The Deathworlders

Survival

Date point: 14y 7d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Professor Daniel Hurt

“You want me to read it by next week?” Julian mopped the sweat from his face and bounced loosely in place. “What was it called again?”

The big man had just finished his morning workout with Walsh and the boys, and still had the healthy and slightly euphoric glow of hard work about him. Daniel had found that was the best time to drag Julian into serious conversation. The trick was to grab him right before he had a chance to dip into the river and clean up, just before the day’s activities made him too busy for talk until late evening. Once he got going he would stay going until his second daily workout, right as the sun was going down. And once he was finished with that, the only thing on Julian’s mind was food, his bed…and his women.

It wasn’t that Daniel was disrespected by anyone, Julian or otherwise, but he was under no delusion where he stood in the pecking order against a vigorous young man and his equally impressive ladies. Which was why Daniel resorted to strategic treachery and ambushed Julian while he was still happily dazed and eager to please.

“Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking, by Dan Dennett,” he said. “And I want you to write a fifteen-hundred word essay about it once you’ve finished.”

“…An essay?” Some of the blissed-out happiness drained from Julian’s face.

“Yes.” Daniel couldn’t help but grin a little. “No pressure, no assigned topic. Just…write about it.”

The look on Julian’s mug was absolutely unmistakable—schoolboys since time immemorial had pulled just such a face when they learned they might be required to sit still, digest some words, and think about them. Julian was definitely the type who preferred to think on his feet.

“Oh, man up,” Daniel chided him fondly. “It’s not that many words. Some people write twice that many a day for fun…and in any case this is trivial next to the training you needed for Misfit.”

“No no, I get that.”

“Then why complain? You get to read an excellent book and call it work. And remind me, how much is your salary?”

“Nah, it’s not that. Why am I writing essays?” Julian crossed his arms and gave Daniel a genuinely curious look. “That takes up time I don’t really have.”

“Our mission is to bootstrap their enlightenment without over-coaching them, right?”

“…Yeah? I mean, weren’t we supposed to be non-interfering and all that?”

Daniel stood and stretched out his aching joints. The gravity really was something; after a week one hardly noticed it, but the aches and pains seemed to just slowly pile on each other…

A satisfying pop in his back, and he was happy to continue.

“We were. That was my original intent. I don’t think that’s possible anymore, given how heavily we’ve contaminated their culture.”

For all their branch-bending mass, Ten’Gewek were surprisingly sneaky when they wanted to be. Vemik appeared out of nowhere carrying three large werne shanks and thumped heavily down from the tree above them, damn near giving Daniel a heart attack in the process.

Julian wasn’t ruffled at all.

“Con-tam-eh-nayt-ehd. Means what?”

Vemik always exaggerated every syllable the first time he tried wrapping his long, reptilian tongue around the alien sounds of a new word.

Julian had an apt analogy ready to go. “Like when you mix [sap-stinger-honey with dirt.] Sorta. It’s…when you mix things you didn’t want to mix.”

“Contaminated.” Vemik said it quickly, then worked his jaw. “Easy word!”

Daniel got a close-up and prolonged look at the young Sky-Thinker’s growing fangs as he said the word several times, ‘tasting’ it to learn the pattern better. It was a wonder the Ten’Gewek managed to speak English at all, really; between their large, clearly predatory teeth and that tongue of theirs—which when contracted practically filled the rest of their mouth—it really wasn’t surprising their own language consisted mostly of open vowels and simple consonants.

“You say it well, [Sky-Thinker]. And we’ve already talked at length why we wanted to avoid that.” Daniel enjoyed his talks with young Sky-Thinker, though he’d found certain points needed to be regularly reinforced.

“I know. Hungry?” He offered Julian and Daniel each a roasted shank, which both men took gratefully. Daniel tore into his; he couldn’t remember ever being quite as hungry as he had been since he arrived on Akyawentuo, and yet somehow the years of accumulated dad-bod flab were just melting off him.

There was definitely something to a hard-working, meat-and-veggie lifestyle.

The three men ate in silence for a short while. Julian and Vemik seemed like they had magicked a competition into being and were racing each other to finish. Daniel’s hypothesis was confirmed when Julian swallowed the last of his meat and grinned triumphantly at his assistant cavemonkey.

Vemik didn’t pause. He simply cracked his bone open and devoured the marrow as well. Julian cursed, strained mightily and failed twice to break his open, then sheepishly admitted defeat and handed it over to Vemik. The young man trilled in victory and snapped it open like it was a twig.

Julian took his bone back ruefully. “I just don’t have your grip strength, Vemik.”

“Soon!” Vemik exclaimed confidently, then extended his tongue into the bone and deftly scooped all of the slimy marrow right into his mouth with one efficient swipe. Julian’s own attempt was considerably messier but he didn’t miss a drop.

Daniel managed not to gag; he’d leave that particular delicacy to the men better practiced at savagery.

“There’s blueberries onboard the ship, Vemik,” Julian said between slurps. The Sky-Thinker was suddenly laser-focused on Julian, who gave a sly little smirk to Daniel. “You can have some if you promise not to touch anything, okay?”

“Okay! I promise!!”

Julian chuckled softly. “Okay. Go get some for the three of us, and no touching!” The last part he had to call out as Vemik bounced quickly down the trail towards Misfit.

It was a delightfully simple manipulation and Julian knew it. “That’ll keep him busy for a while. He’ll probably play with the anatomy display again before he leaves.”

“No doubt.”

“So…non-interference,” Julian prompted.

“—Right! Well, we’re clearly way past that, for better or worse. That means we’ve got to be very careful when and how we introduce concepts to them. We have to think like teachers and psychologists at the same time, except we don’t actually know their psychology.”

“Well, I mean…we sorta do, though. There’s a lot of similarity.”

“Which will be a fascinating academic paper for later, but yes. And that’s the danger. It’s easy to assume they’ll always behave predictably.”

“But that’s the thing,” Julian maintained, “They pretty much do. Well, no. They’re predictable to me at least. Well, okay. Right.” His verbal introspection was always fascinating to watch. “I think we’re fine as long as we can relate to them. That’s easy for me. I’ve got practical stuff, and, uh, ‘sampling’ with Vemik, and Yan likes to tussle. They all like roughhousing.”

“Which I can’t do.”

“Well…why not? You’re no wimp. You’re just…” Julian trailed off, seemingly unable to find a polite counterpoint.

That piqued Daniel’s amusement. “Old? Fat? Broken?”

“I was gonna say ‘respected elder.’ And old doesn’t need to mean wimpy.”

Daniel nodded in agreement. “Fair enough. But Julian, you’re more than half again my weight these days and can grate cheese with your abs.” He raised an eyebrow and gestured across Julian’s formidably powerful physique. “That wouldn’t end well for me.”

Julian rather quickly and self-consciously flexed his middle, then grinned sheepishly and laughed. “Now that is an odd mental image…also, this is the second time you’ve used a cheese analogy with me.”

“What can I say? Cheese speaks to me.”

Daniel was rewarded with a sigh and one of Julian’s patented soft chuckles.

“But seriously, professor…it wouldn’t hurt for you to, y’know. Wade into it a bit more.”

“Not likely,” Daniel sighed. “As much as it looks like fun. I’m twenty-five years older than you, Julian. My daughter is your age. I’ve got joint pain and I had a knee replacement surgery some years ago, and I’m already far too out of shape as it is.”

Julian nodded. “Well…maybe we need to fix that. I mean, I was never really outta shape or anything but, y’know, this is still new to me, too. In fact,” He started pacing, “I think you should work out with us in the mornings. Because you’re right, you need it. And the People will respect you more for it, too.”

That was also a fair point, and proved once again that Julian was no intellectual slouch.

“I intend to! But don’t assume it’ll go the same for me,” Daniel warned. “I’ve hob-nobbed with professional athletes and I’m certain I’ve never met one among them anywhere near as good as you or sergeant Walsh seem to be. I think you in particular forget how far ahead of us normals you are.”

Julian, like he always did when anyone praised him, grimaced uncomfortably and shrugged his broad shoulders. “…Well, sure, I guess. But I got there,” he maintained. “And sure, I had Adam to help me but that’s just good coaching. You’ve got the military fellas to help, so why not? You’ve said it yourself, it’s important to relate to the Ten’Gewek in a way they can wrap their heads around, right?”

“You’re right.” Daniel stretched a bit more and paced around the campsite. “We’ve got that return trip next week anyway, maybe it’s a good time to get serious about this. Which is why you’re doing that essay.”

One of Daniel’s secret little rewards in life was when he could stop Julian dead in his tracks. The shaggy-haired woodsman had more or less become the unofficial leader of the mission, whose dominant position in their little “tribe” had been confirmed when his girlfriends had returned. With that he had gained a huge boost in his self-confidence, along with a certain…stubbornness that had begun to manifest in his personality. Nothing bad yet…

But it was good to keep him curious. Julian paused, considered Daniel’s words, mopped more sweat out of his hair then shook it out. “So, okay. You wanna make me smart, so—”

“No, Julian.” He let it hang.

“…You lost me, professor.”

“We need to be precise about what we mean, which is a big part of what I’m talking about. Smart doesn’t mean anything in particular. Book-smarts? I don’t want to turn you into some ivory tower scholar, filled with knowledge about irrelevant things. I think you’d hate me for it anyway. Raw intelligence? I can’t do anything there and frankly your natural brainpower is pretty impressive anyway. What I need to do, is teach you how to think. If I had one criticism to level at you it would be that your critical thinking skills are woefully underdeveloped.”

That clearly struck a nerve and earned Daniel an annoyed look and a quiet, intimidating growl. “I was abducted straight outta high school, professor. I didn’t even go to community college.”

“I know!” Daniel raised his hands placatingly. “And that’s exactly my point. Thinking is a trade, with all sorts of interesting and specialized tools and you never had the chance to formally study it. Now’s the time.”

Julian conceded the point with a sigh. “Okay…I get that. But why essays? It’s not that I hate…” Julian paused, re-considered, then grinned ruefully. “Well, okay maybe I do hate ‘em.”

“Did you, perhaps, once upon a time, also hate lifting heavy objects in the gym?” Daniel asked, lightly.

“…I think I hated the idea more than anything. Actually lifting is…kinda fun.”

“Hmm.” Daniel gave him a Look. He didn’t need more than that, he made his point by tone and expression alone.

Julian finally ran out of stubborn, and deflated. “…Fine. Fine alright. I’ll write the goddamn essay. Hell, I’ll even try and enjoy it, just for you.”

“How very generous of you,” Daniel snarked, then thought of an analogy. “I’m not making you do this for no reason, either. Why do you lift? Why can’t you just, I dunno, do a bunch of push-ups or Crossfit or whatever?”

Julian cringed slightly at the mention of Crossfit. Clearly, this ‘Warhorse’ character had strong opinions on things, and had taught those views to Julian.

“Because that’s basically just conditioning, really. Building strength is the most important thing. If you’re strong and healthy it’s easier to train up for anything else, and nothing else gets you stronger faster then weightlifting.”

“So that means you’re now better at, say, climbing?” That was easily the most noticeable thing about Julian’s physicality, beyond the obvious; he tackled trees like he was a modern-day Tarzan, and while he wasn’t born to it like his Ten’Gewek friends, he could fling himself among the branches well enough to hang with them.

“Yeah. Fuck yeah. ‘Horse didn’t let me do much of anything but lift, stretch, and condition for almost a year. It really sucked at first, not gonna lie. Early on though he let me try a rope climb and the peg board…”

“It was easy?”

“Yeah! Like, so easy I got to the top and bust out giggling. That was when I really started to figure out what he was doing. It wasn’t about the weights at all.”

Daniel had his victory and grinned. “Exactly.”

Vemik chose that moment to thunder back at a high gallop, his precious blueberries cradled safely under one arm.

Julian turned his head to look and chuckled softly. [“All of them, Vemik? That seems a little greedy don’t you think?”] Julian rolled his neck with a mighty pop and a happy sigh.

[“But they’re tasty!”] Vemik said, defensively. He looked contrite in the way that only a young man could when confronted with an obvious faux pas.

Julian folded his arms and grinned sideways. [“Yeah, but I also don’t have any more. They don’t grow all year ‘round, Sky-Thinker.”]

[“…Okay.”]

They did, of course. Modern hydroponics and global distribution was a hell of a thing.

Back on-topic. “So Julian, about that essay…”

“Fine!” Julian laughed, “I’ll start reading tonight. But you better get a good night’s sleep, professor. We’re waking up early tomorrow.”

There was more than a hint of slightly malicious glee in his voice, and Vemik caught the meaning as well.

[“We will make you strong,] professor!”

The young Ten’Gewek thumped his brawny, ever-expanding chest and nodded seriously. Like most of the men living nearby—from Yan on down to their smallest apprentice—Vemik had taken a keen interest in Julian’s twice-a-day workouts with the rest of the human contingent and wanted to know everything about what they were doing. The Ten’Gewek all participated eagerly if not necessarily seriously, and Walsh in particular was happy to oblige them.

The tribe’s women seem to like watching the men strut their stuff, too. Perhaps their motivations were as predictable as Julian had surmised.

Really, none of that was surprising. Strength was a special word for the People, much like medicine amongst many of the native tribes of America. In their culture, strong had morphed into a broader concept and wasn’t merely about the body. Strength was good, all good things were strong. Anything that was “strong” was virtuous, anything “weak” had sinister connotations.

Which was an easy and logical conflation for them to make, since sheer muscular strength was natural and easy for them. Even on a world filled with supergravity megafauna—some of which were huge, like werne bulls and yshek—their innate athletic power was impossible to ignore. Physical strength for them was more or less a matter of simply eating enough meat and living life as their instincts encouraged.

So far that complex set of meanings had been Daniel’s saving grace. He was the sky-thinker that Sky-Thinker looked up to, one that Yan would sit with cross-legged and open like any good friend, telling twisty stories and raunchy jokes long into the night. That gave him a strength in the minds of the more level-headed Ten’Gewek that his body simply didn’t have. It a good position to be in…but in light of everything that had happened, it simply wasn’t enough anymore.

If only he were twenty years younger and still an avid runner. He’d have an easy in, because endurance—like the kind that came naturally for a fit, active human—was something they found to be enormously impressive. For a Ten’Gewek of any stripe, that kind of strength came only with great effort. Achievable, certainly—Yan could manage almost ten kilometers now, galloping along as fast as Julian could jog—but getting to that point definitely took a lot of painful work.

Which was a big part of why they admired all of Daniel’s fellows on the mission. Xiù and Allison took a nice leisurely jog every morning while the men lifted weights or did other hard work. None of the Ten’Gewek could keep pace for their entire run, though the women in particular were variously keen on trying. Vemik would bounce through the morning happily outlifting everyone but Walsh and the older Ten’Gewek men, then later in the day he’d spend about forty minutes simply trying to keep moving while Julian easily jogged circles around him. He did it while wearing a weighted pack, too, much to Vemik’s envious frustration.

Then the two would make friends again and go hunting together, or maybe beat on iron with the others. Idyllic, in its own crude way…but it wasn’t advancing the goal. In Daniel’s opinion there was maybe an unbalanced focus on the directly physical aspects of life. The Academy needed attention as well, and it seemed more and more that the Ten’Gewek might be focusing too much on something comfortably familiar, rather than grapple with the thorny questions of life, the universe, and everything.

Step one was getting Julian interested in those very questions, to change the trajectory of his attention. Daniel already had Vemik, Yan, the Singer and others interested. What he didn’t have was their respect. At least, not like they respected the others. Especially not like Julian.

The big woodsman was right, really. Dan needed to get more at their level if he was going to make the sale, and that meant step two was to get back into shape. He sincerely doubted he’d even remotely compare to anyone else on the team…

But nobody except Vemik and maybe Singer was really listening to him, and the reason was as primitive as the setting he found himself in. He was weak and in a place like Akyawentuo, words spoken by a weak man meant next to nothing.

Time to change that.


Date point: 14y 7d AV
Agricultural intermodal transportation station, Three Valleys region, Gao

Biodrone

It had been a week since the biodrone had received an instruction from its controller. Not that it cared—it was, after all, effectively a robot. The biodrone had simply reverted to a set of contingency protocols for loss of contact. Those protocols required that the biodrone carry out its most recently-assigned orders, but also allowed for rudimentary decision-making and basic biological maintenance. Had the biodrone been so ordered, it would have neglected food or water or sleep or hygiene, but that would inevitably lead to the physiological death of its host.

This particular biodrone had once been a naxas farmer by the name of Gwiir, before the Hierarchy had used Gwiir’s communications implant to eviscerate his mind. The biodrone knew this, but did not care. That information was not relevant.

The biodrone did know that there was a resistance force led by Great Father Daar that was slowly sweeping the planet clear of biodrones such as itself. It knew that because Gwiir had been listening to the radio at the time he was hijacked. The biodrone had never been ordered to turn the radio off.

The orders had been to prepare the planet for a Hunter invasion. That was over a month ago, and so far the Hunters had not arrived. The biodrone had spent most of the intervening time sitting in Gwiir’s house and waiting for that invasion. When its blood sugar dropped below acceptable parameters, the biodrone ate a tin can of fish or nava or nutrient dough. When its intestinal discomfort or bladder pressure rose above acceptable parameters, it went to the bathroom and relieved itself.

Deep within the dungeons of the biodrone’s paper-thin shell of a psyche, Gwiir was slowly rotting away.

The biodrone saw through the window that something was approaching. Its host had good eyesight, and the biodrone was able to determine that the something was in fact an armed team. The biodrone cross-referenced this with the information from the radio, and concluded that this must be Daar’s forces.

The biodrone flagged this as a threat to its mission. It could not wait for a Hunter invasion if it was killed by hostile forces. So the biodrone retrieved the key to Gwiir’s gun cabinet and found his varmint pulse rifle. Gwiir had been reasonably proficient with the weapon, and so the biodrone knew how to operate it. Keep pointed in safe direction. Keep claw off trigger until ready to fire. Check target and surroundings before firing.

The biodrone brought the rifle over to the window, took aim at the approaching forces, and dispassionately opened fire. The kinetic rounds splashed harmlessly over the attackers’ personal shields. The biodrone noted this, but as it had no other weaponry at hand, it kept firing.

Then there was a startlingly loud crack. Or at least, it would have been startling, if the biodrone had the ability to be startled. The biodrone continued firing, and passively catalogued the attacker’s weapons as projectile weapons based on chemical energy and combustion.

More loud cracks. A bullet tore through its arm. Gwiir screamed. The biodrone, however, simply terminated its pain-processing subroutines, and kept shooting at the advancing forces.

Another background subroutine raised an alert: pulmonary activity was falling far below acceptable levels. The biodrone looked down and saw blood bubbling from its chest. Physiological diagnostic programs automatically categorized the injury as lethal. The biodrone recorded Mission Failure into its memory before falling blood oxygen levels forced it to shut down.

Gwiir briefly regained control of himself. He looked around, felt faint, smelled his own blood. Realization took hold. He sighed and collapsed, and had just enough time to curl into a comfortable ball. For the second time, Gwiir died.


Date point: 14y 7d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
Later that day

Julian Etsicitty

It was approaching mid-day and the day’s morning work had been taken care of. The scouts had come back and reported that the nearby werne had just calved and would need to be left alone for a time, which was an expected albeit slightly annoying development. Once they had calved, the men would need to drive them off so that a healthier, more mature herd would take their place and keep their tribe’s private hunting grounds properly sustainable.

In the meantime they would need to rely on two shared hunting grounds with five nearby tribes. That needed a bit of diplomacy, since the other tribes had similar problems—it was mid-summer and their own herds would be suffering depletion as well. They in turn would need to rely on other shared hunting grounds, some shared with Yan’s tribe and some shared with others…

It was a big, confusing patchwork of alliances, built on friendship, traded daughters, and occasionally adopted sons when the men of a tribe had begun to age. It was no wonder the Given-Men were generally patient people with a white-hot anger lurking underneath.

…And that was also probably why they were so goddamned strong, too. The life of a Given-Man seemed to be one of endless travel between tribes, and that meant they always had to feed themselves, by themselves. On a world like Akyawentuo, only the Given-Men truly had the strength, toughness, and innate aggression to live alone in the wild and thrive.

And lately so did Julian. Admittedly he relied much more on his tools, his wits and his unique experience than the Ten’Gewek could, but even that wasn’t enough to get him all the way there. He’d had to grow hugely strong to hunt alone in the Akyawentuo bush. That said something important about the world: it was demanding. By Julian’s reckoning it deserved its initial rating of a very high-end class twelve, not that the rating really meant anything—it was a bureaucratic, inflexible and relentlessly stupid way to try and measure the unmeasurable. But still, Akyawentuo was impressive and frankly there just weren’t many species out there that could physically survive it alone. The Ten’Gewek could obviously, along with fit humans and a handful of well-bred elite Gaoians. For anyone else, Akyawentuo was truly a Deathworld.

So much so in fact, that pretty much the only other human alive with both the skills and the strength of body and mind to actually survive it alone and unafraid was Walsh, and both men knew it. If Julian was being honest with himself, quietly when nobody was around…knowing that about himself felt good.

But on the other hand, that presented a pretty serious problem. Through a combination of fate, lucky timing, and lots of hard work, Julian and Walsh were unique assets as the military folks liked to say, and making more fellas like them in any reasonable amount of time would be a hell of a party trick. They were unique enough that Walsh had been dithering on if he wanted to go back and join the HEAT, or stay with Julian and stick it out; not that he got to make that choice, he’d go where he was ordered to be. But still, his words had weight. So did Julian’s these days, and if he asked Walsh’s superiors for him to stay he’d likely be ordered to do so. That was…a power Julian wasn’t exactly comfortable with.

So. Julian had a duty to stay. He’d been saddled with an informal appointment as an “envoy,” which apparently was going to become a formal appointment someday once everyone got their heads outta their asses. Not that it meant all that much, really, but where the Ten’Gewek were concerned, for certain (very limited, spelled out in agonizing detail) situations, Julian spoke with the Ambassador’s authority.

That bothered him too. But that was how it was gonna be since most diplomats couldn’t skin a deer, hike twenty miles, or bench press…well, anything, really.

At least Ambassador Rockefeller was cool about everything. That helped but it didn’t change the pressing weight of duty. Julian had never asked for it, never sought it out, but he had it whether he wanted it or not. Not that he would walk away; the People needed him.

Which…fuck. He’d just have to do the best he could.

Julian and Yan had left just after morning prayer, with Yan either knuckle-walking alongside or swinging between the trees if he was feeling froggy. They had gone to pay a visit to the nearby village where Arsh Given-Man lived and it was a pleasant enough stroll. Yan had a self-deprecating sense of humor in private, which was…a pleasant surprise! He told Julian about several amorously unsuccessful encounters as a younger man and their fallout, with the solemn promise that Julian would keep them secret. They were amusing and none of them could be said to have ended in glory, so Julian in turn shared stories about high school, and his Grandpa, and what he and his friends used to do. It was…nice.

They even paused to enjoy a watermelon-sized ripe fruit from a Forest-Father tree. Yan had tossed Julian almost three stories straight up so he could catch the branch, climb up and drop the fruit. The branch was too thin to support Yan’s weight and barely enough to take Julian, who was these days about as far from little as a man could naturally get…

So of course it snapped, and it was only his quick reactions and the wits to fling himself to a lower branch that saved his life, along with Yan’s lightning-fast footwork and a rough catch that kept Julian from a sprained ankle or cracked ribs. He escaped with a scuffed arm and ego but thankfully nothing more. Both men decided they wouldn’t tell anyone about it.

The melon-thing was tasty as hell, though. Totally worth it.

Things briefly got much more serious as they approached Arsh’s tribe. They were met by men with spears and bows who hooted angrily from the trees, high up and out of reach. Yan responded by rising up onto his rear legs and giving them the Look, the one that brooked no silliness or disobedience. Even up in the trees and perfectly safe, that was enough of a gesture to give the hunters pause; Julian noted they were definitely more respectful after that. Almost polite, even. In any case, Yan stomped and swaggered forward towards the front of the village, hooted to announce his presence, and was immediately confronted—loudly—by Arsh.

The two Given-Men met, made their displays, put on a violent but mostly-for-show bruiser of a fight, then hugged it out and talked—Yan won, of course, both the fight and the negotiation. But not right away, which Julian suspected was meant to let Arsh save face in front of his tribe. Julian meanwhile met with the villagers, played with the children while the two Given-Men hashed out the details…and then it was done, in less than twenty minutes. The Given-Men said kind words about each other and their tribes, Yan politely declined the Singer’s offer of a bed and her company for the evening, and together the two left to go inspect the hunting ground.

Three herds lived in the shared space between the tribes and Yan got first pick. There was an impromptu hunt. Julian finally got to see what Yan looked like in action while he stalked his prey alone. He was…impressive. He stayed downwind and moved in the shadows as slinky as a cat. He knew the area so well that even with his mind-bending mass, his every footfall on any thick branch or across the squelching, muddy ground was perfectly silent.

They eventually tracked on a small herd with a young bull at its head, maybe ten adults and twice as many calves. The bull was healthy and strong, bigger than a woods bison back on Earth, and it had no obvious scars along its pelt: a wily fighter. They were grazing on the fern-like things that grew everywhere and seemed to regrow overnight, and none of the adults had noticed either of the two approach. Julian raised his bow—a gift from Vemik, and very well-made—and tracked on a juvenile. It looked like it clocked in at maybe a bit over three hundred pounds or so, about the size of a full-grown goat, which was the biggest prey he dared Take on a hunt like this. It would be tiring as hell to carry but Julian knew he could manage, if barely; the Village was a few miles away and he’d need all his new strength.

Yan on the other hand was so absurdly far ahead in strength that he didn’t need his spear when he struck. He simply thumped down in front of the bull, let it charge while the herd vanished, then jumped clear over its head as it rushed forward and landed on top of its back. There was a loud, muffled crack and the animal collapsed to the ground, bleating in pain. Yan wasted no time and wrapped his limbs around the beast, gave a loud huff, and squeezed. Bones snapped, its breathing grew labored, and with every bellowed, weakening exhalation of the doomed werne, Yan just closed his limbs tighter and tighter while the animal moaned in obvious agony.

Julian was about to intervene when, with one last mighty heave and a sickening series of cracks, Yan crushed his prey so hard that he was able to get both his arms and legs locked around each other. Once he had that extra leverage he grunted, squeezed much harder…and smashed the damn thing flat from its hips to its ribs. Blood fountained out of the werne’s mouth as its heart was literally crushed inside its chest. It passed out, either dead or well on the way.

It took another minute of literal bone-crunching force to completely finish the job. By the time Yan had heaved himself to his feet, panting and with a pleased expression on his face, the werne looked like it had just been run over by a truck. Pretty much every one of its bones had been pulverized. Yan inspected his handiwork and grunted approval, reached down, braced his feet against the animal’s shattered shoulders, grabbed its head and ripped it right off its body with a tremendous wet tearing sound. He hefted the trophy above his head and let the blood rain down his torso, then gave an ear-shatteringly loud hoot to the sky, so that the gods and any People nearby would know that a man of the People had Taken a worthy prize.

Sometimes, it was good to have an unambiguous reminder of how savage the People truly were. Julian thumped down from his tree and asked, “Why not use your spear?” He stalked over to his werne—it was a juvenile male he took with an arrow through the base of its skull—and began cutting its head off.

Yan grunted and lightly tossed his bull’s massive head toward Julian, who was knocked off his feet by the sheer weight of it. [“Spear hunting is dangerous. You need to close with it when it charges and then shift to the side, but the werne might swipe you with its head. If he does he can tear your guts out. They can’t throw their head up, though. If you jump on their back, there’s almost nothing they can do.”]

That made sense. But still, [“And you didn’t use your knife, because…?”] Julian marked himself in its blood and set the bull’s head down, then clambored back to his feet.

The Given-Man grunt-snarled in an annoyed manner then looked at Julian, thought for a moment, and reconsidered. [“Didn’t need it. It’s best to give prey a worthy death if you can. It should have a chance to fight for its life. That’s the blessing of being a Given-Man. We can fight any prey on their own terms, and we can fight other hunters for the right to prey. I have even Taken a Brown One and lived.”] Yan immediately made a gesture of respect, a thing the People did for no other creature.

Julian nodded, though he didn’t entirely agree with the method. “Not that I could ever do that,” he said absentmindedly, to no-one in particular.

Yan tilted his head in genuine curiousity. [“Why not?”]

[“I’m not that strong.”] Julian shook himself and snapped back to the present. [“And I don’t think I ever will be. But on Earth we have several kinds of animal on my world that hunt that way.”]

Yan grunted. [“They don’t use knives either?”] Julian gave him a Look.

[“No. They…] constrict. [That means they squeeze their prey by wrapping ‘round it, and they just squeeze…and squeeze…and keep at it until the animal can’t breathe anymore. Then they swallow it whole and sit still for moons at a time.”]

[“Hum.”] Yan huffed. [“We have stories of creatures like that, I think. Singer could tell you more. They do not live here, they are far away.”]

Julian nodded and set to work on the heads. He cracked open the skull with his hatchet and stuffed the brains into a leather sack, then hung the skulls to drain. The brains would be used to tan leather but the rest would stink up the village, especially since the werne had recently calved. They would come back for the skulls later when the insects had picked them clean.

When he was done and ready to go, Julian got down on his haunches and hefted his werne across his shoulders with a grunt. Once he got it seated comfortably he turned to Yan, who was polishing off the last of his travel jerky.

“Those critters you mentioned,” Julian said, “You think maybe they lived near some of the places we showed you? Where there were different People?”

“Maybe. [We didn’t trade with them. Den’s tribe was closest, and he said their men were weak and broke too easy in a fight, and their women were very pretty. But they weren’t any fun, couldn’t Take it hard enough!”] Yan’s fang-filled snarl-grin was almost too cheesy for words.

Julian grinned back. [“Maybe his cock wasn’t good enough for them. Who knows?”]

Yan trilled in response, then worked his way under the werne and hoisted it onto his shoulders with about as much apparent effort as it might take Julian to pick up a sack of concrete. The bull absolutely dwarfed Yan in terms of bulk and it comically made Julian think of Mighty Mouse, carrying a house or something likewise silly overhead. By then…he wasn’t surprised.

The Ten’Gewek were…dense. Weighty and powerful, much more so than even their brutish appearance might at first suggest. Everything on Akyawentuo was physically robust, but when it came to sheer teak-hard toughness, nothing anywhere on any world was quite like the People. They would sink right to the bottom of a lake if they ever fell into one and they preferred to swing about in large, very sturdy trees. But even so, Yan’s absurd strength was still surprising. That bull for all its size was probably not much heavier than him; in fact he seemed more like he was made of living rock, and that he might be the weightier creature.

They walked back to the village mostly in silence, with only the occasional joke or story between them, since Julian was exerting himself enough that he could only handle brief conversations. Yan seemed to understand, yet he seemed completely untested by the task at hand and had a happy spring in his step. Upright movement was definitely slower no matter how easy it was for him, though, which let Julian amble along and save energy while Yan shuffled at a brisk pace, occasionally bouncing forward in that wide-legged, swaggering almost-waddle the brawnier men of the People often did while walking.

[“Next time, I show you with spear. You won’t be allowed to use your rifle on the hunt.”]

It took Julian a second to recall what Yan was talking about, then it snapped clear in his mind. Julian nodded and they walked for about an hour until they’d encountered the first sentry posted along the village’s territory. Yan sauntered back into camp with the massive bull still slung over his shoulders, not at all tired it seemed; he hardly seemed to remember he had a crushed bull on his back and only set it down once the man tending the village fire reminded him.

Julian on the other hand was aching to drop his burden and did so immediately. Yan didn’t notice, he was bouncing about and happy to be home, and eager to socialize with the rest of the tribe. He was gregarious that way and wanted to check in with every couple, play with every kid, and check, re-check, play some more, and re-re-recheck the progress on the werne he brought back.

