’s about… let’s maybe talk about it later,” she suggested. She slowed her pace and reached out to take his hand. Her fingers were surprisingly warm when they interlaced with his.

“…Yeah,” he decided. “It can wait.”


Date Point: 15y6m3d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant-Commander Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: Technical Sergeant Adam Arés

Sergeant Arés sees me every month and his visit today was expected. Since his last visit he has enjoyed the birth of his first child. I congratulated him and we briefly touched on that subject, but he is happy, enthusiastic and optimistic in that regard: His new fatherhood seems to be a source of joy rather than stress for him.

This session was a bit unusual in that he seemed eager to talk about everything but the recent mission, and spent the first half-hour of our session reviewing his athletic achievements (faster and stronger, naturally), his academic progress (working on his Master’s thesis in sports medicine), his real estate empire (contemplating another building purchase) and so on.

He opened up when I directly pointed out his evasiveness, though he did exhibit a very brief flash of anger. He was immediately contrite, though alas I did not have the time to explore that topic.

With regards to the Operation LOST CUB, he admitted that he feels deeply conflicted about what they achieved. He states that he understands the rationale and the command decision, but tells me that rationalizing it is not helping. He says he understands and agrees that an incalculable number of lives will be saved in the long run, but again this seemed to be small comfort.

The thing that seemed to trouble him the most, however, was his relationship with the Great Father. Many of the men had a particular image of Daar which has been badly shaken by recent events. Where once there was a friendly, boisterous brother-in-arms, there is now a being who is great in all the terrible meanings of the word.

The specific words that Sergeant Arés used were “You think you know a guy, you know?” and “Makes me wonder, if Daar had that in him all along then who else?”

We shifted the discussion into Arés’ own immense propensity for aggression, which is intense even by the standards of the HEAT. Segueing into this topic seemed to give him food for thought, and brightened him considerably. He thanked me, saying “I think I know what’s been itching at me now” and departed in a much more chipper mood.

It would be helpful if I was better-acquainted with Daar, but Arés’ moment of epiphany seemed to coincide with mulling over the term ‘Great Father.’ Considering the recent change in his family circumstances, I am left to wonder what connection he has made, a conversation I look forward to having with him next month.

-Lt Cmdr K. Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman.


Date Point: 15y6m3d AV
City 01, Origin, The Corti Directorate

Nofl

The banner-caste system had always grated at Nofl. Summarily removing individuals from the breeding pool over their childhood and adolescent performance on standardized academic tests and personality traits was… It sneered at all the ways in which a Corti could be productive, successful, or even a genius without conforming to the Directorate’s narrow protocols.

Take Nofl himself. His adolescent assessment had described his personal foibles as “crippling.” Crippling! As though a sense of humor and a flair for the dramatic were defects! Oh, he’d shown them. He’d shown them good and hard what a Steel-banner lowlife could achieve. There were a lot of very wealthy Deans and Directors who profited from his work, and Nofl’s own credit line was historic for one of his caste.

Empirical demonstrations of the Caste system’s inadequacy didn’t come clearer or louder… but the Castes were orthodoxy. Contrary to his fantasies, all of his wild success had achieved absolutely nothing to shift the entrenched dogma.

Now, though, it seemed as though every Corti alive including the coveted echelons of the Directorate and Colleges themselves were destined to be a reproductive dead-end regardless. Every last one of them was about to be yanked firmly out of the gene pool regardless of their Banner. The Directorate’s plan was that extreme. Logical, but extreme.

“All of them? Really?”

Secondary Director Larfu confirmed it with a languid wave of his hand. “Every last one. Every reproductive facility under the Directorate’s control is to be dismantled as soon as we have a viable new template, and we are strengthening the Office of Population Control’s powers to detect and shut down unlicensed procreation.”

“And this viable template will be inspired by Human DNA,” Nofl checked.

Tertiary Director Blernd gestured a secondary display. “If necessary, we may even consider splicing in certain useful genes, as you can see here. Certain functions that have been carefully eradicated from the Corti genome may need to be reintroduced. If the Human genome provides a superior version of the same function, then why not use the best available?”

Nofl could think of a few objections, mostly involving words like ‘sanctity‘ and ‘creepy,’ but they were Steel-banner thinking, not to mention being English loan-words. The concepts they embodied were difficult indeed to express in Cortan.

“I would raise concerns about compatibility,” he said instead. “Not to mention epigenetic phenomena that may defy prediction.”

“All the more reason to build as complete a picture as we can,” Blernd said.

That was reasonable, at least. And frankly, Nofl knew that what his species needed now was to roll the dice. They would load those dice and bend the game’s rules in their favor, but they had reached the point where survival demanded risk-taking.

“Securing the requested data should not be difficult,” he predicted.

Larfu seemed pleased. “Good. We shall instruct the medical barge Continuity Correction to be ready to transit to Cimbrean. If you can secure that genome, then a demonstration of our advanced trauma surgery techniques is a small price.”

Nofl nodded, and was about to step back when a thought occurred to him. “Out of interest…” he asked, “why Human and not Gaoian DNA? They are classed as deathworlders too…”

“Only by the most, hmm… extreme interpretation of the data and lending rather more weight to certain anomalous individuals than is truly warranted considering the species and planetary average,” Blernd said. “I dislike when political expediency meddles with accurate surveys.”

“Our oh-so-accurate surveys missed a great deal of rather critical data, especially the details of their past. And need I remind the Director, those same surveys were forced to revise their rating upwards no less than thrice before settling on nine-point-nine-one-two, and then finally ten-point-two. In light of that, their reclassification hardly seems illogical, dear.”

“…We have a great deal of genetic data from the Gaoians now, in the aftermath of their war,” Larfu said, flatly ignoring the jab. “And we have uncovered… irregularities. Quite aside from the evidence of profound and widespread mutation only a few hundred generations recently, their genome is absolutely riddled with a repeating non-expressed sequence that looks intriguingly like it might be a marker of some kind.”

“Humans have something similar,” Nofl pointed out. “Though in their case it seems to be indirectly related to transcription issues that change protein shape on expressed DNA, and the regulation of expression if not expression itself.”

“All the more reason to compare and contrast,” Blernd observed. “If we are going to draw inspiration from, or even outright copy alleles from deathworlders, we need to robustly consider as much data as we can… It really is a shame we won’t be able to get a Ten’Gewek genome.”

“Fascinating people,” Nofl agreed amiably. “I only saw them from afar when they visited Folctha, but that tail is tremendously strong. They can support their bodyweight on it quite comfortably, both in tension and in compression.”

Larfu made a softly disappointed noise. “A shame you couldn’t get a closer look. Even a medical scan would be tremendously valuable…”

“I fear their guide and protector is… not well-disposed to Corti. It seems he was some idiot ‘zoologist’s’ half-baked experiment. He’s civil enough, but, well. He is in Warhorse’s orbit.”

“Ah, yes. The largest of the other set of Cruezzir monsters. After the damage done by the Human Disaster…”

“I can hardly be held accountable for other people misusing my invention, can I?” Nofl waved a hand airily. “Besides, it wouldn’t really be accurate or fair to call the HEAT ‘monsters.’ They’re…”

“Tame monsters?” Blernd suggested, archly.

“Hardly. Civilized may be a better term.” He ventured a brief flash of his most disarming smile. “And after all, the Directorate did approve the development of Cruezzir-Derivative. Both variants are performing optimally, I might add. Though I do wonder…do the Humans know the full details of what you put into the product, hmm?”

“They can make their own deductions,” Larfu retorted. “Now. I believe we have a price the Humans will consider fair for this surgery?”

“Viable genetics across a broad sampling of their genome, including anomalous samples and stem cells,” Nofl nodded. “I can attest that what they call the HeLa strain has some truly fascinating properties, too. Alas, my laboratory isn’t equipped to plumb its deepest mysteries.”

“And the surgery itself? It would be… unfortunate if the patient did not survive. Our reputation and future opportunities are at stake.”

Nofl reassured the director with a distracted flap of his hand. “Oh, yes, the surgery will be trivial. It’s just a heart transplant and some peripheral tissue regeneration. Between the patient’s Deathworlder physiology and the hefty dose of Cruezzir-Derivative already in her system I can’t foresee that she’ll suffer anything worse than disorientation.”

“Excellent. Then make it so. We shall prepare our baseline ‘Mother Prime’ and ‘Father Prime’ and await further input. And…we will re-examine the Gaoian genome in light of your advice. There is a potential line of profit to be exploited there, if their Goldpaw Champion can be convinced.”

“Of course, Director. I’ll take my leave.”

Thus, Nofl’s meeting with the great and powerful was over, at least for now. He strolled languidly back toward the Directorate transport humming a jaunty tune to himself and taking a quiet delight in the strange looks his anomalous behaviour earned him.

“Mother Prime and Father Prime?” He shook his head in disbelief as he muttered the words to himself. Hopefully the coming New Corti paradigm would have more of a sense of imagination.

It was too much to hope that they might delve through the species’ most ancient archives and dig up whatever long-forgotten fable had filled the same role in Corti society as Adam and Eve had in Western Human society. That kind of lore was long gone.

But then again… perhaps that just meant they had the chance to write it from new.

Food for thought.


Date Point: 15y6m3d AV
Grand Commune of Females, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

“You’re standing by them? Even after what they did?”

Yulna had commandeered a kitchen as she usually did when Xiù and Allison visited her. Allison didn’t complain—she got to lounge around and watch as the two who actually enjoyed cooking indulged their creative hobby, and she got to enjoy their creations.

She wasn’t touching the talamay today though. This wasn’t an occasion to be merry. Yulna was… understanding, but not happy.

“What choice did they have?” Xiù asked.

“…Starve, I suppose,” Yulna sighed. “And who would I be if I insisted that people had to starve themselves to death? Is my comfort worth more than their lives?”

“That’s my attitude,” Allison agreed.

“But… cannibalism though?”

“I mean…all living things must eat. And humans can’t digest raw grass or… whatever the local version is.”

“I did some reading up on it,” Xiù interjected. She was sifting flour to Yulna’s right and was already coated in a fine white coat of the stuff. “It comes back to nutrition. Humans just…need too much of it. Ironically, we actually find it harder to survive on lower-Class worlds because of the way the planetary classification scale works.”

“It’s the same for Gao,” Yulna agreed. “We’re obligate carnivores. I suppose that’s why the Dominion eventually bumped our rating up above ten. We didn’t cross a billion until…well, the modern era and intensive farming.”

“Part of the reason,” Allison nodded. “Political prejudice played its part too, I’m sure.”

“Or the Hierarchy.” Yulna sighed and deposited a bowl full of icing sugar and butter under the mixer. Some lucky cubs were going to be bouncing off the walls in a few hours: Allison certainly didn’t want to eat a Nava cake, though Xiù didn’t seem troubled by the recipe.

“Perhaps we should discuss something different?” Yulna requested. “Talking about cannibalism here in my kitchen is…”

“Off-putting?” Xiù suggested.

“Yes, let’s go with that.”

“It is… kinda the reason we came here today…” Allison reminded them. “I mean, it’s always great to see you, but…”

“But this is important,” Yulna sat down on a stool and scratched her claws idly on the countertop. “I know… I keep thinking about Triymin. I never met her.”

“No,” Xiù said quietly. “You never got to.”

“What was she like?”

Xiù set her bowl of flour aside for a second and leaned against the counter opposite Yulna. “…Wounded,” she said after a moment’s thought. “Scared. She barely knew how to be a Gaoian, but she was so brave… And so loyal…”

“Sounds like a Gaoian to me,” Allison said. It earned her two grateful looks.

“How many more like her were on that ring, I wonder…?” Yulna mused.

“…More than could ever be saved.”

“That’s a very… male answer, Allison.”

Allison just shrugged, and after a second Yulna sagged. “…But true,” she conceded.

“Ayma was appalled when she found out what Triymin’s mother had done to save the cubs…” Xiù recalled.

“Yes. She always… in the loveliest way, she was loyal and loving to a fault. But I could always sympathize. Those are the virtues and ideals of this Clan after all: Loyalty and love.”

“And the unrestrained fury of a mama bear,” Allison said. She elaborated when they looked at her. “What was that guy’s name again? The Corti who abducted you two?”

“Trig,” Xiù said.

“Remind me what happened to him again?”

“That bastard deserved what he got,” Yulna growled.

“You tore him apart.”

“Personally,” Yulna agreed. She caught the note of satisfaction in her own voice and her expression changed to consternation. “…So you’re right. Unrestrained fury.”

“…I never did find out what I was doing there,” Xiù said suddenly. “It’s like I was almost an afterthought and they didn’t know what to do with me?”

“Oh! Didn’t Regaari tell you?” Yulna looked surprised.

“Tell me what?”

“The whole experiment was about you. He wanted to see how you reacted to distressing stimuli. He was testing how well Humans can empathise with other life forms.”

“…With a sample size of one?” Allison asked. “He wasn’t a very good scientist.”

“He was an exiled sadist with delusions of grandeur,” Yulna snarled. “The Directorate expelled him years before he took us.”

“I did wonder why they didn’t object to you… to what you did to him,” Xiù looked obviously uncomfortable.

“…That was your first time seeing that side of us,” Yulna sighed. “And I suppose that’s the problem I face now. My Sisters are going to feel pulled in two directions by their instincts over this ring and what the Great Father did to it.”

She tapped her forehead. “Up here we can see the logic of it and understand that the Hunters were really to blame… Down here though…” She stroked the fur of her abdomen. “The Great Father killed a great many cubs, both on Gao and now on the Ring. Some of us will be furious with him over that, even though we never knew them.”

“And because you made him Great Father…” Xiù predicted.

“…Yes.”

“Your throne’s wobbling a bit, huh?” Allison asked.

“I don’t have a throne. I never had a throne. But I had the power to give Daar his, and he certainly never wanted it.”

“But he’s using it.”

“Yes, because he must.” Yulna stood up and plunged into the depths of a fridge in search of God-knew-what. “There are people who don’t understand that.”

“There always are.”

“…What happens if Daar loses the love and support of the average Gao on the street?” Yulna asked. “He has the Grand Army and the Clans, but what about the civilians? The disapproval of the Clan of Females is a soft power at most, and so long as I’m Mother-Supreme it’s off the table. But even the mightiest and most intimidating throne needs to rest on a solid foundation of public support.”

She found what she was after—eggs—and returned to making her cake.

“Well…that’s really up to him, isn’t it?” Allison argued. “He just did a Great thing, and now its on him to show why it mattered. And I suppose it’s worth noting that the males in your society hold a lot more power than they generally exercise.”

Xiù nodded. “Let’s face it. If the Males didn’t want the Females to have any power at all, they outnumber us several times over…”

“…And cases like Myun aside, they’re bigger and stronger than you, too,” Allison pointed out.

Yulna broke an egg into the flour bowl. “You’re saying that Females only have any power because males allow it?”

“…No. But there’s something important at play. Hell, look at us.” Allison gestured to Xiù and herself. “Julian’s never been small, but now he’s a lot heavier than the pair of us combined. The only reason Xiù ever wins when they spar these days is because she’s tricky, and because he’s just playing. What if he decided to stop playing one day? He’s managed to scare me plenty of times.”

“You’re scared of him?” Yulna asked. She selected a tube of Nava paste and Allison looked away so that she wouldn’t have to suppress the urge to heave as Yulna squeezed a healthy quantity of pureed insect guts into the cake batter.

