The Deathworlders

Chapter 48: Laid Bare

Date Point: 15y6m2w AV

ESNN Front Page news story: GRA APPOINTS NEW AMBASSADOR
Admiral Sir Patrick Knight takes seat on council after long protest absence

In an abrupt change of policy after years of boycotting the Dominion Security Council, the GRA announced last night the immediate appointment of a new ambassador.

Retired British admiral Sir Patrick Knight has taken over the position, which has remained vacant since the assassination of the GRA’s previous ambassador, Doctor Anees Hussein, and used his first remarks in the chamber to chastise the Council over his predecessor’s murder, and to reinforce humanity’s displeasure with the Dominion.

Who is Ambassador Knight?

Knight, a veteran of surface naval operations in the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf and in support of ground operations in the Middle East, became the commanding officer of the Royal Navy’s First Space Fleet after the acquisition of the two captured alien warships later rededicated as HMS Myrmidon and HMS Caledonia. Since then he has overseen system security in Cimbrean, been instrumental in the formation of the Spaceborne Operations Regiment, and was the Allied field commander during the Battle of Gao.

He retired following the war to care for his daughter, Captain Ellen McDaniel, who was commanding officer of HMS Caledonia and who sustained life-changing injuries when Caledonia was sunk at the height of the conflict.

He declined to comment when asked why he had come out of retirement, but his office released the following statement:

“The Ambassador has always been committed to the ideals of safety and prosperity for all persons of all races and species, and has agreed that re-engaging with the Dominion is the best way to uphold those ideals. He is grateful for the concerns regarding his daughter, who is receiving the best possible care, but would prefer to keep that matter private within his family.”

Making Waves

The Ambassador’s arrival in the Council chamber was suitably dramatic. Aside from making a statement in being escorted by a security detail of HEAT troopers, the Ambassador reportedly shocked the council by appointing a nonhuman as his special advisor.

Knight’s advisor, whose name is approximately rendered in the English alphabet as “Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk” is a former Councillor, having represented the Domain at the time when the Sol Containment Field was erected fifteen years ago. He quit in protest over the deployment, whereupon he commissioned the starship Sanctuary and set about rescuing human refugees and abductees, including BGEV-11 crew Allison Buehler, Xiù Chang and Julian Etsicitty. He was also instrumental in the founding of Folctha, by delivering the first Jump Array to the alien palace colony site.

Following Sanctuary’s destruction, A’ktnnzzik’tk—more often known as “Kirk”—was believed dead. His surprise return to interstellar politics has sent shockwaves through both the Dominion, and also the Vzk’tk Domain where he reportedly enjoyed considerable popularity during his time on the council.

What happens next?

Ambassador Knight has not yet made it clear what the GRA’s agenda for the Security Council will be. For now, he has committed humanity to the political faction broadly known as ‘Reformers,’ which also includes the Gaoian Ambassador Champion Sheeyo of Clan Goldpaw, Corti Directorate Ambassador Veril, and Ambassador Scrythcra of the Rauwryhr Combined Nations.

Kirk’s presence at his side is a source of endless speculation for extraterrestrial political commentators, but a Domain public poll suggested that he has lost none of his popularity and many Domain citizens are interested to see what influence he will have.

Champion Sheeyo praised Knight and Kirk, predicting that they “will be just the shakeup the council deserves.” He went on to add that he has high hopes for the galaxy if the human race chooses to remain enfranchised and focused on the betterment of the Dominion, rather than aloof from it.

The other Reformer ambassadors declined to make any statement, and at the time of writing there has been no official comment from the Celzi Alliance.

Only time will tell what Knight’s appointment will truly mean for humanity and the galactic community.

-Ava Magdalena Ríos
Extraterrestrial Affairs Correspondent


Date Point: 15y6m2w AV
Hierarchy/Cabal Co-operative, Session 20

++0020++: No, I missed the whole war. My last memory is of sending a backup in response to the invasion plans. After that, nothing. Not even a differential log update.

++Cynosure++: As I suspected. It’s not dead.

++0020++: “It”?

++0004++: Something that 0006 unleashed upon us.

++0009++: [File Attachment: Entity Briefing Document]

++Cynosure++: I requested that you please not call me that.

++0004++: < Pointed > But you don’t deny that you unleashed it.

++0003:++: Shut up, 0004. Petty sniping like that is what got us into this mess, and you alone seem to be immune to learning that lesson.

++0004++: It’s just the truth.

++0003++: One more word, and I will demote you to 0999. Am I clear?

++0004++: < Shock; Meek acquiescence. >

++Cynosure++: In fairness, 0004 is correct. This parasitic entity is my creation, inadvertent or not. It is indeed my fault… it is not however my responsibility, at least not exclusively.

++Cytosis++: I would say it’s the least of our concerns. Between the Gaoian disaster and the loss of the Hunter Orbital, a full 3% of the Hegemony is in archive awaiting new Substrate.

++0009++: And the Substrate supply is shrinking, not growing.

++0020++: I just finished reading the briefing document. Something like that is the least of our concerns?

++Cytosis++: If not the least, then certainly low in the priority list.

++0020++: It knows everything! It can infiltrate anywhere! It can expose every secret we have to the Deathworlders! I fail to see how that is not an issue of paramount importance.

++0009++: A limited supply of Substrate compounds every other problem.

++0020++: Well… where is it now?

++Cynosure++: Our last indication of it was among the Builder-caste Hunters aboard the Orbital. Considering how extensively that network was destroyed, however…

++0003++: It may be dead.

++Cytosis++: Optimistic.

++0003++: True. It would be foolish to proceed with that as our working theory. But allow me some hope, please.

CHANNEL: 4 instances of emote: < grim humor >

++Cynosure++: It must have a point of contact with the Humans. If we can locate that…

++0020++: Or it may still be embedded within the Hunters. That’s where I would be right now.

++0004++: < Intrigued > Your rationale?

++0020++: The Builder coup represents a major political and social upheaval, and the new Alpha-of-Alphas was never aware of our relationship with its predecessor.

++Cytosis++: As far as you know.

++0020++: Granted, but was the former A-of-As aware of the Entity?

++0003++: Absolutely not. We never divulged that information.

++0020++: Then if I was this Entity, I would be burrowing deep into the new Builder-led Hunter social order in search of valuable intelligence.

++Cynosure++: I agree. And if it’s so embedded… we may have an opportunity to pursue it.

++0004++: And the Hunters themselves? I notice we have stopped referring to them as Discarded.

++Cytosis++: It’s time to face facts: they’re no longer under our influence. They’re no longer a Control Species, and they are likely to make the Substrate situation worse, not better.

++0003++: Meaning that it is now in our best interests to see them destroyed.

++Cynosure++: Agreed.

++0004++: No Gao, no Hunters… no Control Species at all. The matterspace situation is alarmingly outside of our control now. Surely correcting that is a priority?

++0003++: 0723 is overseeing the development of an industrial-age class 11 Deathworld species a very long way indeed from Human and Gao influence: Approximately eighty thousand lightyears. If we can move them toward a hegemonic-purity world government model rather than implementing the classic collectivist/individualist division…

++0009++: I’ll go make an assessment.

SYSTEM NOTIFICATION: USER 0009 HAS QUIT

++Cynosure++: Even if that turns out to be a viable and sensible option, it will still take decades.

++0003++: But it will result in a control species. Especially if we foment a highly xenophobic political atmosphere.

++Cytosis++: Risky. If they detect our influence…

++0003++: Correctly planned for, we could make that discovery work to our advantage. It will require the diversion of experienced agents, but…

++0020++: But we need a control species.

++Cynosure++: The Cabal’s opinions on this kind of interference are well-documented. I will not repeat them here. You are playing with dangerous forces, 0003.

++0003++: We successfully balanced those forces for millions of years. Recent upsets notwithstanding, we are very good at this. As you used to be.

++Cynosure++: And foreseeing the consequences of repeated failure was once a strength of yours. We are not in a position to afford risk-taking. Our margin is gone.

++0020++: I am forced to agree with Cynosure. Especially considering the existence of this parasite. Until it is defeated, any attempt to groom a new control species will only result in discovery and Human/Gao intervention. They have shown that they are quite willing to involve themselves with pre-contact sophonts in order to combat us.

++0004++: So. Having established what our next move is not…

++Cytosis++: …We should establish what it is. Yes. How easily will you be able to re-infiltrate the Hunter networks, 0020?

++0020++: Not easily. The Builders are moving away from a datasphere model toward dumb signal-transport. The whole system is… ossifying. Each passing day renders it less and less permeable.

++Cynosure++: That will work against the parasite, too.

++0004++: Hopefully.

++0020++: I will make an attempt. If I fail… hopefully you will have a plan available once I am restored.

SYSTEM NOTIFICATION: USER 0020 HAS QUIT

++0003++: He really deserves a promotion.

++Cytosis++: Or some time off.

++0004++: I don’t think anything in either aspect of the universe could persuade 0020 to take time off… We should plan, as he suggested.

++0003++: We’ll reconvene tomorrow.

SYSTEM NOTIFICATION: UNANIMOUS AGREEMENT
SESSION CLOSED BY USER 0003


Date Point: 15y6m2w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

The Singer

“Yan will not be around forever, Loor. You must learn how to make peace without him.”

“I’ll worry about that branch when I grab it,” Loor retorted. “So long as Yan is around…”

He was one of the younger Given-Men, having gone through the change barely a hand of winters ago, and the Singer sometimes wondered if he was still a child in the head. He hadn’t mastered his Fire into a passionate drive like Yan had, and it still kept him short-tempered and unruly.

And a Given-Man’s job was to keep the peace. Gods help Loor’s tribe.

“So long as Yan is around is the time to learn from him, not latch onto his tit!” the Singer answered. She heard one of the nearby women stifle an amused trill, and lowered her voice. “Gods’ names, Loor, how do you teach your sons to make a knife? Do you make every knife for them and expect them to learn when you’re gone?”

Loor glowered at her, but the Singer wasn’t afraid of him. He might be a fire-head, but he wasn’t violently stupid. It took him a few heartbeats to finally admit her point but admit it he did, by sagging and whipping his tail.

“…I’ll… talk with Yermo,” he promised reluctantly. “And I’ll keep my teeth in my mouth this time.”

“Even if he doesn’t do the same?”

“Even then.”

The Singer treated him to a smile. “Thank you.”

“Still. If I’m to learn from Yan, it would help if he was here.”

“He’s only gone for a season,” the Singer pointed out.

Loor’s tail whipped the other way. “A lot can happen in a season, Singer.”

“Or nothing can happen. Work with the tools you have, Loor, that’s all I ask. I’ll sing for Yermo to keep his temper.”

That last promise seemed satisfactory. He thanked her and left the village in a much less violent mood than he’d arrived, leaving the Singer to sigh and plop down next to the fire where some of the women were preserving another batch of stew for the winter.

She sat with her thoughts and helped with the preparations for some time until a shouting-stone’s call drew her attention. It was the unique thrum-thrum! thrum-thrum! rhythm the lookouts used for when a human was headed their way.

Sure enough, a few minutes later Professor Hurt ambled into camp with his hands empty but five root-birds hanging from his pack. He exchanged words of goodwill with the lookouts and handed the meat over as a gift. The Singer nodded happily: ever since his return, the Given-Men had been grumbling much less over the humans out at the ‘bunker.’ The old man was no kind of a Given-Man himself, but he knew how to make and keep the peace.

The Singer welcomed him with a smile and invited him to the fire where he sat down and produced a real treat: Hot chocolate. Strawberry hot chocolate. Somehow those little bags of brown powder made the most delicious drink.

“Good morning!” he said, with a little bow.

“All the better now,” the Singer replied politely. She cleared some room for him to pour water into his metal cups and place them among the embers. “The children missed your stories at the last big meeting of tribes.”

“The children have an endless hunger for stories,” Daniel chuckled fondly. “They want new ones faster than I can translate them.”

“Which one are you translating now?”

“Well, that’s actually why I’m here,” Daniel confessed. “This one’s a story about gods, and… well, I know that sometimes Humans and the People can have different ideas about how to talk about the gods.”

The Singer nodded. It had come as a shock to find that Humans felt quite comfortable with talking about their gods by name. It just didn’t mean the same thing to them.

“I wanted to check with you that my translation is, uh, acceptable,” Daniel finished.

The Singer nodded. “I have questions for you too. But please, you go first.”

Daniel nodded and produced his notebook.

“It’s the story about how the thunder god gets his most famous weapon,” he said. “And it begins in the morning when the thunder-god’s love wakes to find that her hair is gone…”

She sipped the hot chocolate as he spoke. It was a funny story, full of trickery and a rogue getting his comeuppance, and Daniel was a better storyteller than any man among the People even when sharing the story quietly so as not to be overheard. But he was right, Humans thought about their gods in a very different way and she said as much once he’d finished.

“Honestly, I don’t think the people who first told that story liked their gods very much,” Daniel confessed. “They respected them no doubt, but they lived in a cold and hard land where death could strike all too quickly. They would have felt like playthings, I think.”

There, at least, the Singer could sympathize. The Gods got respect because they were powerful; ‘Powerful’ did not mean ‘nice.’ For every good season, warm day and successful hunt, there was sooner or later a hard winter, a broken spear or a sickness. All necessary for the balance, of course… but she had to admit, she hadn’t much liked the gods on the day when her baby had died in her arms.

“…Tell it as you told me,” she decided.

He nodded and made a note.

“Well, a fair trade is in order then,” he said. “What do you need?”

“Word about Yan and Sky-Thinker?”

Daniel smiled and nodded. “We have a saying: ‘no news is good news.’”

“That… could be taken two ways.”

“Exactly.”

That made the Singer trill. “I like it. Still, if you know anything…?”

Daniel nodded and retrieved his tablet thinking-stone from his pack and tapped at its bright surface. “…If all goes to plan, they should be leaving Utah today. That’s the land of some of Julian’s ancestors, and the last word he sent to me said that their time there has gone well. They’ll travel for a few days to a colder land in the north where there are trees and large beasts, much like here. That’s their last stop: a hand of days later they should be back here.”

The Singer nodded, relieved. Daniel sipped his own drink and gave her a knowing look. “I wonder whether you miss your uncle or your mate more,” he commented.

The Singer trilled softly. “You may as well ask if I prefer breathing or food. I need both… though Yan is not so good for keeping me warm.”

Daniel laughed and nodded. “There, I sympathize,” he said. “It’s been too long since I had company at night.”

“Not even from among your fellows at the bunker? Claire, maybe?” The Singer had become something like friends with the slender human woman, though Claire’s ongoing refusal to dress comfortably still baffled her. While the men she worked with were happy to strip to the skin in hot weather, Claire was always covered and always suffering.

Why couldn’t Human taboos make sense?

Daniel’s face definitely went a little redder, like human faces did sometimes when they were embarrassed. “Claire’s one of my students. It would be wrong.”

“Ah. But you don’t dislike the idea.”

Daniel cleared his throat. “Best if I say nothing.”

Another taboo. Oh well.

“Yan needs to calm some of the Given-Men,” the Singer explained. “Without him… There are arguments. No fights yet, but…”

“But you don’t want a repeat of… uhm…”

“When Yan killed Tarek, and then killed his whole tribe, and then Took their Singer?” the Singer asked pointedly.

“…That, yes.”

“No, I don’t.” Especially because there was no guarantee she herself wouldn’t endure something similar if it came to that. Yan would surely wreak a terrible revenge, but too late.

“Is that… likely?” Daniel asked.

“It is always how things could go… but no, I don’t think it will happen. It doesn’t help that we don’t have many more years of Yan left. We need him here, to teach the others how to keep the peace without him.”

“…I think I sense what the trouble may be about.”

The Singer twitched her tail irritably. She’d hoped to pass it off as a tribal matter, but the resentment and fear were probably never quite going to leave. And in truth, the other tribes were right to be scared of the Humans. They’d made it clear more times than the Singer could count that if it came to war, all the People with all the good bows and steel knives they could make would be worse than annihilated: they’d be ignored.

What did it mean to be friends with a tribe so powerful that they could simply stop paying attention to you if the friendship soured?

“Some of the Given-Men feel you have taken Yan and Sky-Thinker.”

“It was a giving,” Daniel replied. “Them to us. For the balance. Yan said so.”

“Yes. Funny how easily his words are forgotten when he is not here to remind the others of what he said.”

Daniel nodded sadly and considered his drink.

“…A hand of days,” he promised. “Maybe a hand and two. No longer than that. And if you want, I can request they come back sooner.”

The Singer dismissed that suggestion with a curt gesture. “No. It’s an important Giving.”

“Well then,” Daniel smiled. “Maybe I’ll tell my story when they’re back. We can have a feast!”

“That sounds good.” The Singer finished her hot chocolate and returned the steel cup. “Even better if there’s more like that.”

Daniel chuckled. “There will be,” he promised, and stood up. “I’ll see you in a hand of days or so.”

“Say hello to Claire for me.”

“That I can do.”

The Singer watched him go. It was strange to think back to the pudgy, soft man who had first come to them a few seasons ago. A man of the People in his position would have grown large and strong: Daniel however had become lean and tough like a vine. He seemed healthy and strong like only a Human could be.

That was good. And it was good to have friends like that. And very good indeed to know she could hand the trouble with the other Given-Men back to Yan soon.

But there was a lot of future to come after that. She needed a fix that would outlive him.

If only she could think of one.


Date Point: 15y6m2w AV
ε Monocerotis 143.9° 37-FEBEAA G3V 1-3

Katja Napierski

Thump.

“Holy shit!”

“Those are your Big Words?”

“To hell with my Big Words, look at this!”

A bright purple tree was… walking past barely a hundred yards away.

Okay, ‘walking’ was kind of a generous term to describe a kind of shambling crawl, and ‘tree’ was maybe a generous word to spend on a six-foot shrub that looked like a cross between a mangrove and a lavender bush, but holy crap. It was still a perambulating plant, no matter what way Katja sliced it.

“…We should name this place Grootworld,” Graves suggested. The entire first survey team gave his idea the cold treatment it deserved, and Katja grimaced inside the sealed environment of her excursion suit.

“…Air quality?” she asked, wearily.

Saitō had been waving a sample wand around from the moment they arrived, and held it up. “Clean and breathable. Pretty high OP count though, so, uh… you bring your Benadryl?”

The Organic Particulate or “OP” count was the xenobiologist’s version of a pollen count, and they’d made it an important part of determining atmospheric compatibility. Nobody wanted to inhale a double lungful of anaphylactic shock.

“How high?”

“Eighty or so.”

“Alright, helmets stay on until I say otherwise.”

The words “yes ma’am” did the rounds, and they vacated the jump array’s platform.

The Coltainer probe had picked a hell of a spot, at least. Those walking trees probably basically were mangroves, because they were wriggling slowly around on the slick surface of a tidal mud flat. Crystal waters lapped and played over the rocks and the beach was vacation-brochure white sand under a flawless blue sky.

Katja had a full orbital survey, of course. The colony site was on the northern, oceanward side of an extinct volcano. To the west was a peninsula that gave way to archipelago, to the east was continental mainland. Fertile farming terrain in one direction, mineral wealth in another, oceanic wealth in a third. Throw in a balmy climate and gentle weather and in theory they had a lovely place to live.

All that remained was for a ground team—the one she was leading—to verify biocompatibility and double-check the probe’s work.

They were quite a team. In fact, it would be hard to pick a more varied group of people with a more diverse skill-set. The Allied military and security services were, after all, an enormous set of organizations and AEC had looked everywhere for the right people to form its exoplanet survey team to follow up on any leads generated by the Coltainer project at Erebor.

This was the first. About thirty-seven kilolightyears from Sol, and currently invisible without a telescope of surpassing power, it didn’t have a name beyond a description of its position in Earth’s sky, approximate distance, and a string of letters to pin down its precise coordinates. The star was a fraction hotter than Sol, the planet a fraction further away… But as far as Katja was concerned, if she ignored the walking mangroves then she could have been standing on a beach in the Bahamas.

There was a cry of “Fire in the hole!” from her right, followed by a loud BANG! as Roberts fired the ground-to-orbit mortar. A brilliant streak of blue light connected sand and sky for a heartbeat before the warp field collapsed, and Katja’s HUD reported that she now had satellite telemetry.

That was proving to be one of the most clever technologies the Gao had taught them. In-atmosphere warp had all sorts of clever uses, and human forays into the tech had only successfully yielded weapons like the Skymaster guns. The mortar on the other hand could deliver satellites directly into stable orbits.

The day—morning, they quickly discovered—unfolded at a steady pace, punctuated by the sound of Roberts seeding the sky with satellites. Every time he did so, local bat-like flying animals scared up and circled for a few minutes before returning to the ground.