One of his regular squeezes eventually caught his hints and brought him some warm stew. The look of simple happiness on his face from such a small gesture was almost cloyingly sweet. [“Thank you!”] His tail reached up and tickled her face, which earned him the trilling equivalent of a flirtatious giggle and a urgent, whispered promise…. She bounced away with a decidedly meaningful sway of her hips and tail with Yan watching her all the while, a blissfully happy expression on his face.

He was just as bad as the HEAT fellas.

Julian flomped down on a nearby log and chuckled to himself. “You’re a terrible flirt, big guy.”

Yan nodded happily and sighed, and devoured his massive bowl of stew. Yan’s girlfriend for the day returned shortly with a smaller bowl for Julian, along with his metal spoon from his camp. He hadn’t needed to ask for either and the People wouldn’t have asked him anyway; tribal life could be a bit hive-mind like that. He nodded his thanks, and set to work.

And thought. Yan had decided Julian was ready for his Rite of Manhood, Walsh would be “soon,” and that had Julian a bit unsettled. The arduousness of it was concerning of course but he had grown confident he could handle it. It was the other stuff that had him worried, and for the last several days, too. It was time to get to the bottom of his worries.

“Torok looked like his body was on fire.”

Yan shrugged his vast shoulders and tilted his head to lick the last bits of gravy from his bowl. “Sometimes, what man See…hurt.”

The Given-Man rarely spared Julian the harsh truth of anything. Which normally he could appreciate, and in a deep way. This time though, he’d maybe have preferred something more…tactful.

Julian really didn’t want to take the Rite of Manhood.

…No. He did want to take it. What he didn’t want to do was the part at the end. Fast for a day, purify his body and soul, stalk and hunt a prize werne bull using nothing but a spear and a knife? Then bring back its head before the end of the day? That part, the actually dangerous part, was one he was almost excited to do.

And now he could. During the course of one of their recent play-bouts, Yan decided that Julian had grown strong enough that the big Given-Man had maybe needed to exert the tiniest, briefest possible flicker of effort to sufficiently quash the impudent upstart.

“You ready soon. Keep growing. Just need to learn.”

That was all he said, and all he needed to say. A ringing endorsement, indeed.

And that had been like a snowball down a hill once Julian had stated his interest. Allison and Xiù expressed reserved happiness, Yan had been delighted, Singer gave him a warm look, and Vemik had of course bounced around in circles, too excited to contain himself.

“The Sky-Hunter would become one of the People,” they had said. What would be needed? Did Julian need permission from the Ambassador? Julian technically answered to him for the strictly-defined purposes of fostering the American (and Allied) interests with the Ten’Gewek nation. What would Byron Group think? The AEC? They all had a stake in this, didn’t they? He wasn’t any kind of a lawyer but surely there were complications…

And all sorts of other things. Julian had sighed at the pile of problems, sent a message to Byron Group and the Ambassador to let them yell about it, then started mastering the specific skills he would need. He’d paid particular attention to how the People did things, too. It was theirs, after all, and like he’d said from the beginning, there was no point in doing a thing if it didn’t pay respect to the People and their gods.

Which was where Yan had him trapped.

“Seeing is Important, Jooyun.” The Given-Man had a patient air about him as if he’d had this very conversation many times before.

“I know,” Julian said. “I’m worried about the drug. It may not be safe for humans.”

“Not safe for [People], take anyway. Only strong man live…” Yan ducked his head and did the Ten’Gewek equivalent of a sheepish grin by way of a sideways snarl, “Maybe we be careful, only let strong boys try.”

Well, that was at least some kind of relief, that Yan thought Julian was strong enough now. But still: as much as he trusted and was fond of the ‘most biggest’ sapient gorilla-thing there was…he wasn’t exactly a medical expert on human toxicology.

Which was a good point to make, actually. “I know Yan. And…thank you. It’s been…a lot of work, to get strong enough to do this. But—”

“Is good!” Yan interrupted in his cheery, gruff way, then switched to People-speak. [“But your tribe isn’t weak, Jooyun. You’re just…different-strong. Very different and very strong. But it’s good you are doing this. Thank you. It makes things easier.”]

That it did. But still. [“Thank you for trusting me with this. But] Poison, Yan. Mind-altering drugs are dangerous, and they can affect different kinds of life—of People—very differently.”

“Explain.” Yan said it very carefully; that particular word always gave him trouble.

Julian had been preparing for that question. He’d done his research and come up with a perfect example.

“There is a sickness. We call it Cancer, and it’s nasty. The only way to kill it is to take poison. The poison is medicine when we use it the right way, because it kills the person slightly slower than it kills the sickness…but it has to be used carefully, given by people who really know the Giving-magic involved in a deep way. And if you were sick with cancer, they would say they don’t know enough about your body to give you the poison medicine safely. Your body is strong, but like you said it’s strong in different ways. What would be safe for me might kill you, or maybe do nothing at all.”

Yan’s heavy brow furrowed. Their faces generally weren’t quite as mobile as a human’s so they only showed feeling when that feeling was strong. [“So, you think maybe our magic powder will hurt you very bad? I mean, more than it’s meant to?”]

“…It might. Or it might not help me See at all. Or it might do exactly what it’s supposed to, or it might do something totally different. It’s…a branch we haven’t tested yet.”

Yan thought about that for a bit. In some ways he was very much like Adam from the HEAT: when he wanted to think, he wanted to be physical. In his case he solved that by walking up a Ketta and then walking along the underside of one of its major branches. He walked out until the branch started to creak, then hung there by one foot and thought, scratching his chin with one hand and his flexing, monstrous calf with his free foot.

He pondered for a long moment, happily swinging upside down and looking at everything with an amused expression. He was about to speak when he froze, then with a speed that simply defied belief, flung himself upward and snatched a Bibtaw foraging almost ten feet above the branch he was hanging from. He’d grabbed it with so much strength it had more or less exploded in his hand, which he acknowledged with an annoyed grunt and a few quick bites to the critter’s tastiest parts. He grinned bloody-mouthed at Julian, then leapt down and swung from his original branch by the tail.

“…still hungry, Yan?”

He responded with a hunter’s grin and messily devoured the rest of his prey, bones, organs, fur and all. “Always hungry for Bibtaw…”

“You usually roast it first.”

“Is good this way too!” His upside-down grin was literally dripping with blood.

“Right. Well.” Julian pressed onward. “You were going to say something?”

“…Yes.” Yan wiped his mouth clean with the back of his hand. “Smart to think first. Don’t just charge bull Werne without plan,” he said eventually, then switched back to People-Speak. [“But. The Vision is the most important part of this, Jooyun Sky-Hunter. Without the vision, you cannot learn what the gods want to teach you.”]

Julian nodded but remained deeply conflicted. He knew, academically, that he wouldn’t get out of this now that he’d shown enthusiasm for the prospect. But…he really took some things from the Church seriously, even if he wasn’t a very good believer. “My body is my temple” had struck a chord with him a long time ago. He’d watched too many of his friends on the rez and elsewhere die inside because of drugs or alcohol or whatever, so…

[“Some of the Singers of my tribe—or, the people in my tribe who do what Singers do—talk about purity a lot,”] he said. [“Being clean, in body, mind and soul. They taught me that drugs—magic powders and smoking leaf, things like that—are unclean.”]

Yan just looked baffled. [“How?”] He asked. [“They open your mind to the Gods!”]

“Some of them can. I guess. I’ve never taken anything more than that alcohol you’ve tried.”

“Pfeh.” Yan spat in the dirt. That had been his standard response to any mention of alcohol since his lone experience with it. Julian saw his opening and pounced.

[“Exactly. Alcohol wasn’t good for you. For me…Well.”] Time for a troll-grin, and a risky one. [“Allison and Xiù haven’t ever complained…”]

…And suddenly he had a ton of gorilla sitting on his hips. Smirking, at least. But still.

“Funny.” Yan’s tone said that it was a grudging kind of amusement, and he was definitely being sarcastic…but a shove into the dirt was Yan’s equivalent of ruffling somebody’s hair.

If only he wasn’t so goddamn heavy. Even keeping nearly all of his weight on the balls of his feet-hands, Yan was absolutely crushing Julian into the ground.

_“Hnnpf_…I’ll never stop being amazed at how fast you can move…And from the tree! Anyway.” Julian tried to wiggle free, but Yan wasn’t gonna let that happen just yet. “…No mercy, big guy?”

In response Yan grinned and settled a tiny bit more of his weight onto Julian. That hurt.

“No.”

Julian sighed and gamely attempted to escape, and their encounter rapidly deteriorated into a wrestling match. Or, rather, Julian got wrestled by Yan. Calling it a match was maybe a bit of a lie because that would imply there was a possibility Yan might not be completely victorious. It was part of the game and in tribal settings it was important to play along; Yan was in charge and that couldn’t ever be denied. And besides, there wasn’t any malice behind it. Yan liked to roughhouse and so did Julian. Their “matches” also tended to mirror the state of their arguments, so in this case, Yan eventually allowed Julian to “pin” him while he made his point.

“We’re not the same. Alcohol is very different for us. We just get a little dizzy, maybe loosen up a little. Most of us have to drink a lot before it starts to hurt. But you…” Yan gave him an indulgent warning look, “I mean, the [People], are much more sensitive.” Julian wasn’t sure if Yan had heard that word before, but he was a good enough speaker nowadays that he could pick up words from the context. “Vemik had three beers and was rip-roaring drunk. Three beers barely gets me buzzed.”

Yan gave a thoughtful look while he chewed on those words, then rather effortlessly rolled over the top of Julian and pinned him by the simple expedient of laying on top of him chest to chest with a smug grin, arms pinned above his head with one hand and the other palming his skull and locking it in place. Carefully of course, because Yan was big enough to kill Julian with just his weight if he wanted to…but he wasn’t gentle, either. Julian had to struggle to breathe.

[“We aren’t so different, though. Very strange, yes…I think I am strange to you, too…”]

“Nngh. Sure.” Yan lifted some of his weight off of Julian to let him speak easier. “Ow. Anyway…yeah, we can use language. We see and hear much the same. We even think about things the same way. But our tribes, way deep down where it really counts…are different. That matters. Yan…you don’t have a nose. And there’s an organ in your belly that I don’t have and I don’t know what it does. Your heart doesn’t work the same way as mine and it’s way stronger, my liver can handle stuff that would shrivel yours like a dry fruit…we’re very different.”

“…Okay. I see. But this hunt, you need to See, Jooyun. How do we make happen?”

Yan’s statement quite obviously assumed that the hunt would go forward, and on his terms. To drive the point home about who was in control, Yan took advantage of the situation and turned his pin into a murderously tight full-body squeeze. There was a friendly grin attached to that, and Julian knew it was genuine…but. Having seen what Yan did to the werne earlier…

Julian tapped out with a very slightly panicked grunt; he couldn’t talk just that second. Yan trilled and roughed up Julian’s hair, then loosened up some to ask a question.

“You find way to make happen, yes?” Yan let go, sat up on his haunches, flexed his arms and admired the beachballs that were his biceps for a long moment, then looked Julian dead in the eye and snarl-grinned with an unmistakably knowing look. His expression was…almost friendly. There was no malice in it or anything…but.

Ah. That was as clear a statement as anything.

Which meant there was no way out. Julian was going to take some kind of hallucinogenic drug. The alternative was gravely insulting Yan by backing out and losing all his hard-earned reputation with the People. And that in turn would make more than a year of borderline agony under Adam’s coaching effectively pointless. It’d make their recent career moves risky, too. It could even permanently destroy Human-Ten’Gewek relations, and Ambassador Rockefeller would definitely not be happy about that.

This must be what duty feels like. An odd thought, really.

So, not really knowing what else would be right, Julian nodded to himself and took the plunge. [“I will make it happen, Yan Given-Man. I promise. I don’t know how yet, but…”]

That seemed to be all he wanted. Yan lumbered off of Julian and gently helped him to his feet. [“We do it right, Jooyun. I believe you.”] The moment turned into a back-shattering hug, and then Yan moved on to more important matters. [“Now. Before we do this, I want to see how you handle a spear. We’re going werne hunting.”]

“Wait, again? Right now?”

“Yes!” he said cheerily. “Need meat for smoking, young herd have too many calf.” The Ten’Gewek didn’t have much concept of a schedule or of planned-ahead events, and Yan in particular wasn’t one to remember little annoying details like a class on wound treatment. That was giving-magic and he couldn’t be any less interested.

And besides: Julian wasn’t about to argue with someone who was twice as big and over seven times his weight. If Yan wanted to go hunting, again, right now, that was how it was gonna be.

Maybe Julian would figure out a good way to break the news to his women.


Date point: 14y 1w 1d AV
FOB Farmstead, Three Valleys region, Gao

Specialist Michael Murphy

“Okay. I can’t even believe I’m doing this before I’m an NCO or anything…but we’re gonna start you guys out with drill.”

Michael really wasn’t even remotely qualified to do something like this. None of them were. But then again, nobody but maybe the Great Father was really qualified to do any of what they’d been doing for the last couple of days, and that included the raid. Holy God war was genuinely hell, and everyone Michael had ever internally sneered at about the whole thing had been totally, completely right.

And Daar was, too. Michael did do fine. Apparently. He’d made it through the night, anyway, despite being terrified out of his mind. Not that he actually really remembered much of the raid besides his little bit in it. Advance on the ag station under cover of darkness. The Stoneback Claw took point and stalked forward with nothing but their weapons—Gaoians apparently had excellent night vision—while Michael was assigned to the number three position right behind Daar and captain Landry.

It had taken literally hours on-foot to ingress, surround and position themselves around the ag station. Then they waited. And waited. And then—

Then things moved far, far too fast for Michael to really get. He remembered captain Landry, a smooth and calm engine of precision no matter what else was going on. One glance, one little motion and Michael knew exactly where to be, what to do. They moved from building after building while the rest of the team secured territory, each assault building on the other like a well-choreographed football play. Captain Landry must have been an amazing quarterback in his day.

And Daar was an entire offensive line all by himself, all speed and tooth, muscle and claw, a flowing graceful engine of death. At any moment the Great Father might have used his rifle and triple-tapped the drones, or if that wasn’t perfectly optimal maybe he’d move like an angry wolverine, too fast and far too strong for anything to stand against him. He’d crash into a drone so violently it’d practically explode, swipe his paw through another, spring up to his feet and fire his weapon, then leap four-pawed over an obstacle, and do it all so smoothly and perfectly it was like Michael was watching a kung-fu movie in real life.

Along the way they’d taken about a hundred biodrones out of the picture and rescued several hundred half-starving Gaoians who’d put up a hell of a fight at first. Daar didn’t want them dead. He wanted then secured alive and as unharmed as possible: not an easy task, it turned out. Everyday Gaoians really were fragile and Michael had damn near killed one with a tackle.

Anyway. All of that was two days ago. What they had to do now before Great Father Daar had to leave was get the basics of unit discipline in place.

“What is…[drill?”] One of the Clanless—god they were skinny—asked through the translator. It seemed an honest enough question, and Michael thought it deserved an honest answer.

“Moving and marching in formation. My drill sergeant said it came from ancient tactics back when we fought with, I dunno, muskets or spears or whatever. But it’s good for teachin’ teamwork.”

“We’re pretty good at teamwork already.” ‘Pinky,’ the albino that Michael had secured that first evening, felt the need to speak up.

“I don’t doubt it. I bet you ain’t got the kind of teamwork we need, though…”

Great Father Daar was sitting on his haunches some distance away and watching the proceedings very intently. He was much more intimidating when on he moved on all fours, and sitting like that made him look like a bear-sized, hulked out pit bull, poised and ready to pounce.

Michael tried not to think about that too much.

“So what’s the difference?”

That triggered an important memory. During basic training one of Michael’s fellows had asked that exact same question, and earned their entire platoon several hours of the most asinine drill he’d ever experienced in his military career.

Time to be on the other side.

“Maybe I should show you! Everyone, go and find a rock, a nice big one about the size of your head. I know there’s plenty of them here so make it quick. GO.”

To their credit they all scrambled to find what he’d asked for, which gave him the moment he needed. Michael loped over toward a rusted-out piece of ancient equipment, checked that it wasn’t full of bombs or terrorists or anything, then waved everyone over to the open space in front of it.

“Okay. First, we need you to line up in formation. We’ll show you what to do first. PLATOON, FALL IN.”

Captain Landry nodded approvingly from the corner with Daar while the rest of his group, amused by the specialist putting on airs, fell into a reasonable column.

PLATOON, A-TEN-SHUT!”

They instantly snapped to attention, which prompted erect ears and tilted heads from the Gaoians. Good.

“Cover.” Michael directed them through that and the rest of the commands necessary to establish proper dress, cover and standard interval, arranged with the shortest men facing toward him.

“You see this? Gaoians, find a soldier and replace him. Don’t break my nice column!”

They didn’t. They even seemed to notice how the height was significant, and self-sorted appropriately.

“Good. STAND AT ATTENTION,” which surprised one young male so much he dropped his stone. “PICK THAT UP, AND STAND AT ATTENTION!”

He sorted himself out, eventually.

“Outstanding. Now. This formation has four columns. You are going to all side-step to the rhythm of my voice, and you’re going to do it like this. Watch.”

They did, then they obeyed, and before long the “platoon” was widely spread out.

“Okay. Now. Take the rock you have. Pick it up.” They did, at their individual pace. Michael’s fellow humans all knew what was coming and grinned, while Daar watched with keen interest.

“NOT FAST ENOUGH. You are in a FORMATION. You think and act as one. Now, drop— WHEN I SAY SO. Now STAND AT ATTENTION.”

Michael waited until they had come back to attention, then nodded at his best buds off to the side. They knew what to do. “Outstanding. Now, these friendly folks here are going to help correct any mistakes you might make in the next few hours. I might suggest you pay very close attention. They can be…impatient.”

Right on cue, his buds gave a nice, predatory grin. And so…they learned.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long. The Gaoians in their care had the synchronicity of it all figured out surprisingly fast, and before two hours had past they had them doing a pretty good first-time runthrough of basic drill. Now it was time to show them the point.

“DISMISSED. Now…let me show you the point of the rocks. Everyone…run up and throw your rock at this old piece of shit behind me. Take your time. Pretend it’s a Hunter, even!”

The Clanless had picked up on the spirit of the thing very quickly. Faster than a human would, but then again these weren’t sulky teenagers meeting randomly in Basic, taking orders for the first time in their lives. These Clanless all knew each other, had worked together for years.

That was probably worth noting. Looking at captain Landry, Michael had no doubt it had been.

The moment of play proved useful, too. They ran up, tossed the rock as lustily as they could manage—some even got creative. It was all good horseplay but the important bit, and the thing Michael had worried at, was that the rusted-out hulk had taken no real damage.

“Okay. Now if my fellow humans would get a rock from the pile, and then FALL IN!”

Again Michael went through the steps, and again he formed the platoon into columns.

“Now. See these fine men? I have the columns facing to the left. That means they are now ranks. And you see how I have them spread out?”

Recognition seemed to spread. But now was the moment to drive it home.

“Present, ARMS!” Everyone’s rock came up to shoulder level. “Ready…aim…THROW!” Dozens of rocks slammed into the hulk at virtually the same moment…and smashed it damn near flat. The point was not lost on anyone, especially Daar who chittered deep in his chest while talking excitedly with captain Landry.

“Right! So. Platoon, DISMISSED. Now,” he said as everyone meandered apart and re-mingled, “I suppose I’ve made my point? This is just a small little thing…and I’m just a specialist who lips off too much…” Michael’s sergeant nodded and rolled his eyes with a grin on his face, “But I ain’t dumb, and I do pay attention. And the thing I learned in all of my training? It’s that, for most of us, we’re individually not that big of a deal. Most of us can’t be HEAT operators or fighter pilots or Great Fathers or whatever…but all of us can use teamwork.”

He turned to look at the smashed-flat ruins of the hulk. “And if our training is good enough…that teamwork can do anything.”


Date point: 14y 1m 2w AV
“Clan Young Glory,” western unincorporated territories, Gao

Sister Naydra

Naydra and her fellow Sisters were slowly dying. The “Clan” that had “liberated” them from the clutches of what they now knew were biodrones had decided their honored guests needed “protection.” Their so-called protection consisted of imprisonment. Their “protection fees” came in the form of…companionship. That cruel euphemism meant they were forced to spend time in the company of the “Brothers,” whether any of the sisters wanted it or not. Some of the Sisters had resisted. They didn’t last long. Though the pretense of their situation meant their captors kept up the veneer of civilization…on the first night, faintly, their missing Sister’s howls of terror and pain could be heard.

Naydra played along. Most of the brownies in this bastard Clan were large, stupid and aggressive, and she didn’t fancy her chances if any of them ever grew truly angry with her. They were violent too, much more than the love-fights Naydra had grown up reading about and then experiencing as a mother of cubs. No. This was something much darker. It hurt. Not just her body, and not just her feelings. It hurt her very being.

That was particularly true with the supposed Grandfather of this gang of thugs. Koruum was a very large brownie, the biggest Naydra had ever seen. He was one who had worked in the fields all his life and had the gnarled, muscular build of a hard laborer to prove it. He was their leader through no cunning stratagem or personal charisma, oh no. He was their leader because he was the biggest, meanest and stupidest one of them all.

And he was obsessed with Naydra. Day by day, his violent attraction was slowly killing her.

Every day he would demand her company and every day there would be some brief pretense at a civilized relationship before he used his brute strength to take what he wanted. No Female had ever deigned to mate with him and it was easy to see why: he was stupid, crude, and cruel. He was Clanless and without legacy in the truest senses of the words, and was one of the few males Naydra had ever met that was truly beneath the privilege of fatherhood.

The first week of her endless terror was surreal in its self-contradiction. Koruum had made a protracted attempt to woo her, as if being kept against her will could in any be ameliorated by an idiot’s attempt at Civilization. Naydra had rebuffed his crude attempts to charm his way into her good graces. Politely, at first, but more forcefully as time went on. Eventually he dropped the pretense and simply…used her. Her rejection angered him and made their inevitable encounters much worse, and much longer. He had the stamina and strength of a draft animal and seemed to think that if he just used it as much as he could to entertain his “guests,” he would at long last sire a cub.

He wouldn’t, of course. The historically successful Clan harems of their ancient past were comfortably gilded cages; they had to be if the Clan wanted cubs. While, yes, it took much vigorous mating to induce a pregnancy in any gaoian female no matter how fertile, mere copulation wasn’t the end of it. A Female had to live well-fed and free of stress if she would ever hope to conceive. The prisoners of this upstart Clan had neither. Their self-appointed Grandfather and the rest were too ignorant and stupid to understand but that didn’t stop them from trying. Koruum had forced himself on her every night for over a month, to no success. That small victory was almost the only thing sustaining Sister Naydra.

Koruum was, needless to say, displeased, and had begun to threaten her with further pain and torment if she didn’t swell for him. Naydra decided she would rather die than permit that, though if she was being darkly honest with herself, things were likely to keep getting worse and his escalating brutality made that latter possibility a near certainty.

It was strange, really. The inevitability of her fate had produced in her a sort of detached calm, and gave her a space to escape to while she endured Koruum’s loathsome attentions. The more academic side of her wondered at the psychology of such a thing.

Maybe this time he will finally go too far, and I will escape the suffering. Somewhere, deep in the protected shadows of her mind, the thought gave her peace.

…No.

She would survive this.

She would survive, even with Koruum crushing her almost to death with his strength and endlessly grunting away on top of her. Sister Trymin had braved worse, Sister Shoo had battled the Hunters single-handedly and survived.

Naydra would survive, and she would see Koruum pay for his crimes.

Something changed. Loud noises from outside. The sharp staccato of kinetic gunfire.

There was a crash and the door practically exploded open. Before Naydra could react to that, something moved like a lightning strike to her side, slammed a huge, brown paw on Koruum’s shoulder, sunk its claws in and ripped the evil creature off of her. For reasons Naydra couldn’t pin down, the thing she remembered most vividly about that was the almost comical look of surprise on his face as he tumbled backwards over his own tail and almost flew across the room. There was a brief silence. Then a keening snuffle next to her head.

It was a Female. A huge female, with the scars of a proven warrior in a healed snarl across her powerful, elegant muzzle. She smelled of death and strength and compassion like the Battle-Sisters who fought alongside Great Mother Tiritya. She was a Savior, a winged messenger from the old stories. She was—

“Are you okay?”

Naydra keened.

She keened like she hadn’t since her cubhood. Her Savior pressed her muzzle against Naydra’s own and held it there, the world for the moment forgotten.

There was a groan in the corner. Koruum shook his head, rolled onto his back, then remembered where he was and snapped to alertness. He kipped himself up and onto his feet in a single, explosively powerful motion. Great Mother he was strong, and one look at his short-furred bulk confirmed it. Her Savior pulled away and approached warily, a dangerous growl bubbling up from deep in her chest. But as impressive as her Savior was, she was really nothing compared to Koruum. He knew it, too.

“Two beautiful females to sire my cubs! I’m gonna enjoy breaking you.”

Naydra sat up and keened again—how could her Savior win against such a massive male? He charged and Savior only barely managed to parry. He was fast and handily dodged the Savior’s counter-attack with her blade. She’d attack, he’d side-step or weave…his feral grin grew wider and wider. He couldn’t lose.

Until he did.

Naydra…couldn’t really see what happened. What she saw was that her Savior moved too fast to understand and suddenly, Koruum wasn’t so terrifying after all. He whirled around in a confused motion, desperately lashing out against his tormentor, but every attack was blocked, redirected, avoided. The Savior stabbed him, cut him—all of that in just a few seconds. Savior stepped back and sneered, while Koruum wobbled on his feet for a moment, then slumped to the floor.

At that moment another…creature came barging through the door. It moved so much faster than Savior it couldn’t be real. It slammed into Naydra’s tormentor and crashed into the wall with a sickening crunch. Koruum slumped, coughed blood, and looked about ready to die—

“Not yet, you worthless shitstain.” The male—and he was so much more of a male than Koruum or anyone else that Naydra had ever seen—flipped her tormentor face-down and sat on him, pinning his torso with his sheer weight and controlling him with one gigantic paw contemptuously pressing down on his head. That paw was so huge it almost wrapped around Koruum’s skull, and the claws–!

The bestial male reached with his other paw to retrieve an injector of some kind and mercilessly stabbed it into Koruum’s torso, which elicited a cub-like squeal of pain.

“MEDIC.” The gravelly boom of his voice was almost unreal.

Savior was by her side again, now with a first aid blanket and a container of water. Naydra was too confused to follow everything that happened next. More females came in. She learned that her savior was actually Myun, the legend herself, and not once did she leave Naydra’s side. Others were in and out, medics were doing something to Koruum…

Soon the racket died down. The gigantic male prowled back in with another behind him and talked to the medics in a low voice.

He turned his eyes to Naydra and she instinctively recoiled. He winced, briefly, and flattened his big, pointed ears against his huge skull. But now that she could properly see his face she realized that he wasn’t just any Stoneback, he was—

“If you want, I will leave,” he said quietly. “All the males will leave.” He crouched down on all four paws and got well below her eye level. “Tell me what you want me to do. I will do it.”

Naydra couldn’t, she just wanted to bathe and sleep forever, and…

He duck-nodded and padded over to Koruum. “I’m takin’ this piece o’ nava husk with me.” The hulking male slammed his paw down on Koruum’s back with a sickening crack and sunk his terrible claws into him, all the way down to the roots. Koruum squirmed mightily in a soundless howl of pain, but the hulking brute didn’t care. He dragged the would-be Grandfather out like so much meat to the butcher.

The room was empty, now. Only Myun was there.

“Great Father will want to know what you need,” she said, gently.

So it was him. Naydra didn’t know what to think about that just then.

“And the Mother-Supreme is here too. She also needs to hear. When you’re ready.”

“…What happens next?”

“We evacuate you to Cimbrean, you and the other Sisters. Gao is no place for an unprotected Female just now.”

What an appalling statement that was.

“What will he do?”

Myun squirmed a bit uncomfortably. “Well…exactly what you want. Koruum was a serial reject by all the labor Clans, including Stoneback, and for the Great Father, well: it’s personal. So I guess the answer to that is, if you let him, Daar will do a great many things to Koruum and every male here. Please,” she almost whined, “Think carefully before you answer.”

There was nothing to think about. “Any male living here deserves it.”

“…You are certain?”

“Yes.”

Myun seemed resigned. “Okay. But you tell him yourself. Brother Fiin!”

A head popped around the corner. “Yes, Sister?”

“Get the Great Father, please.”

He duck-nodded and disappeared. Naydra didn’t have to wait long before she felt a slight tremor through the ground and in padded the Great Father on all fours. He approached, respectfully, but his presence even then was utterly overwhelming.

“You wanted me, my Sister?”

Myun spoke up first. “She has decided, My Father.”

“…Thank you, my daughter.” He turned his head back, “May I ask your name?”

“…S–Sister Naydra.”

“Okay. May I speak with you alone?”

Naydra cast a nervous glance to Myun, who duck-nodded encouragingly. “You couldn’t be safer with anyone, Sister. I’ll be just around the corner, okay?”

“…Okay.” Myun stalked out of the room, leaving her alone with the Great Father.

He looked about, shook out his pelt, then sat on his haunches next to her and sighed. “Sister, this thing, it’s…an abomination.” She could smell a rage on him that was so much stronger than any she had ever smelled, it was honestly terrifying. “I would do very much to avenge it. But the Humans have a saying,” the Great Father warned, “It goes something like, ‘wish carefully, you may just get it.’ So I must ask you, and I must have an answer: are any here worthy of any kind of mercy?”

Naydra didn’t hesitate. “No.”

“…You are certain of this? We found some males living outside the compound…”

“They raped my Sisters to death, Great Father,” she spat. “I heard them take turns while that thing you dragged out of here tried to do the very same to me.”

For just a moment the Great Father’s entire body tensed, and the scent of rage pulsed much more strongly. He growled low in his throat, but some incredible discipline of his quickly re-asserted control.

“…Then they will be punished, Sister. I promise.”

“I will witness it.” Naydra was far beyond innocence.

“…If you wish. I hope you might reconsider that—”

“No. I will see them pay with their lives. All of them.”

Daar didn’t say anything. He simply duck-nodded, turned around, and padded out.

There was medical care, then. And food. Sweet, glorious food. A Mother-blessed reunion with her Sisters, a large tent outside of the hated compound with naxas blankets and pillows…

They slept for what felt like an age. When they woke up they did little but huddle together and comfort each other, and eat when their fellow Sisters brought them food.

By mid-day they could hear construction of some kind. By the early evening, Myun showed up with a trepidatious set of her ears. “The Great Father will grant justice tonight. You may witness, as you requested. He hopes you will reconsider. It…will not be pleasant.”

Every Sister went to watch.

Daar was there, waiting on the platform they had hastily assembled. A series of wooden beams that crossed with each other had also been erected, and a prisoner stood each in front of one.

He looked up at Naydra, sighed, then picked up Koruum one-pawed exactly like he was a runty, misbehaving cub.

He turned back to his prisoner and snarled in the most dangerous voice Naydra had ever heard. “You will be an example to everyone of the depth of my wrath, Koruum.” The comparatively little male trembled in terror but Daar did not delay. He broke the prisoner with his bare paws like anyone might break a stick, and ignored the sickening crunches and the screams and the blood. He slammed his ruined prisoner against the crossed beams and held him there with a single paw. With the other he picked up a large mallet, and—

Naydra watched, and wished she hadn’t.


Date point: 14y 2m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean
House hunting

Xiù Chang

Cimbrean had changed quite a lot since the last time Xiù had visited. The war on Gao had been ongoing for about four months now and the flood of refugees had, from what she could tell, only intensified. There was so much loss in the air. Everywhere she looked, Xiù could see it on the face of cubs, in the set of a Mother’s ears. The Humans weren’t immune, either. On some of them there was a grim determination to get through the day. Others had a more…negative energy she found difficult to fathom.