At least Xiù didn’t seem fazed. “Sometimes.”

“A woman who isn’t at least a little scared of her man is either an idiot or she has a weak man… In which case she’s an idiot,” Allison said. “But, see, the thing is? That goes both ways. It’s just…different.”

“…How so?”

“Julian is…a very caring man. If I’m feeling even the tiniest bit sad for any reason at all, it ruins his day and he doesn’t want to do anything else until whatever upset me is fixed. That’s…a hell of a power to have. It honestly scares me that I can do that to someone.”

“If we called him right now and said we need him to come home… he would,” Xiù agreed. “And I’m pretty sure Yan and Vemik would understand, too.”

“But he could overwhelm you, if it ever got into his head to do so,” Yulna finished. “And the Males could overwhelm us.”

Allison nodded. “Yeah. And that’s my point, I think.”

“Daar wouldn’t behave like he does if he didn’t truly care about the Females. He’d just enslave us,” Xiù elaborated. “He doesn’t want that, he wants a strong Clan of Females. I think, really, that’s the thing that’ll win the argument for him.”

‘Us,’ Allison noted. Xiù always included herself in the Clan of Females whenever she spoke about it.

Yulna finished mixing her cake batter in thoughtful silence for a few seconds, then poured it into a greased tin. “…Yes. I think you’re right,” she said at last. “And I think I can make that argument to my Sisters, too.”

“And the Dauntless crew?” Xiù asked.

Yulna sighed and finished scraping out the batter. She ran her spatula over the surface to flatten it down and spread it out, then turned to transfer the cake tin to an oven. “…They did what they had to to keep each other alive. We do what we must to protect each other. I don’t think we can blame them. In fact… I think I feel sorry for them. I wouldn’t want to have to make the choices they did.”

She closed the oven and dusted off her paws. “…And that’s my official position on it,” she declared.

“…Thank you, Mother.”

Yulna duck-nodded, then returned to the fridge and produced a covered plate. “I made this one earlier. Something a little more pleasing to the human palate… I hear you have a couple of young ones in your house yourselves, now?”

“My brothers, yeah.” Allison accepted the plate gratefully and sneaked a glance under the cover. Strawberries and chocolate gleamed back at her. “Oh man. It’s gonna be hard to be a good big sis and not eat all of this…”

Yulna handed her the mixing spoon. “Here. If it keeps you from stealing a cub’s cake, you can lick the spoon. Just bring it back next time.”

“…Thanks.”

In fact, Allison gave the spoon to Xiù as soon as they were out of Yulna’s sight, and tried not to horf as Xiù got it all over her nose and chin with every sign of enjoying it. Eventually she’d had enough and just had to comment. “…Really?”

Xiù paused. “Hmm? What?”

“That’s a nava cake, babe.”

“Yup!” Xiù happily scooped a dollop off her chin to lick it off her finger, then saw Allison’s expression. “…I guess it’s an acquired taste.”

“Y’know, sometimes I can’t tell if you take being kinda-sorta Gaoian real seriously, or if you just went native. I mean, you even say ‘us’ when you talk about the Clan.”

Xiù cleaned the end of her nose and shrugged. “That bit I take seriously,” she said. “I mean, I don’t pretend like I’m not a little messed up about it, bǎobèi…”

“You’re fine,” Allison assured her. “But I’m sorry, Nava-flavored cake is where I draw the line.”

“More for me!” Xiù beamed with a teasing look on her face, and licked the spoon again. “But what’s the problem? You like my chāshāo bāo don’t you?”

“Pork is one thing. Nava’s another.”

“Your loss.”

Their shuttle was waiting to take them back to the mainland, and Xiù gave the pilot’s seat a wistful look as she sat down. “…I should really learn how to fly one of these,” she said.

“Why not? You can definitely afford the lessons.”

“I think I will then. It’d be nice to fly again.”

“Especially a shuttle. We could go into orbit again. How does another out-of-this-world experience sound?” Allison grinned at her, and the Gaoian Sister piloting the shuttle flicked her ear with a smirk as Xiù went crimson, before returning her attention to the job at hand and taking off.

“…It sounds like a chance to have some privacy, really.” Xiù admitted. “The boys are lovely, but I miss having the place just for us.”

Allison sighed and nodded as the shuttle banked over the grand commune and accelerated. “Yeah. I mean, when was the last time we just hung out?”

“Not since your mother showed up.”

“We should fix that.”

Xiù looked sideways at her, then snuggled up close. “Camping trip? A fire and a tent somewhere?”

“And a crate full of beers. Just like old times.”

Xiù sighed. “That sounds perfect.”

“We’ll make it happen,” Allison promised. Xiù nodded, snuggled into her a little closer, and comfortable silence descended. Allison stroked her hair a few times then put her head back to relax for the ride home herself.

At least some things in life could be simple…

__

Date Point: 15y6m3d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

Charlotte, being about the girliest girl ever, needed a few minutes to get past the delighted squeaking and happy-clappy dancing stage of excitement before flitting into the kitchen to make tea because… well, presumably there was some British version of logic at play.

Ben watched her go with a fond chuckle then gave Ava a hug. “Well. It’s about bloody time. In’t that right, Hannah?”

The dog wagged her tail at him, while Ava grinned and sat down on their couch. “Yeah. It is.”

“So what’s he like?” Charlotte called. Her and Ben’s house was small and modest, especially by Folctha’s standards. Charlotte called it ‘cosy’: Ava had always felt it was cramped, especially with all the stuff they had cluttering up the place. Stacks of old console games, a tough Aloe Vera that was somehow managing to survive their slapdash attention, shelves full of interesting knick-knacks and a mountain of untouched cookbooks. The whole thing was sprinkled liberally with lonely crumpled socks and mugs that bore a thin internal lacquer of dried tea.

She had to admit: it was one of the most characterful and lived-in places that she knew. It was a home in the complete and messy sense of the word, whereas Ava had few possessions and paid for a cleaner to visit twice a week. The contrast was stark.

“He’s been through a lot,” she said. “He’s tough, composed… kinda dangerous…”

“Dangerous?” Ben asked.

“In the best way. He has that… quiet intensity. Y’know? Disciplined.”

Charlotte poked her head out of the kitchen. “How’d you meet?”

“I actually can’t tell you the details!” Ava gave her a sorry smile. “I met him in Egypt.”

“Bloody hell, everything comes back to Egypt with you!” Ben rolled his eyes. “…What the hell happened over there?”

“Stuff. Big stuff that I don’t really… But Derek was involved.”

“You and your soldiers…” Charlotte darted into the room long enough to give her a hug, then returned to the kettle.

“What else?”

“Well… he’s artistic! He doesn’t think he is, but that’s just because he’s never tried to make art, yet. But he’s got an artist’s soul, y’know? What else…? Uh, I know he has an ex-wife and a kid out there somewhere, but he doesn’t like to talk about them much…”

“He does?” Ben asked. “…How old is he?”

“He’s about twelve years older than me.”

“Wow.” Ben sat back. “Isn’t that kind of a big gap?”

“I don’t care.”

“Heh! Fair enough. What else?”

“Well, he’s—”

Ava’s phone rang, interrupting her, and she pulled a face. She’d set a different ringtone for when her editor Jason was calling off the work line. He’d only be calling now if something big had come up.

“Mierda…” She gave Ben and Charlotte an apologetic look and fished the phone out of her pocket. She made a point of buying pants with real pockets.

“This is Ava.”

Jason had a lot of noise behind him. Things in the office must be getting active. “Hey Ava. Are you able to come in? It looks like a big ET piece is about to land.”

“Jason, I only got off work an hour ago! …How big?”

“Apparently the Gaoians are gonna make some kind of big statement to the Dominion Security Council. We know it has to do with that Byron crew and the planet they were trapped on, but other than that…”

“The SOR were involved too,” Ava predicted.

“How d’you know?”

“Sources. The HEAT were activated. All of them.”

She heard him typing frantically. “This is why we need you, Ava.”

She sighed. “Okay. I’m having tea with my friends. I’ll come in as soon as I’ve drunk it.”

“Ava—”

“Do I have to remind you about Folctha’s working hours laws again? I’m coming in. But I want ten minutes with my friends first. Got that?”

“…Alright. See you in twenty.” He hung up and Ava rolled her eyes as she put her phone away.

“Bloody hell. You got assertive!” Ben said, approvingly.

“Jason always wants me in five minutes ago when something new comes down the wire,” Ava sighed. “If he knows it’s coming though, that means it’s not urgent. There’ll be plenty of time to prepare for it.”

Charlotte delivered the tea and sat down. She looked about ready to fizz out of her skin, and could barely sit still. “So?”

“So… what?”

“So you’ve known him for a while, he’s asked you out… could this be the one?”

Ava laughed and picked up her drink. “…I don’t really believe in ‘the one.’ But I have a good feeling about Derek. I think… I think we can see things in each other that are there, but neither of us believe are there. Y’know?”

“Sounds constructive,” Ben commented. “You gonna bring him down the park or the beach anytime soon?”

“One step at a time. Come on, you remember how long it took me to convince you two to try out the beach with me.” Ava sipped her tea. “Anyway. It’s just the start.”

“Yeah. But keep us in the loop. You look way happier already.”

They chatted briefly about Ben’s work, Charlotte asked after how baby Diego was doing, and the tea vanished much too quickly for Ava’s liking. Pretty soon, she couldn’t think of an excuse not to drag herself off the couch and reluctantly call a cab. There were hugs, promises to take an afternoon down at the beach together sometime soon, and she went to work with Hannah at her side.

The office was thrumming when she got there. Jason glanced pointedly at the clock when she came in, but got a complete no-sell glare in return. Ava wasn’t on call today, her presence was totally voluntary and he had no right to give her any kind of grief.

Fortunately, the chief editor Amy Larsen was less of a pain in the ass. She also knew when the office needed some fast food to handle a late evening news bomb that promised to turn into a potential all-nighter. She gave Ava a grateful smile, and with a glance in Jason’s direction and a roll of her eyes she somehow made everything better.

Hannah curled up in her soft little doggy bed next to Ava’s desk as Ava sat down and checked her emails. She put on her headset and got on the office voice chat. It was weird how she was using her computer to talk with people who were sat at most only a few dozen feet away, but it worked: their hands were free, they could type or search or contact their sources, all without filling the air with shouts and confusion.

Amy smiled at her and though she was on the far side of the room, her voice sounded close and conversational in Ava’s headset. “Hey Ava. Thanks for coming in.”

Ava waved at her and adjusted her mic. “So something big’s gonna happen with the Gao?”

Jason’s voice: “Yeah. Apparently the Great Father just showed up on the Rich Plains in person…”


Date Point: 15y6m4d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant-Commander Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: Senior Master Sergeant Christian Firth

Sergeant Firth entered my office in a downright giddy mood today, a happy change from our earliest sessions where his usual demeanor was one of cynical, barely-contained aggression.

To be fair, that aggression is still there in full measure, if not possibly stronger. What’s changed is its direction and application. Rather than projecting a state of constant low-grade anger, he now seems motivated, as though he now views the things that used to make him angry as opportunities, rather than frustrations.

My suspicion is that our counseling sessions are only partly responsible for this change. He is one of the first and heaviest users of Cruezzir-D, being a first-generation HEAT operator. He is also one of the oldest men on the team but, like all the operators, there has been a pronounced anti-aging effect and recently it’s become impossible to miss. The full effect has taken longer to manifest with him—the medical board believes that is due to a combination of his age, sheer size, and accumulated injuries over a rough career. In any case he too has reached the point where he looks like a young adult, and increasingly his attitude is that of a young man as well.

Firth, to his immense credit, has taken to calling it his “second shot” at life. I feel this is a healthy view to take of the situation, though like the other operators he expresses concern about what the long-term risks of their heavy “Crude” usage might exactly entail. Coincident with his recent attitude shift and his “more handsomer” appearance, he is finding himself in a state of rapid and extreme physical improvement, much like Arés had experienced for many years. This too has fueled his optimism and, in conjunction with his intensely competitive nature and dominant personality, rekindled his long-term belief that he would eventually “beat Arés at his own game.” One might feel sympathy for their gym equipment, considering its likely fate.

Apparently this is all causing some interpersonal friction with his fiancé Freya, which became a focus of today’s session. He is unsure how he might address this beyond expressing his love for her at every opportunity. He feels this may be making things worse, however, and I suggested that she might feel a little overwhelmed.

That seemed to draw an analogy in his mind and he recounted at length his mentoring of Arés on an eerily similar relationship. To quote: “Christ. Y’think it might be all this young-puppy bullshit goin’ on inside me?”

I noted that possibly his best course of action would be to talk it out with her at home in a casual setting. I have reinforced that “casual” means laid-back, unplanned and so forth; he laughed, which is a distinctly rare sound in my experience, and recounted that he’d given the exact same advice to his Brothers on more than one occasion. He stated he would “try and relax some.”

We touched briefly on Operation LOST CUB. He had nothing much to say on the subject, but what he said was direct and honest. Quote: “It saves lives in the long run, it protects people I care about, and those poor fucks were fucked before we ever got there. I ain’t gonna worry none too much ‘bout it.”

This pragmatic attitude is typical of him, and I am satisfied that he is mentally and emotionally well.

-Lt Cmdr K. Mears,
Counsellor, HMS Sharman.


Date Point: 15y6m4d AV
Dominion Council vessel Rich Plains, The Ruibal Territories

Champion Sheeyo of Clan Goldpaw

The Dominion Security Council were slow to change and glacial when it came to adopting new things, but even they weren’t so hard-headed as to ignore the obvious benefits of jump drives now that both the Humans and the Gao had embraced the technology.

The Rich Plains never warped anywhere anymore: It just went. From orbit to orbit, from system to system. As the Council did the rounds, gracing each member and associate member species with their presence, they skipped the intervening voyage and all its associated risk.

Adding Jump Arrays had helped enormously. Delegates could come and go from their homeworlds rather than travelling potentially for weeks to reach the Council, and staying for months. Sheeyo could be back on Gao for an important discussion with the Great Father or his Cabinet in the morning, and attend a Council session in the afternoon quite easily.

Or, as the case may be, bring the Great Father with him.

The alien delegates stiffened and watched warily when Daar prowled four-pawed into the council chamber. Sheeyo couldn’t blame them: They were used to Goldpaws and Whitecrests and other slim, average specimens of the species. Daar was… exceptional. Stonebacks were generally like that, but Daar was…was a massive, lacerated, more-than-feral embodiment of retribution.

And civilized. That part always confused: on the rare occasion the Great Father cared to be civilized, he did so in a way that always put people off-balance.

Sheeyo cleared his throat. “Honored delegates,” he announced: “Daar of Clan Stoneback, Great Father of the Gao.”

Daar padded alongside Sheeyo and laid a heavy grateful paw on Sheeyo’s back. “Thank you, my friend. I brought you some beef jerky ‘fer later…” He then turned towards the assembled beings and rose to his full, colossal height. Standing fully upright, Daar was tall enough to look a Guvnurag in the eye. Only the gangly Champion Loomi matched him for altitude, but there was nobody to match him in stature.

“Delegates, I came here to give you this warning in person, as what is about to happen is my responsibility,” he said. The Great Father used his rolling, booming voice to maximum effect. “What has been done was necessary. But the consequences will be dire.”

Heads turned and whispers textured the chamber for a second, but he ignored them. “Four days ago, by the Gaoian reckoning, a First Fang task group led personally by myself and supported by Human forces from the Hazardous Environment Assault Team attacked and were successful in destroying… this.”