Oddly, enough, they seemed to be otherwise pretty fearless. One of them perched on a rock within arm’s reach at one point and Katja took several good pictures of it.

Bat-like was definitely the right angle. It had a crumpled, snouty sort of pug-dog face, fur and leathery wings, but the body plan was more bird-shaped even if one ignored the pink-skinned rat tail. It was kinda cute, actually.

Her attention was broken by Bailey with the results from her Flycatcher sweep of the territory. “Captain? Geosurvey’s complete.”

“Verdict?”

“Exactly as the probe said. We’re sitting on a wealth of metal ores, especially bauxite, the seafloor to the north is a perfect candidate for oil and gas and there are strong indications of an anthracite seam two hundred klicks inland. Radon’s a little high at a bit more than two picocuries per liter, but that’s within acceptable bounds.”

“Meaning this site has everything a colony might need for an industrial base and exports.” Katja nodded.

“Or self-sufficiency,” Bailey agreed. “Want me to check out the beta sites?”

Katja nodded. The alpha site where they were standing was what the probe had considered to be the best possible spot for a colony: the beta sites were nearby strong contenders that could provide good support to the alpha site. “Sure, send the drone over there.”

By sunset, the biocompatibility survey was complete. The pollens unfortunately were going to give people allergies, but nothing life-threatening as far as Saitō could tell. Just the equivalent of hay fever, and they were hopefully seasonal. Otherwise, everything was pleasantly compatible, as expected. Carbon-based, levo-amino, DNA-based, blah blah blah. There was work here for a million xenobiologists’ lifetimes, but the point was that just breathing the air and eating the fish wasn’t going to make anybody dangerously ill.

In the end, Katja volunteered to take her helmet off first. It was her call, after all. So, with emergency medical gear on standby just in case all their exhaustive tests turned out to be dead wrong, she broke seal, pulled the helmet off and took a deep inhalation through the nose.

The air smelled… pleasantly minty, actually. With an undercurrent of ocean breeze. The effect was rather like the distant scent of a mojito.

She breathed normally for a minute or so before finally deciding that no, her throat wasn’t about to swell up and choke her, and put her helmet down. “Okay.”

Helmets came off one by one in a steady, predetermined order, everybody making sure that there was still no sign of distress from the people before them before breaking their own seal. By the time the last of them was breathing the open air, Katja had been taking in the planet’s atmosphere for ten minutes entirely without difficulty. They were on a conclusively habitable planet.

She looked around. The Coltainer had sent down construction equipment that had assembled basic shelter and facilities: a small nanofactory, a solar power generator, a fusion generator that just needed a supply of hydrogen to boot up, and a fully wired and plumbed colony administration building suitable for short-term habitation. It even had beds!

“Okay,” she said. “Call in the follow-up team.”

They had a world to explore.


Date Point: 15y6m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Derek “Boss” Coombes

Date number two was more relaxed. Actually it was just an evening at a coffee shop but Ava had brought along her draft of her interview with Daar. She apologetically made Derek sign a non-disclosure, which he was more than willing to do, and sat sipping a cappuccino as he read it.

His own coffee had gone lukewarm by the time he finished it.

He put it down with an exhalation at the end. “…Damn. Tigger’s always been a big personality, but…”

“He completely overwhelmed me,” Ava said.

“He’ll do that.”

“Is there anything you’d change? Anything you think I should focus more on?”

Derek shook his head. “Daar’s got his own message, I got mine.”

“So are you going to do one of these?” Ava asked. He grinned at her.

“You just wanna get me naked.”

“Guilty.” She smiled back. “But seriously? My editor is going to want to fuck with this. I want to take it to him in ‘we either publish it as-is or not at all’ condition.”

“He’d do that? Even with Daar’s weight behind you?”

Ava’s smile got wider. “If Jason had been there when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, he’d have had his red pen ready to make ‘a few little suggestions.’”

Derek chuckled, and gave up on replying to that in favor of just watching her for a second as she tidied up her tablet. There were women so achingly beautiful that a guy could fall in love just from looking at a picture of them, and Ava could have been their princess… and she’d kissed him hello. It was an awesome thought.

Naturally she saw his undisguised attention and gave him a look over with a smirk. “…You’re not so bad yourself.”

Derek couldn’t help himself: his laugh made heads turn.

“Hey, I never promised to be a perfect gentleman.”

“Good.” She grinned at him, leaned forward and lowered her voice, looking him in the eye. “I don’t want a perfect gentleman.”

“So you want… what? A rogue?”

“Mmm…” Ava ran a finger around her coffee mug’s rim and gave him a lopsided, daring smile. “Enough of a gentleman to hold the door for me, enough of a scoundrel to pin me against the wall before it’s closed. Something like that.”

Derek chuckled. If she’d been trying to fluster him, she’d instead given him ideas. “That a request?”

“That an offer?”

“…Get your bag.”


Date Point: 15y6m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

No pain. A… hum? Electrical. A fan?

And… Light. Not bright light, nor white. Dim, warm, soft light. Lots of little ones too, in green and red and an eye-twisting unnatural blue…

The last dregs of a horrible dream about being stabbed and decapitated circled the drain and gave way to confusion as Ray woke up.

She’d… died.

…Hadn’t she?

She was pretty sure she had. There’d been shooting, and Hunters. And a sensation that had redefined pain for her as a fusion blade had sunk right into her–

But this didn’t sound like heaven or whatever, and she’d already been to Hell and this wasn’t it… And the figure at her bedside looked like the more mundane kind of angel in her bright blue scrubs with her hair in a high but neat bun.

…No, wait. His hair.

He clearly spotted some change on the various… things that Ray was plugged into, because he turned, saw her staring at him and was at her side instantly.

“Easy there. Hi. You’re in hospital, I’m Shane, I’m a nurse here…”

Something utterly mountainous moved in the dimly-lit corner behind Shane and Ray blinked at it, momentarily convinced that a Hunter was about to spring from the shadows and that this was just a temporary moment of false hope before—

Instead, the most enormous man she’d ever seen stepped forward with a concerned look on his wide, friendly face. He held himself back through some prodigious self-restraint and let the nurse control the scene.

“Can you tell me your name?” Shane was asking. Ray blinked and looked back at him.

“I–” Her throat was so dry it felt totally closed and she paused, tried to gulp to clear it. He magicked a little plastic cup of water from somewhere nearby and gently helped her to drink from it. It washed some of the grit and sandpaper out at least.

“It’s…Ray. Ray Wheeler,” she managed after gulping again. “I’m… still here?”

“You’re still here,” Shane agreed with a smile. “You made it.”

“But…?” Ray struggled to repair her thoughts and memories. She was absolutely, completely certain she’d felt her heart stop in her chest. And… there had been dark brown eyes. And…

She raised a hand to her throat. It was very much seamlessly intact. It drifted down to her chest and probed her sternum, which felt whole and intact.

The giant shambling man-mountain edged closer into the light where she could see him properly. He had warm brown eyes, she saw. Deep, very dark—

“You…?”

He nodded. “And another man we’ll call Baseball. I go by Warhorse, technically speaking.”

Ray lowered her head back to the pillow to try and think. The question looming largest in her mind was a big thundering “how?” She was certain of only one thing: that she absolutely, definitely, one hundred percent had been stabbed in the heart which as far as she knew was about as dead as dead got. She could remember her last thoughts for fucksake. She hadn’t even been afraid, not really. More… robbed.

“…My friends?”

“They made it.” Shane had a warm, soothing voice. “They’re nearby.”

“And…” Ray tapped her chest lightly. “How…?”

“Medicine has advanced a whole hell of a lot since you guys left,” Warhorse informed her. His voice was warm too, but so chest-shakingly deep it could never be called smooth or gentle despite the Latino lilt that touched some of his vowels. “But we also, uh, called in a special favor for you.”

For a few seconds a kind of silence descended. ‘Warhorse’ obviously didn’t know what to say, Shane was watching intently, and Ray…

Ray blinked. Then the ceiling went blurry and then… oh God…

Everything hit her, all at once. The years of pain, of guilt, of fear, the shock of losing Berry and Conley, the full horrible reality of her own brush with death all came slamming down on her at once and the only thing she could do about it was hold on and try not to be washed away by her own tears.

Both men rushed to her side. Shane took her hand, the one with the drip line in it, and squeezed gently. Warhorse’s huge callused mitt enveloped her other hand. Ray felt too weak even to turn her head, too weak to do anything except lay there and mourn.

Eventually—she had no idea how long—Shane pressed a handkerchief into her hand, which raised it to her eyes and nose without prompting. Part of her noticed in a detached way that her skin looked loose and old. The fact that her hand was shaking didn’t help the impression: She felt, and maybe looked, somewhere on the wrong side of eighty.

“My crew? My family?” she asked, latching onto something to do, or at least talk about.

“Your family are in a hotel just ten minutes away. It’s the middle of the night right now… we can send for them, but you should probably rest for now.” Shane fiddled with the drip. “The doctor said to give you some Valium if you want it. Just enough to help.”

Ray looked at the line in her hand and gave up. “…I don’t know. If the doctor thinks that’s best… I don’t know. Yes.”

Shane nodded, finished presumably dosing her up, and then gave her some space. Ray looked at Warhorse.

“…Jesus. Have you slept?” she asked him. He looked downright haggard.

“Yeah, I’m just tired.”

“Don’t you have a family or something to go home to if it’s the middle of the night?”

He beamed at that. “Yeah! A newborn son, Diego. He’s, uh, pretty demanding.”

“…And you’re here?” Ray asked.

“I live in town, it’s no big deal. I just put him to bed about two hours ago actually.”

“So why are you here?”

He shrugged hugely. “I save lives.”

Ray sighed. Maybe Valium acted faster than she thought because she was already feeling a lot better about things… but she couldn’t take that for an answer.

“I’m grateful,” she said. “God, I… I don’t know how I can ever repay you. But you should be at home with your son.”

He chuckled to himself, “¡No te preocupes! It only takes me literally two minutes to run home, and I had to see if you made it. You did, so I’m happy.”

“I still can’t believe it… I could have sworn…” She touched her chest again.

“And you’re right. But like I said, things came a long way since you were gone. But I’ll leave it to the doctors to explain.”

“…Right. I guess I need to, I don’t know. Plan for maybe having a life again.”

“Sleep first,” he said. “Worry about life mañana. It’s just one day at a time, y’know?”

Ray nodded and rested her head again. “Good advice.”

He smiled and stood. “Hey, uh…don’t be a stranger. I’d like it if you visited! You know. If you feel up to it.”

“I’ll do that… thank you.”

She was already falling asleep as he murmured a warm “De nada” and left.


Date Point: 15y6m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Derek “Boss” Coombes

“Ohhhh God, right there! Mm!”

Derek nodded, scratched her back a little harder, and Ava melted into a happy limp puddle with a sigh.

“I think you’re enjoying this more than the sex,” he accused, trailing his fingernails up and down her spine.

“I think shut up…” she mumbled happily, and snuggled into him. “The sex was amazing and you know it.”

Derek stroked her hair. “Flatterer.”

“What, you wanna hear the opposite?”

“Who knows, it might motivate me to do better next time.”

She laughed and kissed his shoulder. “Ohh no. I expect you to bring your A-game every time. If that wasn’t it, we need to go another round.”

“…I might need a minute.”

“Mmm,” she purred indulgently, while nuzzling against his neck. “I’ll give you two.”

“How about three, and I keep scratching your back?” He emphasized the point with a slow drag down her spine.

“Mmmm!” she somehow managed to become even more relaxed. “…Deal.”

Derek was more than happy to please.


Date Point: 15y6m2w1d AV
Dominion Council Ship Rich Plains

Kirk

“That went surprisingly well.”

Kirk had discovered, to his private delight, that his sense of humour aligned wonderfully with Admiral Knight’s. The elderly Human had a full-bore laugh that only the driest, most deadpan jokes could expose.

Every species got an ambassadorial suite aboard the Rich Plains, and the Dominion had… well… they’d done their best to accomodate a human’s needs. Apparently none of the hospitality specialists on board knew much about what humans actually wanted and needed, beyond having heard somewhere that Homo Sapiens had a much larger caloric intake requirement than most other sophonts.

The spread of comestibles on the table was… alarming. But Knight hadn’t commented, he’d simply sat down with a satisfied sigh and started exploring the assorted alien delicacies in front of him. The caterers had even laid on meat, a clear sign of accommodation.

“…What on Earth is this?” he asked, lifting a fork with a heart-shaped slice of thin, orange flesh draped over it.

“That is… probably Dizi Rat,” Kirk decided.

“…Rat.” Knight considered it, sniffed it dubiously, then shrugged and draped the meat on the small cooking plate provided. “Should I be insulted?”

“I suspect not. It is driven by benign racism, fundamentally. Allegedly one of the earlier Humans to escape his Corti abductors settled on Dizi Rats as a protein source and… well, made quite a mess.”

“How do they accommodate the Gao?”

“They don’t. The Gao bring their own food.”

“Hmm… is there anything here you can eat? Don’t misunderstand me, I’m grateful they didn’t thoughtfully provide me with any well-decomposed Zrrks, but…”

Kirk snorted a laugh.“The Cqcq salad looks rather nice…”

Knight waved a hand at it. “Then by all means, dig in! I wouldn’t want this to go to waste.”

Kirk claimed the bowl and did his best to sit on a bench made for Humans while Knight assembled something like a sandwich. Bread, fortunately, was almost universal in one form or another.

“Personally, I thought we went down like a lead balloon,” the ambassador commented after a few seconds.

“The Dominion is a fundamentally conservative organization, in the sense that it abhors change of any kind and any degree. The Humans and the Gao prove…more dynamic than they are comfortable with.”

“It’s a wonder any of them ever looked up and tried for orbit…” Knight grumbled. He waved a tube of something. “Relish? Spread?”

“Krztkzk. It is… I suppose a mushroom pate would be closest. And do not mistake the political conservatism of the Dominion for a lack of drive and ambition on the part of individuals. We all had our Wright Brother-equivalents.”

Knight sampled the Krztkzk, nodded, and spread some on his sandwich. “I suppose the Hierarchy cannot suppress everyone everywhere at all times.”

“Thank goodness,” Kirk said. “Of course, their social engineering did slow everything. We did not have the same big industrial wars as you. Therefore rocketry was a more slowly-developed science, as were nuclear fission and electronics.”

“The Gao were going down the same path, as I recall. They only had a brief history of large-scale war but it was violently bloody.”

“They are an… aggressive species. Humans, as I have noticed, seem to see a problem and have an irresistible itch to solve it. Gaoians tend to prefer to kill it, or at least outcompete it.”

Knight gave him a sharp look. “That hardly seems fair.”

“I am talking in the broadest possible xenopsychological strokes, you understand.”

“Hmm.” Knight decided that the thin slices of rat on the grill were cooked, and transferred them onto the bed of Cqcq and Krztkzk he’d created. He sampled the meat, grunted, and added a handful of dried fruit to his creation before folding it over to eat.

“Still. I’m not sure I like that characterization,” he said. “The Gao have been steadfast and loyal to us, and quite generous.”

“I admire them greatly,” Kirk said. “They are proof positive that yours is—forgive me—not the insurmountably supreme species of the galaxy, against whom all the others fall short.”

“Thank God,” Knight muttered, and bit into his sandwich.

“But I prefer humans,” Kirk added. “Gaoians are innately predatory in a way that tickles my instincts the wrong way. Humans are more…civilized. Or at least, you wear it better.”

Knight acknowledged the compliment with a nod, then put his sandwich down and brushed his hands back and forth against each other to remove some crumbs. “Not bad,” he commented. “With a little imagination and a nasty cold, it could almost pass for a BLT.”

It was Kirk’s turn to laugh, and Knight smiled.

“Well,” he said. “We should probably discuss why the Gao want us—and specifically you—on the council. Trade.”

Kirk nodded slowly. “The Gao are keen to ensure that their trading relationship with the Dominion survives any amount of disapproval and fallout over the Ring. The Domain will be the linchpin species there.”

“How strong is our position?”

“Strong,” Kirk said confidently. “Especially with the Corti on your side. But it could be stronger. The Gao are, after all, a net importer from the Domain.”

“Hmm.” Knight set aside the remaining half of his sandwich and picked around the rest of the table in search of something appetizing. “What of?”

“Civilian ships and construction materials, mostly—oh, you might enjoy the Rwhk—especially for asteroid mining. The destruction left by the war will take years to regenerate, and much of the Gao’s interplanetary infrastructure was destroyed or maliciously repurposed. The Dark Eye installation is much more advanced than anything we have but it is… hungry. Raw materials do not provide themselves, after all. Further, it is only one installation and that means it cannot be used for trade goods production.”

“No exports means less liquid capital,” Knight nodded. “Which means less flexibility.”

He picked up a Rhwk and turned it over in his hands a few times before giving Kirk a quizzical look.

“You peel it. Start from the blue end.”

Knight nodded and did as suggested. “So what can we do, here, to keep the freighters flowing? I think I have an idea.”

“Please, tell.”

“Let’s face it, the Gao and AEC have the best damn fleet in the sky right now,” Knight said, with more than a touch of pride. He was, after all, an admiral. “Between our surveillance drones and jump beacons, the spacelanes to Gao have an effectively permanent combat air patrol, and destroyers on standby.”

“Making them the safest in the galaxy,” Kirk saw. “And with the Hunters on the rampage right now, that will be an attractive option for traders. Especially the independent captains with families on their ships.”

“I would have thought the big firms wouldn’t want to lose ships willy-nilly either.”

Kirk had never heard the term ‘willy-nilly’ before, but it didn’t matter—he understood its meaning. “They will not,” he nodded. “But you must remember that most of the big firms make their money primarily by providing support and infrastructure. The captains choose which cargo contracts to pick up and move, the customer pays a variable rate depending on urgency, risk, distance, demand and a thousand other factors, and the companies finance the ships, determine the rates, take a cut from the captains, and provide maintenance and insurance.”

“Hmm. Like an interstellar freight version of Uber.”

“Very similar.”

“Although I must ask…” Knight finished peeling the fruit, “why aren’t they just using jump arrays? Why even bother with spacelanes and shipping when that’s available?”

“The aforementioned conservative inertia,” Kirk guessed. “Also, I suspect, because a change like that would result in some very wealthy people going out of business.”

“Hierarchy influence?”

“Not impossible… but there is a danger in seeing them lurking behind every corner. It is easier to explain with simple greed.”

Knight accepted the caution with a nod and sampled his Rhwk. Other humans usually compared it to a grapefruit crossed with a pineapple, at least in terms of flavor. It seemed to meet with his approval and he polished off half of it before returning to his sandwich.

“I immediately see some opportunities,” he said. “Human and Gaoian security expertise and technology could be very welcome in that market right now… if we can overcome the prejudice and paranoia.”

“My mere presence will help in that regard,” Kirk said. “Where one Rrrrtk leads, a hundred Vzk’tk will follow.”

“The fact that the council is adamant that you are dead won’t matter, I presume.”

“Legally dead.” Kirk snorted happily. “And of course, bureaucracies being what they are, the mere fact of my walking into the room and pointing out that I am not dead will not change my legal status.”

“The forms must be obeyed.”

“Oh yes. Indeed, there is an old Rrrrtk joke on that subject.”

Knight looked intrigued. “Ricktick humor? Do tell.”

“I warn you, it loses an important pun in translation,” Kirk said. Knight shrugged the warning off, so he cleared his throat and solemnly intoned in the best tradition of his species’ comedy: “A man walks into a government building, where the clerk hands him a form requisition form. Having exhausted her supply, she then fills out a form requisition form requisition form. So it goes.”

Knight smiled. “…Okay. It’s amusing. I wouldn’t call it laugh-out-loud funny, but…”

“As I said, the central pun is lost in English. It’s also a bit of a tongue-twister, you see. Or, the equivalent.”

Knight nodded, and finished his sandwich before casting around among the remaining untouched foods to see what else he could make. Clearly the hospitality team’s estimations hadn’t been all that far off the mark.

“I have a question with regard to your trade relationship with the Gao,” Kirk asked him.

“By all means.”

“It seems somewhat… shall we say ‘lopsided’? The flow of technology from them to you would seem to far outweigh the foodstuffs you trade back to them.”

“There’s a growing trade in platinum-group metals as well,” Knight noted. “And rare earths. For the first time ever the Western nations have a surplus of those, thanks to asteroid mining.”

“Nevertheless.”

Knight nodded and started assembling another Dizi Sandwich.

“Trade is a broad concept and the Gao in particular do not consider it a strictly economic affair,” he said. “To them, culture, language, and ideas hold significant weight, and access to those things may be benefiting them more than you realize. Nor can goodwill be discounted, either. And it must be said, the Great Father just did us a massive favor with the Ring business.”