But the overwhelming energy—and it was overwhelming—was one of compassion. Compassion from the Governor-General all the way down to the littlest toddler. Homes had been opened, parks repurposed. The jump portal could hardly handle the influx of aid that was arriving every ten minutes and the city bent all their resources to expanding and improving the refugee camp growing steadily on its borders. That, more than anything else, told her they were making the right decision, in the right place, and at the right time.

It did make housing expensive, though.

They were on their way to the fourth and final viewing. Xiù was generally a early bird but that morning she just couldn’t seem to find her center; something like jet lag, maybe? In any case, they were looking for a large apartment or home that would be a good choice for a growing family, and the pickings were…slim. Slim, and one needed to know someone to get their foot in the door in the first place. So really, a lot like Vancouver, from what Xiù remembered.

Fortunately they did have an angle. They had Sister Niral, diplomatic agent of the Clan of Females…and lately, a licensed realtor. Someone had to handle their property concerns, after all, so why send that money to an outside agent? They also had three cubs along with them, all of which were climbing all over Julian while they walked down Delaney Row. And he delighted in them! He’d flip them over his shoulder, hold two aloft with one arm and gently toss the third—a very precocious young male—with his other. It was adorable and it took much restraint on Xiù’s part not to coo while she watched. Niral’s ears said she very much approved, too.

Allison teased him relentlessly and couldn’t hide her grin. Nor could Julian, and he chuckled softly to himself while he one-arm curled the littlest chittering cub, who made awe-filled sounds and kept asking him to do it again, and again, and again. He was going to make an amazing father.

“Thank you so much for doing this, Niral. I know this was short notice…” Xiù seemed to be their natural spokeswoman, and besides: Niral was always good for fascinating conversation.

“It is no problem, Sister Shoo! Though I admit it’s been hard to find any openings for, uh, family accomodations.”

“Tough market?” Julian had placed the youngest cub on the back of his neck, and endured sharp claws and little paws gripping with a deathclutch in his hair.

“Yes, though that is not surprising. There was a fifth, an opening in Warhorse’s apartment building, but…”

“Probably best not to mix friendship and business.”

Niral duck-nodded and led them toward their waiting shuttle. “This final home is a bit out of of the way…”

Julian perked up at that. “Oh?”

“You’ll see.”

The ride over was quick, just enough time for the cubs to start squirming from sitting still, but not long enough that they attempted to wriggle free of their car seats.

“Here it is. It’s the most expensive property out of the four I picked for you…but I hope you can see why.”

They were definitely in the upmarket part of town now, on the south bank of Palace Lake. From what Xiù could recall from the tourist guide, that was the expensive part of town tucked away in the quiet south-west corner.

It certainly had a stunning view. Palace Lake was fed by an aquifer that came up in the courtyard of what had once been the palace and was now the Thinghall, and had been groomed and channeled into a pair of crashing water features. Throw in the alien architecture of the Thinghall itself on top of the rock, and there was probably nowhere else on any Human planet with a view quite like it.

Julian was firmly non-committal, and remained much more interested in the cubs.

“Lake Park is quieter than Quarterside or Riverside parks, but that’s not the really attractive part. Check out the house itself.”

Unusually for Folctha, it wasn’t an apartment or a mid-terrace town house, but a genuine standalone property with an interestingly chunky L-shaped footprint that gave it a fenced deck—private, but keeping the view. Inside was open-plan, with a huge kitchen abutting a sprawling living space divided up by the built-in furniture rather than by proper walls.

The middle floor was two bedrooms, both with an en-suite bathroom and a sliding door out onto a second deck above the kitchen, and the top floor was a huge studio bedroom all to itself. Xiù didn’t even want to guess how many square feet the whole thing came out to—it had to be more than twice the size of her parents’ tiny place in Vancouver in total.

It certainly made an impression on Allison when she discovered that it had a basement as well. And a double garage!

“You can actually breathe in here!” she declared upon opening the closet in the master bedroom and discovering that it wasn’t that much smaller than their quarters on Misfit. “Christ.”

Julian took his time as he ambled around the house studying it with a critical, calm eye. While Xiù and Allison cooed over the house’s features, he kept his cards closer to his chest. One of the more endearing things about him was how much he was a man…but not just because of his body. Not really. For her the real attraction was in a bunch of subtle, not-too-loud kinds of ways, like how he looked like he was taking notes as he made short, pertinent observations. “Basement slab needs sealing. Garage is a bit small for a double…nice big shower, though.”

“D’you like it or not, Etsicitty?” Allison asked him after the third or fourth room.

“…Eh. It’s very nice,” he was quick to say, “But, I dunno. It’s just a house.”

“You mean it’s not a Julian house,” Xiù observed.

That earned her a sideways smile and one of his trademark chuckles. “A Julian house, eh? What’s that like?”

“I’m thinking…squeaky front door, beavers out in the backwoods, shed full of hunting and fishing gear…” Xiù counted off on her fingers, and Allison stifled a laugh. Just for a moment, there’d been a flash of nostalgia there.

“The squeak is important,” he said with an almost straight face. “Could do without the beaver. Shed would be nice…”

“Right. So it’s too fancy for you, babe?” Allison asked. Julian shuffled his feet.

“…It’s very nice,” he repeated. Allison snorted.

“Christ, you’re so goddamned Minnesota sometimes.”

“Well? What do you want me to say? I’ve never bought a house—how much is this?”

Niral consulted her tablet. “It’s listing for just shy of seven hundred and fifty thousand pounds.”

Julian practically choked. “That’s like a million dollars!”

Allison gave him a patient look. “Babe. We can afford a million dollars. We wouldn’t even have to mortgage, we could buy this place outright.”

“I could build this house for, I dunno, like a tenth of that!”

“You don’t have time, babe, and you couldn’t build it here,” Xiù said. “So…do we like the address? The lake, the park, and all that stuff?”

“I mean…yeah? It’s nice and quiet here…”

“And private,” Xiù added.

“Okay, but seriously. Come down and look at the basement. They didn’t even seal the floor. I can’t find the sump! It feels like this place was slapped together in eleven seconds by a fat man named George.”

There was a moment of confused silence, broken by Niral’s genteel cough.

“That’s…specific,” she commented.

“Every fat construction worker is named George,” he said drily. “And they never seal floors.”

“That does put a damper on it,” Allison agreed. “Literally.”

Julian sighed. “I mean, it’s not unfixable. It’s level, at least. I think. I didn’t bring my carpenter’s square to actually check ‘cuz, y’know, I’d assumed a million dollar house would be built right.”

Allison rolled her eyes and scoffed. “You don’t have a carpenter’s square yet, babe. You can put one in the garage!”

“Yes I do! And would I put it next to your motorbike, huh? Or in the basement, next to my slabbin’ toys and bikini babe posters?” Julian troll-grinned, “Is that how it goes?”

Allison had the perfect deadpan response at the ready. “Only if we all agree they’re smokin’ hot. Anyway…is it fixable? I’m sure we can use an unsealed basement to haggle them down, but if it can’t be fixed then this place is a bust.”

Julian sighed. “Oh, it’s fixable. I just, I dunno. I feel like we’re rushing into spending a lot of money, maybe.”

“…Julian, when was the last time you looked at our net worth?” Xiù asked him.

“…Ten minutes ago. We’re, uh…up about two grand this morning.”

Allison snorted. “So we’re up about two grand since breakfast? At that rate we’d be able to buy this place in…what, three months?”

Xiù felt the need to moderate, again. Julian was being way too cautious for her tastes, but that didn’t mean she had to let Al’s gung-ho predilections go unchallenged. “That’s not fair Allison. Stock markets are kinda frothy. But still. We can afford it. Don’t worry about the money. Is it what we want?”

He still seemed torn. “I mean…okay. I like the design. It’s kinda funky shaped. The built-in furniture is a little weird but I guess that’s how rich people do. I like the park. But I’m worried the home is actually garbage.”

Niral cleared her throat. “Folctha has…quite robust building codes,” she said.

Julian rolled his eyes. “That does not mean a goddamned thing, Niral. Building codes are what men like George break for fun.”

“But it does mean that if the place is garbage then you can sue this hypothetical George for every penny he ever made…and the MBG legal department give other lawyers nightmares.”

“Yes, because that’s exactly what I want to deal with while I’m covered in mud on an alien world!”

“Didn’t they handle the bullshit with your grampa’s place?” Allison recalled.

“…Yes.”

“While we were stuck in a box preparing to get covered in mud on an alien world,” Xiù added. He threw his hands up in despair.

“No ganging up!” he protested. “…You two really want this place, huh?”

“Yeah. We knew this morning when we saw the listing. You were off getting groceries, remember? And it’ll be nice to move out of the Statler.”

That seemed to annoy him. “So you, what? Decided this was the place while I wasn’t there? I won’t deny it’s in a great location but c’mon!”

“Julian.” Allison gave him her you’re-being-silly look. “It’s a good house, the problems are fixable and if you’re really worried about it, we’ll just need to pick a good home inspector.”

“…I want a good one. One not named George.”

“God, anyone! They can even come from Earth for all I care! I’ll pay the travel expenses myself if you’ll just quit being a dummy and admit you like this place!”

“But I don’t, though!” He blurted out, then had regrets the moment Niral quietly slipped away into another room. “Well, okay. No. I…fuck. I dunno. I just want something right here that’s like…half this. It’s too much. Not the cost, I mean—”

Allison softened. “I know what you mean,” she said. “I just wanted you to quit dancing around it. I’m sorry.”

Xiù thought that was maybe unfair. It wasn’t that Julian was dancing around anything. It was more that when he thought or felt something, the words came later when he needed to say them. She’d noticed that tic of his a while ago and it was both charming and a little frustrating.

“…I’m sorry too,” he sighed, and with a quick peck on the lips the argument was gone again. “I just…don’t like it as much. It ain’t bad, I just…for some reason I can’t see us here in my mind’s eye. I always figured we’d pick somewhere, uh…cozier.”

Niral had returned to the room when the voices had quieted. “There are smaller properties, but they will not have three bedrooms. You humans enjoy building family housing like small communes. And they will cost about the same; it’s a tough market.”

Xiù nodded along, then picked up where Niral left off. “Look…we don’t have to decide today, but we do have to all want the place, not just accept it.” She looked at Julian meaningfully.

He didn’t quite relent, but he did scratch the back of his head and concede to the possibility. “No promises yet…lemme get a workout in and think about it.”

“Christ, the more you hang out with the SOR the more they rub off on you,” Allison snorted, but she took Julian’s hand and kissed his cheek. “Go. Think. Slab to your heart’s content. And if you don’t wanna live here then that’s fine. It has to be your house too.”

Julian’s embarrassed little grin was unfairly sexy, and he either didn’t know it or was the most ruthlessly manipulative man Xiù knew, and she knew him too well to believe that. “Okay. I’ll be a bit late. Adam’s got something planned.”

“Okay, but you have to promise not to be grumpy after. Last time he had something planned you got real cranky.”

“Heh.” It was a grim, humorless chuckle. “He can really put the hurt on. Anyway…” Julian checked his phone and pulled a face, “Shit! Gotta run, I’m almost late. Love you both!” With that, he grabbed his bag and charged out the door and sprinted off into the distance.

Allison stood in the middle of the floor with her arms folded staring after him until Xiù draped herself around her from behind, wrapped her arms around her waist, settled her chin on Allison’s shoulders and squeezed. “He’ll be fine.”

Allison sighed. “…I just wish…does he know what he wants? I don’t think he does, sometimes.”

“He just takes a while to figure it out,” Xiù promised, then raised a finger to playfully flick the end of Allison’s nose. “We’re not all as decisive as you.”

“I’d like a little decisiveness from him! I mean…” Her face blushed just a bit, which was a rare sight on Allison. “Besides, y’know.” She coughed slightly and blushed harder.

Even Niral’s ears flicked.

“It’s not a small decision,” Xiù tactfully side-stepped Allison’s embarrassment. “He’s always been the careful one. Would you want him to just jump into things? Or be led by the nose wherever we drag him?” Xiù asked.

“No!”

“Right.”

Allison thought about that for a second, then nodded and unwound.

“…Right.”

Xiù smiled, kissed her and let go. “Shǎguā.”

Niral asked tactfully, “So shall I tell the seller you’re interested? I have other clients today…”

Xiù decided to be a bit more assertive, just for once. “Yes. I’ll make the earnest payment.” When Allison looked at her, “What? If he doesn’t like it I’ll be out some cash, but if he does I’m not missing out on this. Just…don’t tell him.” She turned to Niral. “Either of you.”

“Our little secret.”


Date point: 14y 2m 1w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Singer

“So, if we salt the roots in boiling water with some herbs, and use a very tight…what was the word?”

[“Jar,”] Julian said encouragingly.

“—And then we boil the whole jar with the lid on loose, so the bad spirits can get out but not back in…”

“That is a good way to think about it, yes. If the seal is very tight, then the, uh, ‘bad spirits’ will run away from the salt and the heat, and then they can’t come back in and spoil the food.”

Singer stood in front of Julian and Xiù, who had some of his marvelous little warm-ice-pots he called jars. Some of the other Singers from nearby tribes were watching as well.

“It’s important that you never break the seal once it’s on, Singer.” Xiù chimed in. “Not until you want to eat it. Because very bad spirits can creep in and make you sick if you ate the food.”

“How long will this ‘jarred’ food last?”

[“…Canned.”] Julian chipped in again, with a slightly embarrassed look.

“But those are jars.”

“Yeah. A Sky-Thinker found a way to do the same thing with metal cans instead. So now it’s called canning even though you can use any kind of pot that’s tight and can be boiled.”

Sometimes, English words had a strange story behind them. It was always a bit amazing that they could have so many words, each with a story behind them. But that was probably because the Sky-Tribes had been telling stories to each other for a very, very long time.

“Can we use our pots?”

Xiù looked to Julian, who considered the problem. “You can but it’s important the pots be made very well. You’ll need to seal them with, uh, hardened ketta sap or stinger-wax maybe? Or you need melted fat to pour on top of the food as it cools. And the pots will need to be [glazed] too. That’s not very hard to do. You just need a ‘kiln’ which is a kind of furnace. Which…if you have that, you can also make glass, really.”

‘Glass’ was one of those English words that they’d adopted as their own. The tricky sound at the beginning wasn’t as hard to make as it could be in other words, and it was nice and short, with a strong sound at the end. Very male.

“And can we make glass? Like those ‘beer bottles’ Vemik saved?”

The other Singers trilled in knowing mirth. Vemik had indeed hoarded all of the bottles, cleaned them very carefully, then gave them as gifts to pretty women when the village or the tribes had a celebration. Singer didn’t mind, not really; sometimes the Dance was for everyone to enjoy each other. Other times, the Song was for a man and woman, alone.

Vemik seemed to like Song over Dance, and he liked Singer’s Song the most, which…that warmed her breath. He’d Danced for other young, pretty things and Taken his pleasure as any man should. They were lucky girls: Vemik had one of the strongest Dances of any man. But for Singer…when Vemik truly Danced, it was for her, and her alone. She loved him.

Singer must have drifted off for just a second because the Eldest Singer flicked her ear with a knowing look. Julian noticed too and favored her with one of his sideways smiles, the one she knew meant happiness, humor, and patient understanding.

“You can make glass. It’s…something like making steel. Not as hot,” he quickly added, “But it’s a little tricky. And you need some different things to make it. But you can do it.”

The other Singers gave cautious flicks of their tails. The thinking around ‘steel’ was that making it was powerful taking-magic. Vemik’s forge was clearly a male space; it smelled of hard-working men, and smoke, and heat. But there was a subtle, just-on-the-wind thought amongst the Singers that all the Taking of steel was balanced by the giving-magic needed to do the thing in the first place.

As to what could be done with steel…that could Give or Take. Singer had at least won that argument with her rings. And if this ‘glass’ was the same, maybe they had a chance.

Xiù spoke up at exactly the right moment. “I want to try some of your stews in the jars, Singer. You make one with Tanew-root and Bibtaw that I think would work.” She seemed to have a wisdom deeper than Singer could understand.

That got the Singers’ attention. Tanew-root and Bibtaw were easy to gather and anyone could do it, even the children. The resulting stew was delicious with the right herbs, but it went bad pretty quickly; a day or two and the stew would taste foul, a day later it would have fuzzy black tree-crawler all over it.

The eldest Singer looked at the jars and the big metal ‘pot’ Julian had over the fire, slowly bringing water to a boil. “If we…‘can’ my good stew—” Singer rolled her eyes in her mind. Eldest had too much pride in her cooking. “—you say it won’t go bad?”

“It shouldn’t, no.”

“How long will it be good?”

Julian nodded at Xiù. “We have to make some to test, but…if the jar is completely [airtight] and you store it where it’s dry and dark…very many seasons, maybe.”

The other Singers nodded. Food that could be saved forever! That was strong giving-magic and they would be fools to turn that down.

“We can make other things, too!” Xiù exclaimed, then looked at Singer, “You made us a soup the other day? With fruit in it?”

Eldest Singer’s gaze turned on her sharply, and Singer felt her tail wanting to be between her hands again. “Yes. It uses berries from the Ketta-choker vines. They grow at the top of the trees so only our youngest can get them. It’s…a special treat. For friends.”

“I bet that would can pretty well,” Julian chuckled. “Sweet things usually do. We have a food called ‘jam’ that has to be canned, and it can be very, very sweet.”

That would certainly get the women excited. The best way to a man’s heart was through his mouth, after all, and there wasn’t much of anything a man liked more than sweet sticky food. Particularly if it was being fed to him…

“We need to figure out the exact ‘recipes’ too. Food you want to can has to be made a little differently. And I don’t think we should encourage [sugar] habits, Julian.” Xiù gave him the sharp, affectionate look any woman did when their man was slightly out of line, then turned back to the Singers. “Too much [sugar] can make you fat.”

“Like Professor Hurt?”

The Singers giggled to themselves. The consensus had been that there was a handsome man under the layers of old age and weakness, and that he would be much cuter after all that baby-fat had been worked off of him.

Julian again chuckled, this time with a bit more…smugness. Yes, that was definitely there. “He’s not fat, he’s just fluffy. And he’s getting better, too! Also he’s smarter than any of us so he has an excuse. And to be fair,” he looked at Xiù with a twinkle in his eye, “We don’t know if ‘sugar’ makes the People fat in the first place.”

Xiù nodded in a different way—mouth flattened out, and her eyebrows raised. Singer wasn’t entirely sure what that meant but she seemed to be agreeing with what he said. “Fair, Still…”

Julian chuckled quietly and shook his head. “Right. Anyway. Let’s start with the stew—” Eldest had a smug grin, now, “—and see if it cans well. If it does, maybe I teach the men how to make glass? I’ll need to learn myself…”

[“Glazed pottery might be easier.”]

[“Still need a kiln, though.”]

“True.” They looked back at the Singers. “Why don’t we try with what we have here first? If you like it, we can get started on making little ‘crocks.’ We’d need to build things…”

“Vemik will be excited.” That from one of the distant Singers, who still felt jilted because Sky-Thinker wasn’t interested in bedding her. Singer herself couldn’t feel much sympathy for her yet she couldn’t speak up; the Singers trusted her as one of theirs but she was too close to Vemik’s powerful steel-magic to be completely believed on such things.

In the end, everyone looked toward Eldest. She considered at length while she chewed on the end of a root, then at last conceded. “I will make my stew with you, Shyow. I will see if this ‘can’ idea is any good.”

That settled it. Once Eldest had agreed things moved quickly. A big pot of her (…very tasty) stew was made. Shyow added a little salt—they had so much of it!—and a little more bitter-herb over Eldest’s objections. “Canning can make things taste a little dull. Strong flavors also give more strength to the good spirits in the food. It should be fine…”

Julian’s pot had come to an angry boil. They ladled the stew into each of the nine glass jars, he put the strange metal discs on top and then twisted a metal ring of some sort on, waited a while, then hauled the pot off the fire and put it on the dirt.

“We wait for them to cool, now. If we touch them right now they could break.” The Singers went their ways to attend to things. Later, after the mid-day song and when the jars were cold, he twisted the rings tighter and handed one each to different Singers—Eldest got two. “Don’t open them! And don’t eat them. Bring them back in a hand of days and we’ll see if they’re still safe to eat. Okay?”

The Singers nodded and promised not to open the jars. The rest of the day was spent doing other things, mostly sharing news about new children, deaths in the tribes, the mysterious goings-on between the Given-Men and what people thought the coming winter might be like.

None of that mattered. Everyone’s thoughts were on the jars, and already the Singers had begun to plan for a world with food that could be kept as long as they wanted. What a powerful Giving! No hungry bellies in the winter. The Given-Men wouldn’t need to starve half to death and shrink down to normal-sized men, and children wouldn’t want for anything.

It was a new world they could make for themselves. If the magic was anything like learning steel, learning canning and glass it would be a challenge. Given-Men would be wary. But this time, the Singers knew what was coming. They wouldn’t be surprised, and they knew what to expect. With some gentle words, some sweet promises whispered in ears…

The People would have glass, along with steel.


Date point: 14y 2m 3w AV
Office of the Mother of the Guard, the Clan of Females, Folctha, Cimbrean

Mother Myun of the Clan of Females

Bored. Bored bored bored.

And lonely.

Both were feelings that Myun was not accustomed to experiencing, especially with…well, everything that had happened. The first couple of months since the War had begun were what she was born to do: defend the Clan of Females. With Yulna and Daar personally leading the liberation of the major Communes, her life for those first weeks had been one of non-stop travel. Her primary role was protecting the Mother-Supreme during a raid—she was the last to enter a scene for obvious security reasons—and sometimes being more proactive at the front to help the newly-liberated understand what was happening.

Sometimes, the best way to do that was by destroying their tormentors so that they could see what was happening. The Humans, as they seemed to do with everyone, had tagged her with a callsign: Valkyrie. She’d had to look it up for the meaning, but decided she liked it. It was perfect for her.

Then she wasn’t a Valkyrie anymore. Bored, she’d found herself watching Human movies, and realized she suddenly felt like Wonder Woman stuck in a romantic comedy. She wasn’t adjusting well.

It wasn’t that she hated the arrangement. Not at all! Protecting the Females on Cimbrean was important, so important the Mother-Supreme had appointed Myun personally. It was just that, normally there were interesting things to do and places to explore in her off time. But with the War for Gao underway, the commune was on lockdown permanently and the refugee camps required constant patrols. She ran strict shifts and in her “off-time” was also responsible for the Commune Guard’s training and fitness. Then there was the weekly security liaison with Gabe, the monthly supply shipments…daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly.

Predictable. Like clockwork. Forever. Myun was busier than she had ever been in her life, and she was bored. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except for the other thing she wasn’t: pregnant.

It wasn’t for lack of interest on her part. Something about…well, everything going on had stirred her Mother’s instincts quite strongly. She found herself drawn to the cubs in her spare moments and had become a bit of a menace, in fact. It wasn’t until Momma Seema told her off and pointed out that maybe a cub of her own was just what she needed that things clicked in Myun’s head. She knew Momma was right the instant she said it, and immediately took one of her alleged free days off to go explore a bit, and…

They were avoiding her. All of them. Every male she met was unfailingly polite, but none of them seemed interested. In fact, all of them seemed more interested in getting away from her, and her Stoneback nose meant she could smell why: they were afraid of her.

A year ago she would’ve thought that was badass but now…not so much. It took several more days and eventually the offer of buying lunch—a Female, buying a male lunch!—to understand why. Was it her looks? No. Some digging around confirmed the males thought she was still beautiful, maybe even more so now that her jaw had been repaired. She was still heavily scarred but that apparently was to her benefit. So if it wasn’t her looks, what was it?

Was it her attitude? The little Clanless she cornered didn’t think so. Why were the males so intimidated by her? She didn’t get the answer she really wanted. She did eventually get the little male to warm up to her…but being honest, she wasn’t interested in him. It felt, somehow, too opportunistic of an encounter even in the context of gaoian mating relations.

No. She’d just have to keep at it and figure out what was wrong. She sighed sadly, paid for the meal, and stalked back to the compound.


Date point: 14y 2m 3w 2d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Professor Daniel Hurt

If Daniel were to think back on his early years, on his ambitions and goals, and consider where those things would eventually take him, he was sure of one thing: that he would never have imagined he’d spend his days being crushed on all sides by sweaty, half-ton talking gorillas pressing in tighter and tighter…so they could better read his copy of Green Eggs and Ham.

Lord only knows what would have happened if I’d brought ‘Fox in Socks.’ He suppressed a shudder at the thought of trying to get through that notorious tongue-twister of a book, teaching it to caveman-gorillas equipped with half-meter-long forked prehensile tongues, and instead focused on Yan’s impressive progress with his reading. Not that Daniel had a choice. They were sitting cross-legged on the ground, a young boy and girl in his lap and Yan’s legs and tail wrapped around his waist and pressed in as close as they could get so that the other Ten’Gewek who were gathered around could see.

He’d picked up the basics pretty quickly too, though he did the thing Daniel’s own kids did, and slid his stone-shatteringly thick fingers across the words as he read them. “I…would not eat them, on a…‘boat?’”

“Yes!” All of the Ten’Gewek were fast learners, as fast as humans could be, but Yan in particular was proving bright. Not as bright as Vemik of course—Daniel was beginning to suspect the young man had a genius-level intelligence—but formidable, nonetheless.

“Hum. ‘Boat.’ Means…what does it mean?” That was Vemik, who along with his newest apprentice was hanging off Yan’s back. He had lately been a lot more conscientious of his sentence structure and often corrected himself mid-stream. And now that his face was quite firmly adult-shaped, his pronunciations were getting better almost daily, too.

“It’s something that we can use to cross ponds, lakes, seas, oceans…it sits on top of water like [floater-leaves] do in the pond nearby.”

Daniel could feel Yan shudder behind him and huff disgustedly above. “That feels dumb.” There was a round of trills and a smirk from Hoeff, who was sitting in a tree above and watching with his usual happy smug-mug.

Though Yan and Daniel were about the same height standing up, Ten’Gewek had proportionally longer torsos than humans, which meant that Yan was a good head taller when they were both sitting down and at least twice as broad. He rested his heavy head on top of Daniel’s and trilled quietly, and scratched affectionately at his chest with a giant blunt-clawed mitt.

“All the more reason not to eat green eggs and ham on a boat, then!”

“Why are they green?” Vemik reached down and pointed at the eggs. “That does not look tasty.”

“Because it’s a story, Vemik.” Daniel reached up and scritched him on the side of his jaw; like hugs and chest-scratches, that was a friendly gesture with the Ten’Gewek. “It’s meant to help children learn to read. Easy words, nice sounds…”

Yan grunted and hugged tighter. “I want to eat this ‘ham.’” Of course he did.

“Maybe when you finish the book, big guy.” Yan crushed him painfully tight but only for a moment, using just enough force to briefly and loudly wind the professor to the trilling amusement of everyone. He relented, hugged more affectionately, made the People’s equivalent of a quiet chuckle and agreed. “Okay.”

Yan was a friendly and playful man by nature, but at no time ever could his leadership go unchallenged. By anyone. The Ten’Gewek were very big on that, and the measure of a leader—Given-Men in particular—seemed to be how they handled a perceived slight or unintentional slip of words.

By that measure Yan was a good leader indeed; having reinforced the point that he was the biggest and baddest and that he was in charge, Yan felt free to acquiesce to Daniel’s delusions of grandeur and indulge the silly ideas of the puny little professor he held in his grasp.

That was how he handled most such moments. A noogie here, a firm hug there, maybe a teasing word or two of ribald banter. He never deeply embarrassed anyone, never did anything truly painful—physical or otherwise—and he was definitely never malicious. All in all he showed remarkable restraint, which in Daniel’s estimation was probably the reason he was respected by everyone.

His social interactions were, however, unmistakably dominant. Perhaps even a shade short of bullying, but never actually so. For a neolithic tribal society that seemed a good compromise; people could say their mind as long as they were willing to endure a little rough-housing, and Daniel in particular could lead the Academy without usurping Yan.

Maybe he got a little bruised out of it, sure. But he still got his way. And Yan tended to give him bigger “apology” werne shanks, too. Really, what was there to complain about?

In any event, Yan finished the book then passed it around so everyone could flip through. Ten’Gewek had good memories for stories and learned the words and sounds right off the bat. Sure enough a group of young girls eventually got a hold of it and played a game where one would recall the story while the others followed along, and every time she made a mistake they would jump on it, debate if the words matched up, maybe ask Daniel to referee…

It was a good way to spread the idea of writing. Not ideal, of course. It was anything but that. The original grandiose plan had been to prompt Vemik or whoever to develop a writing system on their own, but that ran into a pretty serious problem right away: nobody had ever managed that in the history of first contact among human tribes, and the linguistic world wasn’t sure such a thing could be done in the first place.

Every experience that humankind had with such events was always predicated on teaching a culture how to read and write first. There was even some debate as to how often writing had come about on earth, and no matter how the point got argued, that number was small.

No. The People needed their own writing, but they needed to understand writing first, and there was no academic’s fantasy of showing them multiple systems and letting them learn from a broad selection. Daniel had to pick one and stick with it, and go from there. Since they had learned to speak English that meant the English writing system, despite its foibles and especially its atrocious orthography. It wasn’t ideal, and already the academic community back home was screaming bloody murder, but as much as Daniel might have wished otherwise this wasn’t some nicely controlled anthropological experiment.

The Ten’Gewek’s survival was on the line, as a species and as a culture. Daniel could see it in his daily interactions with them. Sure, everything was going fine, for now. Yan in particular seemed to understand the issue intuitively and made a point of using their words, and expanding their language with new ones whenever he could. He’d insisted on Julian taking the Rite of Manhood as well, a goal which the big woodsman had been working towards at a fevered pitch; every day he practiced with his spear, every day he sat and listened to the Singer or Yan while they instructed the young boys on the ways of Taking-Magic.

And twice a day almost every day, he pushed his body past limits that Daniel hadn’t dreamed a man could break. If that was how Walsh and the rest of SOR got the way they were…

They all sacrificed so much, really. Walsh and Hoeff stayed behind while Coombes went back to Cimbrean to get the JETS training pipeline properly jump-started. At the same time, Julian had managed to build himself into an athlete so impressive, Walsh was these days figuratively looking over his shoulders at his up and coming competition. He’d done all that, all that pain and work, just so that he could be as ready as possible whenever it was time to take the Rite. He was making heroic sacrifices to get prepared for it. Everyone knew it, Yan in particular.

And if the People did not develop a way to record their ideas and traditions, by themselves, all of that would be for nothing.

And that, in turn, likely rested on Vemik, Yan, and Singer. Daniel had to keep their attention. He had to win the affections of the other Given-Men, which was slowly but surely happening as he too pushed his old body towards fitness. He had to, yes, guide their development a little more forcefully than he’d originally hoped.

And he was running out of time…but there was much room for hope. Daniel watched the People hand the book around. They’d treated it like it was priceless; in a way, it was. Some of the younger children had begun tracing the word shapes in the dirt with a surprising eye for detail.

Daniel smiled to himself. He had a lot of work to do.


Date point: 14y 2m 3w 4d AV
SOR barracks, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Meanwhile…

Brother Faarek (Southpaw) of Clan Whitecrest–SOR

“Are you sure you want to do this, Brother?”

“Yes,” Thurrsto said with absolute conviction. “She’s the most beautiful Female I’ve ever seen and she’s hurting. I can’t bear doing nothing.”

Faarek ignored the accidentally implied insult to his honor and instead focused on Thurrsto’s needs. “Father Regaari would be proud of you. You’ll do fine. Just be sure you know your heart, and remember: Females are fickle.”

“I know, Brother. This is not my first proposal.”

Faarek bit his tongue and duck-nodded along. “I understand, Brother. Did you get your package back from Ironclaw?”

Thurrsto chittered and flowed over to his wall cabinet in the hallway next to the kitchen. “Got it in yesterday, said it’s balanced for someone of her stature.” Thurrsto retrieved a well-made box and handed it to Faarek. “What do you think?”