Sheeyo had dutifully loaded a presentation on the Ring into the chamber’s holographic display systems. It sprung up in the middle of the hall now, still wire-thin in comparison the planet it girdled but undeniably immense beyond understanding.

“This,” Daar told the chamber, “was a Hunter megastructure. You can see the estimates on its size and volume. We believe that more than ninety-five percent of the Swarm-of-Swarms was docked at the time of this ring’s destruction, and that it was home to the largest Hunter population in the galaxy.”

Sheeyo glanced to his left at the soft noise he heard there. The Corti delegate blinked and recovered her composure quickly, but for a second there had been an expression of sorts on that tiny, subtle face. He wasn’t sure what emotion she had expressed, but to get through a high-caste Corti’s discipline it had to be intense.

She locked it down again in a second, but Sheeyo knew. He returned his attention to Daar as similar reactions bounced around the hall.

“Despite this objective triumph, our great enemy was crafty and resilient,” the Great Father continued. “The Hunters fought back, hard. In so doing, they bought themselves time, and were able to save many ships. They are wounded and diminished, but still very much active… and now they are severed from what was their primary source of food.”

He tapped a claw sharply on the lectern when the background rustle of conversation got a little too loud, and that was enough to quiet them again. “The Dominion may believe that the Hunters primarily feed themselves by raiding, but that ain’t so. As it turns out—and the Council should already know this, as it was a tiny young Gaoian female called Sister Triymin who first delivered this intelligence to you—” the Great Father’s voice dropped half an octave as he said that, and for a second there was livid anger almost crackling in his hackles and teeth, “—this Ring was full of slaves. Slaves kept and bred purely for the purposes of being meat.”

He raised his voice now. Where Sheeyo had mastered the art of lofting his voice over a commotion, Daar’s gravelly tones just smashed the hubbub aside like a landslide. He would brook no interruption.

“Less slaves than livestock,” he said. “Feral. Broken. With no hope of rescue. I only hope that, if anything is left of them now that the Ring is gone, they’ll forgive me for putting ‘em out of their misery.”

“But they are the past,” he continued before any outrage could be voiced. “The future contains what’s left of the Swarm, and it still amounts to fifty thousand or more ships full of starving, desperate Hunters. Already, our intelligence says they have begun to raid aggressively along spacelanes near Kwmbwrw space. If the Dominion wants to avoid slaughter on a scale you haven’t never seen, you need to mobilize immediately. That is my warning.”

He finished with a deep breath, and tilted his neck until it made a popping sound that seemed to satisfy him.

“Now,” he said. “Know that this Council forfeited any right to object or question us when you stood by and watched my people burn nearly to extinction. I have done you the courtesy of giving this warning. It’s up ‘ta you whether you listen. My personal advice? Invest heavily in jump arrays. Get shields up around your core systems. We will make our prototype systems available, and in the meantime we will patrol heavily along vulnerable spacelanes and intervene when and how we see fit. Be grateful: I remind you that until such time as compensation has been paid for this Council’s failure to act in our defence, we are not bound by our treaty obligations.

“One last word: Y’all need to change your battle doctrine. The Dominion has relied for too long on an unwieldy doctrine of gross tonnage and firepower. That needs to end now and y’need ‘ta look at how those of us who actually got results against the Hunters have been doin’ things. Hard times are ahead: You can adapt and overcome them. We’ll even help. But if you fail to heed my warnings today, you will be mauled at least, and we won’t be able to stop it. Consider yerselves warned.”

With that, he dropped to his four-pawed gait and ignored the Speaker and the gathered Ambassadors as he headed for the doors. Their clamour for an explanation, or to shout at him, seemed to just bounce off him unheeded, and he was gone.

Sheeyo beat a rather less dignified retreat rather than face the delegates on the Great Father’s behalf. He practically had to run in fact, and by the time he caught up with Daar they were halfway back to the shuttle bay and he was out of breath.

Generously, Daar slowed down for him.

“They’re all talk an’ no listen, ain’t they?” he commented.

Aware that he’d need to go back into that chamber shortly, Sheeyo opted for a diplomatic answer. “That… went as well as could be expected, My Father.”

Daar only grumbled in reply and padded along in silence. Even at this slower pace, Sheeyo was finding it hard to keep up with him.

“Yeah,” he eventually allowed. “I s’pose. Meanwhile I gotta head back t’Earth again and schmooze. And also, I got a surprise I’m cookin’ up. Uh…I should maybe apologize ahead o’ time. It’s gonna make ‘yer life rough, maybe.”

“I suppose it would be too much to ask what it is?” Sheeyo asked.

“Yup!” Daar rumbled a chitter from somewhere deep in his chest.

“Naturally,” Sheeyo duck-nodded. “It wouldn’t be a secret if I could.”

Daar chittered again, which was a most gratifying sound.

“I’ll send ‘ya a note when it’s done. Anyway, right now I gotta get groomed ‘fer this. And unless ‘yer wantin’ ‘ta help me shave down…”

“I… thank you, My Father, but I think I’ll decline.”

Daar chittered even deeper and waggled his ears. “Oh? ‘Yer loss I s’pose.”

He rolled easily through into the departures area still chittering to himself, and Sheeyo was left to hang back and turn toward his office. He doubted he’d ever quite get used to the Great Father’s foibles.

Just what in Keeda’s name did Daar have planned?


Date Point: 15y6m4d AV
Oriel Art Gallery, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

“…You look great, but you also look stressed as hell,” Derek ventured, and thus immediately put himself several steps above pretty much every other man Ava had dated, at least when it came to tact and sensitivity. Most of the rest would either have failed to notice, or else commented that she looked like shit warmed up.

“Urgh. Work. I got called in for a breaking story and… whew.”

“What happened?”

“Daar made the details of operation LOST CUB public,” Ava revealed. She saw him wince, and nodded. “Yeah. The Internet is going fucking crazy, everybody has an opinion, the Old Media are fanning the flames with everything they can muster…”

“Where do you guys stand on it?” Derek asked. “I know you guys have neutrality and the facts as your mission statement, but y’all’ve gotta have some kinda official take.”

Ava sighed and sat on the bench opposite the art gallery to straighten her thoughts out. She’d left Hannah with Charlotte and Ben for the night, and was regretting it now. She could have done with the tiny warm pressure of a nose on her knee.

“…A lot of people died,” she said. “Daar says it was better than the alternative, and we don’t know enough to contradict him. I dunno… It makes me wonder how Hiroshima and Nagasaki would’ve gone down online, y’know? And they were firecrackers next to what he claims he deployed.”

Derek didn’t answer, just sat down next to her and put an arm around her. Score several more points in the tact and sensitivity column.

“Wanna hear my opinion?” he asked.

“No blabbing to the reporter, Derek,” she joked. It earned her a smirk.

“Just an observation,” he promised. “Things this big, nobody gets to be neutral. If you don’t pick a side, then everybody assumes you’re on the other side and that you’re just too chickenshit to commit. It’s unfair, but it’s the way of people.”

“Yeah-huh. My editor said about the same thing.” Ava sighed. “The network’s official stance is that Daar went too far.”

“You don’t sound happy about that.”

Ava waved a disgusted hand. “Ya valío verga. But I don’t like taking sides, that’s opinion commentary.”

“Ya valley-what, now?”

“Sorry. It means, uh… It’s outta control, and it’s not worth giving a fuck over anymore… And honestly, I just want a nice evening so I can forget about it, at least until I go to work tomorrow.”

“I think I can manage that,” Derek promised. He stood up, helped her to her feet, and let her lead him into the art gallery where her stress soon washed away. Folctha had a thriving artistic community, and the Oriel gallery put on a new exhibition every other week.

Derek turned out to have a pretty good eye for art. He didn’t think he did, but it was definitely there. He didn’t just glance disinterestedly at pieces in the exhibit, he considered them, properly and in relation to the other pieces too.

And frankly, if he didn’t have the first idea what the kind of terminology an artist might use was, that was actually pretty refreshing.

The piece that most caught his attention was a circular snapshot of part of a pencil sketch, about as wide across as a shot glass. That tiny circle taken from a larger image seemed to grab him more than every other piece in the room, and Ava let him consider it for a good long time.

“What’re you thinking?” she nudged him eventually.

“I dunno. I… guess it makes me wonder what the bigger picture looked like. Like…” Derek indicated the image with a wave of his hand. That tiny postage stamp picture caught only about half of somebody’s face and the corner of what was maybe a house or something. Otherwise, the canvas was blank. “I keep trying to fill in around him and imagine where he was standing and what he was doing that day.”

“There’s just enough there for you to recognise, but not enough for you to identify, isn’t there?”

“Yeah. Makes me think.”

She favored him with a grin. Visiting the exhibition first before going to dinner was definitely the right way round: they’d have something to discuss as they ate that wasn’t politics or work. She moved on to the next piece, and after a few more seconds of considering the little porthole snapshots he followed her.

The next one was a sculpture. In fact it looked for all the world like the artist had taken a bronze casting of a loose-knitted scarf… which the card underneath it confirmed was exactly the case.

“…I don’t feel this one,” she said after a while. He let out a relieved sigh and his shoulders dropped.

“Thank fuck. I thought I was just being dumb.”

“I mean, it’s… technically impressive, I guess,” Ava said charitably. “Like, it took skill to make it. I just don’t see what they’re trying to say.”

“Says here it ‘invites you to consider the relationship between material and function’,” Derek read off the card.

“Eh. That kinda thing is like padding an essay up to the word count with purple prose. It’s lazy. There’s no real message here, the artist just decided they wanted to cast a bronze scarf and then had to come up with something to put on the card.”

“Heh. Like bullshitting on a report,” Derek nodded. “Not that I ever did anything like that…”

“Of course not,” she snarked, and took his arm. “…How ‘bout that dinner?”

“Sounds good.”

They walked arm-in-arm along Quarter Street, the gap between downtown Folctha to the west and the safety wall that protected the Alien Quarter from the human population on the other side. The Alien Quarter’s wall had originally been kind of a dull concrete eyesore, but Folctha’s residents had promptly fixed that. At various places along its length it was decorated with murals, hanging plants, posters… the Brothers of Clan Starmind had even decorated a length of it with a kind of painted sculptural low relief.

“So. That was your first trip to an art gallery?”

“Yup.”

“What did you think?”

“…I could stand to do that again.”

“Better not let the Lads hear that,” she teased.

“Hey, the Lads have brains,” Derek objected loyally. “Hell, Arés—uh, Marty—got ‘em all reading poetry. Though I think at this point it’s competitive. ‘Cuz, obviously, one of ‘em has to be the best at it, somehow.”

Ava smiled fondly. “…Only they could make a competition out of reading poetry.”

“I think their general leaderboard—yes, they have one of those too—has Murray and Firth tied.”

“Murray likes poetry? Also, no, wait, how do they score it?”

“Bro-logic.” He grinned and shrugged. “But yeah. Get a few drinks in him and Murray starts waxing about warrior poets, and Bannockburn. Give him a few more and he’ll stand up and recite that Robert Burns haggis poem from memory.”

“Well, he’s a long way from Scotland. Gotta represent!” Ava conceded, though internally she was giggling at the mental image.

Derek laughed, and indicated their destination. “You eaten here before?”

“No, but I know this place. They’ve got that signed photo of the Misfit trio above the bar, right?”

“…Poor Julian. Y’know he fuckin’ hates all of it, right? Even more than Allison does.”

“Wait, really?”

“Well, not the people. He likes meeting everyone, it just drains him.”

“Ahh,” Ava nodded understanding. She could sympathize. “So, did they recommend this place?”

“Xiù said we had to try the Greek salad.”

“Huh. Well, who am I to argue?”

In fact, the place was doing good business. If Derek hadn’t booked a table in advance, Ava doubted they’d have been able to sit. As it was, the waitress had saved them a secluded, intimate little table in the corner.

A lot of effort had gone into decorating the building’s interior as though it was some kind of Mediterranean stone farmhouse, and the effect was quite convincing. Ava hung her jacket over the back of the chair, parked her purse under it, and sat down only to find herself sitting below a rack of drying herbs. There were wine bottles everywhere, apparently stored in the walls as much for decoration as for ease of access, and the classical guitar music was just loud enough to give each table some privacy without forcing anybody to raise their voice.

She was impressed.

“Of course, you probably shouldn’t be leaking all this personal stuff about their personal lives to the reporter,” she pointed out.

“Probably not,” he agreed, “but I’m pretty sure you aren’t pumping me for information.”

“No pumping,” she promised, then grinned and sat back to let her eyes drift down his chest. Her teeth toyed with her lip. “Not on the first date anyway…”

He smirked. “…I set that one right up for you, didn’t I?”

“Would you think less of me if I confess I thought that one up ages ago?”

“Nah. Comedy’s all in the timing anyway.”

The waitress came round to take their drink orders and Ava gave an inward shimmy of excitement while Derek was distracted. This was going so much better than most any other date she’d ever been on already, and they’d only just sat down! And she had to admit, the age gap was actually working for her in the way it showed in his confidence and self-assuredness, which was the real thing rather than youthful bravado…

He ordered a bottle of wine for them both plus a jug of water, and settled into his seat comfortably.

“So, uh… Art,” he said.

“Your message you want to send?”

“Yeah. Mind if I tell you a story?”

She gestured for him to go ahead and he nodded. “So… back before I enlisted when I was… I’unno. About sixteen? This guy from my town came back from deployment in the desert. Marine sniper. Real… impressive guy. I thought he was the coolest motherfucker ever, right?”

“Okay…”

“I forget how, but I managed to get in touch with him, told him I was thinking of signing up, asked to talk it over with him… we met in Starbucks and I, y’know, asked him what Basic had been like and what serving was like… and then I got really, really fucking dumb. ‘Cuz I asked him if he’d ever killed somebody.”

“…What did he say?”

“He just…. Quietly nodded and said he had. No emotion at all, right? Just… poker-faced. So I’m young and dumb and can’t take a hint so I asked him where, and when and how… Again he was poker-faced, he said he couldn’t talk about it, ‘cuz it was classified. And I still remember the next words outta my mouth.”

“What?”

He grimaced. “I said… ‘That is so cool. What was it like?’”

“I… take it that didn’t go down well,” Ava predicted.

“He just… calmly pushed his coffee aside, leaned forward, looked me in the eye. And he said ‘If you don’t shut your mouth right now, I’m gonna take you into that restroom right there and fuck you up.‘” Derek looked down at his hands and almost-laughed at himself. “I nearly shit my pants.”

“But you enlisted.”

“Yeah. And nowadays, I know exactly why he reacted like that.”

Ava breathed out a breath she hadn’t noticed she was holding. “So… what’s the message?” she asked.

“I guess I just wanna… I wanna answer those questions,” Derek said. “I think somebody should. And I think you can help.”

“…What happened after he threatened you?” Ava asked.

“He… picked up his coffee and drank it. Then he stood up and… the last thing he ever said to me was ‘I got two pieces of advice for you: Don’t ask stupid fucking questions, and don’t be a sniper.’ And he left. I never saw him again.”

“You listened?”

“Yeah. It was good advice.”

The waitress arrived with their drinks and took their food order. Following the recommendation from Xiù Chang, they both chose the salad, and Ava took a long sip of her wine once the waitress was gone.

“…That’s powerful,” she said at last. “And you’re right, I think it’s important. So, how do you want to share it?”