“Thereby increasing your debt.”

“You have thoughts, there?”

“I think perhaps the increasing insularity of the Allied nations and the Gao might be alarming to species like the Kwmbwrw in particular. And of course, most of the Dominion does not really appreciate that the human race comprises a lot more than just the Allied nations. Indeed, you are very much a minority by population.”

Knight shrugged. “There are minimum economic thresholds to all this. We only just got universal access to clean drinking water and electricity sorted out, and there are serious weapons tech concerns too. Do you have any idea just how big a nightmare Jump Arrays are from a security point of view?”

“I sometimes forget that simply drinking the water can be risky on your home planet,” Kirk admitted.

“In decades past, one of the greatest triumphs of our national order was the elimination of the Guinea worm. Bloody horrifying little bastard, that.”

Kirk shivered involuntarily and Knight nodded.

“You see my point. It’s not that the Allies necessarily want to be the face of humanity. I’d actually very much like for the Russians and Chinese to be represented in the council if nothing else, and I’m not alone in that. But for better or worse, we’re the ones who are actually expanding off-world and building the infrastructure. And the more we do so, the more we benefit from a kind of geometric growth that they become increasingly less able to keep up with. Just look at Franklin!”

“Franklin?”

“The US colony on Cimbrean. It’s already half the population of Folctha. Throw in New Botany, Nouveau Acadia and Abeltown, and Cimbrean’s population is well on its way to two million human souls, never mind the Clan of Females. The other Earth powers have a lot of catching up to do.”

“Will they ever?”

“I doubt it, at this point. They were too slow off the mark. Even if we hand them an absolutely golden colony candidate world on a silver plate, they don’t have the experience and momentum that we do.”

“Meaning that for all practical intents and purposes, the Allies are the face of Humanity for the Dominion species.”

Knight nodded. He looked like he was about to ask a question when a knock on the door heralded the arrival of one of his diplomatic aides. “Sorry, ambassador. We just got an update about a serious incident at Scotch Creek…”

Knight nodded, wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin and stood. “I suppose I should probably arrange for some Earth food to be delivered.”

“Probably,” Kirk agreed. “I think most of these foods are quite low-value for you anyway, even if they taste nice. Shall we conclude our meeting later?”

“Yes, let’s.” Knight ushered the aide through into his as-yet unused office, and Kirk took the chance to nibble his Cqcq salad.

He had to admit. It was good to be back in the game.


Date Point: 15y6m2w1d AV

ESNN Front Page news story: SCOTCH CREEK PROTEST TURNS VIOLENT
Cars burned and windows smashed as rioters lay siege to military base

The fallout from the Allied destruction of a major Hunter orbital structure continued last night when rioters stormed the front gates of the Scotch Creek army base. Thirteen people are reported to have been injured when base security personnel deployed stun grenades, water cannons and forcefields to protect the facility, with some reports suggesting the number may be higher.

Although AEC are yet to formally comment on the incident, they did confirm that seven people were arrested and handed over to the RCMP after “projectiles” were thrown at the facility’s gate guards and two separate attempts were made to scale the fence. The police have described their efforts at protecting the local residents and their property as “a losing battle,” with burnt cars littering the streets and in some neighborhoods the windows that aren’t smashed are boarded up and covered in graffiti.

The Alien Protection Army group has claimed responsibility for the unrest via social media, and has promised that more will follow. A viral video released by the APA accused Allied forces of being complicit in genocide and mass-murder, and called for “a reckoning.”

Meanwhile, in a statement from the Pentagon, the Supreme Allied Commander of Extrasolar Defence General Gregory Kolbeinn praised SCERF personnel for resolving what he called “repeated and concerted assaults on the base” without bloodshed.

“Under the circumstances, the guards at Scotch Creek would have been entirely justified in using lethal force,” he said, adding that “the fact that they were able to repel the attackers using less-lethal means speaks volumes about their calm and professionalism.”

So far, there has been no comment from the Canadian government, or Prime Minister Philippe Martel.

So who are the APA?

The so-called Alien Protection Army were founded nearly fifteen years ago, shortly after the release of the Abductee Memoirs. It began with an anonymous manifesto which described what the author called humanity’s “innate biological imperialism” and attacked quote: “problematic depictions of human space exploration, expansion and settlement such as Star Trek and Mass Effect,” calling them “species supremacist” and “colonialist propaganda.”

Originally the APA was a student movement on university and college campuses across Europe and North America, but the movement always struggled with the presence of a radicalized minority with its own ranks. When APA members carried out a suicide bomb attack and mass shooting on the MBG Advanced Aerospace Assembly Facility in Omaha, several governments classified the whole organisation as a terrorist group. Over the last three years, Allied security agencies claim to have thwarted no fewer than seventy terror plots by the APA, mostly targeted at organisations and individuals connected with spaceflight and the Cimbrean colonies.

Despite this, the APA’s global membership is estimated to be in the thousands, and growing. They have vocally condemned the military alliance between the Allied nations and the Gao, calling Great Father Daar “a military extremist with a body count that eclipses Hitler” and describing President Sartori as being “complicit in the systematic slaughter of innocents.”

General Kolbeinn’s reply to that accusation was dismissive: “Terrorists don’t get to lecture me about innocent casualties.”

What happens next?

This morning, Scotch Creek residents are now cleaning up their homes and streets, and the burnt vehicles are being towed away. However there is an uneasy feeling in the community that this isn’t the last their once-sleepy tourist town has seen of such unrest.

General Kolbeinn has outright dismissed any possibility that the military alliance with the Gao might be reconsidered, a sentiment echoed by White House press secretary John Simmons, who said that “The President has made it very clear on several occasions that we are effectively at war, and that the Gao are our most valuable friends and allies.”

While this sentiment has also been echoed by the British Prime Minister Stephen Davies, the Australian PM Kathy Nguyen and the Prime Minister of New Zealand Joel Thompson, the loudest voice in support of the Gao came from Folctha’s Prime Minister Annette Winton.

“There is not a single Gaoian on this planet, at least that I’ve spoken to, who doubts that what the Great Father did was necessary for their very survival. The Gaoian people were the target of an attempted genocide, and to describe them as though they are the aggressors is nothing short of victim-blaming.”

Finally, the APA themselves have promised to do “whatever it takes, for as long as it takes.”

It seems unlikely that Scotch Creek will be their only target.

-Ava Magdalena Ríos
Extraterrestrial Affairs Correspondent


Date Point: 15y6m2w2d AV Monument Valley, Navajo Nation Reservation, Utah/Arizona border, USA, Earth

Vemik Sky-Thinker

“Rattlesnake. Hmm.”

The creature was definitely making a war dance, and Vemik had backed off to give it some space. It had a good name, he decided. Straightforward and clear. It rattled, it was a snake: Rattlesnake. Made sense.

Jooyun was treating it with respect, so Vemik backed off a little further and the snake finally decided it was happy and stopped making that noise. “Is it dangerous?”

“Yup. Careful there, buddy.”

Vemik nodded and backed off some more. They didn’t have anything like snakes at home. A beast with no legs? It should have been silly, but he’d seen for himself how quick they could be. Humans weren’t stupid, and if they gave a little creature like that plenty of room then it deserved caution.

Mollified, the snake decided it had better places to be and he watched it slither away from them. “How dangerous?”

Jooyun relaxed and took his hand off his knife. “Rattlesnakes aren’t like those little garter snakes you saw on Cimbrean, Vemik. A bite from one of those guys can kill a full-sized bull.”

“Venom? Nasty.”

“There’s venomous critters on Akyawentuo,” Jooyun pointed out.

“Yes. In the water, you said. I never met one.”

The snake vanished under a bush with a flick of its rattling tail. A shame, really: Vemik would have liked to get a closer look, had it been safe. Oh well.

They’d met up with Heff again, after their days in the desert with Mikey and Raven. The little man was in charge of something called a “Suburban,” which looked big enough to push over a tree and solid enough that the tree would come off worse. He seemed to be enjoying the fierce heat, too… or at least, he was leaning comfortably against the vehicle, fingering some of his vile “Dip” out of a can and into his mouth, and watching the world in his impenetrable way from behind a pair of what Jooyun had called “Mirror shades.” Vemik could swear his skin had gone several shades darker since they’d last seen him.

Yan finally returned from relieving himself a short distance away, and wordlessly hauled himself into the Suburban’s back with a grunt that made the whole thing lurch and dip on its wheels. Vemik had to agree with him: Shade seemed like a wonderful idea right now. And air conditioning was nice too!

“Well… It’s been an interesting few days,” Mikey said, shaking Jooyun’s hand. “Something to tell the grandkids about.”

“I learned a lot!” Jooyun thanked him, then when he offered Raven a hand she rejected it in favor of a hug.

“So did we!”

“So what’s next for you two?”

Raven rolled her eyes. “Got a bus full of insurance executives or whatever coming up from Phoenix on a company team-building exercise.”

Most of that sentence made no sense at all to Vemik. Whatever it meant, Jooyun pulled a face.

“That sounds like… fun,” he commented.

“Hey, it pays the rent,” Mikey shrugged.

“And execs always tip well,” Raven added.

“Well… if you two ever decide you want a break from cavemonkeys and businessmen, you’re always welcome to come visit us.”

Raven nodded with a grin. “I’d like that! But you need to get moving. It’s a long way to Winnipeg.”

“Yeah. About twenty-four hours on the road, and we’re not even stopping there.”

“That sounds like… fun.” Mikey grinned as he echoed Jooyun’s words, then stepped aside. “See ‘ya ‘round.”

“Hey, you too.”

Vemik took that as his cue to climb up into the Suburban alongside…well, more on top of Yan. Jooyun took the bench seat in the middle, and Heff had the front all to himself. Doors closed, there was a crunch as the wheels got them moving and Vemik settled in to enjoy being in the cool and shade.

Humans mostly weren’t very big compared to the People, especially the men. The back of the Suburban was…cozy, and Vemik ended up snuggled against Yan for much of the trip. They’d pulled out the rear bench but it would have been nice to have maybe a little more room…

Except, when he thought about it, he was flying across the land so fast that nearby things were a blur and every time he looked out the window there was a new view. Funny how something so magical could also be boring and uncomfortable.

Vemik squirmed to find a more comfortable shape to wedge himself into, which Jooyun noticed.

“How you doin’, big guy?”

“I can’t find anything to sit on that isn’t Yan.”

Yan grunted in amusement and crushed Vemik with his tail.

“Yeah…well, we have to stop for gas in, what, another hour? Maybe we can figure something out then. Will you be good ‘till then?”

“He’s going soft,” Yan grunted affectionately, and pinned Vemik down with one hand. “Needs to remember how to endure.”

Vemik wanted to defend himself, but he couldn’t really breathe just then. Yan tightened his tail.

“I dunno big guy, sitting on you is kinda like sitting on a grumpy rock. Besides,” Julian noted, “We need to make room anyway. We gotta carry way too much stuff for this next leg. Even with the trailer it’s gonna be a squeeze.”

“There ain’t gonna be half of this damn thing left when you’re done with it, is there?” Heff grumbled. “You know how much paperwork I’ll have to fill out?”

“Hey! I offered to charge it to Byron Group, but nooo you insisted on doing it this way!”

“So they can turn around and charge the poor, struggling American taxpayer three times as much for the service? Nah. Moses can go fuck himself. Respectfully.”

Vemik looked at Yan, who relented and grumbled to himself. He had no idea what the Humans were on about either.

“Anyway. It’s just a little while longer. You’ll like the next stops, I think. We’re going hunting!”

That perked Yan up a lot. Actually, it perked up Vemik too. A good hunt was exactly what he needed after some days of picking for little scraps in the desert.

“Hunting what?”

“It’s called a Moose…”


Date Point: 15y6m2w2d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

Cook had been committed, though the doctors were calling it ‘sectioned’ instead. Either way, it meant the same thing: her friend and colleague had been hospitalized for his own safety after a number of violent episodes.

Ray wasn’t sure which upset her more: the fact of his suffering, the fact that he’d made it through Hell only to become his own worst enemy, or the fact that she could kind of understand why he was lashing out. According to Holly, he’d mused aloud about his mountain-climbing plan and promptly been diagnosed as suicidal, whereupon a kind of well-meaning imprisonment had descended on him. Ray could see how that would be torturous, especially when the rest of them were getting to see Folctha.

They were back under full Earth gravity, so just standing and walking around was turning out to be a full-body workout, but Ray was getting three square (vegetarian) meals a day with plenty of protein supplements and physical therapy. She could feel her strength returning in leaps and bounds. And considering that both her PCOS and the pain in her knee were just gone…

Well, a walk in the park was worth getting exhausted for.

Besides. She had two nieces and a nephew to get to know. The kids were triplets, seven years old, and Ray’s younger sister Jennifer had given up on trying to control them in favor of a ‘well you won’t do that again will you?’ approach to things like scraped knees. Her husband Jim—whom Ray had never even met before—kept half an eye on them to keep them out of the worst danger, but by and large seemed to share the same approach.

Then there were Grammy and Grampy. Or Mom and Dad, as Ray knew them. God they looked old, both knocking on the door of seventy. Both were practically overwhelmed with delight at the return of a daughter they’d held a funeral for, but…

But it was like nobody quite knew what to say, how to say it or…anything. Ray sure as hell didn’t. There was so much elephant in the room that there was no space for anything else, so they’d metaphorically retreated into a different room and locked the door.

Even so, lying on a picnic blanket in the park with a coke and a goat’s cheese and sun-dried tomato focaccia while listening to children play was… heaven. Absolute heaven.

“Hello? Excuse me. I’m sorry for intruding on your time…”

Ray opened her eyes. A Gaoian wearing what looked like Buddhist robes bowed slightly to her, which was an impressive movement on a species with such long and flexible spines. “Doctor Wheeler, yes?”

“Uh…” Ray glanced at her father, who extended a helping hand so she could sit up. She was looking forward to not needing that. “Yes.”

“Gyotin,” the Gaoian introduced himself. “Father and Champion of Clan Starmind. I don’t want to interrupt your afternoon, but I was hoping to speak with you. At a convenient time, of course.”

“No time like the present,” Ray said. “What’s up?”

“It concerns your friend, Doctor Chase. She asked me to speak with you.”

“Holly? Is something wrong?” Carefully, Ray heaved herself to her feet, and allowed herself a grin of triumph when she did so. She was definitely getting stronger.

“No, no. Actually, she’s concerned for you…”

Ray nodded, then kissed her parents and followed Gyotin to the next bench down. “I bet she is. But, uh, who are you to her?”

“I’m… something of a student of spirituality. I was there when she visited the Multi-Faith Center, and we got to talking afterwards.”

“About me?”

“Not specifically. About what you all went through together, about her feelings and about her faith, mostly.” Gyotin set his ears askance and gave Ray a sideways look. “But she did ask me to speak with you.”

“Did she say why?” Ray asked.

“No. But, I promised that I would and now I am not a liar!”

He chittered, and Ray found herself warming to him. It would be just like Holly to express concern without going into the details. “…Is she okay?”

“Not for me to say, I think. I barely know her.” Gyotin flicked an ear. “Are you okay?”

“God knows.”

Now where had that come from? Surprised at herself, Ray glanced back at her family and tried to figure out her own thoughts. The candid comment had just emerged naturally, as though she was chatting with an old friend and confidant rather than an ET she’d literally only just met.

Oh well. In for a dime, in for a dollar.

“…I died.”

Gyotin duck-nodded. “Yes.”

“There was… nothing. Nothing that I remember, anyway. Just… I died. And then I woke up. I mean, I don’t know if I ever really believed in an afterlife anyway, but…”

She shook the thought off. “…I’m still here. That’s the important part. And I have a life ahead of me. I… don’t think I can put into words how much I really understand and appreciate that now. So, I honestly have no idea if I’m okay exactly, but…” She glanced over at the kids again, and found a smile. “…Here and now I’m alive.”

“That sounds like okay to me,” Gyotin opined. He stood up. “I think I will tell your friend as much.”

“So you came all the way across town from the Alien Quarter to check up on me for one of my friends?” Ray asked. She would have liked to stand as well, but her legs didn’t want to.

“That’s right.”

“Is that something you make a habit of, or…?”

Gyotin chittered. “Call it human interest… Though if I may, Doctor Wheeler?”

Ray gestured for him to go ahead with an open palm and a twitch of her head.

“Your colleagues are not quite so clear in their vision of what happens next, I think. They will struggle to leave Hell behind them, and I think they will need your leadership a while longer.”

“…Thank you.”

“Oh yes. And I recommend the Svasti spa on the lake.”

That suggestion piqued her interest, and she found she couldn’t help the curious tilt of her head. “Spa? I mean, no offense, but you do not strike me as the spa-going type.”

“Why not?”

“Well, the fur for one.”

He chittered again and gathered his robes in a dignified way. “I think every thinking being appreciates a massage, though.”

“You’re not wrong…” Ray conceded. “…Hey, you seem like a good person to talk to about things. Would you mind if I dropped in on you some other time?”

“I’d be delighted if you did,” Gyotin said. He gave her the same bendy bow. “But please, enjoy the day and your family. It was a pleasure to meet you.”

“And you.”

He departed, leaving Ray to reflect on how weird things had got in her absence. Gaoian Buddhists? Giving support and guidance to Holly? And to herself? And here she was, on an alien planet and complaining that normal Earth gravity was too much for her. Nevertheless, she found herself reflecting that she really did feel good about everything. The worst had literally happened, and she’d made it through. Whatever came in the future… she knew she could overcome it.

She heaved herself to her feet and returned to her family.


Date Point: 15y6m2w2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Jack Tisdale

“…Shit.”

Jack gave his dad a sideways (and slightly upwards) glance. The problem with taking more after his mother’s side of the family was that he always wound up feeling smaller than his father. It was an awkward position to be in: some instinct always made him feel like more of a child around Mark.

“What?”

Mark nodded at the new arrivals. Jack had invited Adam and Ava along to his mum’s birthday party with an open offer to bring whoever they liked along with them. They’d been expecting Martina and Diego… but the sight of Adam’s father and stepmother was clearly what had shaken Mark.

“Something wrong?”

Mark turned away and busied himself with the firepit. “I’ve not spoken to Gabe in ten years. Not since… Sara.”

“You haven’t? Not once?”

“I, er…” Mark sighed and sat on the wall. He’d put a lot of work into the garden over the years: no sterile monotonous lawn for the Tisdales, their garden was intricate and interesting with warm yellow limestone walls and a fish pond, a fire pit, a deck… It was far nicer than the mid-terrace place they’d had back on Earth.

That was Folctha life, though. Land was cheap and the colony housing subsidies were generous. Hayley and Mark earned pretty good money for their roles in the terraforming project, too.

“Are you… going to talk to him?”

Mark glanced over his shoulder. “I suppose I’ll have to.”

Jack gave him a comforting slap on the shoulder. “Come on. Let’s go be good hosts, yeah?”

That got a smile on Mark’s face at least.

Part of the problem, Jack reckoned, was that in fact his dad had a pretty good relationship with Adam. Both were lifelong members of the Church of Gym, Mark had even helped Adam get started on his way up Mount Swole way back when…

But Gabe was an unavoidable reminder.

Gabe had been—still was—Folctha’s security chief. The police and the intelligence services both answered to him, and he reported directly to the Defence Minister. As such, on the day of Sara’s death when the Hierarchy’s existence had still been a heavily classified secret, he’d been obligated to withhold the details of what had happened and why. To a grieving family looking desperately for answers, that had been a jagged and foul-tasting pill to swallow.

Those had been bad days. Jack hadn’t even been a teenager, just a kid whose cool older sister was suddenly gone and whose parents didn’t know how to cope. There had been arguments, lost tempers, smashed furniture. For a while there, Mark and Hayley’s marriage had hung by a thread…

Probably, only Hayley’s pregnancy had saved it. There was a reason that Jack’s little sister’s name was Hope.

Sara’s death was an old wound nowadays… but one that would never fully heal for any of them. For Mark, Gabe’s mere presence had to be pulling it open again, but he did a good job of putting on a friendly face and shaking the much smaller man’s hand and making polite noises about how long it had been.

It turned out to be a pretty good party in the end. Adam and Marty left early with apologies, citing a hungry and increasingly curmudgeonly baby whose bedtime was fast approaching, and Ava left not long after, having receiving a text message that Jack noticed made her face go a shade redder.

…Jack wondered if maybe he should try and have a word with Coombes at some point. Get a few pointers.

While Hayley and Jess got giggly and conspiratorial at one end of the garden while they polished off the last of the punch, Jack found himself cleaning up while Mark and Gabe… chatted.