Faarek peeked inside and admired the gift’s craftsmanship. “She should like this!”

Thurrsto chittered happily, “Good! Now, I just need to find my nice stasis box…”

He bustled off, singing an old Clan tune to himself, and shooed everyone out of the kitchen so he could make his dual masterpieces in peace.

That was good. Faarek was glad to see him happily occupied and feeling more positive. Like everyone in Clan SOR he’d taken their sidelining in the War on Gao pretty harshly—more than the rest, actually—and he’d needed some distraction in his life for months now.

Faarek just hoped it would go well for him. Thurrsto’s luck with Females had always been…tricky. And Myun was an intimidating beautiful goddess of a prize, being the only living daughter of the Great Father, the personal savior of the Mother-Supreme, and having battled and lived through more than all but the most capable males in martial Clans could manage. Faarek couldn’t imagine himself braving the whims of someone that impressive…

And that, in its own way, made Thurrsto the bravest Whitecrest he knew. Faarek chittered to himself, and pitched in with the cooking.


Date point: 14y 2m 3w 5d AV
Office of the Mother of the Guard, the Clan of Females, Folctha, Cimbrean

Mother Myun of the Clan of Females

Myun sat at her desk doing paperwork, a half-hour before lunch and, like every day lately, about ready to bounce off the walls and just kill something. She knew how important it was to protect the Commune and the refugee camps, how prestigious it was to do this thing with the Mother-Supreme’s personal blessing, and yet: wouldn’t she be more useful on Gao, hunting down the holdout “Clans” and nailing their flea-bitten pelts to a wall? The guards on Cimbrean were perfectly capable and besides: the Humans were there. So was the SOR. Her talents were being wasted in a way she couldn’t just say so to Yulna, which…

It seemed so unjust in a selfish sort of way. She could fight! She could—

Sister Leelo’s claws scratched at her door. “Packages for you!”

“…For me? Who are they from?”

Leelo’s ears flicked in a decidedly scandalous manner, and now Myun was wary. “From an admirer! A Brother Thurrsto from Whitecrest, I think.”

Myun remembered that name though she didn’t remember having met him. But! A male sent her things! She would have been a stinky liar if she’d pretended that didn’t excite her.

“Is he cute?”

Leelo flicked her ears in amusement and chittered. “He’s…well, cute isn’t the right word. I don’t even think handsome works. And yet…”

“…And?”

“Well.” Leelo put the two boxes down on Myun’s desk. “I might ask after him when you’ve had your fun, that’s all I’ll say.” And with that, Leelo flounced out of the room with a swish of her tail, leaving Myun to puzzle at the boxes before her.

The first was long and thin, clad in black linen and wrapped with a long, deeply blue silk ribbon. She picked at the knot with a claw and unfurled it, then gently lifted the cover.

Inside was a dagger. A beautifully-made one with a long, double fuller and a hilt that seemed just the right size for her. She lifted it out of the box and it fit her paw perfectly. It had the right kind of weightiness to be serious, but it was light enough that she could slice this way and that without any encumbrance. A few practice swipes confirmed her assessment. A test cut on the ribbon revealed it to be exquisitely sharp. And with a closer examination—

The blade’s fusion edge snapped into brightness. The trigger was right where her claw would rest on her fourth digit and, with just a couple of practice attempts, proved easy to reach.

It was perfect. Myun found herself keening quietly in appreciation. Just then she realized a scent was tickling her nose; faint, but it was one of exertion, of clean musk, of honest work. It smelled male in all the good ways and it was coming from under the cover. She flipped it over and saw a note card, with a simple inscription in a well-practiced, semi-formal style of gaoian calligraphy:

» A warrior should never be without the proper tool for the job. May this prove a weapon worthy of your skill.

» —Thurrsto, Brother, Clan Whitecrest–SOR

Myun keened softly in appreciation. This Thurrsto fellow sure knew how to treat a Female! She gave the card an appreciative smell. Myun had the nose of a pureblood Stoneback and she could smell many things about this male: he was healthy and strong, and when he wrote the card he was clearly quite pleased with himself. There were other hints there, too, nothing concrete but he must have been confident and surrounded by other high-quality males, too.

Why had she never met him? Life was weird sometimes. She set the card down appreciatively on her desk and noticed his mobile number on the back written in Human numerals; infosphere addresses were so much more convenient but of course, the human Internet was still the more pervasive network on Cimbrean. She whipped out her mobile and saved his number.

The other box was more intriguing. It was made of brushed stainless steel and had a hinged lid. She opened it, it beeped, and her nose…

Myun yipped in happiness. Lo mai gai! That was her most favoritest human food! Four perfect bundles in lotus leaf were arranged on the left. On the right, tacos! She sniffed appreciatively: pork? It was gently spiced, not at all how a Human might prepare it, and she definitely smelled sweet-herb in there…her admirer knew what he was doing and she chittered in amusement. It was a lot of food though, and at first she wasn’t sure what to think of that but she once again smelled his scent, a bit stronger this time. She eventually discovered another card hiding in the gap between the trays, that one done in a much more playfully loose Gaori script:

» Food should be shared!

At the bottom there was a quick drawing of a Whitecrest’s head with big eyes and its tongue sticking out. But the best part?

The peshorkies at the top, served alongside an appropriate selection of sautéed vegetables. How exactly he got his paws on fresh produce from Gao was beyond her though she wasn’t about to question her fortune. Gaoian cuisine wasn’t as hugely varied as Human food but Myun had always thought their staples were subtle little masterpieces, even the veggies. Humans seemed to love big, bold, in-your-nose flavors. Gaoians liked those too but they also had more appreciation for the subtle scents and flavors, and peshorkies were the perfect example of that philosophy. Those three dumplings were one each of naxas, kwek, and nava, each in its own little dish and sitting in its own broth. And all three had sweet-herb. Thurrsto’s intent couldn’t be more clear if he were to pounce and drag her off to a convenient bush with waggling ears and a cheesy come-on line.

Which, honestly, that could be fun, too…with the right male.

Myun knew what she had to do. First, she removed the peshorkies from the box and closed its lid. It beeped as its stasis function reactivated; no use letting fresh food go cold! That done she inhaled their aroma and savored them one by one. Delicious. Then she enjoyed Thurrsto’s take on lo mai gai. Four servings was really quite a bit, but each had its own little plate. Time to share! She wolfed down a taco as well—also _fantastic_—and went to spread her food-borne cheer.

She talked him up, too. A thoughtful male deserved good attention! The other guards were very interested after she described her gifts, so after re-asserting her claim on him, Myun and her most bestest friends cyber-stalked Thurrsto.

Leelo was right. Thurrsto definitely wasn’t cute. And handsome really was the wrong word for him. But, well…there was something brutally attractive about him that was hard to define. His online presence was pretty sparse, but where he was active he generally came off as level-headed and intelligent, with a wry sense of humor. No silly political conspiracies or anything, he was straight-laced and thoughtful. Hard to pin down, even. He was interesting.

And he was big too. Bigger and stronger-looking than any Whitecrest had any right to be, bigger than most brownies and all of that was before he’d joined up with Clan SOR. Now…

Myun decided to get things going and sent him a text message while her friends chittered teasingly. Whatever, they were quite obviously a little jealous. And anyway, why not go on a date? It sounded fun, he seemed interesting, and Myun needed to socialize more anyway.

Time to visit the groomer again. She chittered to herself and made that appointment, too.


Date point: 14y 2m 3w 3d AV
Folctha Colony Amphitheatre, Folctha, Cimbrean

Technical Sergeant Adam (Warhorse) Arés

It was a date night. Sadly, it was probably going to be the last proper date night they’d have for a long while, since the doctor said Marty had to be completely free and clear of the birth control implant for several months before they could risk proper funtime again. Adam didn’t really mind. He had some pretty epic needs, no point denying it, but…hey, he could wait. He’d done it before, right? No biggie.

Besides. While a nice all-night roll in the hay was the first thing on his list of “Things That Were the Most Bestest About Dates,” If he had to pick a second-place entry—and he did, otherwise it wasn’t a List worthy of the Book—Adam would probably have to go with “dress up all pretty an’ shit.”

He’d been waiting for this moment, too. The aftermath of Dark Eye meant that everyone on the HEAT had ridden one hell of a training rebound. Everyone had seen all their numbers jump a whole bunch and he most of all. But as much as he appreciated the opportunity to grow stronger again…even if the cost was way too high, and recently their gym time had been almost a memorial service…anyway. That did mean he had to hold off until his body had calmed down, so to speak. That day arrived about a week before, coincidentally around the same time the Israeli Philharmonic of all things had announced a concert.

So, Adam took a day trip to Earth, went to a good bespoke tailor to spend a painful amount of money…and got himself fitted for formalwear. The fitting was a little awkward ‘cuz the tailor seemed like he was on the edge of freaking out the whole time, but eh, what could Adam do? It wasn’t like he could turn off his huge or anything, but in the end they got ‘er dun. He’d never worn anything that nice before, ever. And he was surprised to find it was comfortable, too!

Too bad the shoes wouldn’t last for more than a couple of uses, even if they were bespoke too. He’d slipped them on and taken one step, and the moment he’d felt the soles squish under his feet he knew their lifetime would be counted in hours, at best. As silly as his weight was these days he’d never found a pair of anything that lasted for long, except for the EV-MASS’s foot system and of course his favorite custom-made hiking sandals. Maybe he’d give up and ask for metal soles next time, or whatever spacemagic his sandals used?

Oh well. That still meant he got to surprise Marty with a well-fitted tuxedo. With a vest! Or, well, “dinner jacket” and “waistcoat” as the Limeys called it, but whatever. She’d known he’d went to Earth of course, and she’d see the boxes under his arms…but when he got all dressed up for her and thumped back into the living room…

He’d treasure that look for the rest of his life. Then she stood up and gave him another look, and he had to take it all off again. He’d treasure that memory, too. Two days later Marty surprised him with her dress…and he’d needed to repair it, after he’d almost ripped it off of her. Eventually. He got around to fixing it late the next day, or something.

For tonight though, they were being all dapper and civilized.

“I never thought I’d actually go to an orchestra,” Adam mused.

Marty laughed that beautiful musical laugh of hers. “Why? Are clydesdales afraid of a little noise?”

“Please,” he grinned, “A warhorse ain’t afraid of some silly little violins an’ shit.” They were ambling towards the seating now, and a few of the concertgoers gave him an amused look.

“Oh,” Marty sighed and shook her head, “Silly little violins, eh? We’ll see…”

That grin. That evil grin of hers, the one that could make his heart literally stop in his chest and his IQ drop like fifty points. Not that he could afford a drop that big, but still.

Whatever. They got seated—well, she did. Adam sat in the aisle and tried not to be a giant lump in the way of everyone. Then they waited, and there was some talking, and then a single violin guy came out…tuning? Maybe? He didn’t know. But the conductor guy spoke just then:

“Ladies, gentlemen, and honored guests, We present to you the first of several pieces we intend to play for you tonight, ‘Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanæ cantoribus et choris cantandæ comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis,’ a scenic cantata composed by Carl Orff. There are two other compositions we will perform for you tonight as well, and we’d normally list them on a Playbill, but…we would like to surprise you. Enjoy.”

“Oh yeah. You’re not meant to clap until the end,” Marty whispered.

“Okay. So, just listen?”

“Yeah-huh. No clapping between movements. You can clap between compositions, though.”

“How will I know?”

“You’ll know, trust me. And if you don’t, just clap when everybody else does.”

“…Okay.” Marty chuckled and nuzzled him quickly, then reclined in her chair.

Adam thought that sounded like it would be boring and was already maybe regretting the whole thing. He could be back working on his growing Space Marine army, or maybe—

The music started. Adam forgot everything else.


Date point: 14y 2m 3w 3d AV
Folctha Colony Amphitheatre, Folctha, Cimbrean

Brother Thurrsto (Carebear) of Clan Whitecrest-SOR

Music.

Pure. Overwhelming. A sonic assault that was almost painful. There was a choir, over a hundred strong with piercing, powerful voices. There were more instruments than Thurrsto had ever seen before, an entire section of percussion that would confound and delight the drum corps of any Clan. And at the front of it all there was a man called the ‘conductor,’ the leader of this almost military-like, well-disciplined formation of musical performers.

He raised his arm.

The music began. A triumphant, tragic roar at first that then dipped into a quieter, more urgent mode. It was in some strange language that Thurrsto had never heard before but he didn’t have his translator with him so he’d simply listened. It sounded…conspiratorial. Ominous. Then a build up, a sudden repeat of the theme from the beginning, but now somehow darker—

Very suddenly, a totally different mood. Was it a different song? But there was hardly any pause? That was different, and strange. He looked to Myun who was just as non-plussed as he was…

And the experience went on. It gave him more or less every sensation Thurrsto could imagine music invoking and then some, yet at no point was it gentle. Even the quiet pieces were somehow overwhelming, maybe because they weren’t a sonic assault. It was…masterful.

And it was an emotional roller-coaster of a ride. Carmina Burana had a number of pieces to it and ran for some time. There was an intermission, then more music, and then a final composition that Thurrsto felt certain no other species in the galaxy would have ever conceived, even one possessed of musical talents on Human scale.

The two of them couldn’t stop talking about it on the walk back to Adam’s apartment.

“Actual cannons! In music!” Thurrsto approved.

So did Myun. “Yeah! Where did they even get them from? Do they just have ‘em laying around?”

The two had decided to amble back toward Warhorse’s apartment, since Thurrsto was crashing in his guest bedroom while the barracks was being expanded. They were making pretty good time before the evening rains came along and soaked everything and everyone who was foolish enough to remain outside and exposed.

“They’re not useful in modern conflict,” Thurrsto mused. “They have far better tools now. Maybe they’re historical relics?”

“For a concert?” Myun scratched at her belly with her razor-sharp claws, “They fetishize their old stuff just as much as we do!”

Thurrsto chittered; it was true, both species had a thing for artifacts of their histories. “Maybe they had them custom made! Like giant firecrackers or something?”

“They do use disposable mortar tubes for fireworks…”

“So maybe they made these to look badass!”

That earned him a melodious chitter and a fond set of her ears. “You’re surprising! I was expecting someone all serious and stuff.”

“Who, me?” Thurrsto chittered and waggled his ears, feeling buoyed by the compliment. “How could a male with a face like mine take anything seriously?”

“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with your face! Maybe…I like it.” Myun flattened her ears, then her nose twitched up. “Crap. Rain. How far away are we?”

Thurrsto was nearly thunderstruck by the complement but rallied back to his senses at the thought of getting soaked “—Oh! Not far. C’mon!” Without thinking he sank to all fours and started to run. He cursed to himself, silently…just as Myun tore past him on fourpaw.

“Race you!”

Thurrsto chittered in relief, poured on the speed and caught up. “You don’t know…where it is!”

“So?”

He burst forward, intent on keeping a lead, pedestrians jumping out of the way as the two full-grown gaoians barged through like a pair of cubs on a rampage. When Adam’s gym came into sight she surged forward and it was all Thurrsto could to to keep and expand his lead.

He won. But only just. Myun was fast and made of sterner stuff than the average gaoian. They made it to the front door just as the clouds truly opened up, for which Thurrsto was thankful and Myun was teasing.

“You Silverfurs are so vain about your coats!”

“A boy’s gotta have something!” Thurrsto chittered and unlocked the door. They padded through the gym and went straight to the staircase which seemed to surprise her.

“Oh? Not going to show off those big manly muscles of yours?”

He gave a smug little flick of his ears. “Oh, I will if you want…”

“…I do.” She said it with a hungry expression. “And I wanna tussle on the mat with you, too…”

“Tempting!” He chittered, “But I have something much better upstairs. Something that’ll get your blood really moving.”

“Thurrsto,” Myun gave him a sinfully playful look. “I don’t mate on the first date!”

“Good, neither do I. Though I’m told that’s a genuine shame,” he said, drily. Before she could retort, “I must confess, my plans for tonight are entirely chaste despite strong temptation…”

“Flatterer! And it’ll thrill and amaze, you say?”

Thurrsto didn’t reply, he just flicked his ears and pant-grinned, pointed his nose up the stairs, and charged up all four flights on fourpaw. Myun was right behind him and teasing impatiently while he fumbled the door’s palm reader; he wasn’t complaining, especially when she nipped him on the ear!

He was momentarily stunned until she snapped him back to his senses. “Door. Open.”

“—Right!”

He eventually managed the palm lock. Damn monkeys and their stupid paws…or hands…or whatever. Anyway. Adam and Martina weren’t home yet, weren’t going to be for a few hours from what Thurrsto had understood but that was okay; first dates tended to end early anyway.

Or, at least, his did. He didn’t dwell on the idea for more than a moment.

“I’d ask if this was your place but it smells like Warhorse’s armpit. Is it his?”

“It is! We’ve got it to ourselves for a little while…” Thurrsto ambled over to the large video display and dug through the box of things at its bottom, “And that’s just enough time for me to utterly defeat you—ah! Here it is!” He fished the ancient electronic device out and proceeded to untangle its cords.

Myun was competitive and Thurrsto could smell her aggression flare. “Beat me at what, you hulking oaf? I’ll bite your tail anyday.” Awesome.

Thurrsto’s heart leapt at the disguised compliment, which might have offended a pampered pretty male…but Thurrsto could smell her interest and see her eyes trace every line of him.

But that was for another night. Instead he flipped the console’s switch, stood, and handed Myun one of the controllers. He flashed her an evil chittering grin.

“Have you ever played Mario Kart?”


Adam opened the door as quietly as he could and snuck into his apartment. Not an easy feat for him, even with a commercial-grade concrete slab and I-beam underflooring. He managed anyway, tip-toed his way to the bedroom and grabbed their “go bags” for a quick, impromptu adventure at the Statler hotel. Marty would need something besides a dress tomorrow and he’d really like some gym clothes since they wouldn’t becoming back until late…

Or, maybe the next day. Or…later. It was a long weekend, after all.

The reason he was sneaking was due to the two Gaoians curled up in a ball together on his couch, noses tucked under their tails in the most ridiculously adorable way. He couldn’t help the massive grin on his face and hurried as quietly as he could back to the front door.

Marty was waiting on the stairwell landing with a slightly confused expression on her face. He’d bid her be quiet when they got home ‘cuz the palm lock was red. She didn’t know why that was important. Not yet. That was for right now.

Just for fun, he scooped her up with one arm and carried her down the stairs over her quiet, giggling protests. They didn’t talk until they reached the bottom of the stairs.

“What now, ponyslab? You’ve got something planned. I always know when you’re planning.”

“I don’t try to hide it! Now, just gotta wait for the truck…”

“Truck, huh? How romantic of you…” She really was a cruel tease, and that grin of hers was sinfully dangerous.

“Short notice, and I’m heavier’n those shitty ‘lil plastic bubble-cab things they stick a motor and a cell phone on, you know that. Besides…” he leaned in conspiratorially and whispered into her ear, “Thurrsto and Myun are upstairs.”

“Wait. Wait. Those two? Since when!?”

“Since right now!” Adam bounced in place, “They were at the concert too, didn’t you see?”

“No, I didn’t notice! How long have you known?”

“Dude, like three weeks. He’s been planning this for over a month.”

“And you didn’t tell me? I need details, thunderchunk.”

“Okay! I’ll tell you in the ride over to the hotel.”

“…Hotel, eh?” There was that sly grin, even stronger than ever. “Also, what truck can haul your meaty ass around?”

“Ain’t using a commercial one. Asked the LT and checked out a truck from base, s’long as I send it back and pay for the milage I’m golden.”

“Clever slab! Now for the rest, lemme guess. Nice penthouse suite, right?”

Adam shrugged ruefully. “Eh, not quite. Short notice and all, and y’know. Reinforced bed. But yeah. It’s a nice room.”

“And you’ll carry me up the stairs, I presume.”

“Oh yeah, why use the elevator? Real men do things the hardest way!” Adam waggled his eyebrows, rolled his wrist and made his forearm swell and rip through the shirt, “I can flex my muscles and stuff for ‘ya, too!”

Marty was way smarter than him and he wasn’t stupid a stupid man at all, he just played one on TV sometimes. That was one of the grounding truths in their relationship and he didn’t mind that at all. He liked being the amiable hulky doofus to her wisecracking supergenius. But the other thing he liked, that they both liked…was that he was the most man of any man there was, and they both knew it. And both of them got off on it, too.

“…Mhmm.” She stared at his flexing forearm for a moment, then quickly recovered her snark. “And then I suppose, instead of a night of courtly romance…”

Adam waggled his eyebrows even harder. “Hey! You like a good roll in the hay just as much as me, don’t lie!”

“Oh, definitely. But knowing you we won’t be stopping at one night, will we?”

“Well. I will need to pause to eat every now and then.”

“Of course.” She shook her head and sighed indulgently. “God, you’re a predictable chunk.”

“Mhmm. You love it.” The truck turned the corner at the end of the block and Adam waved it down. Which was stupid, now that he thought about it; it was an autonomous vehicle after all.

Marty noticed and smirked but decided not to tease. “Think you could maybe not tear off my dress this time? It wasn’t cheap.”

The truck pulled up on the curb. Adam took her hand and opened the door for her.

“I won’t make promises I can’t keep…but at least I can sew.” He stole a kiss from her, then. Quick but passionate, just the kind he knew made her putty in her hands. Well, that and the bearhug. Both worked.

“Mmmm,” she purred right against his neck. God he loved that. They piled in the truck’s rear cab and ordered the destination. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Neither would he.


Date point: 14y 6m AV
Chiune Station, Folctha, Cimbrean

Moses Byron

At the end of the day, the thing that any CEO of any major corporation had to remember was that he had an inescapable obligation: he must increase shareholder value, or at the very least not hemorrhage cash like it was going out of style. And that left Moses with a problem.

Misfit needed to turn a profit. Oh, she already had to be sure, their previous discoveries were likely to net Byron Group literally billions in profit over the coming years. And it wasn’t that the Misfit’s crew were lazing about either. They too were turning a modest-yet-solid return under the AEC’s “interim exploratory liaison” contract and that wasn’t something to be ignored. The Ten’Gewek needed them and establishing trust with another group would probably be impossible. Hell, what Julian was going through to prepare for that role was darn impressive and Moses would challenge anyone to say otherwise, military, athlete or professor.

None of which changed the central value proposition. Those kids represented many billions of dollars of potential revenue. Not using them for their intended purpose was an almost criminal act of fiduciary neglect, and his shareholders had begun to make noises.

Which was why they’d recently re-negotiated their contract with AEC, and the crew was waiting in the boardroom, clad in their ship uniform of modern tracksuits emblazoned with MBG branding, shuffling confidently about and mostly looking like a gaggle of high-achieving movie heros. Xiù especially, that woman could make darn near any situation look like a photoshoot for a Hollywood blockbuster. Allison was doing her Sarah Connor thing—and doing it well—while Julian looked like he was smuggling cantaloupes in his overstretched sleeves. Byron made a mental note to task Kevin with another uniform order.

Which was a good point, actually; Byron decided they needed to do another press junket. Eventually. While they were still in the full bloom of youth. There was a lot to be said for youthful movie-star appeal, though Moses would personally eat an entire haberdashery if the trio didn’t age gracefully….not that he’d be around too much longer to see if he was right.

“We’ve negotiated some modifications to your contract with Allied Extrasolar Command. Nothing to take you away from Vemik and family,” Byron said soothingly as Julian suddenly tensed and stood more upright, “We are just requiring you to accomplish a little exploration on the side. We can’t afford to let Misfit sit idle, now.”

The three looked at each other intently for a long moment, then faced him. Xiù was the one who eventually spoke.

“We don’t object, Mister Byron. It is in our contract, but…”

“Yes?” Byron mosied over to his bar and fixed himself a little something to drink. The crew, long since used to his charms, declined immediately.

“That can take time that the Ten’Gewek can’t afford. We were gone for almost two years last time we explored, and about, what, a year-and-a-half when we underwent refit?”

“A full season on Akyawentuo,” said Julian, who assumed his traditional cross-armed bouncer posture in the corner of the room. Lately that was a mighty effective trick of his. “There are some time-sensitive things happening with the People that would be really hard to rebuild if we don’t stick with them.”

“I’m aware. And I am also aware of your, ah, training regime, Julian. I wouldn’t spoil it for the world.” The big man grumbled and nodded while Moses busied himself making a Shirley Temple. “Fortunately, your ship hasn’t been idle. We’re still getting BEST telemetry from her even now. And our network of People out in the great wide galaxy is getting wider every day. Some of them managed to track down some old star charts for the region. Really, really old. You know you kids are the first survey ship in the region since the Corti were knapping flint?”

Allison raised her eyebrows. “No shit?” She had never been one for decorum, ever.

“Would I lie?” Moses asked. “Anyway, we compared the two and accounted for a rogue star that passed through sometime in the last couple hundred thousand years, and we have two shiny candidate worlds for you to check out. Both marked as deathworlds on the old map, both within a hundred light years of Akyawentuo.”

“…Really.” Julian was suddenly interested and prowled over to the display on the wall, intent on studying the targets. Silently too, which wasn’t something a man his size should have been able to do. The floor had a creak in it but somehow he’d always managed to move without a sound no matter where he was or what he was doing. It was for that reason that of the three, Julian was the only one who could be genuinely unsettling. He was quiet.

Moses had brought a science advisor for this meeting, a reedy little man called Thom Westridge who seemed to be more than a little enamored of the crew. “That’s three candidate worlds out of nearly fifty thousand star systems, including Akyawentuo. You should be able visit both with a total of one month for flight time and a month each for survey.”

“Apparently that kind of density makes Earth’s neighborhood look like the Sahara Desert,” Moses added.

“It’s a real shame because some of the other features in the area are really interesting. There’s one proto-temperate planet out there that we’d just love to look at and see how it’s changed in the last quarter of a million years…” Westridge trailed off with a reluctant sigh, leaving the impossibility that Misfit might conduct that survey unspoken.

“That’s stuff we’d love to do, man. It sounds interesting. But…” Julian shrugged hugely.

“…But ultimately that planet won’t suffer if we don’t check it out just yet,” Moses said. “Shareholders and profits though, they get antsy mighty quick.”

“And it’s going to affect our bottom line, hon.” The ever-practical Allison looked toward Julian and Xiù, who both nodded along.

“That’s the nature of the private sector,” Moses agreed. “We’re not doing this for the sentiment, even though believe me the sentiment is there.”

“So the plan is for us to check out those two,” Xiù summarized. “…What happens next?”

Moses sat back and rested his hands on his gut with his fingers interlaced. “That’s up to you,” he said. “For my part, so long as you’re flying Misfit and finding stuff then I’ll jump at the chance to sign a third tour, and a fourth, a fifth if you want ‘em…” he reached forward and picked up his drink. “But if you find your interests drifting elsewhere, well. I need to know, because I need that ship making money. And I may not be young anymore, but I think it’s pretty obvious you three have plans, and they don’t include long-term voyages.”

They looked at each other uncomfortably. Bingo. People could what they would, but Moses Byron had a knack for human nature and right now those three were as lovestruck as it was possible for anyone to be. He’d have to be blind not to see it.

Far be it for him to get in the way of nature and youth. That left only one question: how could Byron Group profit from it?

“Right. So let me give all three of you an open job offer right now. Any position in the company that fits your skills and personality. I know Doctor Brown wants you on her design team, Allison. Full benefits, medical, dental, pension, shares…” he grinned “…and you’d better believe I don’t make open offers like that to just anybody. The Hephaestus Consortium and others will try to headhunt you; we’ll beat any offer they make.”

Julian reached behind his head to scratch the back of his head, and his arm-cantaloupes threatened to burst his upper sleeve. “…Dang. That’s a hell of an offer.”

Moses deployed one of his subtler charming smiles. “We did just send you flying around the galaxy in a multi-billion dollar spaceship, and you easily repaid that trust a thousand times over,” he pointed out. “D’you really think we wouldn’t maybe want to keep you?”

“Most employers don’t lay it out quite that thick,” Allison said drily. “It ain’t good tactics to let someone know how far you’re willing to go.”

“Most employers aren’t Moses Byron.”

“Most fellas don’t refer to themselves in the third person, either.”

“They’re not Moses Byron either,” Moses joked, and let a real smile deepen his wrinkles. “For real though, obviously we have our limits… but so do all the others. As Governor Sandy once said to me, don’t try your hand at equine dentistry.”

The three of them pondered for a long moment. Eventually Xiù approached Thom and pointed at the overview on the display. “What do we know about these two worlds?”

“The first one’s a super-Earth. One-point-two Gs. The survey data—which bear in mind is older than ice ages at this point—said that it was warm and dry overall, with small ice caps. Local flora and fauna were all noted to be quite large. Think of giant ground sloths from the Pleistocene era.”

“Like on Akyawentuo. That’s a very wild world. Lots and lots of megafauna.”

“The second one is a very close match for Earth. Its surface gravity is almost identical to ours, similar oceanic coverage, similar humidity and average temperature. It’s quite tectonically active and the survey comes with a note from the OmoAru surveyor about interesting microflora that feed on—get this—the ‘large volumes of petrochemical oil under the ocean floors’.”

Julian rolled his eyes and rested one leg against the other. “Oil, huh? Never let it be said you ain’t entirely obvious, boss.”

“We’re never going to be free of the need for it, Julian,” Moses informed him. “Gasoline and diesel may be going out of fashion, but the Devil will need a parka before humanity quits plastic. And if anybody knows how to make it without oil, they aren’t sharing.”

Julian chuckled and crossed his arms again, this time with a sideways smile. “Oh, you’ll never hear me complain. A clear plastic sheet out in the woods is useful as hell.”

“There’s research into algae systems,” Thom said unconvincingly, and found himself dragged into a sideways one-armed hug by Julian. The look of fanboy surprise was a little much.

“The way I see it, even if we somehow can’t profit off the oil, if there are microbes out there that eat plastic then we can profit off those instead,” Moses said. “Either way that planet pays for the whole EV program all by itself, including the failures. So you go out there, you plant the flag and you name it whatever you like.”

“Ayma,” Xiù said firmly. “We’re naming it Ayma.”

There was a defiant shine in her eyes as though she was expecting somebody to argue, but Julian and Allison just nodded fervently, while Thom simply looked lost.

“…Good name,” Moses said, as kindly as he could.

“We’ll do it,” Julian said on behalf of the three, who nodded in return. “As long as we aren’t endangering AEC’s mission on Akyawentuo and as long as they agree.”

“Good!” Moses decided it was time to move on to other matters on his schedule. “I won’t keep you three waiting. Kevin will have your contract for you shortly. Thom, if you can give them the briefing…?”

Julian half-dragged the little scientist and plopped them both down onto the couch alongside the room, and immediately began grilling him on the details of what they were planning.

Moses knew enough to let his employees handle the details. He was a big picture man; pick good people, pick the right mission and goal, and pay everyone well enough that they would attend to everything on their own. It was a much less stressful way to run a company, and besides:

A crew like those three needed to feel valuable. That was his most potent recruiting tactic. With luck, it would keep them under his employ, out of the talons of his competitors—

And their hard work would increase shareholder value. Moses finished his Shirley Temple and left them to it.

After all, it was a long way back to Earth.


Date point: 14y 8m AV
Residence of the Great Father of the Gao, Folctha, Cimbrean

Sister Naydra

The months on Cimbrean had been…therapeutic. She found herself greatly appreciating the Female presence on the Human’s first colony world, and everything it stood for: stability, acceptance. Survival. The Humans had done so much to support the growing Commune. And along with the Great Father and Mother-Supreme both backing its existence as an independent polity, her sudden involvement with the new Commune’s construction and all of that…somehow, the opportunity to be productive and useful did wonders for the soul.

A strange concept really, one she’d learned from now-Champion Gyotin. It was even stranger then she first imagined once she realized that Gaori already had a word for the idea, even if it had fallen into disuse as archaic language. Why did they have the concept? Why didn’t they now? Gyotin constantly posed such questions to any who would listen, and it was having an impact. The implications of such ideas were a struggle for another day, however.