“Well… I’m not the only one.” Derek reached inside his jacket and produced a folded sheet of printer paper which he handed over. “So I was thinking, what if I helped you write, like, a series or something?”

Ava took the paper and unfolded it. She speed-read the short message printed on it and almost knocked over her wine. “¡Carajo!”

“Yeah.”

“I…”

“You’d be doing both of us a huge favor, Ava.”

“I’d be doing you a favor? Derek, this is—”

“I know. And believe me, he has this weighing on him a lot more than I do.”

Ava drained half her wine glass in one gulp and took a deep breath. Opportunities like this were… well, they were like striking oil in her backyard, or finding a Renaissance masterpiece in grandma’s loft. They never happened, not without a lifetime of hard work and reputation-building.

What surprised her though was that that thought came in a long way behind the simple fact that she agreed with him: after what she’d seen and been through in Egypt, even though that was not even a fraction of the whole story…

And after the… spirited debate at work…

“Of course I’ll do it,” she said.

“Even with the network’s ‘official position’?”

“The network? I don’t give a fuck what the network’s position is: I’ll do it.”

He smiled.

“I’ll let Daar know,” he said.


Date Point: 15y6m1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Senior Airman Rihanna Miller

“So this is a sacred circle, huh?”

Jack nodded and set his bag down outside it. “Yup. We set it up a few months after Sara died.”

“That musta taken a while.”

“Not really. Folctha’s pagan community is about sixty people.”

“That many?”

“One in a thousand,” Jack shrugged. “Anyway, we all carried a stone up here—Dad carried the altar—then we built the circle, and we had a moon ritual to consecrate it. I mean yeah, it took all day, but it was a fun day.”

Rihanna looked around. The circle was little more than a ring of stones, none bigger than a gym bag, with a larger stone in the middle that she guessed was a kind of altar or something. The whole thing was twenty feet across, and honestly she could have walked right through it without noticing it. It was about a five minute walk off the footpath from Memorial Hill, with a nice view out over Folctha.

“Why here?” she asked.

“It’s a nice spot.”

“Is that all?”

“Pretty much.” Jack took off his shoes and socks and stepped into the circle, where he stooped to tidy out some twigs and debris. “You can make a ritual site anywhere, but we wanted somewhere out of the way. There’s a town in Wales near where Mum used to live, the circle there’s down in a little hollow near the university campus and they used to have trouble with people knocking over the altar and leaving lager cans everywhere.”

“Ugh.” Rihanna was no pagan herself, but the idea of desecrating somebody’s spiritual space like that still disgusted her. “Some people have no respect.”

Jack just shrugged again and finished tidying up to his satisfaction. He returned to his bag and retrieved some candles and set them out on the four larger stones on the circle’s circumference, which Rihanna guessed probably marked the cardinal directions.

“…Do you wanna join in, or…?” he asked after a few seconds.

“No thanks. But I’d like to watch.”

“Sure. Just don’t come into the circle, okay?”

“Okay…” She sat back and watched him unload a few other items from his bag: crystals, a short dagger, a bundle of white leaves, a shallow bowl and a long lighter. “What exactly are you doing?”

“It’s a healing spell,” he explained, laying the crystals, leaves and knife on the altar. “For the Dauntless guys. I could have done it at home but what’s the point in having this circle if we don’t use it, right?”

“Makes sense. How does this work, anyway?”

“It’s not super formal,” Jack said. He put his phone on the altar and tapped at it. “It’s just about raising the energy and sending it their way. How you do that is up to you and your tradition. Just so long as it comes from the heart, you know?” He tapped at the phone one last time and the quiet sounds of drumming and chanting started to waft through the circle. Satisfied, he made a procession around the circle, lighting the candles and muttering something. Rihanna was close enough to hear him as he lit the third one.

“Guardian of the West, I call upon you to watch over this rite. Powers of energy and will, guided by fire, let those in my thoughts know healing and comfort…”

He moved on, lit the fourth candle and retreated to the altar, where he knelt and bowed his head for some time. After a minute or so he picked up bundle of leaves and set fire to the end, which produced a surprising amount of smoke as it smouldered. Satisfied, he set the lighter down and waved the bundle slowly around himself and the altar.

She wondered what her grandma would think of her, sitting there and watching literal witchcraft.

When the moment seemed right she gave voice to the thought in her head. “I never figured you for…any of this, gotta be honest.”

Jack opened his eyes and glanced at her. “It’s how my family does things,” he said. He set the burning bundle on the altar and took up the knife. He grinned at the slight change in her expression.

“Don’t worry. It’s for symbolic cutting only.”

“I’ll shut up and watch.”

He smiled at her again then returned his attention to the ritual.

“Spirits of this world, extend your protection and love to Ben Cook, James Choi, Holly Chase and Damian Spears, and to the brothers of the HEAT, of First Fang, and of Clan Whitecrest. Help them cut away their pain—” he drew the blade in a strong cutting motion through the air. “Help them cut away their grief. Help them cut away their despair. Help them cut away their guilt.”

He drew one last cut with the knife, set it down again and raised his hands in front of him palm-up. “Help them forgive and love themselves. Help them see the good in their deeds, and help them be whole. Spirits of water, air, fire and earth… help them heal.”

He sat still a moment or two longer, then exhaled, picked up the smouldering bundle and ground it into the bowl to put it out.

“…That’s the whole thing, huh?” Rihanna asked. It had taken only five minutes or so from the moment he lit the first candle.

“Pretty much,” Jack agreed. “Just the devoking now.”

“The what?”

“I invoked the guardians, now I have to de voke them. It’s just… polite, you know?”

She watched him go round the circle and mutter a thank-you as he stopped at each of the candles before he pinched them out.

“Gotta admit… this is a lot different to what I’m used to,” she confessed. “Dunno what my grandma would think.”

“I take it she wouldn’t approve?”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I know what people think about paganism, and…” he shrugged in an I-try-not-to-let-it-bother-me way.

“It bothers you.”

He shrugged, returned to the altar and packed his bag. The air was still fragrant with the scent of that smoke.

“Well, you tell me: Did any of that look evil?”

“No. Actually it looked… peaceful. You looked like you enjoyed that.”

Jack smiled. “Healing energy is like that. It always makes me feel… warm, and loved, and… yeah, peaceful.” He stepped out of the circle and put his shoes back on. “Shall we?”

“How come I’ve never seen this side of you before?”

“Well, I don’t cast spells at work.” He grinned at her. “Besides, I don’t really know much about your religious life either. I mean, I assume you’re a Christian…”

“Yeah, I guess. I don’t really go to church as often as I should… at least, not according to my grandma.”

“Life’s busy, right?”

“Yeah.”

“D’you think God minds?”

Rihanna thought about it. “…No, I doubt it. I mean, He’s meant to be forgiving and loving, ain’t he?”

“Right. You can’t be all faith all the time, that’s no way to live. And I think… well, Mum’s kind of my high priestess, and she thinks that if the universe wants us to be anything, it wants us to be ourselves. And you can’t be that if you spend your whole time praying.”

“That makes sense.”

They walked in silence back as far as the hiking trail: Jack seemed to be in a contented, relaxed mood where he was happy with whatever, and Rihanna had a head full of thoughts.

“…Hey. Thanks for letting me come up here with you,” she said at last.

“Why?”

“I dunno. I just… appreciate it. It was nice of you to let me in.”

“Best not to tell your grandma, though.”

She laughed. “Hah! Yeah. Better not.”

“So what now?”

“Hey?”

“Well, you’re my most favouritest person to hang out with,” Jack said, in his best imitation of a Stoneback’s drawl. “We’ve done what I wanted to do… what do you wanna do?”

Rihanna rolled her eyes. “I never understood that verbal tic of theirs…” she groused. “…Anyway. I still haven’t seen this two-seventy bench press of yours, and I know it’s your heavy day. Moho told me so!”

He sighed with a slight grin. “Fiiine. I usually work out with my dad, that cool?”

“Your dad’s a badass viking warrior. That’s definitely cool.”

Jack snorted. “Please. He’ll spar with us gym rats and all that, but the man feels bad when he swats flies! He’s the biggest softie ever.”

“Just so long as he spots good.”

Jack nodded, put his hand to his pocket, then stopped dead in his tracks. “…Shit.”

“What?”

“I left my phone back at the circle.”

“…Guess we’re going back for it huh?”

“Sorry, sorry…”

Rihanna didn’t mind. In fact, as they turned back up the hill, she decided she was glad for it. Because the feeling was mutual, he was definitely her ‘most favoritest’ too.

What better way to spend a day off?


Date Point: 15y6m1w AV
Multi-Faith Center, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Champion and Grandfather Gyotin, of Clan Starmind

Gyotin liked to observe human spirituality in all its interesting forms. Although he himself was firmly a convert to Buddhism, the sheer variety of it all was… intoxicating. He had a huge and complicated web of interconnected links hung on the wall of his private office, a tool for teasing out the commonalities and the symbology they all shared.

Some days, it looked impenetrable even to him. The taboos in particular could be a truly closed book at times.

Take caffeine for instance. To insects, a fatal pesticide. To humans a million times more massive, it was a pleasant stimulant with few if any consistent drawbacks. To Gaoians…it depended, and there was no way to tell how any particular person would respond. Gyotin quite enjoyed it. The Great Father seemed to get a buzz just from sniffing an espresso and, allegedly, actually drinking the stuff was enough to have him tearing around in a frenzy.

Its trade and import, as far as Gyotin had learned, may have been instrumental in the development of Humanity’s Renaissance and Enlightenment eras. And tea was the very model of a civilized drink, having a history that allegedly went back five thousand years.

Why should either be a taboo among humans? And yet they were, to Mormons. But hot chocolate was not, despite the fact that the sugar and fats were objectively far more unhealthy than caffeine.

It was all so intriguingly confusing, and it was why Gyotin’s little impromptu coffee shop in the Multi-Faith Center (free, but donations gratefully accepted) always kept a healthy supply of Ovaltine and herbal infusions for when the Buehlers were having a session.

There were about forty Mormons in Folctha, total. The branch president was a happy, smiling, truly lovely guy named Ted who gave so much of his time to other people that there was no possible way Gyotin could see that he might have any other hobbies or personal interests.

But the Buehler family was the bane of his life.

Gyotin made a point of hanging around the Center a little later for him. Quite aside from the opportunity to give a little kindness back and help a stressed-out man de-stress, it was a good opportunity to learn more about a faith he otherwise knew little about.

Ted’s drink of choice was a lemon and ginger infusion, which he accepted gratefully as he sank into one of the soft, comfortable chairs that were the Faith Center’s hallmark.

“…That… was tougher than usual today,” he said. Gyotin got the impression that he would have sorely liked to swear, something that he usually abhorred.

“I didn’t hear shouting this time,” Gyotin ventured.

“I think they’re past that point. Each of them blames the other for the fact that they’ve—their words, not mine—’lost control of the kids.’”

“It always comes back to control with them, doesn’t it?”

Ted sighed. “Yes. Always. And it’s…” He scooted forward in his seat and put his drink down on the floor between his feet, untouched. “The truly frustrating part is that in their way I think Jacob and Amanda really do love their children. Even Allison. But they got so completely fixated on being their children’s protectors that they forgot that the other side of parenthood is letting the kids leave the nest someday.”

Gyotin decided to make himself an Ovaltine. “A Gaoian male might not be the best to talk to about this, you know,” he said. “I don’t know much about raising cubs.”

“Neither do I,” Ted confessed. “But we can both spot when they’re doing it wrong.”

“Seeing that they do it wrong is not the same thing as being able to show them the right way… assuming they even can be shown the right way.”

“They’re both prideful.”

“Hmm.” Gyotin mulled that over as he made his drink.

“…What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking…Pride like that, where does it come from? What are they proud about, you know?”

Ted nodded and sipped his drink. “I find… in most people, pride like that is all about protecting their own fragility. It’s less that they’re proud of something, it’s that they’re afraid that if they let something touch the bit inside them that’s already crumbling then it’ll finally fall apart and take everything else with it.”

“So is prideful the right word?” Gyotin asked. He sat down with his own mug warming his paws.

“Maybe ego is better. And that’s a real problem, because neither of them can see their own imperfections. And if you can’t do that…” He sighed and tapped his fingers on his mug, then gave Gyotin a curious look. “…What do Buddhists believe about repentance?” he asked.

“Uh… in short, it’s internal. You don’t repent to anybody or make a confession or anything. Repentance is done inwardly with the awakened quality of our own mind.” Gyotin sniffed his drink and savored the aroma. “…Obviously you apologize to anybody you wrong, but when we don’t follow right action, the fault is in us.”

“That’s their problem: The fault is always in somebody else. Amanda insists that Jacob is the problem, Jacob blames Amanda, both of them think Allison was poisoned by a third party and that she’s passing that poison on to the boys…” Ted sighed. “If only I could get Allison’s perspective on it…”

“She won’t talk to you?”

“She’s… polite.”

“Ahh.” Gyotin nodded. Humans had some wonderful ways of being polite that had absolutely nothing to do with being friendly or open. “But you think it all comes down to fragility in the end?”

“Yes. I think… if either of them ever really accepted and understood the role they’ve played in their own misery, it’d completely pull them apart.”

“Maybe that’s what they need?” Gyotin suggested.

“Perhaps, but the Devil is in the details, and getting them to realize that will require…much patience. And it’s a delicate moment, too. You hope what you’re left with afterwards is a person who’s finally ready to move forward and heal…”

“But what you might get is a wreck who’s in a worse state than before,” Gyotin finished.

“Right. I guess you’d call that a moment of epiphany or… whatever you’d call it.”

“Kenshō. It means, uh, to see one’s own nature. Or in Gaori, we have the term Kuo! wan u.”

“…I’m not even gonna try,” Ted said, though he was smiling.

“It’s okay. That yipping sound is hard for Humans. But it literally means, uh… ‘scratching your own back’.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Because it’s basically impossible without help. We don’t have that clever monkey shoulder you do—You have that little spot that’s hard to reach? We have a whole stripe up the middle that’s impossible to reach. And maybe, some people never manage to scratch that itch.”

Ted shook his head. “I believe in healing, and I believe that everybody can be healed. I know there must be some way to get through to them, I just… can’t figure out what it is.”

“Hmm.” Gyotin sipped his Ovaltine then set it aside. “…Are you sure you’re not being prideful yourself?” he asked innocently.

“I… Hmm. I… what do you mean?”

“Well, ask yourself: What’s riding on this for you? Will it touch anything fragile and crumbling inside you if you can’t get through?” Gyotin asked. “We said earlier that their flaw is they blame others for what they’re doing wrong… but it’s also possible to wrongly blame yourself for the flaws of others. You can’t get through to them, so you ask ‘what am I doing wrong?’ Well, the answer may be you’re not doing anything wrong at all, they’re just not ready yet. And I think maybe you need to entertain the thought maybe they never will be.”

“…I don’t like that idea.”

“I know. It’s a gloomy thought. But how well can a doctor treat a patient who doesn’t take their medicine?”

“Hmm.”

Ted finished his drink in thoughtful silence, and Gyotin let him. He’d said what he felt needed saying. Finally, both drinks were empty and Ted stood up with a groan. He looked much happier.

“…Thank you, Gyotin. I think I know how to approach this now.”

“That’s what I’m here for!” Gyotin assured him.