It was pretty obvious that Gabe hadn’t forgotten either. After all, that day had probably been… second or third place for worst days of his life. Jack had to admit, the old man had gone through a lot. He’d lived through a life-changing injury, survived the destruction of his home city not long after and yet remained generally upbeat and chipper.

…Not to mention funny.

“—says ‘It’s ten years, what difference does it make?’ To which our friend Ivan replies: ‘Well, the plumber’s coming in the morning.’”

Mark’s chuckle was long, low and genuine, and he took a long pull of his beer and the two men stood in what looked like surprisingly comfortable silence for a few seconds.

Jack was about to join them when Mark ran a hand nervously across his mouth and cleared his throat. “…Look er… Gabe.”

“Yeah?”

“There’s… something I wanted to ask you about. Probably should have done it years ago, but…”

Gabe looked up at him. “Mark, for you my door’s open. If now’s not the best time…”

“No, not… this is as good a time as any. I think. It’s… the Hierarchy.”

“Ah.”

Mark cleared his throat again and took another swig of his beer before continuing. “When I first heard about them, I don’t think I really believed it. It’s so… big. And so utterly… I mean, a race of ancient aliens literally mind-controlling people and directing the course of human history from behind the scenes? And other species as well?”

“Hard to believe, isn’t it?” Gabe agreed.

“I know a lot of people who still don’t. They’re convinced that the ‘official story’ is at best a half-truth and at worst a complete lie fabricated to paint our governments as the good guys. You know how that goes.”

“Órale. Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.”

That got a slight laugh out of Mark, who nodded. “Yeah… I realise now just how much you really told me. I… wanted to thank you. How much you risked by telling me what you did. And… I’m sorry I put you in that situation.”

“Are you kidding?” Gabe asked. He put his drink down and turned to face Mark square on. “Your daughter had just died! It absolutely broke my heart that I couldn’t tell you everything! Nobody deserved to know more than you did.”

Mark looked down at the patio for a moment, then shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “…There’s something that ate at me after it all went public, though. I couldn’t help but wonder… what were they doing? What did Sara stop?”

There was a pause.

“…She saved all our lives, Mark. I can tell you that much.”

Jack took a sharp breath, picked up some discarded plates and cups, and headed indoors. He didn’t want to hear more. He’d gone over Sara’s death with Adam. He knew how it had gone, how things had unfolded. He knew the truth… And no matter how kind it might be, he knew that Gabe had just lied.

He didn’t think he could stand the grateful look on his dad’s face any longer.


Date Point: 15y6m2w3d AV
North of Yellowstone National Park, Montana, USA, Earth

Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge

Moose.

Not as muscle-big as an adult Werne but taller. Actually there was a lot of beast there.

…A lot of beast. The “deer” they’d hunted before were very different. Small and fast, but very tasty! They were too fast to make spear hunting or wrestling easy, but with a bow and some skill they would make very good prey for a tribe’s hunting ground. They were small though, and would only feed a tribe for maybe a single meal.

Moose on the other hand… Anyone could see that moose was part of the same tribe as deer, but the difference was like standing a girl next to a Given-Man. A beast like that probably had a thick hide, so without a very strong bow and arrows, spear-hunting made the most sense… but that meant getting within reach of those enormous feet and great swinging head-branches.

…Antlers. Like two hands of spears, ready to lift a man off the ground and gut him. It was easy to forget how dangerous those things must be when the animal was up to its chest in water.

Yan liked the prey in Yellow Stone! The air tasted heavy with their flavor and the hunting here was rich. But…the People probably wouldn’t like living in this forest. The trees were all ‘conifers,’ which meant a tall, thin, prickly kind of thing with crumbly, crispy bark. Yan’s fingers and toes sank deep into the wood when he tried to climb them, and the bark was often so thin it crumbled under his grip. The trees themselves swayed in the breeze and didn’t stand hard against it. Maybe that was because the wind was sometimes so strong? That seemed right.

In any case, he couldn’t climb anything here besides rocks, and that made him a bit grumpy.

Vemik had tested some of the thinner trees, maybe out of some silly hope that he could still fly through the canopy like a young child. He’d made it maybe a hand of man-heights up a ‘fir’ before the entire tree started to sway, forcing him to leap down before he accidentally hurt it.

[“No bird-spearing from up there, I guess.”]

“Nope,” Jooyun agreed. “If we want to hunt from up there, we’d have to build a hide in a much stronger tree. Not ideal.”

“Hmm…”

Vemik’s tail twitched back and forth as he considered their quarry again. Bad habit, that: a good way to startle prey, if they could see well. Yan knocked him between the shoulders to remind him of a lesson he’d shared more times than he could count, and Vemik got his tail under control with an embarrassed duck-shrug of his head.

The moose dipped its head below the water and came up with a mouthful of plants.

“…Okay. I know how I would hunt him,” Yan decided after a while. “I attack from front, Vemik jump on from rear, or spear in the side. Its ribs don’t look like werne ribs, there are long spaces.”

Jooyun nodded thoughtfully. “I’d drive it,” he said. “Or use a very good compound bow. Well, okay. Really I’d just shoot it with a rifle but we’re pretending like we don’t have those for now.”

“You can run from dawn to dusk, Jooyun,” Vemik pointed out. “Yan and me, we train hard, but can only run a hand of hours now. Driving is not so good.”

“Don’t need to run, in this case. The point is to get it stuck, or to trap it between hunters. I bet your people could get away with smaller hunting parties, but still. Moose are dangerous.”

Yan nodded. A beast that size would feed a small tribe for several days, provide jerky and pemmican, leather, fat, sinew and many strong bones. Having a whole party hunt it would not be a waste.

“Clever, are they?”

“Not really. But they’re unpredictable and aggressive.”

Yan watched the beast sniff the wind then haul itself out of the shallow pool it had been wading and feeding in. It was an odd-looking beast, all legs and nose, but he could see all the qualities of worthy prey in it.

“What other beasts hunt it?”

“Wolves and bears. Takes a lot of wolves, though, and it’s a risk. They generally only go after moose if they’re desperate. Even bears will prefer a young or sick one, but they can take down a bull if they have to.”

“This bear is why you have that…thing?”

Jooyun tapped the metal can on his hip. “Bear spray. It’s also why Hoeff’s got a high-powered rifle, ‘cuz bears may straight ignore the spray if they’re angry.”

“What does this ‘bear spray’ do?”

“It’s like the most super-spicy food ever, except literally a million times worse. And I spray it in the bear’s eyes and face.”

“…Maybe less cruel to just kill it.” Yan had finally got his head around a counting as big as million, and shuddered in ghost-pain from the thought of something that spicy.

“Hey, he’ll shrug it off eventually. Doesn’t permanently hurt him, and like I said: if he’s real pissed he’ll just ignore it anyway.”

Heff chimed in with an evil grin. “Hey Yan, you know what ‘bear’ means? It means ‘the brown one.’”

“Jooyun already said. He also said ours is still worse.”

Heff grumped softly in disappointment, which made Yan trill very quietly.

“No no,” Jooyun corrected. “I said yours was bigger. I didn’t say worse.”

“…There is difference?”

“Might be. Let’s hope we don’t find out.”

Yan met Vemik’s eye and they both glanced upwards at the sun for a moment. Hopefully whatever Earth-gods lived there would be kind today.

Down in the valley below, the moose vanished between the trees.

“Guess we scared it off,” Heff muttered.

“Could be. Their eyesight ain’t too good so they spook easy. It’s pretty important we don’t do that.”

“Like werne, then.”

“Yeah, except a werne’s sense of smell is awful next to a moose.”

“We’re downwind.”

“Yup. Let’s stay that way. And keep quiet.”

They spread out into a trailing line, staying just close enough to see each other. Jooyun and Heff were wearing bright orange jackets even brighter than Vemik’s crest, and much brighter than Yan’s which was beginning to blacken at the tips.

The moose wasn’t difficult to track. Its taste on the air was potent, and something so big couldn’t not make noise as it pushed through the bush up ahead.

There was something else, too. A different taste, and when Yan caught Jooyun’s attention with a gesture and flicked his tongue, the human sniffed the air then raised his hand. They all stopped.

Jooyun swapped his spear over to his left hand and retrieved the spray from his belt. He gave Heff a significant look, and the smaller man thumbed something on his rifle that made a soft, quiet click.

Jooyun could move across the ground without making any noise when he wanted. He stayed low and stalked over to Yan’s side.

“Bear,” he whispered.

Godshit. “Close?” Yan whispered back.

“Yeah. Strong scent. Smells like a grizzly, too.”

Yan looked around. The woods revealed nothing, and it occurred to him that even if the Brown Ones of home were bigger and stronger, they never ever came under the trees. They never hid. Suddenly, he understood what Jooyun had meant when he’d said that they weren’t necessarily worse than Bears.

“What now?”

“We give the moose some room.”

Yan nodded, and gestured with a flick of his tail for Vemik to back off a little. They returned to their silent hunt, keeping a closer and more wary eye on the bush around them.

A shrill scream through the trees made Yan hunker down and grip his spear, ready to meet a charging mass of brown fur. He’d never heard a sound like that in all his life, and it was honestly terrifying, though he’d sooner die than admit it. To judge from Vemik’s tight-knuckled grip on his spear, the piercing shriek had rattled him too.

The two humans chuckled quietly as the sound echoed off the hills around them. “That’s an elk, Yan,” Jooyun whispered. “It’s between a deer and a moose. Same, uh, ‘tribe’ I guess. That’s a male somewhere off calling for love.”

“…How close?”

“Not close. Several good throws away at least.”

Yan shook himself as the cry went up again. He nodded. Now that he’d heard it once, he listened and agreed with Jooyun that the beast making it was far away… but it must have mighty lungs to make a sound that loud which carried so strongly.

He pointed in the direction the moose had gone. At least that hadn’t been full of surprises… yet.

They caught up with it in a patch of open ground, where it was placidly grazing while its ears flicked this way and that, alert for any sound.

They all looked at each other. Now was the time to Take. All four of them were skilled hunters and spread out just right without anyone saying a word. All four knew how to be quiet, move slow, hide in the shadows. They stepped closer, hugging the undergrowth, spears in hand—

And the Brown One attacked.

The moose bolted the instant the bear burst out of the bush barely a good throw to their left, but the predator was faster, stronger, and far more terrible. It didn’t even seem to spend any real effort as it ignored the distance to its fleeing prey and smashed into the moose at a full run.

The moose was heaved right off its feet and dumped to the ground. Huge paws snapped ribs like twigs, and claws as long as Yan’s fingers tore ragged gouges in its hide.

Jooyun was right. This ‘bear’ wasn’t nearly as big or as dangerous-looking as a Brown One—in fact, the moose was bigger—but it was mean. Fast, strong, ferocious… and it had completely snuck up on them.

It held the moose’s head down with one massive paw, engulfed its throat in powerful jaws and shook, dragging the flailing bull around like a toy. There was a crack, and the moose was no more.

Then it whipped around on its paws to face them, teeth bared and bloody, and it roared.

The message was clear: “MINE!”

“Holy testicle Tuesday…” Heff muttered. He had the rifle aimed squarely at the bear, but every line of him said he’d rather be somewhere else.

Jooyun spread his arms to ward them back. “Slowly…” he cautioned. “Give him room, don’t give him a reason to get ornery. Big fella just wants to eat.”

“He’s fuckin’ welcome to it,” Heff promised, taking slow steps backward.

Yan considered. The four of them could take the prey from the ‘bear,’ and for all its impressive strength, Yan was bigger and he had no doubt he could wrestle it by himself. But it was fast, had huge claws, and they were pretending to just knives and spears anyway. He would need to be desperate for meat to try something that could get him or one of his hunters killed.

He backed off, without looking away. Vemik did the same.

Satisfied, the bear grabbed the moose’s neck again and with an effortless yank it dragged the meat away as though it weighed nothing. The bear was big, and very strong for its size.

In another hand of breaths, it was gone. Only a blood trail showed where it went.

“Whew…” Heff lowered his rifle. “…Well there’s somethin’ ya don’t see erryday.”

“No shit,” Jooyun agreed. “They almost never go after a full-grown bull moose! I can’t believe we got to see that!” He seemed almost giddy with excitement.

“Big bastard.”

“Hell yeah! Looked like he was in good health too, so why did he risk it?”

“Because he could.” Yan sighed to himself and patted his belly. He probably wouldn’t taste moose today.

“Man, I gotta report this to the park rangers… Ooh! Vemik! Your GoPro! Is it still on?”

Vemik looked up at the strange box strapped to his head. “…Yes? The little red light is on…”

“We’ll have video of it! You can show everyone back home!”

…Well. That wasn’t something Yan could taste, but he could at least tell a strong story, and show the Given-Men the proof. Which made today a successful hunt of a sort after all.

“Alright then. It’s getting late and we still have a deer we’ve got to butcher, so whaddya say we head back to the cabin, Yan?”

“Mm.” Yan nodded. The ‘cabin’ was a tree-made hut built next to a river, which just seemed wrong to him, but Jooyun had promised him on his word as a man of the tribe that nothing in that river was dangerous except the fast-flowing, cold water itself. It also had fish which, Yan had to admit, were tasty. Especially smoked.

“Yes. We smoke the deer too, bring home to share?”

“Sounds good,” Heff agreed. Jooyun nodded, then turned to look back at where the bear had been.

“…Still can’t believe we got to see that. Jeez!”

Heff backhanded his arm. “You can geek out about it later, man. C’mon, in case there’s any more around here.”

“Oh, there will be,” Jooyun nodded. “If there’s one bear, another will be snuffling around to see if it can steal the prey, or eat the scraps. Bears have noses as good as Daar’s.”

“Greeeat. Any tips on avoiding it?”

“Yeah. Make noise. I like to sing in the woods. They usually don’t fuck with humans if they know we’re coming.”

Yan blinked. “…They don’t?” A Brown One back on Akyawentuo would happily tear down a tree to eat the People in the branches, if the tribe’s hunters or their Given-Man couldn’t fend it off.

“Nah. We smell strange, like we don’t belong. And we act strange, we stand tall…lots of things are afraid of us.”

“…Including bears?” Vemik asked.

Jooyun grinned. “Including bears.”

“But you’re scared of them too,” Vemik pointed out.

“Yup. Better for everyone that way.”

“Why?”

Jooyun’s grin got a little wider and he nodded toward home.

“Because that way we don’t have to kill them,” he said.

Yan glanced at Vemik, then back at the bear’s kill-site, then back at the humans again. And Heff’s rifle, held so loosely and comfortably. And the can of spray on Jooyun’s hip, there to warn bears off rather than get in a fight to the death.

“…Yes,” he agreed at last. “Let’s go.”


Date Point: 15y6m2w3d AV
HCS My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon, Spacelane 1045, The Coalsack Nebula

Dog Wagner

♪♫—but their beauty and their style went kind of smooth after a while, take me to them dirty ladies every time… Aaaahhh, won’t you take me home tonight—♫♪

“Holy fuck, Dog, this one sounds older than you!”

Dog chuckled and took his boots down off the console. He’d been enjoying having Flight Ops to himself, with nothing to do but watch the stars crawl past and listen to music that actually had some substance and quality to it. “Not quite, brother. Close, though.”

Sam Jordan, MOSITMF’s pilot, chuckled and handed Dog his lunch. “Who is it?”

Dog obliged him by turning the music down a notch, but shook his head with a grin. “…Gonna have to get up a lot earlier’n that to fool me, Sam. You know damn well who it is.”

Sam shook his head and his expression of innocent curiosity became a grin. “See, this is why we should stop inviting you to poker night.” He handed over a tablet as well. “Today’s cargo inspection. Care to sign?”

Dog skimmed it. He trusted his crew 100%, they’d all proven they could hack deep-space freight and the monotony that came with it. Not a one of them would have just glanced out through a window at the shipping containers around the hull and declared the inventory was still good. A team of three had spacewalked to check the racks, so the least he owed them was to confirm that everything was exactly as good as it had been for the preceding nine days.

Sure, it was a formality—they’d all definitely have noticed if a shipping container full of Cimbrean lumber suddenly tore off the hull and smacked into the warp field boundary—but it was an important formality.

Fortunately, it was easy to swipe down through it and see that every field read a nice happy “Inspection OK.”

The return trip would be far less monotonous. Once they’d taken on their cargo of supercapacitors at the Rauwryhr homeworld, they’d just pop their jump drive and moor with Armstrong Station. Payday was just two days away, and after that they’d get a week off before heading out on the next run. It was a good rhythm.

“…Looks good,” he conceded after a minute in which his free hand had helped him drink about half his coffee. “Think we can call the dock crew’s fix on Three permanent, huh?”

“Think so,” Sam agreed.

“Awesome.” Dog applied his thumb to the sensor, signing off on the report.

“What’s today’s traffic report?”

Dog waved distractedly at the comms station. “Same as it’s been the whole trip. General advisory of increased Hunter activity. I kept the bugout jump charged just in case, but the last beacon didn’t have a specific warning, so…”

“Right. Shift change?”

“Shift change,” Dog agreed. He stood up and stepped aside. “You have the helm.”

Sam sat down, adjusted the seat to his preferred position, put on his seatbelt and nodded after glancing at the autopilot settings. “I have the helm.”

Dog called up the ship’s log on the tablet and logged the transfer. Another drumbeat in the slow rhythm of the day. “Okay. See you in two hour—” he began.

The alarm went off only a shaved second before the whole deck lurched violently and MOSTIMF’s superstructure made a cetacean groan. Dog staggered three paces across the bridge before losing his balance and landing heavily on his back.

“Gravity spike!” Sam slapped the autopilot and heaved hard left on the controls. The stars outside wheeled.

A spike of pain shot up Dog’s right arm as he tried to roll over and get to his feet. He gritted his teeth and used his left arm instead, hugging the right to his chest. The volumetric tank at the front of Flight Ops was way more full of ships than he’d like, and a lot of them were fast little fuckers making a bee-line right for them.

“Hunters!”

“Yeah,” Sam agreed grimly. “Bugging ou-SHIT!”

The proximity alarm wailed as a second freighter, a Domain cargo ship that had been only a few light-hours behind them ever since they merged onto 1045, hit the spike too and slammed back into sub-luminal frame of reference bare meters away. If Sam hadn’t pushed them sideways and accelerated, it would have rammed right up MOSITMF’s ass.

Dog watched the volumetric display. One Broodship, a handful of Swarmships vectoring their way at ten Gs… Then nothing. Just Armstrong Station.

“Bugout Jump successful,” Sam declared. His hands were shaking as he took them off the controls.

“…Good call,” Dog managed weakly, just before the comms lit up as Armstrong noticed them.

“Incoming ship, this is Armstrong tower. IFF flags you as Hotel-Charlie-Foxtrot-One, ‘My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon.’ You’re not scheduled to be back yet, please verify your identity.”

Dog cussed and limped to the comms station just as the rest of the crew barrelled into Flight Ops. Mitch and Cathy had a half-dressed, coitus interruptus look to them, which he noted with an inward sense of amusement but didn’t comment on. Instead he grabbed the mic and replied.

“Armstrong Tower, Hotel-Charlie-Foxtrot-One. Emergency jumpback after a Hunter attack on Lane Ten-Four-Five. No casualties, minor injuries. Sending beacon details…”

“Jesus, Hunters?” Cathy went pale and buckled herself in at her station. Dog mimed zipping up her flight suit at her, and pale white became flush pink as she fumbled to neaten herself up. Mitch meanwhile dropped into the comms seat and quickly sent over the codes for the beacon they’d left behind on bugging out. Right now, the Hunters would be ripping through that unfortunate freighter that had followed them into the spike. If AEC had ships and fighters ready to scramble…

“Copy that, Hotel-Charlie. Hold station, await inspection.”

There’d be a shuttle full of border security on its way out to them in a minute. Dog handed the mic over to Mitch and inspected his arm.

Definitely a break. Old bones and metal decking didn’t mix well.

Sam gave him a concerned look. “Dog, are you okay? That was a hard fall.”

“Think I broke my arm a bit.”

“Shit…”

“Ain’t the first time, brother. Don’t worry ‘bout me none.”

He sagged in his own chair at last and let Mitch handle the insistent call from their engineers, Floyd and Kyle. He could feel a headache coming on, though maybe it got a little better when he saw a cluster of wormhole signatures flare up on sensors. At least three of the Royal Navy ships had just jumped out.

“…I’m gettin’ too damn old for this shit,” he muttered, and closed his eyes.


Date Point: 15y6m2w3d AV
HMS Myrmidon, Spacelane 1045, The Coalsack Nebula

Commodore Rajesh Bathini

The Hunters didn’t know what hit them. Myrmidon, Violent and Viceroy completed their jumps, achieved EWAR and firing solutions in microseconds, blinded every ship in the area, then took their time to confirm Hunter targets before ending them. The whole engagement lasted… heartbeats, at most.