Right then, her struggle was eating enough for the growing cub in her belly.

That had been therapeutic too, and not just for her. If anything, the terrible wrong that had been inflicted on her had seemed to distress the Great Father more than herself. He made regular visits to check in on her and the other females who had been so grievously assaulted, listened to their stories and their pleas. He didn’t quite know what to do, didn’t know what to say or how to make it better, but he seemed determined to Help however he could, no matter what it might cost. And it was costing him, deep down where he tried and failed to hide it. They could all see it.

She fell in love with him.

He was, contrary to everything she had ever heard about him, an absolute gentleman about everything. He had at first insisted she find some young, innocently cute male, that he’d “sired his share”—a nigh heretical thought for a male, also a word she’d learned from Gyotin—that he didn’t want to take advantage of anything and all that…he tried to Protect her to the very end, perhaps afraid on some level that her infatuation was borne of trauma and little else.

But that wasn’t what she needed. She needed to be loved like only a male could love a female. She needed to be cherished. And under all the defensive and selfless layers the Great Father wore like a mantle to protect his own sanity…he needed that, too.

She was insistent. He desperately wanted to say yes. And repeatedly refused, until Gyotin publically slapped the Great Father across the face and told him to “stop being a silly idiot, and love like you’re meant to!” It was shocking, a true affront, something that could well have spelled a war between Clans right at the worst possible time…and Daar picked Gyotin up like a tiny cub, wrapped him up in a great smashing hug, and keened.

That incident had now become legendary and before anyone knew what had happened, it had spread across the news shows on Gao and on Earth. There were some small concessions to decorum, of course; Gyotin had done something unbelievable to repay his transgression. He bent knee and exposed his throat to the Great Father, on live news coverage. That was apparently something the Champions had previously in private, an act of submission between themselves and the Great Father…not anymore. Soon all the Champions had followed suit, also publically. And at the end, Mother-Supreme Yulna had done the same.

That was a powerful and historic moment. A dangerous one, really, but much to the Great Father’s credit he used the occasion to re-forge his relationship with the Clans. Gone was their unquestioning subservience. In its place was a concept he’d learned called “loyal opposition,” an idea borrowed from Human governments. Really it was an attitude, more than anything; he felt it was okay, even expected, to publicly oppose and even vigorously argue against a plan of action as long as it was understood by the people to be in the public interest, and as long as there was no dissent once the order was given. It was a truly alien concept amongst the Clans of Gao, one that would have long-lasting consequences.

And one that would earn Daar, Second Great Father of the Gao, the greatest accolades of history long before he’d grown old or lost any of his vitality.

The weight of it all was killing him. Would end him, were it not for Regaari…and her.

In private, between him and Naydra, when nobody else could ever hear…Daar confessed much to her. He had warned her from the outset that the affections of a Great Father had a terrible price. He had to have her perfect discretion and her secrecy until the very last, no matter the cost. She would live a cloistered life under perpetual guard. If they were to mate, he had said, there could never be another male for her and he could not be exclusive to her in return. It would need approval of the Champions and of the Mother-Supreme. There were ancient customs involved, not to mention her safety and the safety of any of their cubs.

She didn’t care about the difficulties. He wasn’t exaggerating, either. Stonebacks never lied of course, a Great Father even less. But somehow his candid truthfulness hadn’t prepared her for the finality of the thing. Words were said. Witnesses—even a few Humans—were present. At the end of it all, Naydra was bound to the Great Father. Daar. Her Daar.

And the rumors were true. All of them…especially the gossipy ones the Sisters loved to share. He was every bit the male Koruum had never been: incredibly strong and utterly dominant, truly beastial where it mattered and enduring beyond words, caring and affectionate like she had never experienced before. She could not have asked for a better mate. They were together as much as could be had, though he was of course bound to the war on Gao and could only visit occasionally. But that didn’t matter. They sent messages back and forth constantly, sharing their little secrets and big struggles. It was…difficult, hearing his daily confessions, but she understood her duty. In that regard, she and Regaari got along very well; heavy was the burden of a Great Father. Heavier still was the responsibility of his confidants.

It was almost a shame, really. Regaari would have been an excellent mate. But Naydra loved Daar, her Daar, and that was a promise she would never break.

His cub was growing fast inside her and was already a demanding male, just like his sire. He would be a big one if she was to make an entirely easy guess, and Daar in a private setting was every bit as solicitous as the Human comedies made expectant fathers out to be. He had never spent much time with an actual pregnant Female, being typically much more invested in the preliminaries, as it were. It was a learning experience for both of them. His nose detected every little thing that might have bothered Naydra about anything and he was almost overbearing in his doting devotion to her. When he was there to dote, anyway. And not himself stinking of blood: after the first incident and the terrible memories it had recalled, Naydra had put her foot down and he never again visited without being freshly shorn and very well-bathed. He had also had the good sense to offer a Human treat as by way of apology—vanilla ice cream—which went a long way in her good books.

Her Human friends found all of it endlessly amusing.

Plus, if she was being honest…he was very easy on the eye with his fur trimmed right back. She wondered if he could be convinced to keep his coat short all the time…

Naydra sighed fondly and caressed the young life growing inside her. He would be able to visit again after the next review of troops and she was very much looking forward to it, to his kind thoughts, his gross sense of humor, his very male scent and the warmth of his powerful body curled around her. Soon. Everything was moving and growing so fast. Cubs in Mothers, armies on Gao. Power and responsibility for Grandfathers, Champions, and the Great Father.

No matter. That was how the Gao had handled every crisis in their history. They adapted, they grew, they moved on with cheery optimism and unlimited energy. The other species seemed mystified by it all; how could any species withstand the loss of their homeworld, let alone attempt to take it back? For the plant-eaters of the Dominion that seemed an alien concept.

Not for the Humans. They knew. For them, never again had a deep and real meaning that the Gao were beginning to understand, too. It was a concept born of the will to survive. It was grim, and determined.

It was a Deathworlder’s sentiment. And the Gao understood.


Date point: 14y 8m AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Uncharted System
Initial survey operations

Allison Buehler

“Exactly one-point-two G. Huh.”

Julian nodded and swiped through some more of the metrics for their newly found planet. “Yyyup. It’s a pretty much perfect match for Akyawentuo. Similar size, similar gravity. Warmer and drier though.”

Misfit felt more cramped now. Part of that was Julian’s growing muscles, which made their already-intimate space even more intimate in the best ways…but after living in the woods and visiting Cimbrean for months, being back in the ship for more than just sleeping felt weirdly confining.

But that was the job. MBG wanted two more planets surveyed, so two more planets were getting surveyed. So, they were hundreds of lightyears from Akyawentuo, pinging a planet that could have been its cousin.

Except for the giant crater.

It was a natural impact, Julian said. Some comet or asteroid or something had slapped the new world hard enough to leave a permanent pock-mark, and introduce a little wobble in its revolution.

Xiù looked over her shoulder from the window. “We could call it… Akyawen-two?” she suggested.

Allison rolled her eyes, but she was amused. “Babe, you are such a dork sometimes…”

Xiù just beamed prettily and returned to the table. “Can we land?”

Julian looked up from his station and practically wiggled in his seat at the idea of Outside. The poor guy had the worst kind of cabin fever and it was all he could do to keep from bouncing off the walls most days. It was the one downside Allison could detect in his new fitness regime—before, he’d had no trouble just relaxing and letting the days roll by while they were in warp. He’d cuddle, watch a documentary, run through some of his training games and let the slow rhythm of interstellar travel wash over him.

She liked this slightly more active, much stronger Julian, but she did wish for his sake that he hadn’t forgotten how to switch off.

“It’s the calories,” he’d said apologetically one day. “I gotta do something with ‘em. And I can’t eat any less or it’ll all have been pointless.”

“Can’t you, like, I dunno, just relax and write more of Daniel’s essays?”

He’d just gave her a Look.

When it came to looking at a planet from above and finding interesting stuff on it though, all that restless energy got turned into focus. He’d go over the GeoSat data for hours, quite happily. Sometimes he’d even need to be reminded to go Slab or whatever the fuck he was doing these days, which was different: most days he almost had to be pulled away from the gym or his bros…

It was a nice change of pace. Geeky Julian was really the sexiest Julian, because it was a mode of his that only showed up when something properly grabbed his interest.

“So what does this one have going for it?” Xiù asked, craning to see between them. They stepped aside to let her in.

“Soil nitrates. My God it’s fertile down there. It’s like the American plains, except the biggest heat signature’s only about the size of a dog!”

“So…” Allison wasn’t entirely up on her ecology. ”No big animals? There were in the old survey reports.”

“None that we can detect. The asteroid impact? We’d need to go look around to be sure…”

And then his Happy Leg Twitch. God he was so easy to read, and about as subtle as a bear eating a moose. He wanted to go down there bad.

“No big plants, either,” Xiù observed. “Look at the radar map.”

That one Allison could read just fine, and it was telling stuff. Flat, open terrain produced a strong radar return, water doubly so. Both showed up brightly on the map. But forests were spongy, soft, rough textures which came back dark on the map and there were hardly any to be seen. Side-by-side with the hyperspectral survey, it was hard to spot plants down there that amounted to more than scrubby badland.

“God, I bet there’s some good hiking down there, too…look at the rolling hills!”

“Crazy wind speeds and weather features, too. Look at the storms!”

“So Space North Dakota then. Or Space Minnesota!”

Xiù and Allison made eye contact and shared a moment of mutual unspoken “Our Boy is being a Boy.” Xiù just grinned and headed for her cockpit. “I’ll start the landing sequence. You tell me where you want us to set down,” she said.

Julian gave her a grateful look. “I love you.” He sprang up, headed to his locker and started pulling his gear out.

“I know!” Xiù grinned and vanished.

Allison lingered to watch him prepare. She had to admit, one of the little benefits of life on Misfit was watching her man strip down and cram himself into his excursion suit’s tight-fitting underlayer, which with his growing muscles had lately been a hell of a lot more flattering. Once he had wedged himself into the leggings he practically bounced over to Xiù’s cockpit to watch the radar as she began her approach.

“What about this spot?” he reached into her cockpit and pointed at the display; he had never exactly fit comfortably in it anyway, but lately he was getting too broad to easily squeeze through the hatchway. “There’s a bluff with good views and there’s a river, too.”

“Maybe the dog-sized things are space beavers, Julian!” Xiù was feeling extra playful today. Allison watched while Julian wedged his shoulders into the cockpit space and carefully nuzzled Xiù in the back of the head with all the looming affection of, well, a very big man and his tiny, sturdy lover.

Which made Allison wonder: how did she look to Xiù, when Julian was looming over her?

There was an easy way to find out. “Julian, we need to get you into your suit, and then I need to get ready too.”

“Mhmm.” He pried himself away from the radar, wiggled out of the cockpit and gathered Allison up in his embrace. “I’m not going anywhere without my explorer space babe.” His hands wrapped around her, slid lower and–!

“Julian!” She giggled. “Down! We can do that tonight. And if you’re an extra good boy…”

“Oh?” He squeezed her tighter and his big hands kept pawing at her in all the right ways. God he was strong. And warm, and he smelled like a real man and…

He had an entirely unfair ability to fluster her whenever he wanted. But she could fight back, too. She slipped her hands into his undersuit and filled her hands with his rock-hard rear. He closed his eyes with a blissed-out expression and may as well have panted like a happy dog.

“There’s more where that came from, Etsicitty. Let’s suit up.”

He gave her a happy chuckle and another hug, that one more chaste. “Yes ma’am. Now help me get my top on…”

Suit-up had by then become a well-practiced evolution for them. He was done in fifteen minutes, she in another fifteen. He pulled her into another quick hug, they giggled to each other while they slathered their hair down with Vaseline and tucked it under the helmet cap…

They had landed by the time they were ready. Xiù would stay behind as always, because they had an obligation to protect the ship. Bummer really, but still…

Suit-up continued. They donned their booties and gloves, made the necessary connections for the cooling system. No sanitary plumbing in these suits, they were for short-term use. That left only the outersuit and their tools, which Xiù helped them don; putting on the suit alone was just too much work for anyone to do.

And then…they were ready. Julian hefted his exploration gear into the airlock. Allison armed herself. Between all of that and his, well, growing bulk, it was a bit of a tight squeeze.

They made it work. “It’s your turn to be first, Julian.”

“It is?”

“Yup.”

He smiled at her through through the gold tint of his helmet, and nodded.

“Well. I better not keep anyone waiting, then.”

He pressed cycled the airlock, threw his gear out, slid down the ladder, and took mankind’s first steps on a new planet.


Date point: 14y 8m 1w AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao

Champion Gyotin of Clan Starmind

The War Council began as every council did under the Great Father’s aegis: with an invocation. Gyotin was hesitant to describe it as prayer: it was more of a call to arms, or a reminder. The point was not to summon external blessings but to focus the minds of those present. From what he had learned studying what few scraps remained of their ancient proto-religious philosophy, their intellectual development had never progressed toward anything that would look much like human religion in the first place; the closest they might have come would have been an animist polytheistic faith, with a philosophically jaundiced eye toward an uncaring universe.

Which was much like the Greeks, really; praying to capricious, uncaring gods seemed to have little point, so instead it made more sense to focus within and summon the will and inspiration to be the change that one wished to see.

The thought for today was on the light at the end of darkness. Champion Genshi seemed drawn to his words, which was secretly the point: the Champion had seemed preoccupied with terrible burdens he was unwilling to share with anyone. If Gyotin could do anything, and there wasn’t much he really could do…

He would at least remind Genshi that there was always hope.

“Thank you, Champion Gyotin.” The Great Father duck-nodded respectfully. “I called this meeting today because we’ve recently crossed an important milestone. Our one millionth troop in the great Army of the Gao recently swore his oath and completed his basic training.” There were murmurs amongst the Champions, which stopped when the Great Father raised his mighty paw. “With this number, the tactical reality of our campaign changes. We now have the ability to take, hold, and expand our secured territory simultaneously and across all dimensions of the battlespace. Clan Firefang, do you have an update for us?”

Champion Goruu had grown into his role since it was thrust upon him. Over the months of his first year in office, he’d transformed into a confident, steely-nerved young Champion of his Clan, and had withstood several challenges to his authority from several older males. He’d defeated them all, and earned himself scars that would give any future challenger pause. The Championship had been thrust on him practically at random but through either natural talent or perhaps the inspiring example of his predecessor’s fate, he’d reforged the shattered tatters of his Clan into an aerospace force with only one serious rival in all the galaxy.

Firefang pilots in their signature Voidripper fighters were the charismatic front of the Clan of course, and Goruu was a proud member of that elite Brotherhood…but the backbone of the Clan was their transport planes and logistics. Daar had insisted and Highmountain had taught everyone a crash-course in modern combat theory, and Firefang themselves had learned some applied lessons in moving stuff from their fellow Deathworlders. Everybody ducked when a Voidripper wing tore past on its way to annihilate something, but everybody cheered when a “Breadbox” came wallowing majestically over the horizon. Everybody knew it meant food or supplies and plenty of it, because there was never just one of them in a formation.

“Yes, My Father. Our assembly lines have recently hit full capacity. Clan Ironclaw is now producing a new Voidripper every week, and One-Fang is matching that with the, er, ‘Breadbox’ logistical aircraft.” Goruu hesitated. “My Father, I must again ask…why are we calling these ‘breadboxes’?”

Daar was in one of his mercurial moods. “No. ‘Breadboxen’ is the plural.”

“…My Father?”

Daar did something that had become all-too rare in recent months and chittered low and softly. “Humor me, Champion. It is an homage to a friend, even if the Gao don’t eat bread.”

“…Breadboxen it is,” Goruu cleared his throat. “We produce two every three weeks and the fleet is now approaching full operating size. By the new year, we’ll have built enough to devote most of those production lines to other vehicles.”

“Good. We need to focus more clearly on rebuilding the civilian infrastructure. Champion Fiin, how goes the training?”

“My Father, we estimate we can, at current scale, basically train a quarter-million new troops every month. In two months, that number will double. In another two it will double again.”

Gyotin boggled. “A million troops a month by the end of the year?”

“And ten million by the middle of next. And once we get to that scale, we switch over to a community-based training protocol. Centralization ensures quality but it won’t get us the numbers we want or need, so we have to consider this a civil defense exercise. Once we do, however, nearly every single male will have received some basic form of military indoctrination in almost a single evolution. That training will hardly be good enough to compare to a Fang,” Fiin sniffed, “But it’s good enough for them to understand expectations.”

“Great Father…if I may interrupt the Stoneback Champion?” Gyotin asked. Daar waved a paw, and Fiin gestured for Gyotin to go ahead. “Thank you. I feel duty-bound to point out that we can’t match that rate of training for our chaplain corps. At that rate of training, the troops will outnumber the chaplains by hundreds of thousands to one. We’re already stretched thin.”

Daar nodded to himself. “That is a fair point. I will remind everyone gathered, however, that the point of inducting every spare male into the Army goes beyond simple retribution. It’s about building a unified force with which we can control and direct the rage that’s out there. It’s potent, Champion Gyotin. I can smell it on the wind. We all can.”

“All the more reason to ensure that their spiritual, moral and morale needs are properly tended-to, My Father,” Gyotin said. “We can recruit more aggressively of course, but the proper education, apprenticeships, study and training all require time.”

“I agree.” Daar leaped over the table and prowled over to the window. It had a sweeping view of the land below High Mountain Fortress, where the once-tranquil fields of sweet-herb had lost their amorous, gentle atmosphere. Now they were filled with an endless sea of tents, training grounds, improvised urban environments and other such tools of war.

“When I look down there, I don’t see an Army ready to invade and conquer.” He gestured his paw across the tableau. “What I see is the beginning of their training. Building a proper military takes many years, Champion Gyotin. It will be a great long while before they’re ready to face what’s coming. So I must ask, what would it take to help? You have time. But not an infinite amount of it. This is an Army with a sell-by date.”

That was a fair point as well. The Great Father never did anything without calculation, Gyotin had found. Which meant he had a challenge: how would he respond?

Maybe a simple statement of need was all that was required. “A media campaign would be of much help, My Father. One to promote the Clan as a viable choice for aspiring cubs of a philosophical persuasion. A central academy—preferably on Gao, though we could always expand our holdings on Cimbrean—”

“No. Make it on Gao. I will build our future here, Champion.”

Gyotin duck-nodded “…and the financial support to hire Human scholars. Their religious or philosophical background doesn’t much matter. They don’t need to have a good handle on the Starmind orthodoxy such as it is, they just need to be competent theological and spiritual thinkers who can inspire their students to consider and reflect.”

“And who are not extremists,” admonished the Great Father. “Humans can get passionate about what they believe.”

“Yes, My Father. Directed properly and within constraints, that passion is valuable.”

Champion Yeeshu from Goldpaw spoke up. “The media campaign would be easy. Almost every broadcast on the planet is propaganda nowadays. A simple schedule adjustment and more prominence for Clan Starmind adverts would be easily arranged.”

“How do we get the message to the cubs on Cimbrean? As we evacuate more of them and the Mothers, the messaging becomes more complex.”

“Hmm.” Daar began pacing the room. He had an unnerving habit of setting everyone on-edge when he did that. “I’m hopin’ we can get away from Army-controlled media, actually. I don’t like where that’s gonna take us long-term. We ain’t ever done this in our history before, ever.”

“What would you have us run in its place?”

Daar gave him an amused look. “‘Yer the Champion of Goldpaw. I’d thought you’d never turn down the chance t’make money.”

Yeeshu chittered hesitantly. “For once, I wasn’t actually thinking of getting paid, My Father.”

“You need to. We all need to. Gyotin’s right. This ain’t just about his Clan. It’s about, uh, what do we need to be the Gao again? I don’t wanna end up being the Klingons in a bad sci-fi.”

“…Klingons?”

“Imagine a workhouse drama except way worse, set in space, made before most humans knew what a gigabyte was, and was about a post-scarcity society cruising the galaxy. Where everyone looked like them and was at peace except when they weren’t, their ship was an exploration vessel except when it was at war, and for some stupid reason they brought their females and cubs with them everywhere they went.”

“…Okay?”

“Now add a warrior race. There are actually a few, but the Klingons are the mostest.”

Somehow…that didn’t compute. “How–?”

“Exactly. And the awful bit of naxas shit about it all, is that’s exactly what the Hierarchy damn near made us. An’ look at us now! We’re so busy worrying about how we’re gonna hurt them, we’re not thinking ‘bout how we teach our cubs to play.”

“I…have a thought,” Champion Genshi spoke up suddenly, for the first time in the meeting. He had the full attention of the room. “We don’t message it. We let the Mothers message it.” There was a general sitting-back in chairs all the way around the table, and a silence that spoke volumes.

“How do you propose we do that?” Champion Loomi from High Mountain was the first to speak up.

“We simply make the Mothers aware of this as a viable path for cubs, and emphasize the need for it. Once we explain the personality types we’re looking for…”

“They’re just as invested in our species’ future as we are,” Fiin agreed.

“Precisely.” Genshi said.

“Good,” the Great Father rumbled. “See it done. Our strategy is two-fold. First we must secure the Gao. That is essentially a certainty at this point. But the second part, an’ it’s the bit I ain’t gonna be too good at without ‘yer help, is we gotta remember how to be the Gao. That means y’all need to go back to being Champions. We need you t’compete for cubs. Y’all need to bicker more. As long as it don’t interfere with the war effort…”

Even his polite growl was so suffused with intent it was impossible not to be intimidated.

“Good. Questions? Any concerns? Bitches, gripes, moans? Bad case o’ fleas?”

A round of quiet chittering followed.

“Good. Lemme know how it goes, Gyotin. Everyone else, git outta here and git ta’ werk.”

The Great Father ended the meeting on a happy chitter and left with a genuine spring in his step. That was a rare thing these days and the energy was infectious. They left and began the long descent down the tower of High Mountain Fortress, excitedly discussing the problem as they went. By the first five flights they had their paws around the problem. And by the time they reached the bottom…

Gyotin had a future for his Clan.


Date point: 14y 8m 2w 2d AV
The Dog House, Folctha, Cimbrean
That morning

Julian Etsicitty

“This is the tenth essay he’s had me do in just the last eight months! I swear half my free time is writing these damn things,” Julian grumbled, mostly to himself. His complaints had been falling on deaf ears.

“And?” Adam didn’t try to hide his annoyance. “Shouldn’t you be pressing?”

“…Right.” Julian shook his head and resumed his shoulder presses, slightly cowed by the gruff reaction. Of all the people in the world that Julian had hoped would harbor some sympathy for his essay-laden plight, Adam “Warhorse” Arés was apparently not one of them. Julian found out why about fifteen reps in.

“Bro, I once got handed a ten-thousand word essay on airway management and trauma ‘cuz I was five seconds too slow across the pool. The fucker made me write it out by hand on that shitty waterproof notepaper between laps.”

Julian slammed the bar back onto the rack and paused, gulping for air. “…Really?”

“Yup.” The big motherfucker hoisted the damn bar off the rack with one hand and set it down on the floor about as easily as Julian might pick up a small sack of potatoes. “Every ten laps, he’d make me write another five hundred words. While I was in the pool. And while I was kicking water, too.” He wandered off towards the plate stand while speaking over his shoulder. “Took me almost twenty fuckin’ hours, and then when it was finally done, and edited, and all that…he allowed me two whole hours of sleep before the next day’s training.”

“…Jesus, dude.” Julian caught his breath and mopped his hair back. Definitely getting time for a trim. “I gotta say, that sounds like an abusive fella.”

Adam returned with a hefty stack of plates and proceeded to load two pairs onto the bar. “Eh, yeah. He was. But I’m glad he was, bro. The only dude in the entire damn Air Force who knows trauma better’n me is prol’ly ‘Base, and that’s ‘cuz we both suffered through that kinda thing. Also he’s a genius.” Adam picked the bar up off the floor—again, one-handed and with no apparent strain whatsoever—and gently settled it back on the rack over Julian’s head.

A suspicion crossed Julian’s mind. “…Wait a second. Why didn’t you just load the plates while the bar was on the rack?”

“Because I can!” Few people could do a shit-eating grin as happily as Adam.

Julian shook his head and laughed, “You fuckin’ show-off!”

“Why not?” Adam shrugged happily, “Besides, I gotta maintain my dominance. Especially since you’re about to shoulder press five plates, bro!”

Julian eyed the bending, possibly overladen bar warily. Five plates on each side… While he was admittedly used to very heavy weights these days and they’d already done a fairly extensive warmup, that was still a lot of mass to muscle overhead, especially in simulated Akyawentian gravity. “Are you…sure?”

“Fuck yeah, you can do it dude! And I won’t let you get hurt, you know that.” Adam’s smiling face sobered up as it snapped into the stern, unyielding expression of a sergeant training a private. “Now we do a drop set. You’re gonna move that fuckin’ weight, Playboy. Sit up and press.”

Well, then. Adam shuffled around behind Julian, ready to spot. There wasn’t much else to do but get under the bar, straighten up and get his chest level, rotate his arms under and—

“Press!!”

He got the bar up. Barely. It took every ounce of his strength just to get the damn thing moving, and somewhere deep inside he found something extra and inched that bar up, and up, and up—

“Down…again.”

It felt much heavier that time. He strained so hard his breathing sounded more like a growl. A little wobble in his left shoulder, one last epic push. Up.

“Down. Again.”

He got the bar up maybe halfway before he stopped. Nothing. He felt it fall—Adam’s fingers pushed with the lightest little nudge, just enough that Julian could barely manage a rep.

“Again!”

Adam forced another three reps out of him, each with more and more assistance until at the very end, it felt like Adam was doing all the lifting.

Then he dropped a plate off each side and made Julian press past failure again. Then another plate, then another…by the end he could barely move the bar and still needed a spot. When that grew too heavy to move, Adam had him repeatedly raise his arms overhead…six reps in, even that was impossible.

And it hurt. God did it hurt! He’d barely started his routine for the day and his entire upper body was already throbbing in agony. But that was how Adam trained his friends; hardcore, balls-to-the-wall, and no mercy.

Well, maybe a little. He patted Julian affectionately on the back and produced a shaker bottle from Hammerspace, apparently. “Here bro, slug this down.”

Julian eyed the purple-looking drink warily. “What is it?”

“Just BCAAs and stuff like that, no spacemagic. I ain’t forgot your rules, bruh.”

“Fair enough.” Julian downed the whole thing in one long slug. “This’ll help?”

“It should, you’re used to heavy shit by now.” Adam sat heavily on the bench next to Julian and began mercilessly mauling his shoulders with his paws. That hurt like a motherfucker but Julian simply grunted and bore it.

“A little early…_hnnngh_…for this kinda pain, ain’t it?…Urf.”

“Nah,” Adam said, oblivious to Julian’s suffering. “Never too early for good training. Besides, look at you! You’re fuckin good at this, you did a beastly-ass lift like that an’ you still got way more in the tank! Also?” Adam leaned in with a conspiratorial air, “I’ll let you in on a lil’ secret ‘bout all that when we’re done, too.”

“…Secret.” Julian raised his eyebrow and smirked. Adam with a “secret” he wanted to share was like a puppy waiting to be played with—he was all but wagging his tail. Xiù had coined the word ‘brodorable’ for exactly these moments, and seeing such a perfect demonstration of what it meant was enough to make Julian forget how much he ached for a second. “Really?”

“Yeah!” Adam dug his fingers into Julian’s shoulders like he was smashing play-doh, who suddenly remembered his pain and cried out before he could control himself.

“Fuck! Take it easy, man!”

“Don’t be such a baby, Playboy.” Adam chuckled darkly, “I’ve only just started with you. But I’ll give you a hint: ‘member when I said you could make a linebacker feel like a little bitch?”

“…Yeah?” Julian’s competitive instincts were up and interested. “I mean, you said I could ‘if I wanted to,’ so…”

“You already can, bro. And today I’mma prove it to you.”


Date point: 14y 8m 2w 2d AV
Etsictty-Buehler-Chang Residence, Folctha, Cimbrean
Early afternoon

Xiù Chang

“Do you remember some months ago when you were complaining about Julian being indecisive about buying the home? And today we wandered around for how long looking at appliances?”

“Appliances are expensive! And so are tools, and beds, and—”

“—Homes?”

“…Okay, fair point. He wasn’t wrong. You done makin’ me my sammich yet?”

Xiù giggled to herself and blew a kiss. “Coming right up, ma’am!”

“Good girl. Then I need you to help me put the bedframe together before Julian gets back…”

…blushing cheeks, then, and a sudden flutter in her chest. Allison always knew exactly what buttons to press. But Xiù could play the game, too. She cut her little creation into two neat triangles, filled up a glass with fresh lemonade, and brought it over to Allison who was finishing up one of the flat-pack bookshelves they’d bought earlier.

“I can only presume you have plans for us tonight.”

“Mhmm,” she said and wiped the sweat from her brow, then threw an absolutely sinful grin. “You know how he is when he’s fresh from the gym…pumped up, pretty…horny as hell…”

“And sometimes in so much pain he can barely walk,” Xiù pointed out drily.

“So he gets a massage from us then! And, y’know. Whatever else may happen.”

Xiù indulged in a giggle and imagined for a moment just what little extra activity they might partake in. “I Admit, I see nothing wrong with your plan. But—”

“Yes yes, we’ve got all these deliveries scheduled and stuff. But fuck that, do you wanna actually spend the night here or waste another pile of money in that ridiculous hotel?”

“I doubt he’d even notice where he’s falling asleep if we do it right.” Xiù smirked.

Allison usually didn’t do coy smiles. So when she did they were so much more flustering than anything else, particularly paired with an arched eyebrow. “No…but, well…he’s been busy, and you’re here, and I’m here, and he stiffed us with all the work, so…”

She smiled, slinked over towards the staircase and cast a look back at Xiù. “Maybe you and I should take a break.”

Xiù swallowed, “Yes ma’am.”

“Good girl. C’mon.”


Date point: 14y 8m 2w 2d AV
The Dog House, Folctha, Cimbrean
Late afternoon

Julian Etsicitty

Agony.

If Adam had a singular talent that stood out, it would have to be his supernatural ability to give his training victims some very dramatic results by inflicting insane amounts of pain. Julian both dreaded and eagerly anticipated his sessions with the big slab of a fella, because every time he thought he knew what he could do and where his limits were, Adam showed him how wrong he was.

And sometimes he did it by being a complete asshole, too. Like today, where the lifting was mostly giant sets in an order chosen specifically to make them as hard as possible and drain all his energy. Which was why at the very end of the day, after intervals, high-rep work, heavy work, combatives, wind sprints, more lifting…Julian found himself about to do heavy squats.

And that wasn’t even his finishing lift. That was going to be yet another giant set of high-rep burnout squats that would most likely have him feeling sick to his stomach and fighting back tears of pain in his eyes. As part of a circuit with heavy calf raises. And lunges. The sadistic motherfucker.

“You ready for that bar, bro?”

Julian looked at it, and silently gulped. The bar was bending a little under the weight even with the rack supporting it close to the plates, which were themselves stacked on all the way to the bar’s ends. But still. If there was one thing Julian had learned through everything, it was that Adam never challenged him with something he wasn’t able to do. If Adam had decided on that much weight at the end of a day filled with torment, then Adam knew what he was doing. And if that was what they were about to do…

Julian nodded. “Let’s do this.”

Getting settled under the bar was telling. It didn’t budge at all. Julian took a few deep, practiced breaths, shook his head out, growled, settled himself in and straightened his back—

Up. Pain. The bar was so fuckin’ heavy.

Down. Almost too fast but Adam was there and wouldn’t let him fail.

Up. Slooowwly. Legs kept bent at the top because at weights that high, an accident could tear his knees apart if they decided to bend the wrong way.