He tidied up the center once Ted was gone, checked that everything was neat and orderly, and returned to the Starmind monastery enclave in the pleased mood he always felt when he’d helped somebody. Maybe he’d see if he could help build a bridge between Ted and Allison Buehler later.

Finding a pair of hulking Stonebacks looming quietly inside the Enclave gates thoroughly disrupted his train of thought.

The larger ducked a respectful posture at him. “Champion. The Great Father’s waiting in your office.”

Maybe others would have frozen up or felt a sense of panic, but Gyotin had literally given the Great Father a cuff on the muzzle one time. And besides, he knew the truth: underneath the weight of his titles and all the muscle and claws, Daar was a huge soppy softy.

At least, when reality allowed him to be.

“I take it he was happy to wait for me,” he observed.

“That’s right, Champion. He took a tour of the garden. Seemed to enjoy it.”

“Very well. Thank you.”

Sure enough, Daar was in Gyotin’s office, poring over the confusing mass of interconnected lines on the wall. At the moment Gyotin scratched on the door and entered, the Great Father was studying the top-left quadrant, the big one on Gaoian native spirituality and ancient mythology.

Doubtless he’d have a few observations of his own later.

“Good evening, My Father.”

Daar was in a quiet mood tonight… relatively speaking. He still showered Gyotin with booming affection, but it was pretty clear his mind was elsewhere.

He never got the chance to ask where, though. Daar was far too interested in talking about Gyotin’s research board, which he’d pretty thoroughly decoded without any help and even recorded some thoughts of his own.

“It’s interestin’ how all that symbolism is connected, huh? ‘Specially ‘dragons’ an’ their ‘world serpent’ thing.”

“Ah yes. Jörmungandr, the serpent that encircles the world and is destined to slay and be slain by the warrior-god Thor at Ragnarok. I see some parallels with recent history there.”

Daar didn’t seem moved. “Y’do, do ya?”

“Imagery that evocative will always inspire the imagination. But I note that your world-serpent is dead and you’re still very much alive.”

“Eh, Judge-Father ain’t decided on that just yet.”

Gyotin chittered and indicated another section of the board. “Many traditions have it that death does not need to be literal. The Death card in Tarot, for instance, primarily represents upheaval and new beginnings.”

“Yeah…So I’m here to do an interview with this Ava Riòs character.”

“I know her well.”

“So I hear. That’s why I’m here, talkin’ ‘ta you first. I wanna know what your nose says about her.”

Gyotin had been taking lessons from Genshi about the Championly virtues of keeping his expression controlled and his thoughts obscured, but he’d always sensed that Daar treated the whole opera of that as an unwelcome sequence of theatre that veered uncomfortably close to falsehood at times. Rather than playing that game, therefore, Gyotin allowed his ears to wiggle and roam freely as he thought.

“She’s very… human,” he decided after a while. “Actually, I respect and like her very much.”

“That all?”

Gyotin considered the Great Father for a second, then tilted his head interrogatively. “…What’s your real concern, My Father?”

“…I’m facin’ up to some real hard truths, friend. An’ Stonebacks do not lie. I want her to ask hard questions, and I wanna know how much this is gonna hurt.”

Gyotin duck-nodded slowly and retreated to his desk. “As it happens, I was talking with… well, a leader in one of the local faith communities earlier. He has a problem family he’s dealing with who just do not understand the concept of repentance. It was an interesting conversation.”

Daar could be patient when he wanted, and paid Gyotin the compliment of listening rather than interrupting the explanation to demand an explanation. He duck-nodded, but listened with his ears up and alert.

“Ava understands penitence. Perhaps to the point of not being so good at understanding some other things. I’ve never met another person, Human or Gao, who has explored herself so thoroughly and faced her flaws without flinching or breaking.”

“That’s…useful, I think. An’ I assume that’s ‘cuz of her history with ‘Horse?”

“Certainly that’s the largest part of it.”

“Yeah…I bet there’s a long-ass story there but I ain’t got the time. Sarry.”

“I’m sure it would be best if I didn’t tell it anyway,” Gyotin assured him. “She has a right to tell her own story, after all.”

Daar duck-nodded amiably. “I also wanna ask you somethin’ else that’s been botherin’ me.”

Gyotin inclined his head and listened.

“You still want me to go through a coronation?” Daar asked. “You better’n anyone know the implications.”

Gyotin duck-nodded instantly. “I do. It’s necessary, My Father. I’ve laid out my reasoning many times.”

“Yeah. But if I do this, I wanna do somethin’ the Prince o’ Wales talked wit’ me about. I don’ wanna be a God. If I’mma do this, it’s gonna be to serve the Gao.”

“So I must ask again, My Father. What’s your specific concern? It seems like you’ve already made up your mind… why are you asking my opinion about Ava?”

Finally, he managed to sting Daar’s temper. The Great Father scowled at him and growled, “I ain’t sure I appreciate havin’ the subject changed like that…but…fair, I guess.” Having voiced his irritation, he deflated and thought about the question for a moment. “My worry is this: if I’m gonna be some kinda galactic emperor—yeah, that’s absolutely how this’ll be seen, don’t pretend otherwise—then what I really gotta worry ‘bout is what the Humans think o’ me. I’m pretty sure they think they’re at a disadvantage t’us but that just ain’t so, not for a while.”

Rather than push his luck and nettle Daar again, Gyotin simply tilted his head the other way and listened some more.

Daar rewarded his patience by finally getting to his real question. “Is she gonna fuck me over?” he asked “Everythin’ I think I know says no, but ain’t nobody I trust more than you to answer this question. I can’t ask ‘Horse, he’s loyal. I can’t ask the HEAT, they pretty much hate her the mostest. Genshi is a Cousin but he’s got other motivations, and Regaari is in the same boat, ‘cept worse. He thinks I don’t know what he’s plannin’ but I do. So…do I trust her?”

A simple question got a simple answer.

“I would.”

Daar grumbled to himself, and set to a low prowl around the room for a long moment, thinking over his options. “Well…that’s that, then. Onward.”

“If I have any advice to give, My Father, it’s this: Decide for yourself when you meet her. Don’t just do what I would do: you are not me.”

Daar flicked his ears in a bemused sorta way. “Naw. ‘Yer, like, way too puny! Also, ‘yer right too. I’mma get a good sniff o’ her before I let it get serious…” He rumbled something that was almost a chitter, then looked Gyotin up and down. “It’s late. You sleep in ‘yer office?”

“I prefer the nest-beds over in the monastery.”

“Mind if I join ‘ya? The Statler is a bit too public an’ if I go visit the Lads it’ll be…well, I dunno how they’re gonna feel jus’ yet.”

“Of course you’re welcome. But I should warn you, we get up early for dawn meditation before breakfast.”

“Sounds good! I’m an early riser too. Might even join in, mebbe.”

To Gyotin that sounded like an excellent idea.

“Well then,” he said. “Let’s see if we can get your day off to a good start…”

He led the way, reflecting as he did so that he spent his whole life guiding people nowadays… and that he wouldn’t change it for the world.


Date Point: 15y6m1w AV
Racing Thunder, Kwmbwrw Border territory

Shipfather Yefrig

The critical thing about seizing the initiative was that, once seized, it became a bludgeon to be applied repeatedly and brutally to the enemy at every opportunity.

The Gao had long known it; the Humans had shown them how to maximize it, and new terminology like ‘OODA loop’ had entered their lexicon. All that was needed was the will to apply that thinking, and nobody had a will as ferociously ruthless as the Great Father. The Hunters were not being given the chance to regain their balance.

Oh, the horrors were fast and adaptable enough. Or maybe desperation and hunger were spurring them into action. But they were scrambling, disorganised, messy and they weren’t taking care to disguise their pattern of attack.

Daar’s flagship, the Destroying Fury, was in the lead on many of the attacks. The Great Father was seldom present on the battlefield these days, but nobody could blame him. He’d risked much personally and politically to get them all to this point, and he had strengths that were better use elsewhere. Naval combat, quote: “weren’t his thing.”

No. He was planning something much more his style. He was planning an invasion.

The fleet, meanwhile, was doing everything it could to capitalize on the Ring’s destruction, and mostly succeeding.

…Mostly. There was a reason the Hunters had been the galaxy’s scourge for such a long time, and no amount of momentum or initiative would ever save the poor bastards who’d once crewed the smashed mining station that Yefrig was now considering.

The usual orgy of blood and dismemberment wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Instead, the station was entirely empty. They had taken everyone and left hardly a trace of their passing, then torn the station apart for scrap and salvage. If it was possible to feel sympathy for an inanimate object, then Yefrig definitely felt sorry for that station: It looked like the gutted carcass of a large herd animal brought down by predators, which really it was.

After the Great Father’s declarations in the Security Council, something like this was not going to go down well with the Kwmbwrw.

Still, he’d sent a salvage team to pick over the bones. It was just possible that this time the Hunters had missed a sensor cluster or a computer whose memory banks contained the clue they needed to track down where exactly this specific group was raiding from.

That was the problem with space: without precise telemetry, hunting anything was impossible. Their best efforts had narrowed the field down to a volume about thirty light years across… containing several hundred star systems. Which meant tens of thousands of planets and moons, and uncountable millions of suitable asteroids and icy bodies, not to mention the possibility that the Hunters weren’t using any such thing and had instead built a nice dark station for themselves somewhere in the interstellar wilderness.

Or indeed that they weren’t still here, cloaked and looking to get some revenge for their shiny space trinket.

“Shipfather? The Kwmbwrw fleet just entered wake comms range.”

That put them minutes away. With a sigh, Yefrig resigned himself to disappointment.

“Recall the salvage team,” he said. “We’ll pass on all of our data to the fleet’s Matriarch as a courtesy and withdraw.”

Not every hunt could be a success, he supposed. But that was true for both sides: The Gaoian fleet had thwarted more attacks than it had missed. Each miss hurt… but the initiative was still theirs, and still being applied.

“…She… Sends her thanks and regards, Shipfather.” The communications Brother sounded surprised, and Yefrig could hardly blame him. The Kwmbwrw attitude had, officially at least, been snooty rather than warm. Getting a note of esteem out of one of their fleet Matriarchs was.. Unexpected. And warming.

“Reciprocate my regards and get us out of here,” he ordered. “We have Hunters to hunt.”

Maybe there’d been a small kind of a victory today after all…


Date Point: 15y6m1w AV
Builder Brood-barge, Hell system, Hunter space

The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas

Waste was one thing; jettisoning of dead weight was another. A resource that endangered other resources was the functional opposite of an asset, and for the time being there was a ruthless calculus at play across the entire Swarm-of-Swarms.

To whit: The strong ate, and the weak starved.

“Strong” and “weak” didn’t have to mean literal mass and ability to apply force as far as the Alpha-of-Alphas was concerned. That was old thinking, stupid Eater thinking. The new definition of strength revolved around self-sufficiency and utility to the Swarm. Those broods that applied themselves subtly and skillfully, that exercised discretion and cunning, that respected the prey and picked their targets got first pick of the Builders, and it was Builders that ensured their survival.

The Builder had been prepared for backlash, for dissent and for attempted coups. It had anticipated that those Eaters that fell on the wrong side of the remorseless equation of survival would make desperate grabs for the throne in an attempt to save themselves.

In fact, very few had. Something about the situation seemed to speak to them in their guts.

After generations of a “Hunt” just being a case of finding some poorly-defended station or transport, swatting aside its defences and swaggering onto its decks to wreak carnage among a woefully unprepared crew, now they were actually hunting. The difference was hard to define, but the risk of failure and the consequences of failing seemed to be pivotal.

There had been no skill involved in the old way. The Hunters had achieved such overwhelming superiority that they hadn’t needed skill, and they had suffered for it. Stagnated.

Now, the options were to improve or die. And many, many more had died than improved.

What remained, however, was stability. Sustainability. The surviving Broods were smaller, smarter and more cunning, and the resources distributed among them went further. And as for the Builders…

+< Intrigued > It self-replicated?+

+< Confirmation> The scout watched it for several cycles. It surveyed the inner-system planets then found a rich resource deposit and deployed a nanofactory. It then built a shipyard and constructed what appeared to be a copy of itself before departing via jump drive.+

+< Growing inspiration > Such replication could theoretically be exponential. < Query > You were unable to capture it?+

+< Affirmative > We attempted to capture the duplicate after the original left, but it appears to have been designed to self-destruct at the first sign of interference. The on-board fusion weapon was not large, but it was sufficient to atomize the device. There was nothing left to recover.+

+< Disappointment > A pity. But what you gleaned was more than sufficient. Do you have any indication of what exactly it was doing?+

+< Negative > Its only observed function was survey and self-replication.+

+< Conviction > Those cannot have been its only function. < Instruction > Find another and observe for longer this time without interfering.+

+< Obedience > It shall be as the Alpha-of-Alphas commands.+

The Builder ended the call, and thought. Exponential replication. Of course! The idea of relying on automation would have stuck in an Eater’s throat, but to a Builder…

< Glee >

It opened a design interface and begun to experiment with concepts.

Perhaps the Hunters could operate with skill while retaining the numerical advantage after all…


Date Point: 15y6m1w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor system, Deep Space

Lewis Beverote

Coitus interruptus fucking sucked. Not least because, frankly, there was no dignified way for Lewis to answer a call when he was tied spread-eagled to the bed being given the agonizing teasing of a lifetime. Lucy had the world’s most pleasantly torturous hands.

At least the station communications dudes had been cool enough to switch all the calls to audio-only by default. For some insane reason Mrwrki’s original owners had used video calls for the default, and there’d been a few embarrassing moments for other people.

Lucy answered the call for him while he stifled a groan at the physical discomfort the interruption was causing him. “Sergeant Campbell.”

“Hey Campbell, it’s Lee. We just got a Coltainer jumpback.”

Lewis tried to sit up and almost ruptured his shoulder. He grimaced and called out instead. “We did? What generation?”

“Serial number says second-gen. We’re pulling the memory now. Figured you’d wanna be here when we open it up.”

“Thanks, Lee. See you shortly.” Lucy ended the call then turned and cocked her hip to plant a hand on it and grin at Lewis. “Bad timing for you.”

Lewis sighed and rested his head back. “For both of us, you mean… I mean… we’ve got t—”

She shook her head. “We don’t have time, baby.”

“…Uuuurgh…”

She untied him and went to grab her uniform. “Just think of it as orgasm denial play.”

“Yaaaaay.”

He sat up and watched as she got dressed in her ICU without changing out of her lingerie. “…Are you allowed to wear thigh-highs and a basque under that?”

“Shh. It’s our naughty little secret.”

“…Ooh!”

She threw a t-shirt at him. “Come on, pull yourself together and get dressed!”

“Right, right…”

A few minutes later, and after Lewis had discreetly adjusted his underwear a few times, they stepped off the elevator in the station’s shuttle bay. For various reasons, they’d designed the Coltainers to send over a physical drive in a drone, which had obviously just touched down and Lee was busily opening the access panel with an eager expression like a kid at Christmas opening a present that dwarfed the tree.

He did a bit of a double-take as they joined him though.

“…Nice makeup, Camp. What’s the occasion?”

Lucy snorted. “The occasion is shut up and open the bloody drone,” she retorted.

Lewis inspected the serial number on the drone’s side. Rather than being painted on, it had been literally stamped into the metal as the probe was assembled. They’d tried a few ways of getting the probes to paint their offspring but ultimately given it up as pure vanity and unnecessary. They were only supposed to make contact with their origin station anyway, and were otherwise programmed to avoid contact with piloted ships, up to and including self-destructing via their on-board nuke. What did it matter if they were all bare galvanized metal and ceramic?