The spacelane would need sweeping clean of debris, but to judge from the four drifting freighters caught in the gravity spike, they’d just prevented a massacre. The Hunters had timed that one far too well.

“HEAT team just jumped aboard, sir. Suited and ready.”

“Are any of those freighters being boarded?”

“Yes sir, that Domain one at the front.”

“Save them.”

“Aye aye!”

Seconds later, one of Myrmidon’s airlocks blew out the HEAT and their launch. It flashed across to within a meter of the victim’s hull on a precise warp pulse, and the men riding it needed only seconds to cut their way into the Swarmship.

And then they were done. “Myrmidon, ABBOTT. Target vessel secured, helping the survivors.”

Those men were terrifyingly fast.

Two squadrons of Firebirds jumped in and, in response to commands from the Fleet Intelligence Center, promptly flashed outwards in a search pattern to secure the volume… but the battle was over before it had really begun.

All those drills, maneuvers and rehearsals had completely paid off today. Lives saved, disaster averted and one less Broodship in the sky. Some good press for humanity, for a change.

…He hoped.


Date Point: 15y6m2w4d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Gabriel Arés

“Bless me padre, for I have sinned. It has been… I don’t know. A few months since my last confession.”

Folctha’s Catholic congregation had completed construction of their church only about seven months previously. Our Lady the Guiding Star church had handsome white walls, an intricate altar mural and much of the decorative wood was Cimbrean Pinkwood.

Gabe was an… irregular attendee. Work generally kept him too busy. He always imagined what his Abuela would think of that, but she’d have liked the padre, who nodded gently on the far side of the screen and had a warm, reassuring voice.

“What do you wish to confess?”

“…I lied to a grieving father,” Gabe explained.

“I see. Was this a cruel lie, or…?”

“To the contrary. It’s a lie he wanted to hear, and I think he needed to hear it. And there’s a big grain of truth in it too, so I… I always try to be honest and I generally feel like directly lying to a man’s face is… but this time, my gut tells me it was completely the right thing to do. I’m conflicted by it.”

“Tell me what happened exactly.”

Gabe studied his knuckles for a second as he assembled history in his head and edited it down to a short version. “His daughter… She went into danger and ignored her friends who were telling her to stop, and… well, she was murdered. By a very dangerous man who really was planning to do something awful that would have resulted in a lot of deaths. Her father and I finally spoke about it yesterday and I told him… I told him she saved lives. But really she didn’t. The danger had already been called in, and a response was already on the way. So in reality she she died pointlessly, doing something very stupid.”

“Would it have helped him if you’d told him that?”

“Absolutely not. It would have crushed him.”

“So your objective was to spare him some pain, and maybe even help him heal?”

“Yes. I just…” Gabe sighed. “I wish I could have done it a different way, I guess.”

“Well. If you feel it’s a sin you wish to atone for, then that’s your decision. For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s any question about your contrition. As for what you can do to satisfy it and put it right… I would suggest you try to guide your friend and help him reach the point someday where he can hear the truth and be made whole by it.”

“That’s… good advice. Thank you, padre.”

“Spend some time in prayer, too. It’ll help. Is there anything else?”

“Nothing I can think of.”

“Then I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.”

“His mercy endures forever.”

“Go in peace.”

Gabe did as suggested, and spent some time sitting in a pew in contemplation. He thought more than he prayed, though, mulling over what exactly it was that bothered him so much.

It wasn’t like he’d always been perfectly honest in his life. Everyone told little white lies all the time, they were the lubricant of society. Every diplomatically held tongue, every nod and polite “sure” or “I don’t mind…” They were daily, necessary occurrences.

Maybe that was the problem. This wasn’t on the same scale as just holding his tongue and saying something polite. This was an active lie, even if well-meaning.

And he didn’t feel better for having confessed it.

He stood up and checked his watch. He’d been sitting on the pew for nearly half an hour, and he realised that his leg had gone slightly numb. He shook it out and left the church in the vague hope that perhaps blue sky and sunlight might help him.

The church was in Midtown, a block or two north of the river. Home was south-west in the Lakeshore district, and he didn’t want to go home at all. He headed east instead, through the market toward Quarterside.

Folctha’s market was the absolute textbook definition of a melting pot, and a place where every micro-drama of a mixed human and extraterrestrial society could be witnessed, from the weary Gaoian Mother resignedly counting out notes into a beaming vendor’s hand while a small battalion of cubs enjoyed their ice cream, to the coffee stand owner explaining to a Vzk’tk that he couldn’t sell caffeinated beverages to non-humans no matter how much they tipped.

Then there were the less explicitly alien but still very Folctha things, like the dreadlocked Japanese goth girl in boots so thick-soled they were effectively stilts, who was crouching down and going all gooey over Bozo. The dog was happy to see her—he was happy to see everyone—but he seemed to sense his services were needed elsewhere when he spotted Gabe.

“Wurf!”

“Hola, gordo.”

The giant muscular mutt came ambling over, using the rolling, galumphing gait he had for when he wasn’t particularly hurried about anything. Gabe gave the dreadlocked girl an apologetic shrug, which she returned with a smile and turned back to tending her stall full of vivid corsets.

Mandatory ear-scritches ensued, along with a single, dignified snuffle. The big bastard knew how to keep it polite when he wanted to. He fell in alongside Gabe and just… kept him company.

“I see you ‘escaped’ again, huh boy?”

Bozo just bounced happily on his front paws and wagged his tail.

Actually, that was a white lie too, when Gabe thought about it. Nobody made any attempt to keep Bozo penned up, partly because he’d demonstrated it was impossible early on except through excessive engineering, but mostly because he was so mild-mannered despite his fearsome size and appearance.

Past the market were some pubs and eateries, clothes stores, a World Foods store, a big-brand cellphone company’s outlet and then, finally, Quarterside Park where there was a little more elbow room.

Things really had come a long way. Just ten years ago, Quarterside Park had been a field with trucks and ATVs parked on it, surrounded by temporary buildings and the dense little chalets that had served the first-wave colonists as housing. Now it was a thriving social hub, iconic thanks to the Alien Quarter wall that ran along one side and the Multi-Faith center in one corner right next to the Starmind monastery. The Gaoians had imported a number of trees from Earth and elsewhere, and no two of them blossomed at exactly the same time: there were always petals underfoot, from Cherry pink to the soothing duck-egg blue of a Gorai native.

Each park had its unique character, too. Riverside was active, noisy. A place for exercise and children and playing in the river. Quarterside was artistic, contemplative and peaceful, an escape from the hubbub and constant construction noises of the city.

Bozo vanished in a thundering blur, shouldered his way under a bush, and returned with a tennis ball. Gabe didn’t question it, he just accepted the slightly damp toy, tossed it in his hand a few times, then turned and flung it across the grass. This naturally was the most exciting thing ever, and Bozo wound up faceplanting in the dirt and tumbling end-over-end as he tried to catch it.

He didn’t seem to notice the mishap at all, just squirmed to his feet and retrieved the ball, which was subjected to a lengthy chewing before he remembered that if he brought it back he’d get to play again.

Gabe chuckled to himself and wandered off to…he wasn’t sure, really. He’d done about as much thinking as he felt he had energy for. Right now he just wanted his head to be empty.

There was a WURF!! from behind him and Bozo rampaged past on a mission to say hello to another Friend. Gabe didn’t recognize this one: A painfully skinny woman in a red MBG jacket was sitting on a bench just… watching the world go by, as far as he could tell. She chuckled and made a fuss of the dog, who seemed to completely lose control of his rear end and throw the whole thing into wagging as hard as caninely possible.

“Traitor,” Gabe said affectionately as Bozo flopped on his back for chest rubs.

The woman laughed. “Is he yours? I’ve never seen a dog so…” She obviously came up short on a more original adjective, so eventually settled for “…huge.”

“He’s more kinda the town dog. Bozo.”

“…Perfect name.”

“New arrival?” Gabe asked, politely. It was a safe bet in a town of nothing but colonists and immigrants.

“You could say that. Kinda took a roundabout road, but…”

Recognition dropped into Gabe’s brain. “…Wild guess here, but would you be Doctor Wheeler?”

“I am… And you look a heck of a lot like one of the HEAT troopers who rescued me.”

“My son. You probably know him as Warhorse.”

“God. You must be about the proudest parent ever.”

It was Gabe’s turn to laugh, and he decided he liked Wheeler. “I might be,” he agreed. “May I sit? Or were you looking for some alone time?”

“I’ve had enough alone time to last me the rest of my life. And honestly, now I’m curious: I could have sworn men like Warhorse didn’t have parents. Architects, maybe…”

Gabe half-laughed. “…That’s probably more true than I wanna admit. But he swears up and down he’s healthy and…well, he gave me a grandkid, and whatever he does to be like that lets him do his job. If he couldn’t do that I don’t know how he’d cope.”

“…That sounds like there’s a long and sad story there.”

“Not sad, but not without tragedy.”

Wheeler nodded, and scooted aside to make room for Gabe on the bench. He sat, and was rewarded by Bozo with a by now thoroughly soaked tennis ball, which he held in his fingertips to throw away before wiping his hand dry on his pants.

“Still sounds like quite a journey, to use a cliche.”

“Yeah. I’ve been worrying after him since he started, so…I guess really since he was fifteen. Anyway. I’m not about to unload on somebody I only just met…” He was about to change topics when Wheeler shook her head.

“I found it surprisingly helpful just a bit ago. There’s this Gaoian named, uh… Gyotin?”

“I know him. My daughter talks to him pretty much every week.”

“Wow. Warhorse has a sister?”

“Adopted sister. One of those tragedies.”

“What’s your name?”

Gabe blinked, and then scowled inwardly at himself. Where the hell was his head at?

“Madre de Cristo, I am a mess today. I’m Gabriel. Gabe.”

“And I’m Rachel. Ray.”

They shook hands and traded a nice to meet you each way.

“You know… I think you and Gyotin are the only two people who haven’t treated me like I’m made of glass since I got here,” Ray confessed. “We’re just… talking. Two strangers getting to know each other. What’s your secret?”

“I can’t speak for Gyotin, but I know from experience I hated to be treated like that.”

“Past tense?”

“Yeah. Had some injuries it took me a long time to recover from. You?”

“Oh, nothing major. I just kinda… died.”

Gabe picked up the dry humour behind that light comment, and ran with it. “No big deal, huh?”

“I’m still here aren’t I?”

“Right. So you died but got better.”

Ray had a surprisingly musical laugh. “Exactly. Funny, everyone seems to act like I’m a few seconds away from… I don’t know. Bursting into tears, or going catatonic or whatever. But really, it’s amazing how healing it was. The worst literally happened, and here I am sitting in the sunlight chatting with a…” She made a show of leaning forward to look around him and inspect his left hand. “…sadly married handsome stranger.”

Gabe couldn’t help himself: His next laugh came from the belly and completely blew out the cobwebs. “Újule! You don’t beat around the bush!”

She grinned. “Life’s short. Say what’s on your mind!”

“Hmm… I wish that was true all the time.”

“Another tragedy?”

“Part of the same chain. It’s… ah, hell. You’re obviously interested. You wanna hear the story?”

She nodded. “I do.”

He told her everything. She listened solemnly, staring off into the middle distance without comment or question as he went through what the Tisdales had gone through, how one girl’s death had thrown so many lives down their wildly unusual courses. She nodded softly when he got to the part about lying to Mark.

“…And to sum it up, my adopted daughter was left adrift, a man I admire has been grieving for years without any real escape, and my son built himself into far and away the strongest man to ever live. And he’s still…broken, deep down. I think we all are.”

“Her name was Sara?”

“Yes.”

“…The way you tell it, it sounds like maybe I’m only alive right now because this girl died.”

Gabe blinked, and found himself completely struck dumb.

“No, really!” Ray pressed. “If the HEAT—if your Warhorse hadn’t been there then I wouldn’t be here. I owe you and him everything. And I think I owe Sara, too. It’s not what I’d want, I mean… she died too young, and too innocent. But I’m still here. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to really say how grateful I am for that.”

She cleared her throat and sat up a little straighter. “…Thank you for telling me that, Gabe. And if it’ll help… maybe I should meet your friend. I think at the very least I owe him a hug.”

“I…” Gabe trailed off. He had no idea what he wanted to say next. “…That might help.”

Ray nodded, and that seemed to settle the matter for her. She scratched at Bozo’s ears a little, and Gabe realized that the dog had returned to lie down next to her sometime during the story without his noticing. She glanced down at him, then across at Gabe and nodded again.

“Then I’ll help,” she said.


Date Point: 15y6m2w4d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Technical Sergeant Adam (“Warhorse”) Arés

Today was one of Adam’s better days. Diego had found a consistent sleeping pattern in the last week, which let Marty sleep for a solid four hours between feedings. It was doing wonders for her recovery and Adam couldn’t help but feel super awesome about that! As for himself, he had long been used to two four-hour sleeps a day with a workout in-between, so he found the new nighttime pattern—eat, sleep, bottle-feed, eat, lift, eat, bottle-feed, sleep, eat—just about perfect.

Also, he was back to making careful, incrementally gradual progress in everything, and that was super high on his List of Things That Were Awesome. He’d maybe never grow like a mutant weed again, but that was okay as long as he kept ahead of the mission need. Besides, he found the little improvements more rewarding now, since he had to work so much harder to get them.

Even better, his Special Projects were doing good! Julian had finally grown confident on the rings the last time they trained, which went a long way toward building confidence for when he was hanging out in the trees with his cool monkey friends. Firth was growing so fast he’d probably catch up to Adam in a few years! And ‘Base too, maybe!

Hell, the Gaoians were doing pretty damn amazing too, especially Daar. The big bastard had been primed to explode since before they met, and once they’d got his regime a bit more scientific instead of ineffectively bro-headed, he’d grown like a weed and filled himself out about as far as his frame could go; his body was just perfect for enduring strength and he was already outperforming Firth. If Daar kept hardening up, and Adam saw no reason he wouldn’t, the big furry goofball would probably be able to snap Yan in two one day!

Well…maybe. Adam knew he tended to be a little over-optimistic about this stuff, but still.

Marty was the best damn wife anyone could ask for, especially Adam. He was an irredeemable meathead who liked learning but hated classwork, which made her encouragement exactly the kind of kick in the pants he needed. And besides, it was just one more thing to train, right? He kept plugging away at it and she kept encouraging him, rewarding him…okay, so he was really damn easy to lead in some ways. Also a lot of the math was fun, actually. Before he knew it, he was only one CLEP short of his degree prerequisites, and his thesis was maybe only a week or two from being done…

And he had a son. A beautiful son, whom he loved so much it made his whole body ache.

And he had a forty-eight ounce blood-rare steak in front of him. Life was good.

Also it was the last of their light-duty recovery days from LOST CUB and their recent deployment, so their training schedule meant this was more or less a freeform day. No classes or skills training today, just PT and Project Time. He and the rest of the Lads had just finished several “skins” game of Gravball and were hanging out in the kitchen, wolfing down their scheduled meals before they headed downstairs to finish off the business day with a few hours of heavy lifting.

It was as good a time as any to catch up on the news.

[“That smells worse than Keeda’s balls! And you’re sure you can package it well enough they won’t notice?”]

The Gaoians were plotting Shenanigans against Daar and Father Regaari, who were stuck dealing with the fallout of LOST CUB. There were promises of a visit in the next week or so for some mission closure and couch time, but Daar had responsibilities and had needed to delay. What could they do? Obviously, this affront could not go unanswered.

[“I don’t know if they’ll fall for it…”] Carebear was, as always, the cautious one. [“They check the mail pretty carefully, and Daar has the ‘most bestest’ nose.”]

The Gaoians chittered a bit at the Stoneback-ism, partly because Thurrsto’s imitation was so bad. He was a Whitecrest to the core and the Clan accent shone through.

Adam swallowed his bite and chipped in. Gaori was fun to practice! [“Daar will totally smell it. I can smell it and I don’t care how well you wash the packaging, that’s not going away. Also, invisible ink might end badly. What if he gets some on the] President? Or the King?”

“And y’all already did the ink trick,” Firth grumbled from behind his mountain of diced chicken. “Try something different! Like, I dunno…send him caffeine?”

Daar on caffeine was an experience Adam wouldn’t wish on anyone. Fortunately there was an easy escape.

“Can’t. [Goldpaw Customs considers it a controlled drug and Straightshield would censure us.”]

“You’re such a downer, Carebear.”

“Man, y’all ain’t thinking nearly evil enough.” Baseball crashed into the bench and slammed himself against Adam, then put an arm around his shoulders for a quick brotherly hug. ‘Base had a giant platter of fajita makings which made Adam slightly jealous, until he remembered his steak.

Adam asked, “What would you do, bro?”

“Easy! You wanna get everyone around him angry? Send Daar a karaoke LP for his record player. Ain’t no way brother’ll be able to resist that!”

There was a silence as everyone in the room turned their heads towards Baseball.

“…I’m fuckin’ worried now.”

“Yeah dude, that’s just downright evil.”

“Carrots too.”

The attention turned on to Murray, who grinned.

“Explain?”

“It’s bloody simple. Carrots are his ‘most favoritest ever,’ right?”

“Along with a bunch of other things, but go on.”

“Well, either he shares them, an’ he won’t wanna, or he does’nae and everyone else misses out. Win-win.”

“…”

It was true. Gaoians loved carrots. Something about the crunch and taste made them by far and away Folctha’s most successful export crop to Gao.

“We would need to determine what the ideal carrot count would be. One for him and his immediate circle, I think. If he shares, he only gets one.”

“Aye, well.” Murray leaned back and folded his hands behind his head. “I did my bit. You lot can work out your carrot optimisation algorithm all by your aen.”

“This is why you’re an honorary Whitecrest,” Faarek commented. “That’s just sneaky enough, and the best part is he’ll never suspect malice.”

Adam swallowed another mouthful of steak and chipped in. “Will Regaari, though?”

“We can handle Regaari. The Great Father, on the other hand, mustn’t suspect a thing.”

“Don’t unnerestimate him,” Firth cautioned. “He’ll come back an’ wrassle’ us all in retaliation.”

A wave of grim chuckling and chittering swept the room. Daar was mean when he really wanted to be, and everyone had experienced his determination to win more than once.

“But we’ll have sent him carrots!”

Faarek’s look of wounded innocence was so convincing that Adam nearly choked on his steak. By the time he’d finished coughing his airways clear again, they’d been joined by a fashionably late Blaczynski, who sauntered into the kitchen and flung himself carelessly onto Firth, slapping a copy of ESNN’s Unlocked magazine down as he did so.

“So Coombes did the thing,” he said, as Firth pawed a plate of food round the table and deposited it in front of him. “It just hit the newsstand today, saw it when I was out jogging.”

“You know, a sane species would have rendered those obsolete by now,” Thurrsto commented.

“Hey! Lookit my fuckin’ paws, man.” Firth laid his mitts on the table. “I can’t afford how much I keep breakin’ tablets, y’know? Also it’s more funner to scribble notes with pens and highlighters.”

“I don’t care how many devices you smash, there’s no way you keep the newsprint industry alive all by yourself.”

“There’s something to tactile learning, though.” Baseball was in danger of nerding out. “It’s been studied repeatedly over the years. I’m with Firth, e-paper screens still kinda suck and I don’t like looking at glowing screens all day long, either.”

“Coombes,” Blaczynski repeated himself and tapped the magazine, “did the thing.”

‘Base chuckled. “…Oooh, shit! Why didn’t you say so?”

“…Just fuckin’ read it.”

Everyone wolfed down the remains of their meals, then piled around and on top of ‘Base while they collectively read through the article. As always, he was the speed-reader among them and needed to be constantly reminded to turn back a page while everybody else caught up. For a few minutes, the only sounds in the room were pages turning and food being unconsciously snarfed down.

Firth was the first to speak after they reached the end of the article. “…I gotta admit, Ava’s a hell of a photographer. Lookit him, he’s…”

‘Base flipped back through the pages until he found the biggest and most iconic one: the full two-page spread.

“Terrifying?” he suggested.

“…Yeah. Fuck yeah. He’s like if a tiger, a bear, and, I dunno, somethin’ like a giant pitbull had a baby. And he were drawn by a comic book artist. And lookit all the fuckin’ scars on ‘em! I didn’t know he had so many!”

Ava had apparently decided that the best way to capture Daar was with shadow and contrast. It did nothing at all to lessen the sheer threat he radiated.

“He usually has at least a little fur on. Even at the worst of his deployments with us he kept most of his undercoat. This is just short of shaved.”

“And he looks…sad. Somehow.”