Down again. More controlled. Up. Much harder. He was panting now, almost out of breath and he was starting to get tunnel vision. One more…”

His prosthetic foot snapped with a ping and a crunch as the arch collapsed, just as he was almost at the top of the lift. He yelped involuntarily and felt himself falling backwards. His life flashed before his eyes as he realized suddenly that an overloaded bar was about to crush his chest flat, and—

Adam’s enormous hand darted out and snatched the bar out of the air, then stiff-arm lifted it back onto the rack with an insultingly quiet clank. His other caught Julian in the middle of his back before he’d hit the ground and gently lowered him down to the floor. It was a feat of strength so incredible that it went way past amazing and all the way back to unconcerning.

“That’s why we lift with a squat rack, bro. You okay?”

It took Julian a moment to recover his sense of…well, everything. He nodded and Adam seemed to understand, since he picked Julian up under his arms and sat him down on a nearby bench.

“Sit here for a bit bruh, I’mma get you something to drink.”

Julian recovered for a moment, then painfully hoisted his overpumped leg up onto his knee and inspected the damage to his foot, thinking—or hoping—that it was maybe salvageable. One look and he realized that no, the foot was more or less pulverized, with all the intricate little pieces crushed into each other. There was definitely no fixing it at this point, the whole thing would need replacing.

“Goddamnit,” Julian swore to himself, and shook his head clear in frustration. He didn’t have time for this!

And more importantly he needed to get up and move or his legs would cramp up solid and he wouldn’t be able to walk. He stood, tested things…well, he could probably still hobble along on it like a gimp. He was so goddamned fucked. He couldn’t lift, couldn’t drive a car, couldn’t walk, couldn’t do anything useful back on Akyawentuo or anywhere else. Fuck!

Julian hobbled over to the punching bag and slammed his fist into it so hard it made the metal girders overhead creak in protest. “Motherfucker!!”

Adam picked that exact moment to walk back in with a beaded jug of water. He stopped short and watched for a moment, then squeezed sideways through the doorway and thumped over.

“I knew you could do that lift, bro,” Adam said with a cheesy grin, and sat down heavily on the bench. He gestured for Julian to sit.

“Yeah, well,” Julian hobbled over and slammed himself down. “That lift didn’t turn out so good.”

“Nah, you did fine, bro! You didn’t fail, that did,” Adam pointed a meaty finger at the shattered prosthetic, then handed Julian the jug. “Here, it’s nice and cold.”

…Okay. So Julian managed to break his alien spacemagic foot with his caveman hobby. That did feel good for the ego, but at what cost? It was exactly the kind of stupid injury he was worried about from the beginning. Well, okay. It wasn’t technically an injury, but still.

“Where the fuck am I gonna get a new one?”

“Dude, the Ricky-tick guys have their Medtronics company here in Folctha. Or, there’s also that little genetics company too. I forget the name. They could grow you a new foot, man!”

Something about that squicked Julian hard. “No. I like my foot, I’ll just get another one.”

Adam started to shake his head. “Bro, at the weights you’re doing now, that’s…that’s dangerous. Look what just happened. That bar woulda killed you if we weren’t being smart.”

“I’ll get a better fake foot,” Julian said, irritably.

Adam sighed. “Bro. Hear me now and listen later. Remember that secret I was gonna tell you?”

“…Yeah?”

“See that little black book over there? Go look at the numbers in it.”

Julian threw an irritated look at Adam and hobbled over to where the book was lying. He picked it up and read. Then read it again. Then he looked back at the wreckage from Adam’s distilled insanity of a workout that was strewn about the gym. Julian looked at the numbers one last time, closed the book, and hobbled back over to the bench where Adam was sitting.

Julian didn’t say anything for a long moment. “…No fuckin’ way.” What else could he say?

“Yeah way,” Adam retorted with a grin. “You’re really good at not noticing these things so I thought I’d point it out for ‘ya. There ain’t a lot of anyone who could manage any of the shit you did today. In fact, you’re best buds with most of the dudes who can. So, knowing that,” he challenged, “You think a shitty little xeno prosthetic is gonna cut it?”

“…Okay,” Julian admitted, “I don’t have an answer to that.”

“Yeah you do, don’t be dumb. A real foot grows stronger with you and you’re a long ways from slowing down, I bet. So why don’t we just go visit Nofl and—”

“Stop right there.” Julian surged back to his feet and paced…well, no, he hobbled around angrily. “Doctor freakshow already tried to get his limp little hands on me. He can go fuck right off with his mad science bullshit.”

“…Dude? I mean, sure, he’s a little weird, but—”

“No.” Julian said firmly.

“C’mon, man!” The thick-skulled meathead didn’t get the hint. “This guy can grow new limbs. You aren’t even gettin’ a new foot, you’re gettin’ your old foot back.”

Julian ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “Did you not hear me? No. I don’t know if it’s that alien mutant juice they have you on, or maybe it’s ‘cuz you weren’t ever one of their lab rats, but fuck no. Abso-fuckin’-lutely not.”

Adam recoiled a bit like an enormous puppy that had just been slapped. “…Dude, you didn’t need to go there. I just wanna make you the best you can be, man.”

…Well, shit. Whatever. Julian was too angry just then to make nice, so he hobbled back up and grabbed his towel irritably. “C’mon. Least you can do is give me a lift back to my place. I’ll figure out what the fuck to do about this later.”

“…Okay. I, uh, don’t have a truck so…I can carry you, or—”

“Adam. I’m not riding you through town like some fucking little kid!”

“—Or I can call a cab. Chill the fuck out ‘fore I get angry, dude.”

Julian grunted and flumped back on the bench. “Yes. Cab please.”

They didn’t talk much after that. Julian sat and marinated in his thoughts while he waited for the cab, and while he rode home. Adam didn’t ride along but when Julian arrived just a few minutes later he was already there, not even panting or anything, and looked like he was deep in a conversation with both Allison and Xiù.

Great. Just great. How the hell was Julian going to explain everything to them?


Date point: 14y 8m 2w 2d AV
Etsictty-Buehler-Chang Residence, Folctha, Cimbrean
Evening

Allison Buehler

“Look,” Julian hobbled about angrily, “I don’t fucking care how much of a no-brainer it is. I’m not letting doctor freakshow put his science bullshit in me!”

There were moments where Allison seriously could not wrap her head around Julian’s mindset. He was normally a pretty logical and collected guy, but he was also as stubborn as Allison could be and right now he was being a complete jackass. He’d come straight back from the gym and was still riding the aggressive high he always somehow had right after one of Adam’s legendary workouts. On any other day that might have resulted in him throwing her and Xiù on the bed and taking charge, showing them his real strength and then passing right the fuck out afterwards…

But right then all his fizzing aggression was making him stupid in a very unsexy sort of way. Hopefully Xiù would return soon with his favorite fried chicken, since a hungry post-Adam-workout Julian was also downright cranky. Adam had arrived before Julian’s cab got there and warned them about the incident. Xiù needed no hint, nodded, and left to go pick up dinner, even though it was technically Allison’s fault that they hadn’t had time to make anything.

She regretted nothing. Meanwhile, it fell to her to deal with Cranky Bro-Tarzan and the Incredible Bulk having some sort of emo boy-tantrum thing going between them, too. They’d not said a single word to each other since Julian got back, not even when Adam more or less threw Julian to the floor and bent him all sorts of painful-looking ways for their post-workout stretch. Normally that would had Julian moaning and laughing in pain and Adam would have been the most spectacularly gruff, friendly meat-bro there ever was. Now? They’d stretched and done the post-workout rubdown, parted ways and said nothing to each other. It was like watching a silent soap opera. Ugh.

“He won’t just sew on some Doctor Frankenstein shit, it’s all cultured from your own tissue,” she reminded him. “Hell, there’s DARPA interest in it and they’ve already made it through trials. There’s servicemen who have brand new working arms because of this!”

“Yeah well. Lucky them. Me, I still remember how that research got done,” Julian growled. “Remind me, how did your abduction go? What was it, three days strapped naked to a freezing metal table?”

“Worse. But they weren’t Nofl.” Allison paused for a moment, pressed her hands to her temples, and trudged on. “I don’t care about that anyway, Etsicitty. What I care about is you and you’re being a dumbass right now.”

“…The whole idea just freaks me the fuck out, okay?” Julian confessed. He stopped limping around at least, and finally slammed himself down onto the floor with a wet thud and a slightly ashamed look on his face.

Oh. Okay, that actually made much more sense now. Allison cooled down and reconsidered. “I get it babe,” she soothed. “But he’s not wrong, you know.”

“I know!” He growled in irritation. “Christ, I’m not stupid!”

“Babe, believe me I know.” That drew a quizzical look from him, so she sighed and confessed. “Hell, sometimes I wonder if I’m actually kinda dumb next to you.”

“Wait, what? You’re not though, we all saw your scores. You’re the smartest of the three of us.”

“Barely,” she retorted, and felt a heat rise in her cheeks.

“No, not barely.” When he had his dander up his feelings could flip this way or that, and at the moment he had a heartbreakingly warm smile for her. “You’re smart, you dummy!”

“…How the fuck am I supposed to be both of those at the same time?”

“Girl power.” His troll-grin. Good.

“Oh, fuck you Etsicitty!”

“That a promise?” Now with waggling eyebrows. That was a downright unfair tactic, but right now she couldn’t give in. She had a lesson to teach.

“No. You’re being stupid, Etsicitty.”

Too far. His smile faded and he growled in annoyance, but he didn’t say anything more. Allison sighed.

“Okay. I get it, I guess. But promise me something babe. Promise me you’ll at least take better care of the new one, okay? Because one day your stupid fake foot is gonna break at the worst time and it’s gonna get you hurt, you idiot.”

“Real feet break too…” Julian grumbled, but his heart clearly wasn’t in it.

“Real feet grow stronger. That’s what Adam says anyway, and it’s why he pushed you so hard and he’s out there sulking ‘cuz one of his ‘most bestest’ friends is mad at him.”

She pointed through the sliding doors to where Bulk was kicking listlessly around on the grass like someone had just run over his dog…though if anybody ever ran over Bozo, the car would probably come off worse.

“I ain’t mad at him, I just—”

Allison cut him off. “Don’t tell me, tell him!”

He didn’t. What Julian did instead was some form of magical boy-talk, where he looked up and out through the door, made eye contact, there was a pause, and suddenly Adam was happy again and thudding off through the door and into the kitchen to go grill a cow or something.

Allison’s anger went on pause for a moment while she processed that.

“…How…?”

Julian shrugged expansively. Whatever. It sometimes occurred to Allison that maybe the reason men were so universally bad at discussing their feelings was because they didn’t need to be good at it…or maybe they just compressed all of it better. One look, maybe some video games and a beer, or maybe playfighting or an actual brawl…and they were best friends again.

Jesus. Men really were dogs…in all the ways that made dogs worth having.

“…Fuck.” Allison plopped down next to Julian and was immediately swallowed up in a moist, full-body hug. She ignored the grossness for the moment. “I just want what’s best for you.”

“I know.” He rocked her back and forth comfortingly. “And…I know I’m being a butt.”

That earned him a giggle. “Uh-huh. You absolutely are, you ass…but it’s your foot, your body. That makes it your decision.”

He didn’t reply for a while, he just kept rocking back and forth. Eventually he untangled himself and effortlessly spun her around—the stupid sexy idiot didn’t even know how hot that kind of thing was—and gave her his Apology Grin. “Maybe…no promises. But I promise I’ll try to be open-minded about this down the road, okay? Just…I don’t trust him yet, babe.”

“Well,” She thought one last attempt was smart, “Adam seems healthy…”

The man-tank was standing in the doorway and listening intently, resting his weight against the jamb with his shoulders firmly outside the opening on either side. He more or less plugged the entire door with his bulk from chest to toes.

“Hey, don’t drag me into this,” Adam chuckled. “And I get it. I do. ‘Cuz the thing is, I am an experiment in a lotta ways.” There was some kind of complicated look between him and Julian. More magical boy-speak, probably. “I just wanna make sure you know what you’re doing, bro.”

Julian grumbled sulkily in reply. “I’ve been told enough times by all of you…”

“That’s ‘cuz we care, bro. But now promise me something, ‘kay?”

“Shoot.”

“You managed to snap your foot today doin’ a squat. If ‘yer gonna keep pushing yourself—”

“I am. I have to if I’m going to live on Akyawentuo and be a man in their eyes.”

“—Then if you ain’t gonna get a real foot, get a better prosthetic,” Adam insisted. “Or hell, get two! Get like some hunk of, I dunno, articulated metal or something for lifting. And keep on top of this shit, man! You’ve gotta get your real foot re-measured, you need thicker padding on your new prosthetic to match ‘cuz you’re barefoot like me all the time now—”

“Alright!” Julian laughed loudly in surrender to his nagging friends. “Christ! I’ll get the ‘most bestest’ prosthetic I can, okay?”

“Oh God Julian,” Allison sighed and rolled her eyes, “You’re even talking like them now.”

From the doorway, Adam chuckled. “You try spending time with Daar and see if he doesn’t rub off on you.”

“No thanks.” Right then Xiù walked through the front door with three truly enormous paper bags in hand, and the heavenly scent of fried chicken wafted through the room.

Julian, being Julian, brightened instantly and sprang up, hobbling over to Xiù. “You got my favorite! Did you get mashed potatoes too?”

“Bruh, that’s not gonna fit your macros.” Adam’s gurgling stomach betrayed him.

“Fuck off,” Julian said with a happy grin. “I’mma eat the shit outta this. You want some?”

“…Yeah. But I can’t. Also I’d just eat it all.”

“Your loss. God it smells so good…” They didn’t even wait. Julian had a chicken thigh out of the bucket before they’d made it to the table.

“You’re gonna feel sick eating grease after everything,” Adam said with just a hint of sulk.

“Worth it. Last meal of the day anyway. Have a piece you huge lunk!”

“I’ll make you something,” Xiù promised. “You’ve been a big help.”

“Nah, I gotta get going. It’s about time to dump the Cherries outta bed for a surprise training marathon anyway. Don’t warn ‘em, bro…”

“I won’t!” He’d somehow managed that around a mouthful of greasy heaven, and the grin accompanying it was both sympathetic and gleeful.

“‘Kay. I’ll, uh, make a call. Just in case. You call the Medtronics people right now okay?”

Xiù nodded. “We’ll take care of it. Thank you, Adam.”

Seeming much happier, the two slabs exchanged one last look of bro-love or whatever the fuck was going on, then Bulk thumped himself out of the home and down the street, presumably imagining new and improved ways of embiggening the men he trained.

Which just left Julian. Allison rolled her eyes and relented. “Okay. You get your food on. You’re a cranky diva when you’re hungry.”

Julian nodded ruefully, and started shoving mashed potatoes with cajun gravy into his face.

“Xiù, you’re gonna call this medtronics place?”

“Already on it,” she glanced up from her phone. “He’s got an appointment for tomorrow.”

“Good. I’ll go finish putting my tools and stuff away. And Julian?”

“Yesthf?” His playful grin always seemed to work on her, even and especially if he was doing something ridiculously boyish and gross. Like talking through an overstuffed mouth.

“Get your sweaty ass into the shower. You stink.”

He swallowed and nodded with a chuckle. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good boy. I leave you two to it…”

Xiù and Julian gave each other a Look. Mission accomplished. Allison turned tail with a little swish, and went to go tom-boy with her new pile of tools in the garage. Everything had to be put away after all, and a rolling tool chest was something she’d always wanted for herself.

Plus, she got to eavesdrop a little and fantasize. Sure enough she heard the water heater fire up a few minutes later…

And a few minutes after that, she heard Xiù thoroughly enjoying herself. Allison grinned and closed the garage door, and plotted when she’d tag herself in.


Date point: 14y 8m 2w 3d AV
RRrr’tktktkp’ch Applied Medtronics office, medical park, Alien Quarter
Prosthetic refitting and manufacture

Julian Etsicitty

Sometimes, very occasionally, Julian’s day-to-day life gave him the tiniest glimpse into some of the weirdness Xiù endured on a regular basis. She seemed to float through life, improving people’s days and setting huge things into motion just by being there, all through no fault of her own. And now, Julian learned that his mangled foot from years ago had completely revolutionized the prosthetics industry, and sparked a years-long interspecies collaboration between the RRrr’tktktkp’ch Domain and the Department of Defense.

The result was a prosthetic that was frankly hard to tell apart from the real thing. It had artificial muscles powered by his blood sugars. Nerves and tendons. An accurate sense of touch! He could feel hot and cold through it now, and the foot itself felt warm. Hell, even the skin felt right!

It was honestly a strange sensation, being able to wiggle his toes again and have it feel exactly like he remembered it should. Or to scratch his foot, which he did with his right-hand big toe. Why did he want to do that, suddenly? It didn’t itch…

“This was an exciting project! I never thought I would get the chance to improve on my corporation’s finest prosthetic, and then you walked into my office!” The excitable Rrrr’tk tech fella was down on his foreleg “knees” and examining the foot with some kind of Star Trek scanner while Julian sat on an uncomfortably high examination table—he’d needed to leap up and almost climb the damn thing. Behind him, a pair of Vzk’tk worked at a terminal, apparently doing something with the data being tabulated.

Meanwhile, all he really wanted to do was get the whole process over with without being rude or foolishly hasty—Julian wasn’t too fond of being poked and prodded. It wasn’t so bad, really, but the room felt too…lab-like for his comfort. And he was maybe a little overwhelmed by the situation, because the excitable Rrrr’tk had moved so fast that Julian could barely remember the fella’s name, which in any event sounded kinda like the moment a garbage disposal choked on a ball-bearing and died.

“Look, uh, ‘Kit,’ right?”

“Close enough!”

Julian nodded. “Cool. Look, I know this was a rush order—”

“No problem, we printed it out this morning!”

“…Right. But I’ve had some problems with the old model…”

‘Kit’ made a sound remarkably like if Firth had reached into his chest and shattered his sternum with his bare hands. Laughter, apparently. “The breaking bones? We’ve developed a material that very closely mirrors the real human thing. It’s interesting, because the Domain was trying nearly twenty years ago to make this kind of material, but of course, we didn’t have your species to actually model it on. We manufacture it by impregnating a nanite carbon-calcium-carbon matrix with…”

Julian nodded wearily. ‘Kit’ was one of those smart friendly fellas who had no idea when to stop or when people had checked out on the important details of whatever he was talking about, so he clattered on and on and on about every single little detail about anything that touched on the thing he was focused on. He had an obsessed and manic energy somewhat like Vemik, but with no sense of balance and far too much caffeine; Julian had the impression it wasn’t even species dependent, and he did it in the direction of anyone that he thought might possibly be listening.

“…The same tensile properties, the same amount of flex and give, the same mass, and all of that within a two percent tolerance of a genuine human bone. Much better than the polymer you had before! You should be very satisfied with it. We’ve also redesigned the tendons to withstand the much larger forces you in particular seem capable of generating. I had difficulty believing this Warhorse man about your newfound strength, but…”

The alien gestured across Julian’s sturdy legs with a wobbly sweep of his head. “I can see his point.” Julian snapped back to awareness and grimaced in mild embarrassment.

“…Right. I also gotta worry about how I’m livin’ these days. It’s pretty rugged on Akyawentuo.” Which was an understatement. The old foot had needed weekly care on its padding, and he’d noticed that his real foot was changing shape in response to everything, too. It had widened slightly and his arches were sprung a little higher. It would be…nice, to have matching feet again.

“This new prosthetic is a mirror image of your existing foot based on the scans we took earlier, right down to the callouses you’ve developed, and you’ll note that we included a more durable material on the high-wear contact points so that the skin won’t have to be replaced as often. This prosthetic is mechanically as close to identical to your real foot as our current technology allows and is wholly custom. You’re too far out of the baseline profile for us to give you a mass-produced model anyway, it wouldn’t come close to matching. It’s really been an exciting challenge to work on.”

“…Huh.” Julian rolled the ankle on his new foot. Weird sensation, that. It really felt natural, and he could even feel the tendons pop slightly in just the same way his real foot used to. The only thing that really gave it away, honestly, was the artificial white color and the very thin seam where the skin lined up with the mounting socket just above where his real ankle had been.

Actually.

“…Hey, is there any chance I can get it in some color other than white?”

“Of course! We can match your natural skin tone—”

“No.” Julian had said that a little too harshly. “Thank you, but no. I don’t want it to look real.”

‘Kit’ took the interruption in stride. “—or give you any range of artificial colors or even a nanoskin so that you can upload designs of your choice,” he finished smoothly. Apparently he was used to handling humans. “For a modest fee, of course.”

…That had potential, actually. “Hang on.” Julian whipped out his phone and sent a quick text to his ‘Misfit Trio’ groupchat to discuss the idea. “Will a nanoskin hurt the durability?”

“No. It’s the same technology used in E-tattoos. Though, I must be honest: we are going to recommend you get this prosthetic examined and possibly replaced quarterly, and that could add up to some expense.”

“Wait. Quarterly?”

“Yes, at least for the first year so we can track with your real foot’s adaptation. If it were an arm or something else that would be one thing. But human feet aren’t like RRrr’tk hooves, they change and grow and that makes them a much more difficult engineering challenge for us to solve. Your natural foot in particular presented a challenge, since it’s larger and much more robust than most males of your species and phenotype.”

“Tell me about it,” Julian grumbled. He’d always been a broad-framed fella, to the point where clothing—and shoes in particular—had been a minor lifelong struggle. He’d also been skinny as hell until he’d grown into a man so shirts and jeans weren’t usually a big problem; he and Grandpa would just hit up the thrift store and buy everything that fit, then they would spend a weekend with a century-old sewing machine, fixing holes and pulling in too-big waistlines. He couldn’t get away with that anymore though, not since Adam had gotten his paws on Julian’s training and showed him the meaning of strength. Everything he wore now came from ‘big and tall’ stores and was three times more expensive than it should have been, and he still found he had to buy a couple sizes too big and then get things tailored.

But shoes had always been a problem, ever since the seventh grade. Grandpa couldn’t afford the bill so Julian had to buy his own. Fortunately there was a boot shop in the nearby little town that could make anything he needed, even sneakers. That came at a price so much of Julian’s pocket money—earned by mowing lawns, selling beavertail, or moving rocks around rich peoples’ front yards, or whatever—got squirreled away in his annual ‘sasquatch fund,’ as grandpa joked.

‘Kit’ seemed to understand. “Every part of this prosthetic has been custom fabricated to match. And in any case you pretty thoroughly destroyed your old prosthetic. It’s somewhat impressive it held together at all. Whoever built it designed it to be rugged, but Humans really do seem to require a different design paradigm.”

‘Kit’ seemed to enjoy repeating himself, but Julian just nodded along as politely as he could manage. The alien fella was friendly but maybe just a bit exasperatingly enthusiastic. The alien continued:

“Your new design is absolutely state of the art and that will require us to monitor things closely. Free of charge, of course. Damage outside of warranty, however…”

“Hmm.” That wasn’t something Julian was anticipating. He’d grown accustomed to more or less ignoring his prosthetic unless it broke and had only agreed to all of this with the promise of something better. Which it was! But now he needed to consider maintenance. Quite a bit of it, maybe. If he’d known that—

No. Julian shook his head at the mere thought of it. No Corti spacemagic, even if Nofl was a stand-up fella by all accounts. Julian just couldn’t.

That left the price. This new bleeding-edge prosthetic was going to set him back about fifty thousand dollars even after his medical insurance picked up most of the cost. That was a fuck of a lot of money, way more that his inner scrooge was happy with. Sure he could afford it nowadays, and that was a luxury he was very grateful for, but…

Just then he’d received a picture message back from Xiù. Instead of words she’d sent a quick doodle. Doodles. Cute little cartoon doodles of Allison’s face, and Xiù, and what was unmistakably Vemik all big-eyed and curious, and Yan in an “angry” snarl, and Singer, and—

A warm smile crept unbidden across his face. “Yeah. Go ahead and do the nanoskin.”

“Excellent. If I may?”

Julian nodded and ‘Kit’ detached the foot with two careful presses, a sharp rotation to the right, and a quick jerk forward. He then unceremoniously sliced the covering off with a fusion scalpel and placed the disturbingly realistic foot innards on a pedestal at the other end of the lab. After he drained it of blood in a biohazard basin. Weird.

“I would like to authorize charges first, Mister Etsicitty.” ‘Kip’ smoothly handed Julian a tablet with an itemized list of charges. He choked a bit; God that was a lot of money.

But, in for a penny…Julian slid his card into the reader and typed his PIN. A short delay, then a ping…and now Julian was damn near sixty thousand dollars lighter in the sock.

The pedestal at the end of lab lit up, levitated his foot, and then somehow flowed a stream of something that seemed to materialize out of nowhere over every surface. It looked like it had the consistency of hot pitch but eventually formed into skin, right down to the pores.

Then it flashed a bunch of colors and patterns in rapid succession.

Then it matched Julian’s natural skintone. Uncanny valley hit hard.

“You can reprogram it however you like, that’s just there as an option.”

“…Great. Thanks.” Julian coughed to himself. “How do I…?”

“Bluetooth! I snuck the electronics in when you weren’t looking.”

“…Right. So, uh…” Julian wasn’t very tech savvy sometimes, but he eventually paired it with his phone, downloaded the app, and sent the little doodles Xiù had drawn to his foot.

Which really, was an idea he’d never imagined he’d be thinking about. And now he had a very disconcerting little gallery of bouncing drawn-heads roaming all over his disturbingly realistic prosthetic foot, crashing off each other and some unseen wall exactly like little ping pong balls.

He giggled at it, and decided to leave it as is.

“Man, wait ‘till the girls get a load of this…”


Date point: 14y 9m 1d AV
Total Combat Fitness, southwest Folctha, Cimbrean
Mid-morning

Dr. Marc Tisdale

Marc was, at heart, a gentle man. He had love for most everyone he met and refused to hold anger for anyone or anything unless they had truly, irrevocably earned it. That said, he was still a man and had all the competitive instincts any man should. He was a successful scholar with serious post-doc research under his belt. He was a competitive powerlifter flirting with a super-heavyweight classification, and had co-founded Folctha’s first dojo. He’d even seriously considered joining Cimbrean’s olympic teams in all those events, if he only had time left to commit to it. But no matter. He had Hope, he had Hayley, he had important work, and he had the kids and adults in the gym scene all looking to improve themselves. All of them were special. Some of them were brightly-shining stars, destined for great things if they truly desired it. And a couple were genuine heroes in a very real sense of the term.

Like little Adam Arés, who didn’t remain little for long. At the ripe old age of fifteen he discovered the gym, became an iron rat pretty much on the first day, found Marc by the squat rack repping out ten plates on the bar and more or less idolized him right off the bat. Then, in what seemed like a blink of an eye, he grew. In less than a year the boy had turned sixteen and was matching Marc lift for lift despite being a head shorter and a solid twenty five kilos lighter. Within a month he was edging past, in another he was firmly ahead, and by the time he had any interest in the military, the boy was so far ahead of Marc both under the bar and on the scale it was legitimately intimidating. Then he went off to join the Air Force, which Marc tried not to judge…and came back a hero. Too much of one to really get.

And it wasn’t like Marc had stopped or anything. Marc never stopped, never stopped thinking, never stopped lifting, never stopped helping out with the school plays and the volunteer litter-pickers and patrolling downtown on weekends with cheap raincoats and plastic slippers in a bag to help drunk people get home safe, and the Gaoian refugees…

He was always working on himself and others, and he loved seeing them thrive…though it could still sometimes be a little hard to stomach when someone like Adam showed up and effortlessly passed him by. Some people were just born special and that grated at Marc’s instincts: It smacked of privilege. He detested the idea that some people were just dealt a better hand in life and there was nothing anybody could do to draw level with them.

Detest it as he might, though, facts couldn’t be denied. Adam was a man destined for greatness. It seemed, annoyingly, that Julian was too. Marc tried not to hold any of that against his friends, but that didn’t mean he had to like the facts of what it meant to be truly gifted. Marc had been playing the iron game his whole life and in the process built had himself up from a skinny nerd in public school into a man you’d never want to meet in a dark alley. Julian…he’d only really been at it for a little over two years and underwent the kind of transformation one only hears about in tall tales, or maybe sees hyped half to death on the internet when some supplement company or another wanted to push their poison. In that sense Julian was like Adam. The explorer for-hire worked his ass off sure enough, but some petty undercurrent in Marc’s psyche couldn’t help but be a little jealous of a gifted man whose physique put virtually everyone Marc had ever met to utter shame.

Which made it a slightly guilty pleasure that he was able to take on a man like Julian, who was quite a bit heavier than Marc and a fuck of a lot stronger, and tie the big dude into a pretzel.

Repeatedly.

Life always had its little rewards.

Though Marc had to give Julian credit: he was was good-humored about it. Most dudes got butt-hurt, frustrated and angry when they couldn’t fight back but Julian would just chuckle ruefully and tap out whenever he decided he couldn’t escape the predicament of the moment. But Julian was a fast learner, and since Adam was involved in his training he was absurdly well-conditioned and ridiculously strong too, so Marc was under no illusion about that happy state of affairs lasting for very long. Against Julian, Marc only got one shot with any tactic or trick, so he had to make every move count.

Still, one took their victories where they could, which he did right then after a few minutes of a remarkably exhausting struggle to keep Julian pinned to the floor. He tapped out, Marc grinned and let go, and then flopped off to the side, dead tired.

“Adam was right. You’re full of tricks.” The shaggy-haired man had a lot more juice left in him and effortlessly kipped himself up, then prowled lazily toward the sink in the corner of the room.

“Had to be,” Marc revealed after catching his breath, feeling absurdly pleased by the compliment. “Dealing with him as a teenager was…trying.”

“Teenage ‘Horse. That’s a mental image…” Julian turned on the tap to fill the nearby bucket. The gym they trained in was one of the two “hardcore” iron dungeons in Folctha and had no air conditioning, being essentially a large prefab storage shed. Nobody had ever bothered to install one and nobody ever would; opening the rolling doors or getting good and soaked were luxury enough for those ‘rats.

“Adam was a good kid. A really good kid, considering. But bloody intense. Very aggressive about everything, didn’t matter if it was just tryin’ to be friends, he went after it relentlessly. I’m honestly amazed he got into as few fights as he did.”

“Still like that today.” Julian rolled his thick neck and got a loud ‘pop’ for his efforts.

“In some ways he never changed. Still a friendly pup of a man.”

“Mhmm.” The shaggy-haired dude lifted the bucket over his head and dumped water all over himself, then mopped his hair out and paused for a bit, obviously thinking about something. “…Yeah. I wasn’t anything like that. Grandpa said I was laid back and quiet.”

“You are now, though. More intense and aggressive, I mean.”

Julian shrugged matter-of-factly. “That’s ‘cuz I have to be.”

“Sure.” Marc groaned and rolled to his feet, and briefly envied Julian’s much younger body. “Being honest, a completely laid back personality doesn’t manage the achievements you have.”

Julian had a great big towel with a large, friendly Hitchhiker’s reference on it—wholly commendable, in Marc’s view—which he was using to scrub himself and the padded floor as dry as he could. He also tried to dry his workout shorts, promptly gave up with a shrug and a growl, then thumped back toward Marc and flopped down on the mat alongside.

And sighed. “Yeah. I guess so.”

“That bothers you.” Sometimes it was better not to ask a question, but to state an observation.

“I guess.” He sighed again, “I just, I dunno. Never thought of myself like this, y’know?”

“Just a kid in the woods, tryin’ to get by.”

“…Yeah. Somethin’ like that.” Julian was bothered by something, that much was obvious. It seemed like right then was a good time to play the Wise Old Man.

“And now here you are, field researcher with the Ten’Gewek. Your samples have been much appreciated in the life sciences, by the way. You’re getting pretty famous amongst researchers.”

“Wait, really?”

“Yup. Byron Group have been writing papers left and right on Akyawentian life, and you’ve been credited as the ‘chief field researcher’ in each one of them.”

That seemed to amuse him and elicited a soft chuckle. “Funny, they never told me that.”

“I get the impression that’s deliberate, Julian.” Marc sat back down alongside and patted him paternally on the shoulder. “You’ve got a lot on your plate as is.”