“VNCIC-Erebor-03-02-04…” he read aloud. In other words, it was the fourth second-generation probe built by the third probe they’d launched from Mrwrki.

“Jumpback handshake says it’s already got five children, too,” Lee informed him.

“Dang, dude! Three-one musta found a real good asteroid or somethin’.”

There was a ringing clang, and the access panel finally came loose and dropped on the deck. Lucy shoved it aside with her boot and accepted a pair of gloves from Lee to help him unlatch the blackbox. After spending its entire existence in space, the probe was so cold that frost had lined its edges and corners in crisp white.

“Okay… three, two, one…”

They heaved the blackbox out together and staggered with it just for a few steps until they could land it on the trolley.

“Time to see what it’s got for us…”

“Think it’ll be good?”

“I hope so. This is kinda the moment of truth for the whole program, isn’t it?”

In fact, the data turned out to be a goldmine. It took them nearly half an hour to pull apart the blackbox, by which time Colonel Nadeau had been woken up and showed up to help. He was quite happy to go over the stellar spectrography and astrogeological surveys in the background while Lewis, Lucy and Lee plugged the data into Lewis’ experimental machine-learning system, SAM.

“Okay!” Lee read off. “Class twelve! Surface gravity… Nine point seven-seven meters per second squared. Nice big moon, a little bigger than Luna even… average surface temperature fourteen point two celsius… Atmospheric CO2, O2 and water all in the green.”

Lewis had already speed-read the whole summary at a glance. “Dude, it’s basically Earth mark two. Hell, none of the Misfit mission’s finds were this close.”

He tried to discreetly adjust his pants again in a vain attempt to restore some comfort, but Lee smirked at him. “Hey. I know the data’s sexy, but come on man, keep it together.”

“…Dude.”

In fact, calling the planet Earth 2.0 was about on the money. Even the solar system it was in was similar: The star was even a G2V like Sol, there were a couple of huge gas giants, a couple of smaller colder ones in the out-system, the target world was the third of four rocky terrestrials in the inner system…

There were some inevitable differences. Earth 2.0 had a more pronounced axial tilt, and its moon, in addition to being larger, was closer and not quite tidally locked, which Lucy suggested probably meant it was much younger. Aside from huge tides, it was difficult to predict how that would affect surface conditions, but the coltainer probe had been impressed enough to establish a pre-colony site and jump array before returning.

“So whaddawe think?” Lewis asked after they’d spent half an hour cooing over lush satellite imagery and the UAVs the probe had sent down.

“I think it looks like the probe’s working!” Lucy declared.

Colonel Nadeau looked up from the data he was analysing with a smile. “That’s good news,” he said. “When can we have an exploration team ready?”

“Uh…I dunno. How are those JETS teams doing, Lee?” Lewis asked.

Lee’s eyes drifted for a second as he tried to remember. “From what I heard they have two teams ready. So, all we need is the actual scientists and surveyors. I’ll have to ask the guys over at Scotch Creek about that.”

“Right. Well. Congratulations, anyway. I… yes?”

A private had just knocked on the door. “Sir, there’s a representative from Clan Whitecrest here to see you.”

Nadeau blinked, then shrugged and stood up. “Did he say what it was about?”

“Not to me, sir, just that it was political.”

“Ah, damn. I hate politics.” Nadeau sighed and pulled himself away from the data he’d been going over. “Alright, I’ll see him in my office.”

“Yes sir.”

Nadeau turned to the trio around the blackbox and paused before leaving. “You three should probably get some sleep. It’s late, and that thing’s not going anywhere. No point in wrecking yourself over something that’ll still be here in the morning.”

“Aaargh, you’re blue-balling me sir,” Lee sighed, then quirked an eyebrow when Lewis snorted and Lucy raised hand to cover her grin.

Nadeau looked similarly bemused, but shrugged it off and left with a vague “See you all in the morning.”

Lewis cleared his throat. “He’s right though, dude. This can wait.”

Lee shook his head. “Now I know something’s up.”

Lucy shoved Lewis toward the door, without meeting any resistance. “G’night, Chief.”

“Uh… ‘night.”

Rather than talking about work on the elevator or the short walk back to their suite, Lucy just held his hand and took the lead. He was almost dragged to the door and shoved inside first. Finally alone again, she wrapped her arms around him from behind and hugged him. “Well. Congratulations, baby.”

“Dude, coltainer’s just as much your creation as mine…”

“Nuh-uh. Tonight, you’re getting aaall the credit.” She trailed her fingers down his back, then goosed him. “Now where were we…?”

“Uh… edging.”

“Oh yeah…” She nibbled at his ear and sent shivers down his spine as she whispered. “Don’t turn around.”

He grit his teeth and screwed his face up. “Oh come on, Loo, you’re gonna tease me more?!”

There were the soft sounds of zippers and falling fabric from behind him. “You gonna let me? The best things in life are worth waiting for…”

Lewis really wanted to be done waiting, but… Dammit, she was right. So he grit his teeth harder and resisted the urge to turn around. This was a moment to trust her, so he bunched his fists and forced himself to stay still until finally she walked past him having stripped back down to her lingerie and a sinful expression, and led him forward by hooking a finger into his collar.

His patience was amply rewarded.


Date Point: 15y6m1w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

Her model arrived in secrecy. Just a car, and a couple of Gaoians who brusquely checked the street to ensure they weren’t overseen, and then held the door while their charge hustled through the front door and up the stairs.

Ava’s studio today was one of the oldest permanent buildings in Folctha, the old town hall. Originally conceived as little more than a central storehouse for goods and a place where incoming colonists could bed down while something a little more permanent was found for them, nowadays it was more of a public space. It was used by a dance class and bands for a practice space, it was rented out by the indoor badminton club, on Wednesdays it was taken over by Folctha’s geeks for a night of board games, wargames and Magic…

Today, it was a canvas. She’d laid out her equipment along one wall and waited patiently, because there was no point in setting up the lighting, the filters, the backdrop and all the rest until she’d met her model and established the theme.

Derek had given her a good idea what the theme would be… and one day she’d definitely get Derek in front of the camera. But Derek wasn’t today’s model.

Today’s model was arguably one of the most powerful people in the galaxy. Daar. Great Father of the Gao.

Madre de Dios.

Okay, Gaoians came in some varied shapes and sizes. Myun sprang to mind, being basically the furry equivalent of a valkyrie. But Daar almost didn’t look like the same species. It wasn’t his prodigious size, it was the way he moved: Where every other Gaoian Ava knew either moved with a kind of fussy poise or else in a prowling swagger, Daar… trundled into the room, as though it couldn’t possibly contain anything that might endanger or humiliate him. It would have looked comical if he wasn’t so feral in appearance.

Of course, straightening up made him no less fearsome. But his face and the set of his ears was friendly.

“Miss.”

Ava shook his paw. “Uh… It’s a, uh… real pleasure to meet you.”

He chittered, which wasn’t even close to being the right word to describe the contrabass sound that rumbled deep in his chest, but nothing better came to mind.

“Relax. Anyone ‘Horse an’ Boss speak so highly of don’t need ‘ta stand on ceremony with me,” he reassured her.

That was nice to hear, but Ava decided to plump for honesty. Besides, Hannah was standing behind her legs and staring up at Daar looking as meek and non-threatening as possible. “Truthfully? I think I’d be intimidated anyway.”

He duck-nodded, but folded himself down to ground level to sniff noses with Hannah. “Not gonna lie neither, I ain’t no kitten. But that’s why we’re here, ain’t it?”

“I guess so.”

For whatever reason, Hannah relaxed a bit. Maybe it was scent, maybe it was body language in common, who knew? There were times when dogs and Gaoians understood each other better than humans understood either, and this was clearly one of them. Certainly it seemed to satisfy Daar, who straightened up as Hannah trotted away and curled up on the cushion Ava had left for her in the corner. She kept a wary eye on him, but didn’t look remotely as scared as she had done only seconds before.

Dogs had it lucky sometimes. Humans couldn’t switch moods so quickly.

“So.” Daar looked around. “Not set up yet?”

“Not until I know how to set up,” Ava explained. He duck-nodded, then grinned fiercely and waggled his ears.

“Where should I leave my clothes?”

Ava laughed. He had a sense of humor that managed to… not blunt his claws, nor make her forget them. But it fit his character perfectly.

Well, two could play that game. “Hold on there,” she replied with a grin. “I want to get to know you first.”

“What, my reputation don’t precede me?”

“Well, we’re not here for your reputation, are we? We’re here for you. Laid bare.”

He made a grunting kind of a noise and joined her at the camp table where she’d left her notes. She sat in a fold-out chair while Daar looked at his chair, huffed in some amused way, then sat on the floor directly like a gigantic cross between a pit bull and a grizzly bear. His people had made it very clear on his behalf that nothing was off-limits, no subject was taboo and no question was forbidden which was a frankly terrifying position to be in. The agony of having too much choice was real and powerful.

Daar, it seemed, actually wanted an utterly remorseless interview. He wanted to bare his soul and stand naked in front of the world, both figuratively and literally. That was… both breathtaking and surprising.

“So… your letter said you had some words you wanted to start the piece with,” she said.

“Yeah, but I ain’t ready yet.” Daar settled himself. “I figger this here’s a two-way street: You wanna lay me bare, I ain’t happy to let’cha ‘less I get know you better. You’re important to two’a the guys I respect most in the world, an’ I wanna know why that is.”

Ava noticed his nose was twitching while he spoke: He was scenting her, getting a feel for her in a way that humans just couldn’t. Gaoians always claimed they could smell when somebody was lying, not that she particularly wanted to lie anyway. She wouldn’t know where to begin.

Cut out the false modesty, she guessed.

“Truthfully? I don’t know what they see. I know what I hope they see, and what I’ve searched for in myself, but…” she shrugged.

“Hmm.” He rumbled it more than spoke the word; his English was very good but it had a particular colloquial lilt to it that was hard to place. “Boss says you saved his life.”

“He got shot. He talked me through giving him first aid.”

“Ha! That’s where he got them scars, weren’t it!?”

“A couple of them.”

“And you two’re a thing now?”

“Allegedly!”

“Good! I bet y’two’ll make cute cubs!”

Ava laughed. That thought hadn’t even remotely been on her mind, but she decided not to say so. Instead she acknowledged the compliment—and he definitely meant it as a compliment—with a polite “I’m sure we will.”

“You an’ Horse were a thing ‘fer a long while too, if I ‘member right.”

His expression changed. It wasn’t solicitous and friendly anymore. It was…intense.

“…Yeah,” Ava agreed. “We fucked it up. Me more than him, but I know he says the same.”

“Okay. So whaddya think ‘ya learned from that? ‘Cuz I ain’t asking ‘fer a puff piece here. If I wanted that I’d jus’ release a statement or somfin.’ What truth did ‘ya learn?”

Well. The big brute could ask sharp, insightful questions with the best of them. Ava honestly didn’t have an answer prepared for a question like that… but she knew well enough that those were the best kinds of questions. On the thorns of a question like that, people could really learn about themselves, if they paused and tried to truly think.

“I… learned how easy it is to lie to myself. And how it’s easier to switch to a new lie than face the truth.”

Daar duck-nodded in agreement. “It’s easy, ain’t it? Y’know the thing ‘bout us Stonebacks is we never lie, ‘cept honestly that’s prol’ly a lie too. People lie to themselves allatime and don’t notice. Like me ‘fer example. I keep tellin’ myself I ain’t a down-right bastard and sometimes, I gotta wonder… am I lyin’ to m’self?”

Ava sat back and looked at him. “…You know… I hated myself,” she told him. “For a long time there, I was convinced that I was just the most worthless bitch who ever breathed. I knew that the world would be better without me, that people’s lives would get easier if I wasn’t around to screw it up for th—”

“Y’ain’t worthless,” Daar interrupted her sternly. “You stop that.”

“I know that now,” Ava agreed. “But it was a lie I believed for a long time.”

Daar’s nose twitched again. “You don’t no more.”

“No.”

“Good. Y’know… ‘Horse is a really good judge o’ people, even if he ain’t none too good with his words. That means something.”

“Yeah. Not perfect, though.”

“Balls, ain’t nobody perfect, ‘cept maybe Naydi. Well, no. She picked a life wit’ me over bein’ free like every other Female, so…that’s the thing. Now, I know this ain’t what you had in mind and I know you’re already recording—by the way, why a mechanical tape recorder?”

“A gift from an old friend. And how did you know?”

He flicked one of his huge, wolf-like ears. “Sounds like the belt drive in it is wearin’ out. Anyhoo. I know you were maybe thinkin’ this’d go different, and I want ‘ya to ask questions! But I need ‘ta know you really get who you’re dealin’ with, no offense. So: I am a Great Father. Do you know what that means?”

“…No. I suspect I probably don’t.”

“You are clever! What do ‘ya think it means? ‘Cuz this right here is important as fuck.”

“I think… I think it means…” Ava stopped and thought hard. She was beginning to feel like she was the one being interviewed, but in the back of her mind she was already writing the article to go with this and it was coming out very different to what she’d imagined.

“…I think it means the buck stops with you?” she hazarded.

“Oh, that’s definitely part of it. But, jus’ for context? I’m only the second Great Father in recorded history. Maybe there was we think a few more before then, but…” He shrugged.

“…It means things have gone badly wrong,” Ava realized.

“Yup. ‘Cuz we Great Fathers, we have only ever been created. Great Father Fyu, he was deemed a Great Father by the unanimous chorus of his entire assembled forces, while he stood on the bloody corpses o’ some the worst Keeda-fuck monsters we’ve ever made. Fyu died that day. What stood in his place was somethin’ way more darker.”

“And Daar?” Ava asked. “Did Daar die?”

“Which Daar? The big, happy, smug guy who use’ta be Champion o’ Stoneback? He’s been dead a long while. ‘Cuz lemme ask you again: what is a Great Father? When do we come along?”

The point he’d been driving at finally clicked home in Ava’s mind, stinging her painfully with thoughts of her parents and school friends and nuclear fire. “…You come along at the end of the world,” she said. “When things change forever. You… are the end of the world in some ways. You’re an avatar for it.”

He sat back on his haunches, looking pleased. “…You do unnerstand. There’s…other connotations too. But I’ll just send ‘ya the book. Do with it what you will.”

“I… thank you.” Ava cleared her throat then gestured over at her camera and equipment. “We should probably start that shoot now.”

“Yeah. An’ I bet ‘ya got an idea on how ‘ta do it now?”

“Shadows and contrast, I think. But not black and white. The color of your fur needs to show.”

“Sounds like ‘ya wanna portray me as a monster.” It wasn’t unfriendly.

“I was thinking… chaos, with you emerging from the chaos. Part of it, but also giving it shape, bringing some order to it.”

Daar duck-nodded and silently took to calisthenics while Ava prepped her lighting. It didn’t take her long to prepare, nor did Daar need much prompting once she was ready. He pranced right onto center stage and seemed to instinctually take advantage of the light. He was a good model, with his glowing eyes peering out from under the shadows. He was…striking.

“You’ve done this before.”

“Yup, simpler times. Mostly I was in it for the tail then.”

“You had some words you wanted me to open the piece with,” she reminded him.

“I did. I’ll tell ‘em when you’ve taken ‘yer pictures and asked everythin’ else, ‘kay? You’ve got, uh, two hours left.”