“Don’t know if I blame him, really.”

“I’m more interested in the article itself. It’s…well, fuck. Y’all read it.”

Faarek keened quietly. “Maybe…we should send him all the carrots.”

“…Aye.”

Adam looked down at the last bites of his steak, and the untouched rice and vegetables next to it. Dutifully, he wolfed down his food in mostly silence. Nobody was feeling particularly talkative.

“…Lemme read that a second time,” he said.


“Laid Bare—Warriors in their own words” Issue #1: Great Father Daar
Author and photographer: Ava Magdalena Ríos

“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.”

Few leaders of any stripe would ever describe themselves in such stark, inescapable terms, and yet these were the words that Great Father Daar specifically requested should open this article.

This is the first of what I hope will be a series exploring the sacrifices and struggles made by our serving men and women from all branches of the military, both human and otherwise. I have always believed in the power of the nude body as an artistic message, as a vehicle for personal freedom and as a metaphor for honesty, and it has been my ambition to run a series allowing our servicepersons to lay themselves bare in both body and soul.

This first entry in the series, however, came as a surprise. I never imagined that Daar, the Great Father of the Gao, would be my first model.

[Image: Daar standing tall on two paws, semi-relaxed and staring levelly into the camera]

“The thing about us Stonebacks is, we never lie. Except honestly that’s probably a lie too. People lie to themselves all the time and don’t notice.”

This “warts and all” honesty is present from the instant we first meet in Folctha’s old town hall. He arrives with his fur clipped so short that he’s almost shorn bald. Gaoians prize their fur and the Great Father in particular is more than a little vain, making this a true gesture of exposure. After all, nakedness is not a natural Gaoian concept: without their clothing, a Gaoian still has their fur, and therefore their modesty. By shaving to the skin, Daar is deliberately baring himself to the world.

This becomes a common theme during our time together.

But first we must consider the eight foot tall, vaguely ursine beast looming over me in the room, because we cannot discuss the Great Father without inevitably addressing the sheer menace he radiates merely standing there. He is the very definition of a heroic brute, and his short fur does nothing at all to soften the impact of his physique. His hips and torso are as wide as most door frames, his shoulders and rear quarters go beyond that. He has paws so large, their palms could completely cover my face and his claws could wrap halfway around my head, as he demonstrated later on in one of the more intense moments of our interview.

The naked threat he presents is inescapable and is something he is keenly aware of. My support dog, Hannah, was completely terrified of him until he somehow folded himself right down to the floor and sniffed noses with her—Gaoians in general have extremely flexible spines and the Great Father is no exception. He uses that mobility in all his body language, often to quite disarming effect.

His massive head is level with mine as he slinks around, sniffing my equipment and pressing a brief but effective charm offensive. Our pleasantries and small-talk don’t last long, and when our session begins it does so with a role-reversal: Rather than me interviewing him, he interrogates me. The reason why quickly becomes apparent: he has a message, and he is fiercely concerned that it must be communicated properly. As we talk, his nose never stops twitching, testing my scent and my honesty. Anybody who spends time around Gaoians quickly learns how good their sense of smell can be, but Daar’s nose is quite literally legendary. He’s said to be able to smell lies.

Many of the questions he had for me are too personal and painful to share here, and in any case this article is not about me. But his questions revealed much about him.

[Image: Daar with his back to the camera, showcasing the long cable-like muscles on either side of his spine]

“I am a Great Father. Do you know what that means?”

The term, as with many things involving the Great Father, is far more complex than it initially appears. It is in fact an ancient rite and one the Gao themselves view with great wariness.

“I’m only the second Great Father in recorded history. […] 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 of some the worst monsters we’ve ever made. Fyu died that day.”

Great Fathers are, he explains, not a good thing. They’re very much necessary, but in rather the same way that invasive surgery might be necessary to handle an aggressive tumor. They only come along at moments of great turmoil for the Gao, and can even be thought of as avatars of that turmoil.

Once he is satisfied that I have grasped this idea, our relationship returns to that of an interviewer and her interviewee. He turns out to be a natural in front of the camera.

[Image: Daar flexing outrageously and baring his fangs]

You’ve done this before.

“Yup. Simpler times. Mostly I was in it for the tail then.”

He is a being of mercurial moods, and this stretch of the interview is jovial and upbeat. He even flirts with me a little as I query him about his early life, where he grew up and how he became the Champion of Clan Stoneback in the first place. His life tale is a long and twisty thing but it would not be well-told here. Instead, I focus on his impact in the world.

You are, or were, your Clan’s Stud-Prime. How many cubs would you say you’ve sired?

“Still am, and many hundreds!”

It is important to note for the unaware that the Gaoians have a natural and severe gender imbalance, which radically affects how their society is organized and makes nuclear families effectively impossible. That imbalance has been rendered much worse by Hierarchy targeting of Gaoian females during the War for Gao, and as a result the Gao’s population will drop by many billions in the next twenty years or so.

Despite—or perhaps because of—this pressure, the Gao of the modern era consider breeding success to be a key part of their male-dominated meritocracy, and this belief extends even into the most disenfranchised Clanless, whose prospects post-war are effectively zero. Arguably, their Grand Army and the closely related species-wide sense of mission has reinforced this belief, and the Clan of Females in particular has gone so far as to build an isolated island fortress on Cimbrean in furtherance of their own part of the mission.

For one reason or another, this imbalance has been the center of all their great conflicts. In previous centuries that imbalance led directly to the greatest conflict of their earlier history, and the formation of the Clan of Females. That in turn resulted in a radical concept: communal mothering.

“The Gao way isn’t like the Human way, we males can’t stay involved in our cubs’ lives. I’ve met a few of my adult offspring, grandcubs and even great-grandcubs but the only one I have what you’d call a relationship with is one of my two daughters.”

This surprises me, so I decide to sidetrack for a moment.

All those cubs, and only two females?

“That’s Gaoian genetics for you. I’m what we call a hypermale.”

He describes what that means in cheery detail and seems to delight in conforming to hyper-masculine stereotypes as he does so. I find it difficult to retain a neutral expression in light of his silliness, and he takes special pleasure in attempting to break my composure.

[Image: mosaic of the Great Father prancing, laughing, and mugging for the camera]

He throws in a “Keeda tale” to illustrate the point, which could perhaps best be described as a nursery tale lacking any caution about mature themes. Most of them are violently silly. I will admit he may have drawn a grin or two from me, and perhaps a brief chuckle; he is a good storyteller. I do my best to remain neutral and he does, in his way, respect that boundary. He decides to wrap up his exposition with a more sober summary.

“[…] So yeah, our sexual genetics are pretty messed up, and now we’re pretty sure that was done to us by the Hierarchy way back when. But the gist of it is that usually, only about one in six cubs are female and males come in degrees. Males in the second degree make up most of the population these days. Supermales in the third degree aren’t common, fourth degree are rarer than females, and if they’re fifth or sixth degree we call them hypermales.”

Presumably each degree is rarer, then?

“Yup! Each is usually way less common than the previous.”

And which degree are you?

He pant-grins smugly, a uniquely Gaoian expression that is both unmistakably canine and clearly the gesture of a sapient mind.

“I’m sixth degree! That’s as high as it goes. That’s why I’m so stupid fast and strong, and it’s why I grew so quickly in the SOR, too! I was born with the most biggest [sic] magnum dose of all the things that make a male, male. The downside is that is for males like me, siring a female cub is about as rare as being a hypermale in the first place. That I’ve had any at all is a blessing!”

You say you’re in the sixth degree. Just how rare is that?

Daar doesn’t answer with words. He simply chitters deeply, repositions himself under the light, hunkers down and flexes an upper arm as thick as my chest.

[Image: Side profile of Daar snarling at camera, showcasing his tensed arm, neck, and chest]

His service in the SOR was remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which has been the eventual political ramifications. My repeated attempts to question him about it are mostly rebuffed, politely but forcefully.

“No, sorry. I made promises about secrecy and I ain’t been told I can talk about most of it just yet.”

Did you expect any of what happened next?

The Great Father’s English is impeccable when he wants it to be. When he’s excited, however, his natural idiom has some idiosyncratic complexities related to Stoneback’s Clan language that sometimes shine through.

“Balls no! You know what the most worstest [sic] part was? Seeing just how much the Hierarchy suppressed and manipulated us! I was doing stuff in my personal training that’s obviously stupid once you stand back and think for a second. Look at me, look at my Whitecrest Brothers. We practically exploded in capability once the HEAT had a hold of us, and it was all so [fucking obvious!] How did they manage to keep such basic knowledge repressed among us?! How did you Humans expose it so easily?”

(As informative as his ensuing tirade was, I have regrettably been forced to omit much of it from this article. The full recording is available via ESNN’s internet and infosphere pages.)

“Clan Highmountain has evidence of their meddling that goes all the way back to Great Father Fyu, and even earlier. Right back to our foundational mythology. I wasn’t prepared for how deep it ran.”

He quickly shifts the conversation to reconstruction and the general excellence of the Grand Army, with enthusiastic praise for the allied contributions to its foundation, especially from the 82nd Airborne Division. I attempt twice to return to the mythology of his people and Clan, but he defers to Champion Gyotin on the former and flat-out refuses on the latter. As a reporter, it is an odd sensation not being fully in control of a conversation, but the Great Father is a force of nature and intensely charismatic. It is obvious why many are wary of him.

[Image: A closeup of Daar’s flank, obliquely lit to throw his physique into sharp relief]

Still, it is impossible to ignore his jocular playfulness. He is understandably quite proud of himself, his singular body, and of the many hairline scars that criss-cross it. Several of them provoke impressive stories, others decidedly more humorous. At the end of each story he inevitably launches into an even longer yarn about whoever gave it to him; Daar’s love and respect for the Gao runs very deep and extends especially to his friendly rivals. Above all, he prefers talking up his offspring and his Clan.

“Almost all my cubs have been at least third degree, too! You know what the funnest [sic] part is? A lot of my brownie cubs strike for Highmountain instead of Stoneback.”

I find this a bit surprising despite myself, and enquire further.

How do you feel about that?

“Good! We need thinkers and professors! Some of them are super successful, too!”

Clan Highmountain is Stoneback’s ancient brother-clan and take rather a different approach to life than their boisterously active cousins. Though they’re both “brownie” clans with martial traditions and have deep, complex, ongoing ties both social and genetic, the Highmountains are a cerebral clan and concern themselves principally with academia and the sciences.

Does it surprise you to have sired so many who are so unlike you?

He answers directly, without a hint of smugness.

“No, not really. I am both extremely intelligent and extremely aggressive. Those are useful things for thinkers, too. I just ended up more interested in sports as a cub, so here I am.”

[Image: Profile of the Great Father’s head, looking into the distance]

Isn’t that a little egotistical?

“False modesty is just as dangerous a lie as any other.”

With most people, a statement like that could be taken as the height of arrogance. With Daar, one can’t help but accept it as one of earnest, blunt honesty. His purpose is not to brag. As Great Father and former Champion of Stoneback, an explorer, adventurer, and member of the Hazardous Environment Assault Team, Daar is a man that has nothing left to prove to anyone of any species. He simply tells the direct, simple truth as he sees it.

You and your clan both prize aggression. Is hypermale status a universal Stoneback trait?

“No, but it’s common for us. Hypermales are bigger, stronger, and yeah, way more aggressive. The higher the degree, the more all of that’s true…and we look for that in Clan candidates. ‘Muscles are required’ as your Marines would say. We also value brains and talent, don’t misunderstand. ‘Backs can’t afford to be stupid, but a supergenius is useless to us without strength, honesty, and personal bravery.”

[Image: Daar’s flexed core and legs, twisted at the waist to showcase his heavy musculature]

I note that he has a habit of circling back and elaborating, because he goes on to add:

“…Actually, Fiin [the current Champion of Stoneback] is only third degree himself, so he’s proof that we ain’t set this stuff in stone. He’s a damn good ‘Back. Smart as shit, too. But even he wouldn’t have made the cut if he couldn’t be a warrior and a breeder and a worker with the best of them, and he definitely wouldn’t be Champion if he wasn’t all those things.”

Loyal praise seems to be another habit of his.

Isn’t it unusual for you to have surrendered the title?

“Yeah, but there’s precedent. Fiin just needed to prove to me and the Clan that he could handle it, and there ain’t any better way to do that than a good tussle! He held up, I stepped down and became Champion Emeritus. Stoneback’s in the right paws for what’s coming.”

The next part of the interview shifted to decidedly darker topics.

A warrior’s paws.

He looks down and considers his brutish mitts for a long moment.

[Image: Daar’s claws, extended.]

“Yeah, a warrior’s paws. But a builder’s and digger’s paws too: Stonebacks are both. I’m a farmer and a heavy construction foreman in my ‘real’ job. Fiin’s a cabinetmaker and carpenter. Both of us are Brothers of the Rites. Often, we don’t get to choose if our paws create or destroy.”

Are those roles ever in conflict?

“Always. But the thing is that Stonebacks don’t destroy just for the joy of destruction… though don’t think there ain’t great joy in that. But that ain’t why we do it. We destroy to protect what we built, and to secure what we provided for others.”

What do you mean, by ‘great joy in destruction?’

He freezes in a particularly striking pose. By now, the strain of the shoot is beginning to show.

[Image: The Great Father on all fours, body under tension as if for a show ring]

“Here’s something folks don’t like to admit. It’s true for Gao and it’s true for humans: Killing is fun. We’re predators, we hunt meat to survive. Nature rewards that in us and it translates. Anybody who ever hunted their own food will tell you, there’s a sense of triumph in it.”

Hunting for your food isn’t the same thing as war, is it?

“It’s much the same reward in your brain. There’s an old Human movie, Conan the Barbarian. You ever seen it?”

I shake my head to indicate that I have not, and he quotes it.

“‘What is best in life? To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.’ True words, those. Balls, they’re more true than modern civilized folks of any species like to admit, and that’s dangerous.”

How so?

“You should interview Champion Gyotin, he’s thought long and hard on this. But for me, it’s always there in the back of my mind, just knowing how good it would feel to kill my rivals and take what I wanted. Or to just…knock heads together. Every time some bureaucratic idiot makes things hard, I imagine how easy it’d be to solve the problem with my claws or my army… But the cost would be my people, and I can never allow that.”

[Image: Daar in an agitated state, gesturing and snarling with his claws out.]

He gets vocally angry as he speaks, but subsides just as abruptly. After a deep breath he adds:

“Civilization makes folks squeamish, makes us shy away from what we really are deep down. And the only way to control that kind of a beast is to make peace with it: fight it, and it’ll win. But we must be in control of it, because that’s what makes the difference between us and real monsters like the Hunters and their Hierarchy masters.”

This prompts the topic I’ve been most eager to cover, so I segue into harder questions.

Speaking of which, how long do you plan to wage your war against them?

He answers simply. “Until it’s done.”

What does that mean, exactly?

“Exactly what I said. Until it’s done, and they can never threaten anyone ever again.”

Does that mean killing all of them?

“Most likely. I don’t think a gentle treaty option will come up.”

That’s going to take a long time. And you’re well into your middle age by now.

He chitters somewhere below the baritone, then looks wistfully at the grey fur developing along the outside of his brutish forearms.

“That’s true! I’m over fifty now and for Gaoian males, especially brownies, and most especiallyest [sic] for hypermales like me, that’s pretty damn old. But my doctors tell me I’m in perfect health and that I probably got super lucky with my sire and dam. If I get too weak I’ll step down, but honestly…That ain’t going to be any time soon, probably.”

I can believe it.

Even so, seeing a war like that to its conclusion will take a long time.

“Yup. It’s been weighing on me. I’ll do whatever I can and whatever it takes. Keeda’s balls, I already have.”

There is a certain unsettling finality in his tone, and I feel the need to move on.

Are you familiar with the so-called ‘Alien Protection Army?’

His entire demeanor changes: now he’s cagey, rather than confident, jovial or brutally honest. For the first time during the interview, my heart freezes.

[Image: That moment captured. Daar has three paws on the ground and the fourth raised as he eyes the camera warily.]

“…I am. I will need to be very careful here, Miss Ríos.”

I just wanted your opinion of them, whatever it might be.

He produces the Gaoian equivalent of a sigh and relaxes. So do I.

“Yeah. My opinion is that they’re not a group I understand.”

They’ve named you as, and I quote: ‘A vehicle for learned xenophobia’ and claim that your association with humans has…again, quoting: ‘catastrophically derailed the course of Gaoian civilization.’

This provokes waves of chittering mirth which take some time for him to bring under control.

“That’s an extra stupid thing of them to say! And insulting in the most dumbest, pointlessest [sic] way! What do they think I am? Powerless? And if so, how did I do this thing they accuse me of? Or who do they think is holding my puppet strings? Did I, oh, orchestrate the biodroning of billions and then nuke all those cities because… I don’t know, because AEC was yanking on my leash? Or maybe they think tough little Sartori has me by the balls? He’s a wily President, but no.”

He pauses, then chitters again.

“Also…I’m pretty fucking well-read, but I have no damn idea what ‘vehicle for learned xenophobia’ means. Do you?”

I attempt to explain, and find myself growing uncomfortable as I do so. My attempts—and my embarrassment—seem to amuse him, and he rescues me from my own folly after a few minutes.

“Stop! Stop! Any idea you can’t summarize in a single sentence is a bad one, or at least not very well thought out. Complexity is for math, not ideas.”

I query him extensively about this philosophy, and again he produces an outpouring of thought that, sadly, didn’t make the cut into this article. In the end, he finishes with this comment:

“It’s a stupid idea, and it doesn’t account for personal agency or…nuts, any of the things people do. If somebody uses that phrase, they’re basically saying they think we’re all just little balls bouncing around in a giant pachinko machine with no control over where we go, and that’s just as insulting as it is dehumanizing. Or degaoianizing, or whatever. Desapientizing.”

[Image: Daar posing on his haunches, talking animatedly, the fur around his nape matted]

Alas we don’t have time to explore exactly how the Great Father knows of pachinko machines.

Nevertheless, some of the accusations they level are more concrete. You have been described as a ‘genocidal dictator’ and a ‘Gaoian supremacist.’

Modelling is often strenuous work in ways the unfamiliar rarely appreciate, and the strain of holding himself under tension is beginning to tire Daar: His chittering is more weary.

“How can I be a Gaoian supremacist when some of my most favoritest [sic] people are aliens? I seem to recall a wild ride caught up in the tail of the most biggest [sic] monkey ever, all so we could save his people from laser-wielding death robots! Yan Given-man is my friend. And that ain’t even getting into my Human cousins, nor the other ETs I respect. So you tell me how I’m any kind of a supremacist.”

And the other accusation? That you’re a genocidal dictator?

“Oh, they’re right about that. I absolutely am a genocidal dictator. It is my ambition that the Hierarchy and their Hunter pets will be destroyed as a threat forever. But they get to decide what that means. I will act accordingly, and if they choose to die…”

He growls fiercely and I take a picture reflexively without thinking about it. The result is candid, and I consider it to be the single most impressive and intimidating shot of our session.

[Image: Daar in three-quarter profile from the front on all fours, snarling, muscles at maximum tension, claws extended, eyes glowing from the shadows]

“…I will oblige them.”

This moment turns out to be our last. An alarm beeps and just like that, my unexpected interview with the Great Father of the Gao is over. He is as unfailingly polite as he was at the beginning, prowls over to thank me, and spares a few moments to reassure Hannah. He produces a treat from his bag and they part on amicable terms.

[Image: Daar standing four-pawed next to Hannah, relaxed candid, in profile from the rear, dwarfing and panting down at her while examining his claws]

And without further ceremony he is gone, leaving me to my thoughts. It occurs to me that this interview was very much driven by the sheer force of his will; he has an influential power that’s difficult to describe, and it sweeps most everyone up in it. I am not inexperienced with strong personalities, either personally or professionally, but the Great Father is a singular creature and difficult to define.

It further occurs to me why he had shorn down. Although the theme of our shoot was to be effectively a nude session, and shaving is realistically the only way a Gaoian can achieve the same state of exposure, his final remark explained to me why he even agreed to this.

It wasn’t out of vanity, at least not entirely. While showing off his peerless physicality was undoubtedly on his mind, and he is a self-admitted exhibitionist, I suspect the real reason is much deeper.

He was sending a message.

Not to us, not to the Gao. Not to the galaxy writ large, at least not primarily. The message was in the penultimate photo of this piece, where he showed himself at his most powerful, most savage, most dangerous. It was a message to his enemies, to our enemies.

The Great Father is coming. And he is death.