“Yeah. S’why I’m here with you, I need to learn how to tussle better. Strength-wise I’m finally about level with Vemik, which is good ‘cuz he’s pretty damn strong these days for a Ten’Gewek man. But they get stronger and tougher with age and the older men can be beastly.”

“I’ve seen the pictures, and the videos. Just about everyone has by now.” Marc scratched at his ear for a moment. “Is it really true they put gorillas to shame?”

“Eh, sorta.” Julian flopped down on his back and grabbed his ankles to stretch. “But that’s maybe overhyped. Vemik isn’t quite that big yet. Most Ten’Gewek are built more like football or rugby players, but with no real body fat and they’re smushed down to like five, maybe five-and-a-half feet tall. The women are like runningbacks or something, and the men are more like really big linebackers.”

“…Dang. You’re serious?”

“Oh yeah!” Julian chuckled as he pulled his stretch tighter. “When we first showed up? Vemik had easily over twenty pounds on me and he was literally a lanky kid who’d just become a man. When we came back, what, over a year later? I’d done all this training and shit, Adam helped me get big and just stupid strong, right? I won’t lie, I was pretty hyped up about it. But then we meet again,” Julian laughed, “and the cave monkey bastard was over fifty pounds bigger than me!”

“And he’s still only about five feet tall.” Good Lord.

“Eh, five-two or five-three now I guess. His crest comes up to my nose now.” Julian chuckled, let go of his stretch, and sat up. “But yeah. These days Vemik could put basically anyone in the league to shame and he’s still not anything like the older men. Those dudes really are in tear-a-silverback-apart territory, and Given-Men can rip apart bears. Hell, I’ve watched Yan pull a small werne bull apart without a grunt of effort, like it was made of tissue. The damn thing had to be, I dunno, over a thousand pounds? More? Something ridiculous like that.”

“…Dang.” There really wasn’t much else to say.

“Yup. Now Walsh is strong enough now to match with the older men, but that’s ‘cuz he wants to join HEAT and he’s training with Crude and other stuff. I don’t know if I can go that far so I need to be crafty if I’m gonna keep their respect.”

Marc nodded. The demands of living with the Ten’Gewek were by all accounts harsh. “That’s probably wise. And being honest I imagine whatever the HEAT are doing can’t be perfectly safe.” That had been something that had bothered Marc for some time. After all, Adam was a walking, talking example of how far a human could go if they really wanted to, but at what cost?

“Yeah. I’m not doing anything like that ‘cuz I wanna stay healthy and I don’t know how much more I’ve got left in me anyway.” He paused and reconsidered. “Well, okay. I suppose I could keep growing like a weed if I wanted to, but…”

“You’ve got lines you won’t cross.” That seemed pretty obvious.

Julian nodded. “Yeah. I got really lucky and met Adam, and I’ve, uh, I guess I’ve got the genetics to do this myself, so…may as well do it honestly, y’know?”

Marc raised an eyebrow. Julian wasn’t a hulk the same way Adam or any of his teammates were, true enough. But he was easily the largest and most capably fit athlete Marc had ever seen outside of that group, professional or otherwise. He’d built himself up from an impressive everyday fit kind of guy into a truly elite hardbody, and he’d managed all that very quickly.

Which meant that Marc had two one-of-a-kind prodigies in his personal orbit. That annoyed him enough that he couldn’t quite keep the snark out of his voice.

“Well shit, guess there’s no hope for me, then.”

And he immediately regretted it. Julian sort of…shrunk into himself. “…Sorry.”

Damnit.

“No, Julian. I’m sorry. Never apologize because you’re better. Anyway,” Marc barreled through before the situation got any more awkward, “So you’re still playing catch-up, then. You think you’ll ever draw level with them?” The kind of natural strength the Ten’Gewek possessed was honestly difficult to imagine. “And it was a hell of a slog for you to get where you are, too.”

“Yeah.” Julian shook his hair out then nodded. “And yeah, I’m still not where I want to be, but I think I can get there eventually. I’m finally strong enough to hunt alone on their world so it’s been totally worth it. That’s important to them.”

“Alone? Well, didn’t you manage to survive Nightmare for six years?”

“Yeah, I did, but…” Julian shrugged expansively and scratched the back of his head. “I kinda think Nightmare’s almost easy compared to Akyawentuo. Survival on the People’s world is hard work.”

“I thought Nightmare was a class thirteen or so.”

“It is, but that’s from a Corti’s perspective. The thing is they’re a small, weak people, and they’re dependent on agriculture. Assuming they survive in the first place, it’s probably easier for them to gather food on Akyawentuo.”

It was Marc’s turn to be impressed. “Really?”

“They’re primary mycovores. Mushrooms are everywhere on Akyawentuo and they’re nearly all safe to eat. For us, though? We need a lot more calories and on the People’s world you can’t get really them from anything growing on the ground, don’t matter if it’s jungle or steppe. Well, okay, there’s Bibtaw and Tanew and a few other things but that’s…none of that is food you can live on, long-term.”

“Fascinating!” Marc loved it when he got to learn something new. “So it’s all, what? Woody plants? Lots of cellulose and the like?”

“And mast, but yeah. Anything that fruits the way we think the word means, pretty much only grows in the forests and then it’s way high up. The grasses and ferns are rich, though. They’ve got really big herbivores and they breed like rabbits.”

“Like these werne I’ve seen on the news.”

“Yeah! They’re dangerous, too. Fast, strong, mean and they’ve got razor blades on their jaw and their hooves can cut you in half. They grow to something sized between a goat and a cow before their first season is up. After that they get way bigger if they live long enough. The biggest werne bulls? More massive than rhinos. Takes ‘em less than five years to get that big, too!”

“Good Lord,” Marc pondered, “And the Ten’Gewek are their main predators?”

“Nope! Not even close. There’s a bunch of competitors they gotta fend off. Like, there’s yshek in the rivers, which are like if an orca and a crocodile had babies. They can get just as big as an orca, too. On land they’ve got something that’s like a cross between a cave bear and a saber-toothed cat and it’s way bigger. Just once I saw one in open field chase down a werne and I swear the damn thing’s gotta be able to outrun a fuckin’ car on a freeway. It can lope along for hours, too. And it’s also got ten inch claws and can climb Ketta trees…I’m pretty sure that predator all by itself is the reason Given-Men evolved.”

“…Dang. That sounds like genuine nightmare fuel, right there. What’s it called?”

“I don’t know!” Julian laughed and shook his shaggy head, “They won’t even speak its name! Yan won’t tell me until my Rite of Manhood and I already promised never to speak of it to anyone. Not even the women know! Only the Singers and Dancers do, it’s unreal.”

That was…a remarkable thing to learn. “…Jesus.”

Julian gave a wry smile. “I’m not sure even He would fuck with one of these things, bro.”

“Well, can it walk on water?” Marc snarked.

“Heh, I doubt it. The one we saw from the ship we think musta weighed at least six thousand pounds. The People really hate wide open ground, by the way…”

“…I don’t blame them.” Marc shook his head in disbelief. “Anyway. So lots of prey.”

“—Right! Yeah. Lots of prey animals and they grow big, grow fast, and they breed like rabbits. Everything low to the ground is perfect for them to eat, but it isn’t very good for us. Now there are tubers and stuff but not as much as you’d need, so the other thing you need to eat lots of besides meat is fruit. They’re mostly like avocados too, and they grow way the fuck up in the trees.”

“Ah. Okay, this makes sense now. The Ten’Gewek seem like they evolved to take advantage of both food sources.”

“Yeah, I think so. On Akyawentuo you gotta do a fuck of a lotta climbing and gathering, or you gotta hunt big game, and doing either of those things on that planet means you need to be quick, clever, and strong as all hell. That’s the Ten’Gewek in a nutshell. That’s why I did all of this,“ Julian gestured across his body, “They want me to do their Rite of Manhood and I gotta do it their way, too. They don’t like the idea of me using human tools.”

“Just a bow and spear?”

“No, just the spear. The Given-Men got together and they think the bow is powerful Taking-Magic, and shouldn’t be used until a boy is already a man. Vemik gets a pass ‘cuz he invented it, ‘cuz ‘he was already a man’ when he did his Rite.”

“…great. Gorilla lawyers.”

That got a burst of laughter from Julian, loud and mirthful. He was normally in the habit of a quiet chuckle so a good belly laugh was more rewarding to provoke.

“Man! Anyway, yeah. It’ll be nice to finally, uh, prove myself.”

“Ah. So that’s why you’ve been at it like a madman. Peer pressure!”

“Heh.” Julian unselfconsciously scratched at the back of his head, and in so doing he absentmindedly flexed that massive, perfect bicep of his like he had done many times before. Which…All through their morning training, Marc had barely noticed anything like that, except in the way that anyone would notice their workout partners or friends. But not that time. Julian was unconsciously far too fucking hot, especially when he noticed Marc’s gawping stare. He chuckled happily, drew his entire upper body into a powerful flex and grinned a massive, shit-eating grin, then shook his head sheepishly and dropped his arms. “…Sorry.”

“N–No. I’m sorry,” Marc almost stammered. But after a moment of thought he found himself annoyed with Julian’s misplaced modesty. “Actually…No. Fuck it. I just wish you’d stop pretending to be less than you are, it’s getting bloody annoying. You’re better than me. I know it, you know it, everyone knows it. And humoring your repressed self-image is beginning to get a bit fucking tedious!”

“I…what?” Julian sat there rooted in place, momentarily stunned by the sudden outburst.

Feeling his dander up, Marc stabbed his index finger right in the center of Julian’s thick slab of a chest and growled, consequences be damned. “Actually, to be perfectly honest it’s getting a mite fuckin’ insulting. I’m not telling you to be some strutting bell-end, but seriously: stop acting like you aren’t among the best of the bloody best, ‘cuz you are.”

Julian swallowed and nodded vigorously. “…Yessir.”

Christ. But Marc had said his piece, and deflated with a sigh. “Shit. Sorry.”

Julian relaxed slowly and shook his shaggy head. “No. Don’t be. I think…maybe you’re right. Am…am I being an ass about it?”

“Not deliberately, no.” Christ, how to explain it. “It’s just, honestly? A man like you shouldn’t be walking around like he’s all meek and inoffensive. You’re not. You’re too big for my balance scale and once you learn how to properly spar you’ll be able to break me without trying. It’s…” Marc suddenly realized what his gripe was, and went in for the kill. “Your constant tip-toeing around what you can really do doesn’t feel polite or considerate. It feels…patronizing.”

“…Oh. Um…Sorry.” It was an odd thing watching a man like Julian shrink into himself, but if that got the lesson through his head, so be it.

“Right. Earlier today we lifted. You used the exact same weights I did. Yeah, I know,” he raised his hand to forestall the inevitable objection, “You weren’t here to lift, you were just being a good training partner. But now I gotta wonder…what can you really do? Tell me. Be honest, mate.”

Julian blushed and again scratched the back of his head, then eventually admitted the truth. “Well, some lifts I’m stronger than others, but…fuck. Here,” Julian stalked back to his bag and fished around, then fetched a battered black book. “Just read.”

Marc perused the numbers. Then paused unbelievingly, started again from the beginning, and read them more carefully. “Wait, so…you’re that much better? On every lift? Christ, that makes you stronger than I was at my absolute peak! And you’re doing that with how much volume?”

“…Yeah. I’ve, uh…” He grew more embarrassed by the second, “I’ve been focusing on work capacity.”

“So. You’ve got me beat for weight and for reps. And both at the same time. Which means that little session we did earlier today wasn’t remotely any kind of a challenge for you, was it.” He didn’t ask it as a question.

Julian’s cheeks went crimson. “…No…not really.”

Jesus.

“Julian…” Marc could only chuckle in disbelief and mild shock. “Those are massive numbers. You do know that, right?”

“…I do. And hell, I don’t mind the way it makes Al and Xiù look at me…” he cleared his throat. “…or other women. Or, uh, some guys. Or…you. That’s all good for the ego, I guess, but…”

“…Well, shit.” Marc grumbled, “Now I feel like a right arse.”

“No no! No. It’s okay. Really. I’m flattered. Also, uh, no,” he added hastily. “Just, y’know. For the record.”

Marc snorted in amused relief. “Please, do you feel the need to say that to every woman who checks you out? Besides I’m married.”

“Feh,” Julian’s troll-grin was on full display. “That’s never stopped you two before!”

“…Fair point, but Hayley would need to agree.” Marc, however, could troll right back. “Think your women are the type to share?”

“No, definitely not. And I still said no, Marc.” An even trollier grin, “You’re a dirty hippy!”

“Clean hippy, thank you—Hayley and I got into soap a few years back, you know. And you wouldn’t believe how much it costs to import Lush to this planet.”

And there it was. The patented combined sigh-chuckle-headshake that was uniquely and adorably Julian.

“Anyway. We clear on this? No more of this false modesty, Julian.”

“Yessir.” He seemed relieved there were no hard feelings.

“Good. And I’ll try and be less of a knob. Fair?”

“Heh. Fair.”

“Right. Anyway,” Marc looked at the clock. It was late morning, and Julian was due for a meal. “I think we need a run. So let’s get you and your pretty self up for a quick jog, then you can eat, rest, then we go at it again. Sound like a plan?”

Julian nodded happily and sprang to his feet with all the energy of a man barely out of high school. Marc in turn climbed a bit wearily to his own feet and shook his head. He had been a serious hardbod himself in his youth—hell, not even five years ago he was still lean and mean—but deep down he knew that he’d never again have a body even remotely like Julian’s, and that he’d never been close in his absolute prime.

But Marc found…he didn’t mind. Not anymore. Momentary confusion aside, Julian needed help. Not just with the wrestling—he needed help there too, no lie. But somehow Marc knew there was something deeper eating at Julian, and that he was a man not used to talking it out.

No. Julian was a lot like Adam. They both seemed to think best while they were exerting themselves, and today’s coaching was building to something bigger. Marc understood.

He’d just need to see it to its end.

“C’mon mate. Let’s see if those pretty legs of yours can jog.” Marc decided on a jaunt around town, just for some fresh air that didn’t taste like stale armpits and pain. He walked to the door and beckoned while he slipped on some falling-apart sneakers. Julian didn’t bother and followed behind barefoot.

One last thing. “Put this on.” Marc picked up a heavy weighted vest that had sat undisturbed by the door for many years now. “This was Adam’s when he was training to join the Air Force.” Julian nodded and picked it up…or attempted to, then raised his eyebrow and lifted it with a quiet grunt.

“Dang, this is heavy.”

“Yup. I need to level the playing field a bit. You might need to loosen it to fit, but…”

Julian nodded and did so. “Okay. Where we going?”

“Somewhere. Where we end up depends on when you tire out!”

That got the fire going again. “Okay old man, lead the way!”

Good. Marc was many things. Old. Well, oldish, anyway. He had some chronic pain. He’d definitely let the fat go too far. But he was still competitive, and he still enjoyed the game. If he could work out those urges while helping Julian get to wherever he needed to go, well…

What were friends for? They stepped out into the sun, and ran towards the river.


Date point: 14y 9m 1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
Meeting of Given-Men

Yan Given-Man

“When will Jooyun return and take the Rite of Manhood?”

Yan mopped some of the sweat from his crest and loosened up his crushing grip on his challengers. “Soon,” he said confidently. “Soon.”

Fall was almost upon them and the signs were everywhere. The werne were growing restless and some had already begun migrating south for better feeding grounds. The days were shorter and the warmth from the sun had started to fade…it was time to finish preparing for winter. The year’s final Rites of Manhood were well underway and all the Given-Men had grown boys in their tribes to guide through the Hunt, the Singers were helping their girls cross over into Womanhood…

But the Hunt was the most important thing. It was when the tribes drew the line between the good times of spring and summer, and the upcoming harshness of fall and winter. This winter would probably be easier since they had much food ‘canned,’ which all of the tribes had worked hard to make. Or, was it ‘jarred?’ Maybe ‘potted?’ That felt better since they mostly used their little clay pots—now ‘glazed’ which was a nicely buzzy word…[buzzword] maybe? Was that right? It sounded right. He’d have to ask Jooyun because ‘English’ words could twist in strange ways. ‘Potting’ food wasn’t potting because that meant a different way to save meat, which wasn’t ‘canning’ like Jooyun insisted they were doing, even though they were using pots…

Strange Sky-Tribe magic. Useful, but strange. Nobody was quite ready to trust themselves to this ‘canned’ food because of that. Not yet. Let it prove itself over a few winters, like every man needed to prove themselves.

None of that changed the other problems of winter, either. Boys needed to become men to face their first winter without the strength of their parents, and in any case, hunting was a much harder thing when the werne were migrating; the need for fresh meat wouldn’t go away even with all the smoking and ‘canning’ they’d done, so the tribes needed every strong and healthy hunter they could get.

The nearby Given-Men had gathered as they regularly did, but this meeting was special. It was the last before fall began and was the time when the last plans were laid, and when boys who weren’t quite ready were gently dissuaded from undertaking the Rites. Those who had failed were mourned, the names of new men were shared, and stories about their exploits were told around the fire.

And play-fighting, just because. Why not roughhouse while everyone was there? It wasn’t serious fighting like the battles that took place at the Lodge. The Given-Men knew the pecking order and that wouldn’t change until the spring when old Given-Men died and new men were initiated. This was much more…fun.

Den and Arsh had always planned everything out together like brothers. This time was no different, and both had challenged Yan at the same time for a tussle in the dirt. Yan taught them the futility of their idea and ended up sitting on them both to their groaning, trilling protestations. It was fun and nobody was mad…but Yan couldn’t let them think they could ever win against him. Not now. Not ever.

And besides, Yan was so far in the lead he could afford to indulge their challenges. So he did. But not without a little teasing.

“Maybe you two want to be my women for tonight?” Yan grinned and squeezed his legs around them a little bit tighter. “I think you might like it too much!”

They trilled and struggled fiercely like a yshek skewered through the tail; not that they could escape, but he let them recover some dignity and wiggle slightly free. He was in a good mood! They were too, so he let them ask their questions.

“Will he be ready?” Arsh said, a bit more seriously. He was barely pinned so Yan shifted his weight a bit and won a grunt of pain from his old friend.

“He will be ready. His spear-work is almost as good as mine now and he’ll be as strong as a full man of the tribe, soon. Maybe even strong like Wawsh!”

Jooyun wasn’t actually sure he’d be able to get that strong but he was confident he could maybe get close. Which was good. Heff wouldn’t. He was strong too but he would always be a small man, it wasn’t in his bones to be big like it was for the other two. He could climb the highest branches of any tree as well as any of child of the tribes though, which was a strength of its own kind as far as Yan was concerned.

“Is he worth it?” Den was always one to ask the strong questions right away. No softening anyone up for anything. “You have spent much time teaching him our ways, time you could spend with our own boys. We’ve all noticed.”

Den was the stronger of the two and managed a clean, un-hurried question instead of having to fight for his breath. That wouldn’t do. Yan squeezed his tail around Den’s waist a bit harder and earned a pained grunt from him as well. Then he tightened a little bit more, to pay him back for the accusation. But only a little.

“I have taught my boys all they need, Den Given-Man. Jooyun Takes nothing I can’t Give, he is extra work after the boys have learned for the day. And yes, he will be worth it. I hope he will teach me to be a man of his people, too.”

Both the Given-Men nodded in understanding, so Yan let them up and swept them both into a smashing hug, which they gave back just as fiercely. The three of them had cheery spirits and tussled again, then eventually flopped down in front of the fire in a puddle of tangled happiness.

“What about the Magic of it?” Singer had watched their antics with her usual unreadable expression. “Jooyun said he’s afraid of the magic Seeing powder.”

The two other Given-Men looked at him and Yan gave a slightly annoyed snarl. “He’s not afraid of the powder, it’s what it might do to him. He and Professor say, they’re different People whose gods made them different on the inside too. He’s worried the powder may be poison for him, like ‘alcohol’ is for us.”

One thing Yan was glad about was how smart the Given-Men usually were, and for how much Singer’s wisdom could bring that out in anyone. He shot her a slightly apologetic grin and turned back to Arsh and Den.

“That is maybe wise.” Said Arsh. He was always quicker to think thoughts than Den. Not that he was any wiser, he was just…faster. “But how will he See?”

Den looked up at Yan, the re-settled himself a bit closer to the fire and snuggled harder. That made Yan happy. It was getting cold out but nobody wanted to start wearing furs just yet. Why bother when you had warm friends and a warm fire?

“I think he will find an answer. He…his gods have a wisdom, something like ‘your body is your prayer,’ I think. He says, maybe magic powders offend his gods, so he is Sky-Thinking about it. Professor Daniel thinks he will end up bringing back a magic powder for Humans anyway.” Yan looked at Singer, “Would that be okay?”

Singer thought about it for a long while, then sat on Arsh’s lap to warm herself. “I think, the gods want to speak to us, how they do that isn’t as important. That is why we take the magic powder. Their words are too strong for us to hear otherwise. I think, if this Human powder lets him listen to the gods, then they won’t be angry. As long as he doesn’t anger his gods, too.”

That seemed wise to Yan, and it seemed wise to Den and Arsh too. They all nodded their heads in agreement then snuggled a little closer. Sundown was coming soon and Singer would need to Sing the night’s song, but that wasn’t quite yet. Right now it was cold, and they were friends, and friends helped each other fight off the chill. Others were gathering too, and before long his whole tribe relaxed around the fire, pressed together in warmth and happiness with the children climbing over everyone.

Yan hoped Jooyun would come back soon. He missed him.


Date point: 14y 9m 1d AV
Total Combat Fitness, southwest Folctha, Cimbrean
Early afternoon

Dr. Marc Tisdale

Marc’s master plan to exhaust Julian with a nice, long run hadn’t exactly been a smashing success. The dude strapped on that murderously heavy vest without any fuss and bounded down the trails like it wasn’t much of a challenge. Marc ran a pretty good pace for a big man but he’d decided to push himself a bit too far that day…

Up against Julian that ended up being a mistake. Marc would eventually pay for that error in pain, but that was for later. For now, he wanted to enjoy himself. It was a long weekend and he had nothing planned for a change, so Hayley had gently kicked everyone out of the house, left Hope with a babysitter and told them not to come back until late evening so she could enjoy some well-deserved alone time. She hadn’t sent him empty-handed, either; There was a tenner in Marc’s lunchbox, and a card that simply read ‘Get yourself a McDonald’s <3’

Considering Hayley’s lifelong commitment to vegetarianism, Marc wasn’t going to complain at all…though if he was honest with himself he probably indulged a bit too much nowadays. He was dangerously close to the line between “dad-bod” and “chubby.” Marc took another look at Julian, then down at his growing spare tire, considered the run he’d just been humiliated on…and decided to get a low-carb wrap instead.

He really needed to get back into good habits.

Julian’s lunch on the other hand was a series of containers heaped to bursting with grilled chicken, guacamole, brown rice, and what looked like sautéed peppers and the like. Rather then eat them separately he simply dumped everything in the biggest container and enthusiastically stirred the contents together with his fork, then shoveled it all into his face with reckless abandon.

“It seems you learned how to eat from Adam, too.”

Julian grinned and nodded. “Uh-huh,” he managed between gulps of a protein shake. “Meal number five for the day.” He cleared some more of it out the way, swallowed hugely, and gasped slightly for air at the end. “Kinda got in the habit of bolting my food down on Nightmare too. Never knew when something might want to steal it. Actually…I did that as a kid, too. Grandpa never much liked it.”

“You do look a bit like a squirrel.”

“Ha!” Julian laughed and took a much more civilized bite. “Guess I shouldn’t be such a pig.”

“You’re an American,” Marc replied drily, “We’ve grown accustomed to it.”

“Mhmm.” The two ate in silence and then walked back to the gym to settle their meals, Julian’s vest slung over one shoulder. It was a fairly long walk back to the gym, more than enough time to get everything settled.

Then it was time for round two. Marc tried every trick he knew to wear the bastard out. The run hadn’t worked, it ended up exhausting Marc instead. Plyometrics of any kind didn’t seem to work either, at least, not enough to be worth it. The weights, though, those ended up doing the trick once Julian finally showed off what he could really do. Marc, at that point thoroughly humbled, gleefully worked Julian as long and as hard as the big man could stand. No rest, hardly any pause between sets. There was just the lift at hand while Marc either spotted or set the next station up ahead so Julian had no reason to stop.

Just keeping up with him was exhausting and Marc felt half-dead from the effort, but he’d finally managed the trick. They ended up collapsed next to each other on the mat, both struggling to cool down and calm their breath.

Julian caught his first. “Man. You’re evil when you wanna be.”

Marc panted a little bit before replying. “Where…do you think…Adam learned?”

They took another couple of minutes to recover. When his pulse had slowed down to something less frenetic, Marc sat up and gave Julian a once-over. Julian also chose that moment to sit up, pull his legs in, reach over and stretch his back in a seated twist. He flexed and his spine popped loudly with a happy sigh. Marc gawped and found himself somewhat enviously staring while every annoyingly perfect shape on the young man’s body popped into sharp relief.

“Christ.” He grumbled to himself, “You’re put together a lot like he is.” Which wasn’t any kind of exaggeration; Julian was a lean and these days heavily muscled man, but instead of a lot of showy bulk it was crammed onto a compactly dense frame like Marc had only ever seen on Adam.

“Yeah,” Julian mumbled in embarrassment and scratched the back of his head in exactly the same distracting way he’d done before. “Same basic frame and everything, he showed me pictures from when he wasn’t such a tank. He thinks it’s a big part of why I was able to get so strong.”

Also true: the two took after each other’s habits and body shape like training partners often did. Julian had grown to become a relatively smaller, more sanely sized echo of Adam.

“…Right. Anyway,“ Marc moved on before he ended up embarrassing himself, “So you’ve discovered you’re one of the very best there is at this game, eh? I think that is a good thing, you need to be that physically dominant to live on Akyawentuo. It sounds like it’s about the toughest place around.”

“…Eh, depends on how you mean.” Julian sprang up and prowled over to the chin-up bar. Like Adam he seemed to enjoy motion for its own sake and didn’t sit still for long if he didn’t have to. “I’d say that’s still Earth.” Marc watched while Julian repeatedly pulled himself up and down, smooth and slow.

Marc decided he’d stretch himself instead. “What makes you say that?”

“Well…you gotta be strong on Akyawentuo…sure enough.” He paused at the top after an honestly frightening number of reps and held himself upright, then did hanging leg raises. “And if you ain’t strong…and you need real food…you don’t get to eat…so you die.” A huge count of very rapid muscle-ups, and again he paused at the top. “But the thing is, that’s really all there is to it. Things on Akyawentuo aren’t as…evil.”

“…Evil.” Somehow, that seemed like an appropriate thought to voice while contorted backwards into a bridge.

“Yeah.” He did more pull-ups, these as fast as he could manage with his legs straight out. He did some absurd number then held himself at the top and caught his breath for a moment. “…Evil. Like, nothing really venomous. Or exploding bomb-fruit. Or plants that’ll give you a deadly rash. Well. No.” Another minute of rapid pull-ups. “Okay. They do have those things. But it’s…kinda obvious when something’ll fuck your life up. Bright colors or whatever. And anyway,” he hopped down to do some plyometric push-ups. “I don’t think the Ten’Gewek could hunt enough food to feed themselves on Earth,” he commented with a frighteningly steady voice between claps. “There isn’t enough big prey anymore.”

“So…” Marc puzzled on that, “Your thesis is that you—we—humans, could adapt to life on Akyawentuo, but the reverse isn’t true for the Ten’Gewek.”

It was another minute before Julian stopped and answered, slightly winded. “Yeah. Like, I’m this big, uh, ‘meatslab’ these days. Fine. I’ll admit it’s been fun as hell. And if I was alone and wasn’t this kind of strong, and I didn’t have my rifle? I’d prob’ly slowly starve to death.”

“Sounds pretty rough to me.”

“Sure,” Julian countered, “But on the other hand if I had to, I could, like, drop a hundred-fifty pounds and move to Nightmare and still be a healthy, strong dude. That…doing that would probably kill Vemik.”

“Really, how so? He seems clever and strong.”

“He is but he’s also an apex carnivore. I mean, we think of him like he’s this young kinda puppy fella, right? And he is! But he also eats enough meat to go through the equivalent of a deer in about a week, organs, bones and all. That’s on top of anything else he forages or whatever, too. Imagine what a tribe of them is like. And imagine that fellas like Yan can go through a deer in, like, maybe a couple of days if he’s been busy.”

“…Dang.”

“Mhmm.” Julian thought quietly for a long moment. True to form he hopped over to the pegboard and climbed it, then back down, then up again, then back down…

Marc tried not to ogle but it was hard not to given both the man he was watching and the effortless way he hauled himself up and down. Eventually Julian slowed down and did a seemingly endless number of pull-ups at the top. When he was finally winded he leaped down from the top and thumped heavily next to Marc, then crashed on the ground next to him.

It took him a few moments to get his breath back. Marc waited patiently.

“You know,” he said eventually, “I think maybe the Corti’s algorithm, well…I think the scale’s all wrong, because maybe they’re looking at the wrong stuff.”

That was an intriguing idea. “Or maybe there’s multiple axis that need to be expressed.”

“Right, like caloric requirements, or maybe how scarcity and surplus work. Stone-Age human cultures nearly all had the ability to preserve food, for instance. The People really…didn’t. Well. Okay. They could. But only by smoking. And sometimes just drying things out. We just taught them how to use salt properly, and how to can things in little crocks. We’re, uh…still working on glass. Turns out that’s a really hard skill to learn.”

Marc nodded. “I see what you’re saying. They hadn’t really developed that capability, that we know of, because they hadn’t really needed to. We don’t know what the ones that got antimatter bombed were like.”

“Well, they were quite a bit less robust, we know that from skeletons. Similar cranial capacity, too. Maybe…a bit less, actually.”

That reminded Marc of some papers he’d read long ago about humanity’s own paleohistory. “…So the survivors are something like neanderthals. Almost literally.”

“…Yeah. I guess they are. You gotta be the best at everything to live like they do. But that means they need food and an environment that can support them.”

“Which means…they’re specialized well past the point that, for instance, Homo Sapiens developed. We’re one of the few species on Earth that can eke out a living and thrive everywhere. So…you’re thinking that the Corti’s algorithm doesn’t take any of that into account?”

“…Eh, I dunno. I wasn’t thinking that far. I ain’t smart like you are.”

“What did I say about false modesty?” Marc said, annoyed.

“I know, I ain’t bein’ like that.” Julian shrugged, “I mean it’s not my kind of smart.”

“Well, fair enough I suppose. What were you thinking, then?”

I guess what I was thinkin’ was…well, we and the neanderthals, we didn’t exactly wipe them out. We interbred. European men being hairy and having red hair is proof of that. I think it’s more…well. Yeah. We’re both adapted to a nasty-ass deathworld. It’s just they try to kill you different ways. And Earth is sneakier.”

That was an interesting idea, admittedly. And it prompted unbidden a sudden realization: “So they’re the equivalent of neanderthals for their world, they’re adapted to very hard living…and we just froze their development. Permanently.”

“We saved their lives, Marc.” Julian growled it with no small amount of annoyance.

“Of course! Hats off for that. But how do we help them now? I mean, think about it. You’re proposing to help a people adapt to a new reality who may be unable to, in some ways.”

“Well…why not? They’re reasonable fellas.”

“One of the greatest heresies I ever learned that was actually deep truth: in the end, you can’t win over your own nature. You can master it, or you can adapt to it. But it always wins.”

“…Huh?”

Marc chuckled. “Eh, just an old hippy grousing about some hard life lessons. Tell you what,” he proposed, “Let’s put that aside for the moment and spar, clear your head out. I’m interested to see if you can somehow manage to escape the clutches of a fat old man.”

Julian nodded and grinned somewhat savagely, then sprang to his feet. “I’m feeling good! Bet I finally pin your tricksy ass.”