“Órale.”

Ava grabbed Sara’s camera—she always used it for the special projects, and to this day it was definitely Sara’s camera and not hers—and set to work, asking questions as they came to her head. If Daar minded, objected to or was impressed by any of them he didn’t show it: he just answered, thoughtfully and openly. Some of the questions were inconsequential, and she learned about his favorite foods, music and pastimes. Others were relevant but of historic rather than personal significance: his childhood, his adulthood, where he’d been for specific important events and how he recalled them.

The most valuable were the personal ones, the ones that cut him when asked. He bore each one stoically, but she still captured a wide gamut of his emotes; he had a very expressive physicality to him, and didn’t so much grin or snarl as radiate a feeling with his whole body.

The end came rather suddenly, right as she was getting into her zone and he’d finally began to show the strain of the shoot. She’d taken hundreds of pictures but she knew immediately that half of the piece would be what she took right at the end. He was tired, his fur was soaked through and matted, there was a certain… feralness that just didn’t come through any way else.

And the timer went off to mark the moment when there were no more questions, right as she thought of a whole bunch more.

“Nope, sarry,” he said as he padded out of the setup to retrieve his belongings. “But I think ‘yer ready for those words.”

“The recorder’s running,” she said. Internally, though, she had a pretty good idea what he was going to say.

He sighed, turned to face it, and spoke clearly and solemnly. “I am Daar. Brother, Father, Champion Emeritus of the most ancient and honorable Clan Stoneback, Great Father of the Gao… and I am the bloodiest known mass murderer in galactic history.”

That done, he turned to look at her. “Use those words first, please. They’re important.”

“I promise.”

His nose twitched, and that seemed to be satisfactory.

“It was a pleasure meetin’ you, Miss Ríos,” he said, and was gone. Ava was left to consider her photos and everything she’d learned. About Daar, about herself, about Derek and Adam and all the SOR…

It had left her standing on a place of quiet certainty, however. She knew, without a doubt, that this one was going to be special.


Date Point: 15y6m1w3d AV
Corti medical barge Continuity Correction, Cimbrean System, The Far Reaches

Nofl

Doctor Rachel Wheeler was not, by human standards, in good physical condition. She was malnourished, skinny and dehydrated. Her androgen hormones were significantly elevated leading to the formation of cysts in her reproductive organs. Her body was absolutely flooded in adrenaline and stress hormones, her left knee was showing significant wear, two of her teeth were exhibiting rather advanced cavity formation…

All of that was present in the surgical scan. But the surgical systems aboard the Continuity Correction were designed to perform exceptionally invasive surgical procedures on life forms endlessly more fragile than even the frailest human.

Of course, the surgical lead was getting carried away with power.

“Technically, the humans only wanted us to correct the foreign object in her chest and the associated organ damage,” Nofl pointed out.

“We have license to perform whatever surgery we deem necessary. I deem it necessary to correct the other problems as well. And I remind you, Citizen Nofl, that I hold rank in this situation.”

It was true. The surgical lead was a silver-banner far up the pole from Nofl’s lowly position. It didn’t matter a jot that his theatre used tools and medicines that Nofl had been personally instrumental in developing: he held rank.

Nofl knew a battle he couldn’t win when he saw one. Besides, why fight it? The humans would probably raise some kind of an ethical objection, but ultimately the patient would be returned in better condition than if she’d come through the Array whole and unwounded.

Probably the Humans could make life difficult if they chose to take punitive action, but Nofl had raised his concerns and made his case, and most importantly had recorded himself doing so: his own backside was covered against whatever backlash ensued. On the surgical lead’s head be it.

“Well. I shan’t be a back-seat surgeon,” he promised. “Let me retire to the observation area and I’ll leave you to your work, hmm?”

He got a distracted muttering in reply.

There was no running commentary or conversation involved. The surgeon controlled the whole suite himself, there was no need to coordinate with a second surgeon, an anesthetist, a nurse or whoever. Indeed, the theatre did most of the work—all the surgeon needed to do was direct it.

Step one: the bag containing the patient rose off the table and hung in mid-air, held aloft by forcefields. It was turned off, and fist-sized drones danced around it in the span of a second, removing both the bag and the patient’s clothing in strips. Nofl glanced at the monitors: a few feeble vital signs waved at him for a few seconds before flatlining. The patient was dead.

Step two was a study in choreographed clinical violence, and it began with Doctor Wheeler’s decapitation.

A drone orbited her throat trailing a blade of fractal sharpness, and the head was carted away still wearing an expression of pinched shock and fear that was only just beginning to go slack. It was promptly swept to one side and hooked into a life support system that supplied the brain with an oxygenated blood substitute… as well as a powerful anaesthetic. Nothing good could come of allowing her to regain consciousness at a moment like this. A handful of tiny multi-limbed drones pried open her mouth and crawled inside to perform the dental surgery.

The rest of her body was disassembled with similar casual ease, and spread out into a constellation of glistening parts and limp limbs. Nofl had to admit, the view was fascinating: He’d never seen a human so completely before. It really drove home just how thick and deep all those muscles were: the whole torso seemed to be held together by them, in fact.

Vital signs flared back into life on Nofl’s monitor as the blood substitute did its work. Wheeler was alive again, albeit very firmly unconscious. She had been clinically brain-dead for all of five seconds.

Step three: repairs. The heart was definitely destroyed: in fact it was barely in one piece, being held together by a thin thread of connective tissue. In theory, the same cell-level microsurgical techniques that would reassemble the patient at the end of this procedure could have simply woven that heart back together had the wound been clean, but the fusion claw had burned and seared the cardiac muscle, partly blowing it open when the blood inside had boiled.

Fortunately, they had a replacement cloned from Doctor Wheeler’s own tissue sample. There would be no immune rejection response, no complications—it effectively was the same heart, except new and healthy. The replacement floated into place somewhere amidst the splayed organs, and the drones went to work on attaching it to the circulatory system and delivering the appropriate electrical and chemical stimuli to get it beating.

Meanwhile the knee was stripped down like an onion being peeled, pulled open, washed out, resurfaced and a synthetic synovial membrane was attached and filled with fluid. The ovaries were deconstructed, the cysts drained, closed, and rapid-grown tissue was printed in to fill the voids they left before a hormone regulator in the form of a tiny patch the size of a pinhead was adhered to each one as it was put back together.

As quickly as she’d been pulled apart, the stricken doctor was reassembled. The bloodless edges of her component parts were seamlessly brought back together with micrometer precision where they fused instantly so that there was no indication they had ever been taken apart. Her blood, having been filtered and infused with appropriate nutrients and regenerative medicine, was reintroduced to her circulatory system.

Reattaching the head to the spine and throat produced a delicate and even quite balletic weaving of nerves and muscle fibres. Nofl was duly impressed: the surgeon was extremely skilled.

In all, the procedure took five minutes, and the patient—now definitely alive, with a strong pulse and breathing independently—was settled reverently on a gurney. If Nofl read the prognosis correctly, she would wake in two hours.

He returned to the control room, where the surgeon was sipping a measure of water.

“Was that fun?” Nofl asked. He got a disinterested stare for a second, then the surgeon put his drink back in the recycler.

“It was intriguing,” he admitted. “But flying this whole ship here just for one middle-aged Human woman hardly seems like an efficient use of our resources.”

“Just you wait and see, darling,” Nofl grinned. The surgeon reacted with barely-disguised contempt, and he changed the subject. “I read the automated prognosis. I presume you’re just as confident?”

“Of course. She’ll be somewhat groggy from the anaesthetic when she first wakes, but once it’s worn off she will feel strong and healthy.”

“And you don’t foresee the Humans raising any objections over the, hmm, bonus treatment she received?” Nofl asked. He got a blank look.

“Why would they?”

“…Good.” Nofl decided that the time had come to get himself off the ship. The patient needed her escort back down to Folctha and her waiting friends and employers and family anyway. “Well. I shan’t detain you, I know your time is extremely valuable.”

“Yes.”

And that… ended the conversation as far as Nofl could tell. He decided he didn’t much like the surgeon.

The Byron Group representative, Jenkins, was waiting for him alongside a couple of SOR operators as Nofl exited the theatre complex. He nodded at the gurney where Wheeler was back in stasis for transport back to a human hospital. “She’s okay?”

“Indubitably!” Nofl chirped, feeling much happier now that he had a human to bounce off. “You should have watched, it was fascinating! You people really do have some interesting internal organs.”

Jenkins squirmed a little. “…Thanks, but I’m good.”

Satisfied that his ability to troll was still working just fine, Nofl turned to the two SOR men: JETS operators, Wilde and Hoeff. Hoeff had just confirmed the integrity of the patient’s brain by dropping the stasis field and pressing a scanner to her scalp.

“Well?” Nofl asked him.

“Alive. And green. Looks like your doctor did good.”

“He went above and beyond,” Nofl told him.

“…That so?” Jenkins asked. “How?”

“Nothing sinister,” Nofl assured him. The look he got back told him that Jenkins was far from convinced, or trusting.

“Well… okay. Let’s, uh, get her downstairs, huh?”

The shuttle ride back down to Folctha passed mostly in silence. Wilde and Hoeff talked quietly at one end of the shuttle, Jenkins spent the trip reading something on a tablet, and Nofl was left to swing his legs idly in the oversized chair and contemplate what had just happened.

He doubted that the Humans would fail to notice the extra work done to Wheeler. The question was how they would react. He’d been truthful about none of it being sinister: Doctor Wheeler herself would probably be grateful to be rid of two chronic health conditions that had doubtless plagued her for years, once she got over the shock and awe of somehow still being alive.

But if the Directorate were going to build any kind of a trust-based relationship with the Humans then superior and disrespectful behaviour as exhibited by the surgeon was not going to help. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. He really didn’t want to go back to the Directorate and explain that the Humans had withheld payment over a single doctor’s ego.

Or was he worrying needlessly? Would the Humans actually do that?

No. Whether his worries were well-founded or not, they weren’t needless. The future of the Corti species was… not riding on this deal, but certainly would have been badly set back if it fell through.

It occurred to him that Jenkins had spoken to him, and was now trying to get his attention.

“Nofl? Hey!”

“Hmm? Oh, sorry dear. I was distracted.”

“Anything I should worry about?”

Nofl sighed and sat up straighter. Evasiveness or dishonesty at this point would only be harmful.

“I am… worried,” he confessed. “Our surgeon was, ahm… ambitious. Zealous to put everything right with his patient, you might say.”

He watched his insinuation sink in. “Oh…hell,” Jenkins groaned. “So when you said he ‘went above and beyond’ you mean…”

“I mean exactly that. Doctor Wheeler is in perfect health, but the treatment extended…” Nofl cleared his throat delicately, “…beyond the remit of the asked-for surgery. I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted that no patient would leave his care in anything less than pristine condition.”

“…Y’know, if he were human he’d be gettin’ a malpractice suit right now.”

“Hence my concern.” Nofl scooted forward in his seat. “I think I need to persuade you to overlook this.”

“That ain’t my call,” Jenkins said.

“As I feared.” Nofl sighed and returned to his more relaxed position. “This is an important deal for my people, you know. The dawn of what I hope will be a brighter future. We need goodwill with Humanity, but every time we begin to build some up, some idiot puts their ego ahead of rational necessity, and…”

Jenkins smiled. “Relax, this won’t blow the deal outta the water,” he predicted.

“I hope not.”

“It won’t. Look, worst-case scenario you just hafta buy the information you need.”

“We need more than the information,” Nofl explained. “We need the expertise. We need the goodwill. Access to the raw data alone will get us where we want to go, of course… but ultimately, for obvious reasons, the galactic experts on the Human genome are Humans.”

“Funny how y’all spent years collecting human samples and then… what? Did the data on us just go up in smoke? I was an abductee, I know they took gene samples.”

“Samples are one thing. Sample size is another.”

“As I recall, your ‘sample size’ approached ten thousand.”

“Yes, mostly of defective specimens. Examples like, hmm, Julian Etsicitty and his mates, for instance, were much less common. A handful of paragons is hardly an ideal baseline to properly understand a gene-line. If it were, we would ask for the HEAT’s material and leave it at that.”

Jenkins raised his eyebrows. “Defective, huh?”

“The baseline for human physiology was established more than a thousand years ago. That’s too long under the influence of civilization and its selection pressures to leave alone. Unfortunately, most sanctioned human experimentation ceased hundreds of years ago, prior to your world wars. You were getting too advanced, too able to understand what was happening to you. There’s a reason for the massive uptick in reported cases of alien abduction in the post-war era.”

“Delusional dumbasses jumpin’ on the bandwagon,” Kevin sniffed.

“Yes, but fuelled by genuine cases like yours. And, again, by case studies like Julian. There is something…captivating when you observe someone like him in his element.”

“And us ‘defective’ types?”

“…I’ve offended you.”

“Yes,” he sighed, “but with you I can at least tell it ain’t malicious.”

“Thank you.” Nofl glanced at the stasis pod with Doctor Wheeler in it. “If it counts for anything, I promise you that Corti in general don’t stoop to malice. My people have our flaws—thoughtlessness, arrogance, and a lack of empathy that makes it hard to fathom how our society operates sometimes—but malice isn’t really in our nature.”

There was a bing sound, and a little icon above his seat told Nofl to put his seatbelt back on if he wasn’t already wearing it. Seconds later, the first ghost of turbulence and fire sent a queasy jolt through his stomach as the inertial compensation system fought back against upper-atmosphere turbulence.

“So what was my defect?” Kevin asked.

“I couldn’t possibly say. I have no idea who abducted you or why, and you certainly don’t seem defective to me. Though considering what happened to you, I’d hazard that your abductor was some bottom-feeder who turned to ‘zoology’ in a desperate last-ditch attempt to preserve tenure, rather than a Directorate-approved study.”

“Greeeat. And does Julian know the details of his capture? Do his ladies?”

“I don’t know. I should…probably ensure that they do.” Nofl shrugged. “If nothing else, it would be nice to build a little trust with him especially.”

“Hmm. So you do know.”

“I have recently learned,” Nofl explained. “It’s become quite relevant to my interests. And as an aside, the social consequences of it are fascinating.”

He saw Kevin’s blank look and explained.

“…Events on the galactic stage have caused your species to do something remarkable. Like any successful sophonts, you have mechanisms to sieve the seedcorn from the chaff, as it were. You do this on a number of levels, but the HEAT indirectly did this in an important area: genetics. That has become my interest as of late, dear, and studying them with their permission has been hugely important. But it’s been made much harder by your species’ attitude towards the field.”

“Oh?”

“Very often, superior examples of your kind are embarrassed by their own superiority. It’s puzzling and utterly, wholly alien to a Corti. We simply cannot fathom why.”

“I reckon I can explain that one,” Jenkins said.

“Please, go ahead.”

Jenkins chewed on his thumbnail for a second before speaking. “I used to be a Christian,” he said. “An’ it was a big part of what my congregation was taught that we’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord, don’t judge lest ye be judged, let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Right?”

“Christianity is a closed book to me,” Nofl replied. Kevin nodded, but ploughed forward.

“Okay, well on, like, a secular level, the idea that some folks are just better than others is real unpopular. Not without reason, too: Some really, really shitty things got done to some folks by some other folks over that belief. If this group over here think they’re the Ubermensch and this other group are the untermensch then why the fuck would the self-identified ubers keep the unters around for? Just kill the lot of ‘em to make room for the better class of humanity. Millions of really good folks got straight murdered because of thinking like that.”