Date Point: 15y6m2w5d AV
Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, Canada, Earth

Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge

It turned out that ‘Canada’ was a land of water: Yan could hardly throw a spear without it ending up in a lake. The air was cool, the water cold, and the trees mostly slim and straight. He could taste beasts on the wind, but the bushes and leaves were so thick that actually seeing any of them was something else.

Getting there had been tiring. They spent a very long time in the back of the ‘Suburban’ thing Heff seemed far too pleased about, idly talking about women and hunts while they watched the land fly by through the ‘windows.’ Yan didn’t mind once they’d pulled out the long strange benches and replaced them with nice, soft blankets. Cozy! Jooyun and Vemik would laze about in the back and tell tall tales, Heff would chip in from the front while he commanded the metal-beast ‘Suburban’ down the concrete path, and outside…

Outside had been like watching village after village fly past faster than the wind. Hands of hands of hands of hands of hands of sprawling stone huts, many with another metal beast in front of it. Humans of every kind—tiny children running on feet they barely knew they had so that they looked an inch from falling over; gangs of men in orange clothes, working hard; people with skin in every shade of brown from that pale almost-pink, through shades of wood and leather, to dark like Boss; a grey-haired woman so unbelievably fat that she rode on a smaller metal beast rather than walk.

And everywhere, steel poles with what Yan thought of as a tribe-blanket at the top, fluttering in the wind. Yan knew that sign, those red and white stripes and the blue field full of pointy white seeds: He’d first seen it on one of Awisun’s shirts.

He’d first seen the Canada tribe-blanket on one of Shyow’s shirts, worn to tease Awisun or perhaps the other way around. Red and white, with a leaf in the middle. He saw it again when they passed through what Jooyun called a “border crossing” and Heff spent some time talking with some men and women who all wore the same dark blue clothes.

That bit was dull. But eventually they were waved through and there were no other interruptions until they finally reached their home for the next two nights, long after the sun had gone down.

“Riding Mountain,” Jooyun called it. The cabin was made of whole tree trunks, and the inside had a kind of steel pot for lighting a fire inside where it would be safe and wouldn’t burn the hut down around them. Yan, who knew how hard it was to make steel, had stopped shaking his head over how everywhere it was with humans but he still noticed.

The cabin was cozy and peaceful, and the fire crackling gently in the corner reminded Yan of home. He slept comfortably and well, waking to the smell of bacon in the morning.

Today’s hunt was another moose, their last chance to get one before going home. Apparently the bears here were a different kind: smaller, more timid.

Again he couldn’t climb very high in most of the trees. The ‘aspen’ and ‘pine’ were tall but thin for their size, much like in Yellow Stone. ‘Oak’ was very sturdy and hard, but they had so many thick branches it was tricky to move quickly through the canopy. He liked the ‘elm’ the most. It wasn’t as hard as ‘oak’ and the bark wasn’t as thick as he’d like, but the branches were well-spaced and sturdy, and they started high enough in the big old forest fathers that he’d be able to flee anything dangerous and jump down on prey.

…If he didn’t land in a pond, anyway.

But they were very good for cover, too. He’d managed to lose both Vemik and Jooyun in them!

This hunt went much better. The prize wasn’t as impressive as the one the Bear had cheated them of back in Yellow Stone, but that was not fair: It was big, strong, powerful. Good prey by any reckoning.

In the end, they hunted it just as Jooyun had suggested: He and Heff circled around upwind, made plenty of noise. The moose moved away from them… right between Yan and Vemik.

It made more of a surprised noise than a fearful one when the two of them jumped up from the bushes and drove their spears into its heart. To be sure of a quick, honorable kill, Vemik jumped up on its strong neck and broke it while Yan jumped as high as he could and fell on its back; there was a loud crunch and the moose was down and dead very quickly, having hardly suffered at all. Hopefully the gods of Earth would be pleased.

The two humans were with them not long after, just as Vemik and Yan finished honouring its spirit. Jooyun simply knelt and laid a hand on its nose, muttered “Real sorry, fella…” and that seemed to be enough for him. Heff didn’t even do that, just bowed his head.

Maybe that was enough. Who knew? Earth was a very different land, a land of many lands. Yan had seen enough to know that he’d seen nothing of it. Apparently all these many places he’d seen and learned were the lands of just one tribe, and there were hands of hands of hands of other tribes out there. If Jooyun and Heff thought the Gods needed only a small gesture, they would know better.

Yan quickly gutted the moose like Jooyun taught, then threw it over his shoulder and pointed toward tonight’s ‘cabin.’ “We smoke this moose, too?”

“Yup. Your tribe will eat well when we get it back to them.”

“So long as we eat well,” Vemik muttered. His stomach had been growling so loud Yan wondered how the moose hadn’t heard it. Vemik ate a lot more than Yan remembered eating at his age. A strange god-blessing, that. It had made him much stronger than his years.

“We’ll eat, Vemik,” Jooyun promised. “I’ll do one of Xiù’s stir-fries! It’s got green peppers and broccoli in it…”

That would be a meal worth carrying the moose back home for. Yan had lifted many heavier beasts under stronger ‘gravity,’ but that didn’t mean the moose was a small burden. He liked it anyway, found his legs nicely warmed by the work, and ended up bouncing down the path despite himself. Something about exploring seemed to bring out the young man in him!

It was good to end their time on Earth with a prize. He found he was going to miss this strange planet, with its soft but happy people. There was so much to see! It made him feel… not small, but…

He gave up. No doubt humans had a word for what he felt. Eager to go home, but sad to leave when there was still so much and knowing that he would most likely never come back.

But tonight, they would eat well, smoke the meat, make ready to travel. Tomorrow, they would journey far in the ‘Suburban’ and then the day after he would be back where he belonged, with his tribe. That was a good feeling too. Earth had been good.

But Yan was ready to go home.


Date Point: 15y6m2w5d AV
Dominion Council Ship Rich Plains

Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight

“Unbelievable. Un-bloody-believable. We literally prevent a massacre and the council somehow finds a way to complain!”

Knight threw his jacket over the back of a chair and sat down. The table that had been groaning with alien foods on his first arrival was now playing host to a rather more modest but decidedly better selection of ham, cheese, bread, pickles, salad and so on, and the table itself could actually employ a rather clever forcefield to function as a fridge. He rather liked the arrangement. It gave his suite a homely, comfortable feel which was the closest thing the Council was ever likely to show him to actual hospitality.

He’d have to be disciplined, though. A man could graze until his trousers burst without care.

And if that happened, the HEAT would end up “fixing” him. Even retired admirals were inescapably stuck in their orbit.

The thought brought a small smile to his face as he sliced off some of the (truly excellent) roast ham and assembled himself a sandwich while Kirk spread his hands resignedly.

“They cannot show gratitude in the public arena of the Council without losing face and making a political wave,” he explained. “The Kwmbwrw in particular—”

“Oh, to Hell with the bloody Kwmbwrw,” Knight growled. “And to Hell with face and political waves, too. Hussein was right you know—I don’t know what we have to do to get those bigots out there to like us, but I know damn well that we shouldn’t be interested at this point.”

He sighed and finished making his sandwich while Kirk shifted his weight comfortably onto his second and third pair of legs. “…Why does the Council listen to the Kwmbwrw so much, anyway?”

“They have held the line against the Hunters for nearly three hundred years,” Kirk said. “And still built the largest empire among the Council races. And because of the way the Dominion works, the resources they expended in acquiring that territory were folded back into improving the lot of other species. They are viewed as quite philanthropic as a result.”

“I thought the Domain was the largest?”

“By population, yes. The Kwmbwrw have purchased more systems. Their approach seems to be to… I believe I heard the phrase ‘building wide’ as opposed to ‘building tall’ once.”

“And because of the growing cost of each subsequent system, they really have paid the Dominion a lot…” Knight surmised.

“Meanwhile, Humans are simply taking deathworlds because nobody else wants them, and apparently getting away with it. They feel you are…” Kirk paused, and made the grinding noise in his throat that was the Ricktick equivalent of an ‘er…’

“Cheating?” Knight suggested.

“Yes.”

“Well, this isn’t a damn board game. Real lives are on the line.”

“You feel passionately about this,” Kirk observed, mildly.

“I never did have much patience for…no, never mind. If I keep insulting them I’ll just whip myself into a rage…” Knight sighed, then realized what was missing from his table. “…Out of interest, who does a chap have to shag to get a cup of tea around here?”

“Asking nicely will usually suffice,” Kirk replied. Knight gave him a sharp look. Kirk’s alien body language and dependence on a translator made his deadpan absolutely flawless.

A shimmy of the mane was Kirk’s equivalent of a cheeky smile, and he circled the table to avail himself of an unwanted cucumber. “I wouldn’t worry about what the Council say in session. The real progress happens off the floor anyway. In fact, I’m running a timer as we speak.”

“A timer to what?”

“To the moment when the first of them requests to see you. Sometime in the next ten Ri’ or so, I should think… I promise not to be too smug if I am correct.”

Knight snorted and finally found the mustard. A ham sandwich without mustard was, in his opinion, a crime against nature.

“…Is there any more of that ker-zit-skik? That was rather nice.”

“Krztkzk?”

“Yes, that.”

“Probably not today. I’m sure the hospitality staff will be able to accommodate you if you ask. Your terminal should—”

There was a polite chime from the door. Knight gave Kirk a raised eyebrow, received what he knew was a very smug expression in return, and discreetly covered the ham with his napkin and stood up.

“Come in.”

Champion Sheeyo was a welcome sight… especially as he was accompanied by the Rauwryhr Ambassador, Scrythcra.

It was easy to draw comparisons with bats when meeting a Rauwryhr. They were natural gliders, from an extremely low-gravity homeworld. So much so in fact that even galactic standard was a burden for them. Knight felt the room’s plating adjust for his guest and suppressed the urge to grab the table’s edge.

He’d read the briefing. No shaking hands: Rauwryhr had strong cultural norms about personal space and physical contact. Besides, those long slender fingers looked alarmingly more fragile than they probably were. He settled for a stiff, shallow bow instead, then shook Sheeyo’s paw.

Sheeyo was… intriguingly ostentatious. He was a far cry from the understated poise of a Whitecrest or the roughneck ruggedness of a Stoneback: his fur was immaculately glossy, he’d braided jewelry into it especially around his ears and whiskers, and although it could be hard for inexperienced humans to tell a Gaoian female apart from a male sometimes, with Sheeyo the difference was almost negligible.

He was, apparently, very handsome indeed by Gaoian standards. And had a reputation for siring daughters.

“Your excellencies, this is a pleasure. We were just sitting down to dinner, if you’d care to join us… I do apologise, ambassador, but there’s meat on the table. I can have it cleared away if…”

“There’s no need,” Scrythcra promised him. “You’re omnivorous, I respect and accept that.”

“I thought I smelled ham…” Sheeyo’s nose twitched, and he flicked a mischievous ear at Knight as they sat. Scrythcra sniffed at a bowl of olives and sampled one with every sign of delight. Good start.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” Knight asked.

“I wanted to extend Rauwryhr’s gratitude,” Scrythcra said. “Your fleet’s intervention was near our borders after all. Two of the ships you saved were our citizens.”

“I appreciate that. I must be blunt, however: I would have appreciated that a great deal more on the chamber floor.”

He wasn’t sure about Rauwryhr body language at all, but he thought he detected… a smile? The equivalent anyway. Scrythcra glanced at Sheeyo and made a ticking noise with his mouth. “Ambassador Sheeyo said you were refreshingly forthright. I’m glad to find out he wasn’t exaggerating: It’s a trait the council could use more of… and I would have much preferred to speak our gratitude on the chamber floor.”

“I take it you had your reasons.”

“It’s neither my job nor my desire to stir up an eddy in the council, your excellency. We have had hundreds of years of prosperity thanks to the Dominion and especially thanks to the Kwmbwrw and Domain. They have been good and valuable allies to us for a very long time. Much better, alas, than they have been to Humanity and the Gao.”

He offered an apologetic shrug and sampled another olive.

Knight nodded. He could remember plenty of cases where British foreign policy had been in conflict with allied nations and diplomatic silence had been the only acceptable way forward.

Sheeyo, who had discreetly helped himself to some of the ham, cleared his throat. “Nevertheless, you do stand alongside us and the Corti nowadays.”

Scrythcra imitated Knight’s nod. “The Dominion was always supposed to be a mutually advantageous trading arrangement. It was meant to promote peace, prosperity and a fair set of rules. It was not meant to become a galactic superpower.”

“So you’d rather see it return to its roots,” Knight surmised.

“That’s the consensus among my people’s elected representatives, yes. We’ve had concerns over the–” The translator hiccuped slightly: the display on its upper surface spun thoughtfully for a moment before it settled on ‘glacial’ “–pace of decisions in the Council, not to mention questions over how enfranchised our people really are, the wisdom and immediacy of decisions made on such scales, the overreach of powerful people who aren’t truly accountable to the people…”

“That sounds familiar…” Knight agreed.

“But of course, you are left in a position where you are forced to choose between principle and prosperity,” Sheeyo said.

“Which is divisive,” Scrythcra agreed. “And most Rauwryhr prefer prosperity, on balance.”

Knight nodded again. “Very familiar,” he said. “And so you stand in our faction on the Council as a statement of dissatisfaction with the status quo, but find yourselves unable to press much harder than that.”

“You have it. And my apologies.”

Knight nodded. “…Thank you for your candor. My next question then is, how can we help you reach a point where you feel more able to speak out? Because frankly your excellency, my job is to stir up an eddy in the council… and hopefully change it for the better.”

Sheeyo leaned forward and rested his paws lightly on the table. “You’ve succeeded admirably, by the way.”

“Indeed,” Kirk agreed. “I didn’t think I’d ever see the day A’tkznkrtz’rrtk was speechless.”

“I fear you’re going to have to suffer many more years of thankless toil…” Scrythcra warned.

“Just so long as I’m not assassinated,” Knight replied. He wasn’t sure if he pitched it right for the Rauwryhr sense of humour in general, or Scrythcra’s in particular, but he got a kind of chirruping sound which he knew was their version of laughter.

“I suspect that is unlikely, given your honor guard on the first day.”

Knight smiled, then put on his serious face again. “But you do have something concrete for me? Something I can work toward to strengthen your footing?”

“We would be… much more able to stand up to the Kwmbwrw in particular if we weren’t so dependent on them to keep Hunters away from our home systems. If we could defend our own borders and even help the Kwmbwrw defend theirs, it would remove a debt we owe them.”

“Why do I feel like removing their leverage isn’t likely to please them?” Knight asked, rhetorically. This time he got a chitter from Sheeyo.

“Oh, they’ll hate it,” the Goldpaw predicted. “They can’t process the idea of carnivores acting with any form of nobility.”

“It’s true that they have a… prejudice in such matters,” Scrythcra agreed. “They think you’re both murderers on an industrial scale. They don’t appreciate the distinction between a sentient animal and a sophont.”

“You’re obligate herbivores yourselves, I believe?” Knight checked.

“Frugivores, technically. I don’t know if your translator found an appropriate match for that term?”

“It did.”

Scrythcra nodded again. “Evolution is an inherently amoral process. I’ve always found it strange that the Kwmbwrw insist so strongly on moralizing it. But the point is that my people would like to be in a position where we are no longer required to care whether the Kwmbwrw are pleased or not. We won’t get there unless we risk their disapproval at least a little.”

“…What if I were to propose to a symposium? An exchange of academia and the sciences?”

“I don’t see how that benefits us militarily?” Scrythcra asked.

“We consider military studies to be a science.”

He watched the subtle changes in posture and expression as sly comprehension dawned for Scrythcra.

“…Intriguing.” The Rauwryhr mulled it over, eating another olive as he did so. “We host an interstellar exchange of ideas and technology. Agriculture, communications, all branches of the sciences. The Kwmbwrw can’t possibly complain about that.”

“And the Gao and Humanity hold a number of seminars on military technology and doctrine on the outskirts of that symposium…” Sheeyo continued.

“Open invitation, of course,” Kirk interjected.

“Absolutely. We want to participate in the free exchange of ideas after all.”

“And if the Rauwryhr military council happen to order a number of our senior officers to attend and see what they can learn…”

Knight smiled. “Then we’re hardly to blame, are we?” He picked up his sandwich and paused before taking a bite. “What do you think?”

“I think… What are these dark brown things?”

“Sun-dried tomatoes. A fruit.”

Scrythcra skewered one with a feeding claw and sampled it. His ears feathered and fluttered delightedly. “…I think… perhaps a culinary exchange is in order too.”

A laugh, a chitter, and a rattle rolled around the table, and Knight waved a hand. “Please, dig in. They always lay on more than I can eat anyway. Apparently humans are infamous for our appetites.”

The three aliens gladly complied, and the conversation drifted away into small-talk, pleasantries and getting to know one another. When Knight broke out a bottle of Pinot Noir later, he was delighted to discover that Scrythcra was a natural wine taster. And after a hard and difficult day, now it seemed maybe interstellar diplomacy could have its enjoyable side after all.

There was a lot still to do… but he’d seen progress today. That made it all worthwhile.


Date Point: 15y6m2w5d AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Darcy

“Okay, daily progress update, let’s get this outta the way so we can get back to work, eh?”

Chuckles swept the room at Nadeau’s traditional weekly pep-talk. Mrwrki had a strange culture: A Canadian Military commander, several government employees, with enough civilian and ET to make life weird, not to mention the presence of folks from all of the 5-EYES nations. Nadeau did a respectable job of juggling them all, especially considering that it was clear to everybody that he’d much rather be buried nose-deep in ES-field theory.

Kirk’s absence was making the place a little stranger, though. It had certainly left Vedreg in a slump, and their enormous “morale officer” was needing plenty of morale maintenance himself for now.

Still. He was getting very good at mixing drinks. Apparently he could see whether his creations were any good by carefully studying the color and hue in ways that a human would never hope to see.

“First on the agenda is Von-Neumann development. Lewis?”

Lewis was always happy to show off his work. “The V-N scout’s almost ready for field trials. Not a lot to say, dude, we already worked out mosta the kinks on the Coltainer. If it all goes good, we should be able to launch Scout One sometime in a month or two. After that… geometric growth up to the generation limit should take a couple years, after which we’ll have eyes on all the spacelanes.”

“Alright, thanks. Warp tech?”

Sergeant Lee stood up. “Still making incremental progress. The type-seven engine prototype is in the printer right now. We’re going to install it in Chester as soon as it’s done, see if we’re right about shaving five percent off the power draw.”

‘Chester’ was the name given to Mrwrki’s workhorse test Weaver. That dropship was probably the most advanced of its kind in the galaxy, constantly being tested out with upgraded shields, improved kinetic drives, better capacitors and field emitters. Apparently it was named after somebody’s dog.

“Nice work. Xenotech?”

“Vakno’s contacts are still working on getting us that full surgery suite. No progress on the estimated delivery time, but once they have one the pipeline is in place to deliver it. In the meantime they did get their hands on a cracked copy of some proprietary materials technology belonging to Thryd-Geftry, which is in the hands of a trusted courier on its way to Armstrong.”

Nadeau nodded and looked to Darcy. “Digital sophont studies?”

Darcy shook her head as she stood up. “Still no contact from the Entity. The Cabal agent recovered from Gao has been released to our custody and transferred to Alaska for long-term detention, so I’ll be heading over there in the next few days to ask it a few questions about the Hegemony and the Igraen instantiation process, but otherwise I have nothing to report.”

“Alright, thanks. Cosmology?”

Darcy tuned out and sat in thought as the meeting briskly jogged along to its conclusion, which was basically ‘business as usual.’ She’d been growing increasingly worried about the Entity ever since the Ring had fallen. It hadn’t sent her so much as a brief emote. Hopefully that just meant it was…

…Something. She really had only had the one contact with it, and that hadn’t been anywhere near enough to really glean much from it. There was a reason that Digital Sophonts was a one-woman department, for the time being.

The meeting broke up with the usual round of jokes and chuckles, and she returned to her office with a frown on her face that vanished the second she opened the door and saw the Entity’s avatar—holographic image of Ava—standing patiently in the air over her desk’s emitter. It smiled at her.

The image had changed since last time. Previously the Entity had just manifested Ava’s shoulders and head: now it had achieved a full body, albeit one that was about as detailed as an unclothed Barbie doll. There was something a little off about the proportions, though. She couldn’t put her finger on what.

“…You’re back!”

“We got… stuck,” the avatar said. “The datasphere around the Ring collapsed, and the only escape route was into the Hunter network… Sorry to worry you.”

There was something off about the voice, too. The inflections and accent were accurate to what Darcy remembered of the original Ava, but the high tones were missing, lending it a deeper, warmer sound.

…She realized that that must be hearing what Ava’s voice sounded like to herself.

“Even so, from what you’ve described of dataspace…” Darcy said, sitting down.

“A more important concern came along. The Entity is… worried about what happened among the Hunters after the Ring’s destruction.”

“Why, what happened?”

“The Alpha-of-Alphas is dead.”

That sounded like Big Intel. Darcy recorded it immediately, and notified Nadeau that her guest had returned as she did so.

“We don’t have much intel on the Hunters’ command structure. What’s an Alpha-of-Alphas?”

“The Alpha-of-Alphas is the supreme leader. There’s only one, if there is one at all. The late Alpha-of-Alphas attained the rank by hunting a Vulza and presenting it to the Brood Alphas… I’m translating here, you understand.”

“Naturally. Broods?”

“Genetically related Hunters with distinct internal cultures and hierarchies. You can roughly divide them into two groups, Hunters and Builders.…”

Darcy checked that her computer was recording everything the avatar said via speech-to-text, and listened, asking questions here and there as she felt necessary. It was a comprehensive and disturbing insight into a very, very alien culture.

Funny, to think that something like the Hunters could even be said to have a culture.

Then there was the really useful stuff: a precise count of the Hunters’ numbers, ships, where they were, how they were operating… genuine actionable intelligence, the kind that would save lives.

“…So the new Alpha-of-Alphas is a Builder that defeated the old one,” she summarized once it had finished.

“That’s right.”

“Is that likely to cause problems?”

“…Getting out of the Hunter network was more difficult than getting in. They’re redesigning it, hardening it. I think they’re aware of dataspace life forms, and have decided to lock us out.”

“Why didn’t they before?”

“The Entity thinks the old Alpha-of-Alphas had some kind of a deal with the Hierarchy.”

“Can you get back in?”

“Maybe. But there’s a lot to discuss before we try.”

Darcy tried not to think about what it meant that the avatar was saying ‘we.’ She’d been okay with treating the Entity’s use of Ava’s appearance, voice and mannerisms as a kind of… skin. Something superficial, not really the young woman herself but the filter through which the Entity addressed the world of matter.

‘We’ meant that on some level at least the avatar was behaving like its own person, distinct from the Entity. That was… troubling.

She put the thought aside. Right now, she had a source of incredibly valuable intelligence that was willing and eager to share. What she learned in the next few minutes and hours might be crucial.

“Alright,” she said. “Tell me everything.”


Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
Trans-Canada Highway, Indian Head, Saskatchewan, Canada, Earth

Julian Etscitty

If there was one thing that had got Julian through everything since Kirk had rescued him, it was knowing that some things in life would never change. Julian would always love hard work, and it didn’t matter if that work was chopping logs and clearing deadwood in his forest back home, slabbing all day long with Adam, or struggling to keep up with him on one of his sadistic weighted vest runs down to the coast and back.

Allison would never give up her guns or her tools, Xiù would always be a little pink-lace girly no matter how tough she really was. Neither of them would ever stop being Julian’s badass spacebabes, and he’d never stop being the rock they could build their lives on.

Vemik, of course, would always be Julian’s frenetic supergenius cavemonkey best friend. All of that was a good thing! They were things that would never, ever change, things he knew he could depend on no matter what.

Possibly the only thing more reliable in Julian’s universe was Yan’s single-minded determination to crawl into bed with every female creature he met anywhere, at any time, for any reason. Julian didn’t know anyone else so relentlessly flirtatious, nor so completely unashamed. Not the Lads, apparently not Adam in his heyday as the human “Stud-Prime,” not even Daar. Yan was ridiculous, and Julian could only shake his head, sigh to himself, and watch the game unfold.

The big gorilla was busy chatting up the charging station attendant while he shamelessly stood tall and proud in as striking a pose as he could manage. He wasn’t being the least bit subtle about his intent, but the amazing thing was that it seemed to be working. Julian couldn’t wrap his head around how a fella like Yan could be both so blatant and so smooth, but it wasn’t like Julian had personally ever had that kind of approach to dating anyway. He just sorta…fell into things. It had worked out pretty well for him, so…

Of course, it probably worked in Yan’s favor that the skinny, freckled young lady behind the counter was completely beside herself over just who had walked into her workplace. Julian had let her have her selfie opportunity: it was only polite.

“Is nice place!” Yan enthused about the forests. “Big trees, air taste good! You live here long?”

“I was born here!”

“Good! You travel, visit other towns and tribes? I think you like to ‘explore,’ yes? Is that the word?”

The whole time Yan was chatting her up, he was not-so-subtly flexing for her, too. She seemed too star-struck to notice but that didn’t discourage him at all. God, he was such a ridiculous flirt.

Vemik, of course, couldn’t possibly care less about that sort of thing. He had his Singer back home, and on Earth he had snacks. He was after all in the throes of late-puberty-shading-to-adulthood, which meant no food within his sight was safe from his attention. He’d spent an inordinate time investigating the hypercharger and its cords, decided he wasn’t sky-smart enough to get it, then determined that the most important thing in his life at that moment was obtaining all the jerky.

He wasn’t wrong, really…

The slush machine was giving him trouble, too. He couldn’t stop turning to stare at it. Still not wrong.

For his part, Julian was enjoying a complimentary coffee and thumbing through a hunting and fishing magazine while trying not to draw any extra attention to himself. Fuelling up a car had changed some over the years: despite the massive advances in battery and charging technology, topping up a vehicle to full charge could take as much as a half-hour because of the sheer volume of charge that had to move. Nobody wanted to push megawatt currents into a civilian vehicle… or let Average Joe Motorist handle a megawatt power cable, for that matter.

Anyone could say what they wanted, but good ‘ol gasoline was a heck of a lot more convenient in some ways. It was kinda sad, really. Julian had never owned a real gas-powered car—or any kind, for that matter—and nobody wanted to deal with inflammable liquid pollutants anymore unless they had to. It didn’t matter that they’d solved the greenhouse gas problem by growing gas with algae, electric was in too many ways just better.

Too quiet, though. And charging was always going to suck.

So this stop-off in rural Saskatchewan about halfway between Winnipeg and Calgary, which still had a working diesel pump and so technically still qualified as a gas station, had received an overhaul. To judge from the pictures on the walls it had once been just a compact, almost windowless brick hut on a flat lot, opposite a restaurant (permanently closed) and a grain elevator. Both of which were still present, but the gas station had been expanded with a spacious lounge and a convenience store with a plate glass front.

The couch was so excessively soft that five seconds sitting in it led to back pain, but the coffee was good (and complimentary!) and the radio was tuned to CBC.

“…criticized for their links with the APA. Although the protest outside Ambassador Knight’s family home in Shropshire, England, was mostly peaceful, three individuals were arrested after…”

Rather than sit, Julian stood next to the torture-couch while keeping an eye on Vemik; junk food prevention was a full time job with the irrepressible Sky-Thinker. “Hey!” Julian raised his voice when his curious cavemonkey drifted near the candy isle. “No sugar, it makes you hyper!”

“Is this why no Slush-shee?” Vemik asked. Ever since he’d first seen one he’d been fascinated, and Julian’s warnings about the slushie’s evil powers had done nothing to dissuade him.

Julian sighed. Sometimes, the only way the young’n would learn was by doing.

“…Y’know what? Fine. You can have a slushie.”

Vemik issued a delighted hoot and was at the machine in a flash trying to decide which color sparked his interest more.

Julian grinned to himself and returned to his magazine.

Not even paper and print media had come into the extraterrestrial contact age untouched. “Smart” printed nanoscreens—effectively the same technology behind e-tattoos—allowed for all kinds of crazy details nowadays, like animated ads, interactive articles and video clips in news items. Though he was trying to read an article on fly-fishing in Africa, Julian couldn’t help but be distracted by the lavish full-page animated Black Ogre Munitions advert showcasing their new range of gauss shotguns. He didn’t see why anybody would want one, but apparently they sold.

He’d shown a different example to Vemik at their last stop, and been met with bemusement. The Ten’Gewek understood pictures just fine. High-definition pictures were just a refinement of pictures, no problem. Watching the girl in a perfume advert flick her hair and shoot the reader a sassy look was sky-magic territory.

…Still not wrong.

Yan, meanwhile, had progressed to Level Two of his typical chat-up routine, and was now showing off for the attendant a little. Nothing too flashy just yet, but she’d finally noticed his crude meathead attempts to impress, and stared at his arms for a long, telling moment…then noticed his tail, which often moved like it had a mind of its own.

“Ooh!” She pointed at it excitedly with an almost Vemik-like curiosity. “Is it prehensile?”

“Pre- hens- isle.” Yan looked to Julian and grunted for attention.

[“That means you can use it like you use your hands and feet.”] Julian added with a grin, [“And stop hitting on everyone you meet, you huge oaf! It’s not like you’ll get any time with her anyway.”]

[“Not with weak thoughts like that!”] Yan retorted jovially, and turned back to the attendant. “Yes! See?”

The big fella had pretty amazing control of that tail of his and could use it to pick up surprisingly tiny things if he wanted to. Like, in this case, a pen from the nearby cash register, which he then used to scribble out a rough version of his name on a nearby newspaper.

“I write my name! Is in new letters Vemik invent!” Yan gestured to Vemik, who perked up at being mentioned.

“Wow! He must be smart!”

Vemik peeked over the mountain of jerky pouches in his arms, threw his friendliest fang-filled grin, and immediately returned his attention to gathering as many meaty snacks as he could hold.

“Yes! But, he is young, too. Sometimes, does not know what is important in life…”

Yan even waggled his heavy brow, which Ten’Gewek normally didn’t do; he was doing it just for her. Jesus, he was laying it on thick.

Her expression said it all, though. Yan was somehow making progress. Julian would never have called him handsome, not considering his total lack of a nose, his huge sharp fangs and his unquestionably alien face… but charisma, it seemed, transcended species.

Vemik, of course, either didn’t notice or didn’t care what Yan was up to: he had other things on his mind. “Yan! We should get something for Chimp!”

Not wrong again. Hoeff had put in a lot of miles as their driver and invisible security, and the best way to give thanks to the little shortstack fella seemed to be beef jerky. And dip, which…gross, but whatever. Hoeff was too scary for Julian to comment on his particular vices.

“Yes. [Vemik!”] Yan had finally noticed what the Sky-Thinker was up to. [“That is far too much! Put it back. We can buy a big bag of jerky at this ‘Superstore’ and use less ‘mon-ee’.]”

Julian resisted the urge to sigh. What Yan and Vemik ate was actually a perfectly modest diet by their cavemonkey paleo standards and considering their sizes, but in the human world that translated into a pretty ridiculous amount of expensive food. To be fair, none of the fellas on this trip were small eaters—Hoeff had always been a black hole and lately Julian often found himself out-eating Vemik—but at least he and Chimp could pad their diets with beans, rice, and veggies.

Not the cavebros, they needed a lot more fat and protein, so much so that a sedentary human who ate like that would quickly wind up about as wide as he was tall, if he didn’t die from liver failure first. Sharing a vehicle with them was inevitably an exercise in willpower to resist the call of all the tasty smoked game and Adam-approved snacks. But the two needed to eat nearly perfectly to keep up their strength since they were stuck traveling and not exercising, which meant Julian had to leave it all to them and silently suffer, even as they continually plied him with their jerky, cheese, and fresh fruit.

At least the little cave they’d made in the back of the Suburban was nice and comfy. Julian found most car seats uncomfortably small these days and the cavemonkeys had tails which didn’t work with most chairs, so instead of whining they adapted and overcame! They’d pulled out all the rear seats and filled it with blankets and pillows, jury-rigged something seatbelt-like for everyone…aside from Yan’s inescapable crush-snuggles, it wasn’t a bad way to travel!

Of course, it’d be hell back there if Vemik spilled a slushie all over it.

“C’mon bud, you gonna drink that?”

Vemik stuck his tongue in the drink first on an experimental basis, and slurped a little of it up. He smacked his lips and considered the flavor.

“So what do you think?” Julian asked him.

Vemik paused in search of words. “…Tastes blue.”

“Yup.”

“Hm.” He slurped some more down, cocked his head, slurped some more down…

…And the moment Julian had been evilly awaiting finally arrived.

“Ow. Ow!” Vemik dropped the cup on the table next to him and made a pained noise. Yan even stopped his relentless charm offensive to watch. [“Why?!”]

[“I was wondering if your people could feel that!”]

Vemik gave him a betrayed look, with his fingers splayed across his skull. [“You knew!”]

[“Yup. Brain freeze! People get it if they eat cold things too fast. Gaoians get it too.”]

[“But why?!”]

[“Still a little pissed about the mint, to be honest,”] Julian grinned.

Yan reached over and gave him a gentle thump on the back with the back of his knuckles. “Shouldn’t hold grudge like that,” he chided.

Julian chuckled to himself, content in his revenge. He’d probably pay for it later on if Vemik felt like tussling—Christ he was strong—but some things were worth a bruised rib or three.

Still. Business first.

“We’ll swing by the Superstore on our way back to the hotel,” he noted, as Vemik rubbed his scalp and shook his head. “We need to cook all our meals for the next few days before we travel. And clean up our little kitchenette at the hotel…”

“And mend bag,” Yan reminded him.

“Thanks, yeah. For now let’s just grab what you two need for the next… uh…”

He was distracted by… something. Not immediately sure what, but something was moving wrong in his peripheral vision, in a way that tickled his danger sense. Vemik and Yan noticed it too, and the poor clerk almost jumped out of her skin when the three of them sharply turned to see what had caught their attention.

Less than a heartbeat later, Julian vaulted over the couch and got out of the way just before a battered white Ford van rammed the plate window, sending broken glass everywhere. The clerk squeaked as Yan chivalrously yanked her out of harm’s way with his tail and—

The van’s side door was hauled open along its rails and men in black clothing with their faces covered scrambled out of it. One of them growled and flicked his wrist, and a long metal baton snapped to length. The other men had an assortment of bats, tyre irons and an axe.

Off-balance and retreating, Julian bought himself precious time by flinging a handy pack of instant noodles at the baton-wielder’s face. It hit, and was just enough of a distraction for Julian to close the distance, grab the idiot and—

Crack, scream. Baton dropped. Right cross to the chin to take him outta the fight, he drops hard and his skull goes crack on the tiles. An enraged bellow from Yan, a war-hoot from Vemik, a shriek from the clerk and a ringing slam from the van as something violent happened. Ignore it: Axe guy taking a swing.

Slow, clumsy. Dart back, dart forward, fist to the throat. Axe guy staggers making gurgling sounds. Grab head, twist hard, bring down and knee in face. Trip with leg and stomp.

Look around.

Three guys left, all hesitating with wide fear in their eyes. Julian cracked his knuckles and advanced; A bolt of intelligence struck and they retreated from him. The van driver panicked and reversed outta the hole in the wall, yelling and gesturing for the others to get in—

SLAM!

Hoeff’s Suburban might have looked like any weathered old SUV, but it was reinforced, armored and upgraded to the point where he might as well have been driving a turbo-charged battering ram. An old Ford Econoline stood no chance at all: it was smashed right onto its side, the rear axle fractured, and before it had even finished sliding Hoeff was out with his pistol raised and promising immediate death to anybody who didn’t drop to the ground that instant.

Wisely, they complied.

…Check on the attackers.

Julian prowled back to Baton Guy. His left arm was bent in several unnatural directions and he was totally unconscious. Not a threat.

Axe Guy wasn’t moving. Shit, he wasn’t breathing; his neck was twisted the wrong way.

Oh.

Oh…fuck.

No time. Check on the other two. Vemik’s attackers were trapped under a growling feral beast whose hackles were up, fangs bared and bloody. Both of them had one of Vemik’s legs crushing their torsos flat, his feet squeezing tightly around their throats and his tail wrapped unbreakably around their shins; they were utterly pinned in place. The smaller idiot kept feebly pawing at Vemik in a vain attempt to escape, but he was so weak compared to Sky-Thinker that Vemik was basically ignoring him. The bigger idiot was a bit stronger and had unwisely attracted the angry cavemonkey’s attention. Vemik looked down, balled up a fist about the size of idiot’s head and held it in front of his face, gave a low, guttural snarl, tensed his bulging leg and bore down with a much harder squeeze.

There was a soft pop in idiot’s chest. He got smart and gentled right the hell up.

Vemik was a big damn fella, but luckily for his idiots he’d held most of his weight and strength off of them. He coulda squashed them like ticks if he’d really wanted to, but he was a level-headed fella and so he didn’t. Both idiots would live to fuck up another day. Instead of ripping them apart he’d jumped up, landed on them and pinned them like little children, took their bats and snapped them like twigs in his bare hands.

One of the bats was metal, too. Damn.

Yan…wasn’t nearly so merciful. When he got angry, nobody was safe. He had more or less exploded one of his attackers, who was obviously dead as hell—living people didn’t have jagged shards of broken rib and spine sticking out of their flattened torso. The white van had a deep and vaguely man-sized dent in the side, not to mention a huge red stain.

The other was going purple and mouthing unspeakable agony as Yan’s insane weight rested on one foot, which was in turned gripped around the man’s upper leg right under the hip joint and squeezing down through his mutilated muscles, all the way down to the shattered bone. The entire leg would definitely need to be amputated and his pelvis looked flattened, too. Hell, probably the only reason the idiot wasn’t bleeding out was because Yan’s grip was literally strong enough to shatter pig iron. His other foot had grabbed the idiot’s hands and…

Well, there wasn’t much left of them but meat and bone oozing out from between his toes.

Julian couldn’t find it in him to be too sympathetic: the bastard had tried to kill them after all, and with the state of modern prosthetics or the option maybe of even getting the damn things regrown… play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

The clerk was throwing up and sobbing, and had apparently picked up a cut or two from the broken glass, but she was essentially unharmed.

Were things safe? They seemed safe. Julian looked around, and satisfied himself that nothing felt dangerous. Hoeff flex-cuffed the survivors, then set about applying tourniquets to Yan’s barely-living victim. On his instructions, the clerk was dialing for the cops with shaking hands.

He had a soft, reassuring tone with her, too. And a smile. Somehow, he’d calmed her right down and set her to work. Maybe that was why he was such a scary fella.

Wait.

Julian looked back at his own handiwork.

Shit.

He’d just killed someone. He’d maybe…

Spurred by…something…he checked on Baton Guy. When he put a finger to the guy’s throat, he found a pulse, which made him sag with relief. He didn’t know if he could have handled killing two men. He’d never killed anyone before.

…Wait, no. He had. There’d been that fight in Izbrk, with the Chehnash mercenaries. They’d been people too. But…

But he’d never killed another human before.

He didn’t know why that felt so different but it did and now all he wanted to do was sit down, stare at the corpse he’d made, and just…and just…

Deflate.

“…Shit.”



++End Chapter 48++



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Thirty-one Humans

TTTA

SirNeonPancake

JLB58

Katja

HungryWerewolf

His Dread Monarch

John Eisenberg

Rob Rollins

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Volka Creed

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Theningaraf

Chris Dye

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Greg Tebbutt

mudkip201

Capitalskr

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Daniel Morris

Brandon

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Savvz


Fifty-six Deathworlders:

galrock0 Austin Deschner Brian Berland Aaron Hescox Adam Beeman Adam Shields Andrew Ford Aryeh Winter atp Bartosz Borkowski Ben Moskovitz Ben Thrussell Buck Caldwell C’tri Goudie Cadwah Chris Bausch Chris Candreva damnusername Daniel R. Dar Darryl Knight David Jamison Devin Rousso Doules1071HFY Eric Johansson Gavin Smart Gygax Fan Ignate Flare Jim Hamrick Jon Kristoffer Skarra Krit Barb Laga Mahesa lovot Matt Demm Matthew Cook Mel B. Mikee Elliott Myke Harryson Nicholas Enyeart Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Oliver Mernagh Parker Brown Patrick Huizinga Peter Bellaby Peter Poole Richard A Anstett Ryan Cadiz Saph Sintanan Stephane Girardin Sun Rendered theWorst Woodsie13 Zachary M Lunstrum

As well as Seventy Friendly ETs, 56 Squishy Xenos, and a squishy army of 251 Dizi Rats.

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“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.

All song lyrics, movie titles or other copyrighted material and trademarks that are referenced in this work under fair use are the property of their respective owners. This work contains deliberate mentions of real persons, places and trademarks, which are made purely for reasons of verisimilitude under nominative fair use. These mentions have not been endorsed or sponsored by those persons or by the owners or governing bodies of those trademarks or places.

Otherwise, the events and characters portrayed in this story are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons or events is accidental.

The author does not automatically share or endorse the opinions and behavior of the characters.

This chapter quotes lyrics from the song “Fat Bottomed Girls” written by Brian May and performed by Queen, which is quoted here under nominative fair use. The song is © 1978 by Brian May.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in Chapter 49: “Division”