“Some specimens are superior, though. And I note that the governments controlling SOR are not marching through the streets or otherwise abusing their advantage.”

“The SOR isn’t that big of an organization, Nofl.”

“Yes, dearie! But my point is that beings like them matter. The SOR is absolutely lousy with high achievers in all dimensions! Goodness, even people only loosely associated with them are exemplars of your kind. But for their circumstances, I imagine Julian, Allison and Xiù would all have found themselves quite comfortable among their ranks.”

“…Eh, I doubt it. Ability ain’t the same thing as personality or desire. None of ‘em are soldiers.”

Nofl acknowledged the point with a serene nod. “Oh, that I wholly understand, dear. But my point stands,” he maintained, “that they are all supremely advantaged beings, filtered and concentrated by a well-designed merit system. I approve! Nor is it the only path available to exploit excellence. Goodness, your culture has several such sorting systems in place!”

“Well…yeah! Ain’t no civilization gonna work if you can’t reward hard work, man.”

“Oh, don’t be obtuse!” Nofl flapped his hand excitedly. “Work only gets you so far. At some point you need to be better and you know it, don’t you dare lie. Many of your academics are every bit the intellectual equals of a prissy silver-banner Corti Dean. I’d wager some of them are better! And yet despite all that, your species seems reluctant to acknowledge the basic truth of it all. Why not take full advantage? You can’t tell me you don’t use what you have to get what you want. Why pretend otherwise? Why would anyone on the SOR? Julian? Presidents? Geniuses?”

“I never said they don’t, but people like that usually don’t flaunt it. Also,” Kevin continued, “you keep coming back to Julian. Why exactly was he abducted?”

“His suitability for the planned experiment and his exceptional genetics. He was blessed with functionally optimal and effectively defect-free versions of many alleles, and with strong hybrid vigor in his ancestry, too. That, along with his physical and mental developmental history, made him as ideal a specimen as could be found. His social background was optimal as well.”

“…Right.” Kevin pressed on with a grumble. “Anyway. That means super-Julian is a perfect example of what I mean, actually. His ancestors suffered hard ‘cuz of those kind of ‘master race’ ideas, right? So then it’s pretty fuckin’ ironic that he’s apparently a Goddamned wunderkind like all those murderin’ racist motherfuckers could never be.”

Kevin was clearly agitated for some unfathomable reason but he abruptly paused, considered something, and changed tack. “Hell, y’know what? I bet that fucks with him, hard. All three of ‘em prob’ly. I assume Allison and Xiù are in the same boat?”

“If you mean by selection criteria, not entirely. All three are genetically quite gifted but his women were destined for very different experiments.”

“…Lovely. And you wonder why they all prefer their own company? Jesus! Why d’you think they’d rather hang out with cavemonkeys instead of on talk shows?”

Nofl considered that idea. “Then I should plan my conversations with them carefully.”

“Yeah. An’… look, maybe some folks just are better than other folks. Not everyone can be a… an Olympic gold medallist or a Nobel physicist. But if one o’ us is better, the best personal quality that person can have is humility. It ain’t all about them, man. It’s about all of us.”

“…Well, you’ve certainly described the phenomenon,” Nofl sighed. “I don’t feel as though you have adequately explained it in such a way as to make the logic clear to me.”

“I dunno, man. I think it’s about teamwork and shit. An’ hell, I’m not even that good of a team player myself. I ain’t no psychologist, you’d probably better talk to one of them.”

“I may do that. But… in any case, about Doctor Wheeler—”

Jenkins shrugged. “It’s done. Wouldn’t undo it even if we could, so… If it were my call, I’d say we’re just happy to get her back to her family alive. For what it’s worth, I’ll do everything I can to see that your doctor’s stupidity don’t derail this whole thing… And hell. We can legitimately claim it was a miscommunication, too.”

“That’s not entirely honest, Mister Jenkins.”

“Honest an’ legitimate ain’t the same thing.”

Nofl conceded that argument with a blink and a tilt of his head, and looked up at the information above his seat again. They were on final approach, apparently.

“True,” he agreed. “And… I would be exceedingly grateful.”

Jenkins nodded, and settled back in his seat for the landing. Nofl glanced at his patient one last time, then relaxed.

If nothing else, he’d saved a life. That was worth cherishing.


Date Point: 15y6m2w AV
USS San Diego, The Ruibal Territories

Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight

“She’s a fine ship.”

San Diego’s captain, Mike Brewer, took the compliment with a smile and a fond look around. Knight hadn’t been false, either: the American cruiser had taken a lot of lessons learned from the V-class destroyers and the two captured Hierarchy ships Myrmidon and Caledonia in her design, and it showed. Nobody could accuse her of being spacious and comfortable, but the interior was just that little bit more efficient, the citadel that little bit more secure, the compartments that little bit more refined in their layout. Subtle differences that only a truly seasoned sailor would notice, perhaps, but present nonetheless.

Good coffee, too.

Still. In comparison to the Rich Plains, San Diego was a pike swimming alongside a whale, and it was telling that the Dominion flotilla had carefully rearranged itself, without being overtly threatening, to keep an eye on the human warship.

Neither Brewer nor Knight were worried: San Diego was built around shield generators, to the point where actual weaponry was almost an afterthought. If she needed to destroy anything she had her wormhole link to the Strategic Deep Space Weapons Reserve at Minot, but the shield generators themselves could wreak terrible havoc if needed. They were powerful enough to physically crush a hostile ship, and could function as a variable-frequency laser in a pinch.

They were certainly powerful enough to keep the ship intact long enough to jump out if the Dominion ships opened fire. Unlikely as that scenario might be, it was a comforting thought.

Right now, however, they were waiting for permission to take a shuttle over and Brewer was getting impatient.

“Are they in the habit of keeping species delegates waiting like this?” he asked.

“Probably just us,” Knight replied. “We have made a point of not taking our place at this council before now…”

“So why now?”

“The Gao specifically requested it. Apparently Daar feels that our absence is doing more harm than good now.”

“And our protest?” Brewer asked. “Ambassador Hussein died in that very chamber…”

“I think we’ve made our displeasure plain enough…” Knight examined the Rich Plains again. “Besides. Our allies requested it.”

There was a call from elsewhere on the bridge. “Sir? Rich Plains extend their welcome and invite the ambassador aboard.”

“About bloody time…” Knight muttered. He was quite sure that keeping him waiting was a studied power-play on the Council’s part. They were in a… tetchy mood after Daar had chewed them out. He finished his coffee and nodded to Brewer. “Captain.”

“Sir.”

He wasn’t alone in his shuttle, which after all needed to carry more than just the ambassador. He had a security detail, an aide, a few advisors…

He shook one particular advisor’s hand with care and no small amount of satisfactory anticipation. The Council were going to have conniptions, and he was looking forward to it.

Champions Genshi and Sheeyo were waiting for him when the shuttle’s ramp came down aboard the council ship. Both had the Gaoian equivalent of his own expression: Mischief was afoot, and they were all relishing it.

“Welcome aboard, Ambassador,” Sheeyo performed a kind of ducking bow before shaking Knight’s hand: Genshi remained straight-backed. Different Clans, different manners.

“Thank you. How are the Council taking my arrival?”

“The usual bluster,” Genshi commented.

Sheeyo was a little more verbose. “They made a lot of impatient noise to the effect that it’s past due for the Human race to take their place at this council, with a few barbs about your ‘unsanctioned claim’ over the planet Cimbrean and the damage you caused to the planet Garden, and goading the Hunters… Nothing of consequence, but you aren’t popular in there, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, that’s alright. Popularity is a cage anyway.”

Genshi bent sideways at the waist to peer into the shuttle. “You accepted Father Regaari’s suggestion over your special advisor, I see.”

“He made a very persuasive argument,” Knight smiled. “And the man himself laughed for quite a long time when I asked him. I think he was rather tickled.”

“This is going to be fun, isn’t it?” Sheeyo predicted.

“Quite. Shall we?”

Knight turned to his security detail, who were looking significantly neater and even more impressive than usual.

“Master Sergeant Firth! You shaved for me!”

“Only the best for you, sir.” The behemoth operator had one of his rare wry grins today. “Though it’s Senior Master Sergeant now. I’ve got shiny new stripes and everythang.”

“Well, I regret having missed your promotion, senior master sergeant. I presume the festivities were memorable?”

“Always, sir.”

Knight chuckled. “What about you, Colour Sergeant?” he asked, addressing the much “smaller” figure of Robert Murray. “You’re looking downright dapper.”

Murray sniffed a quiet laugh. “Aye, I scrub up. Gotty look the part, don’t we?”

“You succeeded admirably. After you, gentlemen.”

They nodded, and all their jovial anticipation vanished in an instant. The two of them assumed their positions alongside and slightly behind Knight, and from there…

Weighty, robotic, stone-faced precision. Like all the best-drilled ceremony, it managed the trick of conveying genuine menace without so much as a flicker of aggression. They weren’t there to threaten and intimidate. They were there…to show they could, if it was needed.

The perfect click of their heels on the polished stone was almost hypnotic, and it conveyed all the threat they could want in its understated way. Very much a velvet glove, under which the mailed fist was plainly obvious despite their lack of weapons.

Not that either man needed one. They were weapons, and the well-fitted close cut of their uniforms made that plain, even under all the ‘fruit salad’ as the Americans called it. Both wore their impressive service records on their chests, and though much of the details would go well over the head of most of the representatives, the general message would not.

The sudden silence as the trio of humans entered the council chamber spoke volumes.

With their charge safely delivered to his place in the chamber, Murray and Firth did fine statue impressions and became part of the scenery at the edge of the hall, alongside their counterparts from the other Dominion species.

Knight would admit to some small private pleasure as many of the other honor guards subtly gave them room.

His spot on the floor was among a cluster of four at one end of the chamber alongside, in descending order of seniority, the Corti, the Rauwrhyr and the Gao. It was a potent faction: the Corti brought the gravitas of the Dominion’s most advanced and wealthy member, while the Gao and humanity were arguably the two mightiest militaries in the room.

The Rauwrhyr were the interesting ones, really. If the other three species in their little circle could be considered a coalition of the ambitious, then the Rauwrhyr were a little out of place: they’d always, as Knight understood it, been a voice of temperance and caution. And yet, here they were.

Clearly, he’d need to get to know them better when he had the chance.

There was a chime and the chamber went silent to pay attention to the Speaker, a venerable Rrrrtk who looked down his nose at all of the ambassadors before turning his attention specifically to Knight.

“…On behalf of the council, may I say that we are pleased to see you, Ambassador. It’s been too long since the Human species was represented in this chamber.”

Knight nodded, and took that as his cue to step forward a little. He promptly became the focus of a spotlight.

“Indeed,” he said. “Understand that we are here at the behest of our friends and allies. It’s been three years by our calendar, almost to the day, since Ambassador Hussein was murdered here on this very floor, and we have not forgotten.”

“A tragedy,” the speaker declared, and assorted heads and appendages around the chamber performed a variety of bobbing motions in agreement. Knight simply gave the elderly alien a cool stare that was nevertheless far warmer than such a tepid platitude deserved.

“…Do you recall his last words, Mister Speaker?” he inquired.

There was an awkward silence, which he allowed to stretch out to the point of aching discomfort, before grunting and answering his own question. “He asked: ‘what must we do?’ Specifically, he was asking what humanity must do to earn the trust and respect of the Interspecies Dominion. That was an act of abject prostration by a proud and powerful man… And this chamber repaid his humility with murder. If you should now have an answer to that question, I shall not be taking it today: We are no longer interested.”

“Ambassador,” the Domain’s delegate stepped forward. “Your predecessor’s murder was an act of sabotage by agents opposed to the process of galactic peace—this Hierarchy that your government and the Clans of Gao have inescapably uncovered. I’m sure my fellows will join me in deploring what happened to Ambassador Hussein, but surely you cannot blame us for the actions of an infiltrator?”

“Maybe we cannot,” Knight conceded, “but what about the Fall of Gao? Were Hierarchy saboteurs responsible for the way this council stood back and watched? Is their infiltration of this chamber that total?”

He gestured at Sheeyo. “We are here because our friends request it, for their own reasons. Do not mistake our presence for endorsement. Now, I have a few matters of procedure to cover before—yes?”

He aimed a sharp look at the Kwmbwrw delegate, who had stood up and raised a hand, requesting that he give way and take a question or comment.

The Kwmbwrw ambassador was a matriarch, he guessed. Her fur was almost snow white from her face to the tip of her coiled tail, and glowed under the spotlight as she tall stood on her hind legs to speak.

“A passionate argument,” she said. “But your disregard for this council and its rules was made evident long before your predecessor’s tragic assassination. I believe your colony on the planet Cimbrean celebrated the tenth anniversary of its founding last year: A colony that was, may I remind the council, founded without formal declaration or a legal claim.”

Knight gave her his most disinterested blank look. “Ambassador, our position with regards to Cimbrean was made quite clear some time ago and it has not changed: ‘Molon Labe.’ I invite you to research the translation of that yourself,” Knight said wearily. “And if irrelevant jabs like that are to be the calibre of interruption I face, then from now on I will not be giving way.”

What could they do, after all? He was facing down interstellar powers with access to gargantuan resources, but not a one of them could so much as tickle the human race. Better and far more dangerous things had tried. That was a position of the most incredible strength, and there was no point whatsoever in abandoning it, especially not in being polite to politicians who clearly had no interest in being polite to him.

They couldn’t even kick him off the council, given that the Dominion charter stated clearly that sapient life forms were automatically entitled to an irrevocable seat. In theory, even the Hunters had the right to attend.

Of course, in practice the Dominion’s policy with Hunters was, sensibly, to shoot first when possible.

“As I said, I have a few matters of procedure to address,” he continued, “the first and most important of which is the naming of my advisory staff. It’s my understanding that the rules and procedures of this house permit me to name one cross-species advisor?” He looked to the speaker, who gave him a slow gesture of acceptance.

“Go ahead, Ambassador Knight.”

“Thank you.” Knight nodded to Murray and Firth, who turned a smart one-eighty and vanished out of the chamber, the sharp clicking of their boots as they heel-struck in perfect unison ringing off the walls. Their job was to put on a show here, and they were damn good at it: He could tell that the Gaoians were suitably impressed, but not even the other ETs could fail to miss the precision and discipline on show.

That was the point, of course.

Knight watched and appreciated the low conversation among the delegates as he waited. Most of them were on-edge, though the Chehnash Ambassador had watched the two men leave with what looked more like professional interest than bewildered intimidation, and the Corti delegate to his left had an utterly peerless poker face.

A minute later, the sharp heel-strikes were back, and as before the two men stopped ramrod-straight in front of the entrance, turned a smart ninety degrees and stepped aside.

“Ambassadors,” Knight said with no small air of satisfaction, “may I present the special cross-species advisor to the Allied nations of Earth.”

For the first time in more than ten years, Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk stepped into the Dominion Security Council chamber.



++END CHAPTER 47++



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Fifty-seven Deathworlders:

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As well as Sixty-six Friendly ETs, 53 Squishy Xenos and 263 happy little Dizi Rats.


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The Deathworlders will continue in Chapter 48: “Laid Bare”


“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0International License.

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This chapter contains a fragment of the poem “Sci-Fi” by Tracy K. Smith, which is quoted here under nominative fair use. The poem, and the book “Life on Mars” in which it appears, are © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith and published by Graywolf Press.