“You’re a few inches shorter than I,” Marc remarked with a blunt smile, “But you have a longer reach and outweigh me by enough that it’s almost embarrassing. If you somehow don’t manage to pin me today, I shall be greatly surprised and you should feel bad about it.”

That seemed to do it. Julian snarled happily and went for it. And lost, immediately. But that was okay, because Marc hadn’t yet figured out what was bothering Julian so much that he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—talk about it. What could Marc do but listen and build trust?

Not much. But until Julian decided to open up, Marc could teach him how to fight.


Date point: 14y 9m 1d AV
Western battlefront, Gao
Meanwhile…

Corporal Michael Murphy

Another raid, another cleaned out village. Michael was getting bone-tired of it all.

On the one hand, there was tangible progress every single day. The Great Father hadn’t been lying about anything, either: once the Army hit a certain size, things had mushroomed really fucking fast and now Michael and his troop were more or less only on as advisory units. They followed the front, occasionally participated when a particularly tricky objective was in the way or when the Gaoian troops were dangerously green. Casualties had been quite high at the start of the war, but the numbers were getting better and better all the time.

Which was weirdly depressing, because the reason for that was they weren’t fighting biodrones en masse much anymore. They had largely retreated to the cities just as Great Father had predicted they would, although every so often they’d pop up somewhere they hadn’t been expected. These days, most actual fighting was rogue Gaoian “Clans” that had sprung up in the chaos, and which had survived the initial planetwide culling by Stoneback’s Claws. Those that had hidden, or sprung up later, or which had just not drawn notice…some of those had grown well-emplaced. And, in the process, some did things out of desperation or sheer uncivilized evil that could not ever be forgiven by any sane person, of any species.

To the credit of most of these regional Clans though, they handled themselves quite honorably. Those that did often received the Great Father’s public praise and some were even permitted a continued existence. Clan Forestnettle, for example, had formed along one of Gao’s last wild forests and viciously guarded it from any misuse. They kept their harvest to deadwood and managed things so well, Stoneback had allied with them as an associate Clan.

Some of these upstart fake Clans, though, they didn’t have any honor. Those were targeted for destruction, and steamrolling them was…depressingly easy. They didn’t know what they were doing, didn’t have any tactical understanding of the land or their own forces, and they were very easy to demoralize. Put one hulking goddamned Stoneback Brother at the front and have him go completely horror show at the beginning of things, and gutting their Clan became the work of minutes. Terror did most of the work. No hive-mind coordination of a biodrone, no complete disregard for life or safety, no deliberate expenditure of forces just to bleed the Army dry. They were still people, and people could be defeated instead of simply destroyed.

They weren’t brave people, though. They were cowards. Frightened, untrained, weak, half-starving cowards. And slaughtering cowards wasn’t good for anyone’s soul, but all of that was generally in the countryside amongst critical resources, so it had to be done up close and personal rather than simply flattening their enclaves from orbit. There were Females to consider too, and the Gao could not afford any female casualties.

That meant they had a justice problem they had to deal with. Justice amongst the Gao was swift and brutal. Many of the helplessly entrapped Clanless males would end up ritually scar-marked and sent to the Army’s training grounds, where life for them would be extreme and unpleasantly educational. They had a lot to prove if they were going to be accepted in the new Army “Clan” but they were nonetheless offered the opportunity. “Everyone worthy of a chance gets one,” Daar had said. Nobody had the balls to argue the point with him.

Things got much worse as justice worked its way up the leadership. The so-called middle management were often scar-marked, ritually shaved, and castrated at a minimum. They had no future with anyone, anywhere. Woe betide any who were credibly guilty of crimes against Females. What happened to those cases was…best not shared with the unprepared.

The leaders of each “Clan” had it the worst and as far as Michael was concerned, deserved it. They went to the Great Father and their death, if they were allowed one, could take many days. Each such case was tried by the remaining Judge-Fathers of Straightshield. One or two were found guiltless, and the females responsible were named and shamed by the Mother-Supreme herself. Another few were guilty of minor crimes at most. But most, well…

Michael had nightmares about them, some nights. He suspected he’d need a hell of a lot of counseling when everything was said and done and he finally got to go home.

Tonight was a big raid and a very dangerous one. A “Clan Ironsides” had emplaced itself in a deep-shaft mine and had enough supplies to last for years. They had females with them too, and negotiations had failed once a flybot had descended the mine and captured evidence of exactly how their self-declared Grandfather treated their women. That made Michael’s blood boil. He had no problem whatsoever bringing death to scum like that. Neither did anyone he worked with, and they weren’t shy to say it, either.

[“Don’t be nice to them,] Michael.” Pinky was too blind and, honestly, too dumb to be trusted in combat, but he could cook, he could work, and he was surprisingly strong for his size, so he ended up following along as a ‘camp rat’ in the rear. He was good at it too, and liked to help his friends get ready for a fight.

“We won’t, Pinks. These guys fuckin’ deserve it.” By now they were all fluently bilingual. Everyone preferred to speak their mother tongue, though. It was easier.

[“Good.”] A little heft, a bit of a twist, and Michael had all his gear seated and ready.

That just left the actual mission. The mine wasn’t of much strategic importance. It wasn’t yet depleted but they had much richer sources of heavy metals on Gao and in their star system. Were it not for the Females, Great Father Daar would likely have left them at peace.

But nobody screwed with the Females. Among the Gao that was the ultimate, unforgivable crime, and it was one Daar would not overlook. Everyone down in that mine knew it, too. If they lost they would all die horrible, protracted deaths. They had no incentive to surrender, and Daar had no mercy left to give. Both of them saw the fight as one of survival.

Both were right.

Michael sighed. The time for those thoughts were over. Right now he needed some Sabaton, some Snickers and some Rip-Its. He needed to go zen out with his battle buddies.

And in an hour, he would be the Reaper.


Date point: 14y 9m 1d AV
Total Combat Fitness, southwest Folctha, Cimbrean
Late afternoon

Dr. Marc Tisdale

It had taken more work than any tough case Marc had ever dealt with, and the task had left him feeling like a bowl of wobby pudding with promises of entire symphonies of pain awaiting him in the morning…but finally, at last, Julian had managed to work off enough frustrated energy to just lie on the ground, chat…and think.

And flatten Marc like a bug, repeatedly. Julian had finally learned how to use his huge weight and strength advantages to his benefit. His technique was basic, sloppy, and needed a lot of refinement…but given that he was so physically good, that ended up not mattering as much.

It was getting pretty late in the day when Julian finally decided he’d had enough revenge on Marc and allowed him to escape from his clutches. They both flopped over and panted for a while…then just sat there, staring at the ceiling.

It was some time before Julian spoke. “I’ve been worrying about the People a lot, haven’t I?”

“Yeah.” Marc mused, untying himself and stretching out. “I think that’s a good thing, though. You referred to yourself as a ‘meatslab’ earlier, but I think it’s pretty evident you’ve been thinking about this a lot. I see why the Byron Group picked you.”

Julian chuckled and flomped over onto his back. “Hey, I never said I was dumb! I’m a thinkin’ slab! I’m writing book reports and essays and everything these days, too.”

Marc grinned. “You know, Adam once said almost the exact same thing to me.” He paused for a minute while Julian briefly considered something involving movement, and then flomped back onto the mat. “I wonder sometimes if I could have done better by him as a young man. Hayley and I have really tried hard not to repeat some of the parenting mistakes I think we may have made with Sara, but the truth is, there’s no manual for parenting at all.”

“…Mistakes?”

Marc sighed. “You can’t help but blame yourself when your little girl dies, Julian. Let’s…leave it there, please.” Even confessing to that much brought a sick feeling to Marc’s stomach. “At least I know some more of the truth nowadays…”

“…Shit, I’m sorry.”

“It’s been ten years. I…somehow we carried on. That’s all there is to say. But thanks.” God, she’d have been twenty-four just weeks ago…

Julian for his part had a look like he desperately wanted to Make It Better. That helped.

“…Hey, so. Uh… you and your lovely ladies. Any plans?” Marc rallied.

“…Uh, yeah!” Julian rallied happily, awkwardness forgotten. “Lots of plans. They all seem to involve spending a lot of money these days…” Julian flopped over onto his belly and talked sideways into the mat. “Which is kinda dumb of me, I guess. I’m still thinking like the only income we have was my grampa’s pension. Now I’ve got a portfolio manager.” His tone wasn’t exactly contemptuous so much as…disbelieving.

“You earned every penny.”

“…If you say so.”

Marc chuckled. “I do say so. You’re not some fat-cat banker taking a yearly bonus, you explored alien words, got shot at, probably a whole bunch of other stuff you never told about…If anybody deserves to be a millionaire…”

Julian shrugged hugely and nodded along. “I get it. It’s not guilt. It’s just…weird. Like, this!” He sat up and pulled his foot off. “This right here? You wouldn’t believe how much it cost. I just…I grew up on commodity cheese and powdered eggs, and whatever I could hunt, y’know?”

“Hayley and I used to live in a teepee village in rural Wales,” Marc retorted. “Which, okay, was self-imposed poverty as a lifestyle choice, but there were a lot of people in that community who could barely afford to pay attention.”

Julian gave him an unmistakably wary yet politely neutral look. “Hey, whatever floats your boat. Actually.” He brushed his hair back and turned to face Marc more directly, and took a deep breath. At long last, Julian seemed ready for whatever was bothering him.

“I do got a question. It’s one I think you’re, uh, better equipped to answer. And it’s a painful fuckin’ decision for me.”

“Fire away.”

“Okay. So. That manhood hunt I mentioned earlier today.”

“Right.”

“There’s a ritual at the end. It involves a hallucination. With a drug. I don’t want to insult them, but I really do not want to take that powder of theirs. I’m…at a loss.”

“Have you asked them about it?”

“Yeah. Yan is pretty adamant that it’s not a proper Hunt if I don’t See at the end. So is Singer.”

Hmm. That was a conundrum. Probably best to get to the root of it, first.

“If the objective is the Vision…Would they let you use a different substance? Or a different technique? There are other ways to go on a vision quest.”

“I…suppose so. It’d need to be pretty similar. And it’s a pretty vivid hallucination. I’ve watched one of their men in the throes of it.”

“So…peyote, then. It’s pretty safe. And ah… sorry if I have this totally wrong, but isn’t that right up your cultural alley?”

Julian sighed. “My Grampa was Navajo,” he said patiently, as though he’d explained this a thousand times before. “I’m not. They made that pretty clear.”

“…Oh. Well, um…I can tell you from personal experience it’s an eye-opening experience. And safe, as long as you have people you trust with you. Or there’s Salvia I guess…that’s quick, but intense. Peyote is…gentle. But it’ll last until morning. Both are very well-understood and safe if you don’t overdose. There’s also Cimbrean Tea, but we’re still…well. We don’t have centuries of historical use to draw on. We don’t yet know if it’s safe.”

Julian grimaced a bit. “Could I do some kind of trance? I sorta already get that working out…”

“It’s not the same. The whole point is the altered state of mind, right? You might insult them if you try something too different.”

“…And it’s safe.”

“Yes. If someone experienced is there with you to help. And if you have loved ones with you, too. Falling off the infinite can be terrifying the first time you do it.”

Julian gave him a skeptical frown. “Falling off the what, now?”

“See, that just proves you’ve never done it. I can’t explain it, but anybody who has knows exactly what I mean. Remember, mind altering drug. You literally can’t comprehend what it’s like until you experience it for yourself.”

That seemed like a decision he wasn’t ready to make just then. “I…gotta think about it.”

Marc hmmed thoughtfully to himself. “Of course…you could go on a vision quest here on Cimbrean first,” he suggested. “Among humans. Folctha has zero drug regulations, just a public safety and awareness service. There’s a sweat lodge out on the lake. I know—” he held up his hand to forestall the protest, “It’s warmed over hippy crap and cultural appropriation and all that. But there’s something to it. It’s still an experience and you need that experience if you’re going to make an informed decision, I think.”

Julian looked torn. Desperately so. Marc considered the big man opposite him; he was clearly a bit conservative on some things and it was plainly obvious from their entire conversation that he preferred to take no drugs at all, not even things that would probably benefit him. He avoided sports pharmacology altogether—Marc would probably always be a bit jealous of the massive genetic gifts that let Julian do that—and went for a prosthetic foot at enormous expense rather than have that “charming” Nofl fellow grow him a new one. That spoke volumes.

But he seemed determined to accomplish his mission, too. After some deep thinking, complete with thrashing his head back and forth and growling to himself…

Julian looked over at Marc with an almost pleading expression. “Would…you help me?”


Date point: 14y 9m 2w AV
Dog House Gym, Adam’s building, Folctha, Cimbrean
Early afternoon

Julian Etscitty

He’d made it. Finally. Julian had climbed up a nigh-impossible mountain, one made of soreness, a broken foot, a couple near-tears of muscle and tendon, exquisite pain, and a constant feeling of overstuffed nausea which one day flipped into constant hunger. Also: a genuinely hopeless amount of rice. Dear God the fucking rice!

Along the way he’d bust out of his clothing and his relationship with Allison and Xiù had been tested. Not strained—they understood the why under all of it—but nobody liked living with a man who was either grumpy and in pain, or frenetic and desperate to move, or “cutting” and therefore constantly cranky from carb depletion, or goofy from too many…

But that was mostly behind him. Adam’s coaching and his frankly cheerfully sadistic approach to training had given Julian results, fast. So fast, in fact, that he’d plateaued a month prior and was now firmly in what Adam referred to as a “steady state.” No more evil manipulation of his diet—for which Xiù sighed in relief when she thought he wasn’t paying attention. No more hateful playing with his training, either; It was all solid, well-tested and routine stuff, now. Put in the work, do the daily grind, keep his size, slowly build his strength, don’t get too crazy. “This is your new normal,” Adam had said. “We just have to teach your body to believe it.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah! I’m serious, man. Hang onto your gains for like a year and it’ll be way easier to stay in shape. Trust me. Where you’re at is something a lotta pros would kill to get! And if you keep it up and you’ll never hafta worry about losing it. Just eat enough and keep lifting!”

Adam’s enthusiasm was really infectious and had honestly been the thing that got Julian through the hell of it all. But it was totally worth it. His strength, speed, and endurance were something he could hardly believe. “Remember when you asked if you could ever match with Walsh?” Adam asked, pleased as shit and his usual ridiculous and aggressively happy self.

“Wait, he wanted to match with me?” Walsh was there too for his check-in with Adam; he was planning to join the HEAT still and that meant his progress had to satisfy Warhorse.

“…I admit I did.” Julian scratched at the back of his head. He’d been told that was one of his nervous gestures but he really didn’t see any need to stop. The back of his head got itchy. Why wouldn’t he scratch it? “And?”

“Well,” Adam grinned, “I was wrong. You did end up matching with him. Well, where he was at the time, anyway. You wanted to get fuckin’ beastly and we got you there, man. ‘Grats!”

“I…really?”

Adam showed him the Little Black Book, the one that tracked Julian’s progress. Actually seeing the numbers was, in a way, a little intimidating, but they had gotten more and more familiar. Even so, the sudden in-your-face presentation of it would have been humbling if Marc hadn’t beaten some reality check into his thick skull. As it was, he had…serenity? Was that the right word? He thought so. Professor had been teaching some good ones just by all the talking and essays and stuff, and if he were honest, he was kinda starting to like that, too.

He’d never admit that to Daniel, though. Not ever. Or the girls. A man had to have some secrets, even if they probably knew anyway.

“Sh’yeah bro!” Walsh’s Californian surfer-bum could not be contained. “And I had a little help to get to where you are now. But not you, man! Look at what you did! You’re the perfect fuckin’ ambassador to our cavemonkey bros!!”

“Envoy,” Julian was careful to say. “Apparently that has legal meaning. I’m a Special Envoy.”

“Right,” Adam said. “Ambassadors are scrawny fucks anyway, right?”

“…You really are the Alpha of Meatheads, aren’t you?”

“Yup!” He bounced on his toes and shook the concrete slab floor. “And you’re one of my best students!”

Now he was deliberately embarrassing him. Even if, well, it was maybe true. “Right. So, in your opinion,” Julian dragged things back to business, “Am I healthy enough to take this Rite of Manhood?”

“Okay.” Adam got serious too. “As a certified personal trainer, I believe you are fit enough to meet the criteria you laid out in, uh…” He searched around frantically, then found a stack of paper. “This! Right. I think I can count on my fingers and maybe my toes every dude who could meet the standard, and you’re pretty firmly on that list. So yeah. You’re a go from me.”

That was the huge relief he’d been waiting for, been working towards for…years, now. It washed over him like a wave. He’d done it.

Now to take care of that other thing. Julian said his goodbyes, finished his business with the clinic and did all the other sign-offs and medical approvals and God-Knows-what-else…

And went camping with the Tisdales and his girlfriends. On any other evening, the prospect of some outdoors fun would have lifted his spirits. But right then?

He’d never been more nervous about anything.


Date point: 14y 9m 2w 1d AV
Trail hiking, Lakebeds National Park, west of Foltcha, Cimbrean

Hayley Tisdale

Julian had been quite firm that he wouldn’t do a sweat lodge or anything like that. She understood, there was some controversy about cultural appropriation and all that nonsense, and Julian seemed like he’d rather not be stuck right in the middle of it. What he wanted was something…safe. Relaxing, perhaps. Something familiar.

With a man like Julian, that could only be a camping trip. Hayley and Marc frequented a spot that was not very well known by others, and which afforded a certain degree of privacy that was important in a moment like this. He was nervous, and he was entirely unafraid to admit it.

His partners were, if anything, moreso on his behalf. Allison was the only one of the three with any relevant experience at all, and that had come at a…difficult…time in her life. Xiù was entirely innocent of anything like what he was about to undergo. Both of them needed…

Well, they needed some proper sympathy. Hayley gave in the best way she knew, with good tea and better hugs while the boys were discussing what Stuff needed to be taken with them.

“Well, he’s a happy drunk and a playful soul otherwise. I always believed that something like this shows a person as they truly are. What kind of a man is Julian?”

“A good man!” Allison was a little more defensive than was strictly helpful.

“I know! It takes a good man to win and keep a woman’s heart. He’s managed two, both decent and wonderful women each. I don’t think he has anything to fear.”

They looked at each other, then giggled softly. They were clearly in love with each other which made Hayley smile; it was a proper thing, the three had.

“What will it be like for him?”

“I can’t say for sure. It’s different for everyone. The most important thing is going to be his support, he’ll need us to be there. That’s the difference between a good and bad trip, I’ve found. Good trips are founded in love.”

Allison really wasn’t into the ‘hippy nonsense’ and made a slightly unconvinced laugh. “I’ve seen one too many bad trips, Hayley. You sure your source is clean?”

“It’s legally obtained and pure. We’re not fools Allison, and this isn’t the black market.”

“…Right.”

Xiù was as always the most socially astute of the three. “We’re just worried, Hayley. What can we expect?”

“Well,” Hayley got up and refreshed their tea. “Peyote isn’t usually a very intense drug but it is long-lasting, so he will likely not fully recover until late the next morning.” She poured another cup for each, and set the pot down on the table. “Knowing him he’ll want to do something very grunty, too. We’ll need to make sure he’s got something safe to do, so…bring footballs or something? Think…maybe something like an enthusiastic drunk and a stoner at the same time.”

“Is…that it?”

“No. Peyote is a mild hallucinogen. He’s likely to experience altered senses and perception, and he may or may not experience a vivid hallucination. Depends on him personally and the dose, he’s a quite large man so that’s tricky to say. Marc understands this well, though. Julian is in good hands.”

Just then, the boys came back in, both seeming to compete with who could shoulder the most macho-big pack. Marcs was definitely the bulkier one. It had two sleeping bags and several rolled-up blankets hanging from it. Julians, though, when he set his down it hit the floor with a very solid thud and he made a happy, satisfied grunt.

“Geez Julian! Did you pack the whole ship up?”

“Only some of it,” he replied, and effortlessly scooped his partners up in his arms for snuggles. Marc did the same to her. Things were off to a good start!

“We’ve got a long hike ahead of us. We should get going now.”

Indeed. The ladies changed into hiking shoes, and Allison helped Xiù get her hair into a bramble-resistant braid. They hiked, gossiped, the men were stuck in some kind of laddish series of magical competitions, the likes of which had engendered a kind of amused commentary from women through all the ages of mankind. Marc was wiser and trickier, Julian was without any doubt the more physically impressive of the two. Hayley was glad for it. Marc had needed that kind of manly bonding time for a long while, and it made for a good distraction from everyone’s underlying apprehension.

Watching the two set up camp was also delightful. It was of course hard work and the two had insisted the ladies rest on the log and tend the fire. Allison had one started in no time flat, a kettle was brewing, and there was shirtless man-candy to watch while they puttered about the camp and did their work. Shelter was arranged, a tarp overhead to eat under in the event of the inevitable rain after sundown was erected, and then Julian got creative with making “improvements.” Marc had to insist he sit down and relax several times before he simply…did something, and then they were in the dirt, with Julian face down and laughing loudly.

Hayley could see and understand Marc’s attraction to Julian. But as far as she was concerned his age and experience stood up well against his exuberant youth. He worried too much.

Evening fell. Marc and Hayley both set the mood. Julian nodded seriously, gulped nervously…

Nothing at first. That was expected. Hayley had found it was a gradual build-up for most, and the same was true of Julian.

He was happy. Then slightly euphoric. A brief moment of terror, which quickly passed. Then he obsessed with colors, wanted to touch and play with all the things. A little hyperactive…

Then affection. Lots of it. Love for everyone and everything. Pure, innocent, absolute. Hayley smiled. A good trip showed a person and the world who and what they really were.

Julian was a good man.


Date point: 14y 9m 2w 2d AV
Trail hiking, Lakebeds National Park, west of Foltcha, Cimbrean
Late the next morning

Julian Etscitty

Marc had been right. It wasn’t really possible to get an experience like that if one hadn’t been through it. It had been…what was a good word. Transcendent, maybe? …Nah. That mostly felt right, but it was also sorta, maybe mundane too? Like, it was an extra normal-weird kind of thing.

He didn’t remember anything. Sorta. Mostly. He did remember loving everyone, though. Everyone was great! He was so lucky he had Allison, and Xiù, and…Marc and Hayley?

He remembered they were there. He also noticed he had a mild headache, which he remembered to expect. He grumbled, shook his head out and threw off his blankets—

He was naked underneath, in a tent with the Tisdales. He didn’t remember anything about that! The morning suddenly felt awkward as fuck.

He felt his pulse rising and an urge to get the hell away from the situation rose in his chest. Right then, Xiù woke up and hugged his arm.

“Morn.’ You feel okay?”

God her timing was perfect.

Words. He groped for them for a moment, before he remembered how they worked. _“Uhhh_…Being honest? I’m not sure what ‘okay’ means right now. Why am I naked?”

“You always sleep naked. And you insisted on it, last night.”

“Yeah, but…” he gestured to Marc, who was uncovered and also naked, and was sawing logs like he was a lumberjack in Washington state.

Allison grumbled awake, sorta. _“Nnn_cuz’ you’re an innocent boy and I need coffee.”

Coffee. There was something concrete to latch onto…if only he could remember where his underwear had gone. Abruptly they reappeared, on the end of Xiù’s arm. “I got the percolator ready last night. Just fire up the stove and boil it.”

She promptly curled right back into the sleeping bags and blankets, and pretended to sleep.

He pulled his underwear on hurriedly and hoped without looking that both of the Tisdales were still asleep. Then he thought, well: fuck it. He needed a good dip anyway so he yanked them right back off, stepped out of the tent buck-ass naked, started the coffee defiantly, and went for a nice dip in the lake.

It was cold. Good. The cold woke him right the fuck up and drove away the headache, along with the last of the cobwebby feeling between his ears. He’d discovered a couple of things very quickly. The first was that his memory was coming back, and, well…he remembered things being a lot of fun. Colors! Things were a little melty, too. And he loved everyone so much, God he didn’t know how much it could hurt to love people–! There had been one bit where everybody was really far away from him, but that hadn’t lasted long, fortunately.

Marc too. He did love Marc. Marc! He was the most bestest wrestling coach! But it was just, maybe a brother-love? Something? He remembered he wanted to be very close to everyone, just snuggle really tight and….Ah. So that was how naked-time happened.

Was it? He thought so. Maybe…that didn’t seem so bad. Julian dunked his head under the water and shook it out. His hair was really getting out of control. He kinda liked it, actually. Or maybe it was the girls that liked it. But did that really matter?

“You’re going to get hypothermia if you stay in there, Julian.” The voice crashed through his inner monologue. Marc. Yeah. Also naked. Julian didn’t know if it would be rude to look, or rude not to, or rude to look and then look away. Awkward.

“Nah. I’m pretty big these days.” He said that by way of a joke, anything to help drive away the weirdness. He then tried to swim and immediately failed to stay afloat, which was when he learned the second thing: he couldn’t swim anymore. Adam had said that would probably happen. Why hadn’t Julian really thought about it before? He’d have to relearn how to stay afloat without being neutrally buoyant anymore.

Weird.

Enough water. Julian climbed out, noted that Marc was diplomatically trying very hard not to look. “Take a dunk, wakes you right up.”

He found his underwear again and stepped into them. And his favorite new jeans, the ones Adam made for him that actually fit properly.

“Sounds good.” Marc waded in, cursed at the chilly water, and gave Julian enough time to get himself properly dried out and decent.

Coffee.

He could smell it starting to scorch in the percolator. He chuffed, pulled it off the stove and fetched the cups. Where were—ah! He’d tied them up in a bear sack last night. Which didn’t make any sense since there weren’t any bears on Cimbrean, but whatever. He poured one each for the girls and took them to the tent, getting mumbled “thanks” and “good boys” from them both.

He realized suddenly he needed to pee pretty bad. Suspiciously bad, actually. Why did—

…Oh. He shot a panicked look back at Marc and Hayley. Did that happen? He didn’t think so. It certainly had with Xiù. It felt like…now that he remembered…

“Hey, hon? Did we, uh…?”

Xiù gave him a sleepy-happy look that answered that question. “Babe, you pinned us both to the ground at the same time and screwed us silly until we begged you to stop. Then you did it again not five minutes later. And again.”

An affirming mmmhmmm came from somewhere under the blankets next to her, and a tousled blonde head emerged wearing a smirk. “I think you inspired Marc, too. Hayley probably can’t walk right now.”

“…why is it morning?” came from the other side of the tent, where Hayley was still laying sprawled out. “I smell coffee. Be a good boy and get me some, will you, Julian?”

“…Okay.” Feeling unaccountably confused, he climbed back out and returned with coffee in the other spill-proof tumblers, now freed from their needlessly bearproof bag, to assorted female giggling over something he was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to have noticed or heard. She’d pulled a top on, as well, which helped.

“So, uh…” He had no idea how to ask what he wanted to.

Hayley must have read his mind or something, because he gave her a look and she answered immediately. “No, dear. You were loyal. I’m not sure I would have survived your attentions anyway.”

Oh, thank God. He looked back toward Allison and Xiù and neither seemed angry with him. They were giggling at Hayley’s compliment, in fact. That was a good thing, right? Yeah. Definitely. He hoped.

Marc chose that moment to climb back into the tent, mercifully wearing pants. “How do you feel this morning, Julian? And I’m actually asking, that’s not a question to make conversation.”

He could answer that honestly. “Very confused.”

Marc nodded. “So…some of that confusion will pass. It may take you some time to…process it, but you’re going to need to spend some time really thinking about the experience.”

Julian nodded. “Should I…write it down?”

“You can. Some people paint. Some write, some draw, some carve….that’s really up to you.”

“I mean…” Julian was even more confused now. “Like, I’m not sure what I was supposed to feel, maybe? Like…I just wanted to be close. I think. I remember this fuzzy feeling and it was sorta hard to tell everyone apart somehow except it wasn’t…I guess. I dunno.”

“I’m not saying you should write a book report!” Marc laughed. “Find a way of expressing that, it clearly means something to you. If closeness and connectedness is what you take away from it…then do something with that that makes sense to you, that’s all I’m saying. Some people sort of…fall into nature. They feel connected to the trees, and the sky. Others get very surreal. A lot of art gets made that way. You seemed to very much connect with people.”

That seemed right. Or maybe it seemed true, or it felt good? Something. Julian was having a lot of trouble putting words to his thoughts just then. One thought, though, he really needed to know the answer to.

“So. Uh…did I, um?”

“Did you try anything with me? No. You were entirely innocent with Hayley and I, even after you’d worn your girlfriends out. You just wanted to be close. It really was a beautiful thing to see, you know.”

“…I feel like a dick even asking, but if I had…?”

“No. I won’t lie, I would have been sorely tempted, Julian. You know that already, you’re a beautiful man. But I love you as a friend and I would never betray you like that. Or, really, take advantage of you, because that’s what it would have been.”

That was a huge relief. Julian exhaled happily, and smiled gratefully at everyone.

“Thank you for trusting us.” Hayley had woken up some with the help of her coffee. “That means a lot to me. And, uh…” She giggled now, and smiled warmly at Marc. “Thank you for remindin’ him how it’s done.”

“I’m hungry,” Xiù announced suddenly into the warm silence. “We have stuff for pancakes, right?”

“Babe, you always want pancakes the morning after. Besides, don’t you think we should do waffles instead? I need something a little more filling.”

Xiù interjected with a private joke in the Ten’Gewek language [“He filled you pretty well last night, as I remember.”] Allison’s jaw play-dropped, and Xiù smirked back at her. Although there was no way Marc and Hayley understood the words, they got the content and grinned regardless.

Julian grinned smugly to himself and decided to break camp. He climbed out of the tent and began stowing their little field kitchen. “There’s that diner in downtown Folctha that does those big belgian waffles. We could go there!” He realized suddenly that he really wanted something sugary and terrible, consequences to his macros be damned.

“If they have coffee, let’s do that,” Hayley said, draining her cup. “Camping is fun but I would very much like a hot shower.”

True enough. Julian hadn’t had a proper shower in a couple of days and he was getting pretty rank, even with the morning dip in the lake. Besides, the walk-in shower in their new home was amazing and could fit all three of them at the same time…

Well, if they weren’t up for any more fun, at least he could use the hell out of the massage function. They drank their coffee, packed everything away into the two huge hiking packs Marc and Julian had between them, and set out on the trail back to Folctha.


Date point: 14y 9m 2w 2d AV
Jogging downtown, Foltcha, Cimbrean
Early afternoon

Technical Sergeant Adam (Warhorse) Arés

Foltcha had years of experience with the Operators doing their daily runs. Some runs were quick, others were long, but not a day went by when the public didn’t see the men of HEAT keeping up on their cardiovascular fitness.

That said, there were always a few who had never seen the HEAT and being honest, that was an eye-opening experience for the unprepared. Adam figured it was probably a lot like living in Tornado Alley or something—yeah, you saw moving natural disasters a lot, but you never really got used to it. Maybe. That was probably his ego talking but it wasn’t untrue, either. Anyone on the HEAT was a human disaster, that was what they were for. Most of the Operators therefore tried to stay out of the city itself on their runs, simply because navigating through rubbernecking traffic that was moving slower than they were was a pain in the ass.

Adam never did, though. He didn’t mind the attention and people were honestly perfectly friendly. It was fun to thump around and flex all silly for the kids…he was thinking about kids a lot, these days. Dad had been right, the thought did grow on him. It was definitely time to do that. Maybe tonight? Maybe. The idea of a family just seemed…right.

Which was what made the sight of Julian, Allison, Xiù, and the Tisdales sitting at an outside cafe on the waterfront, with two good-sized packs leaning against the wall, enough of a jarring sight that he actually missed a step and almost tripped over a curb. It wasn’t what the group was doing, though…it was what Julian was doing.

Adam had an iron discipline. He had to if he was going to be the man he was with the consequences of everything it entailed. He knew his personal rigor was definitely extreme, and that he couldn’t and shouldn’t expect the same of anyone else…but he did try to impress on the people he trained the importance of proper nutrition.

That made the sight of Julian, sitting in front of a gargantuan mound of banana waffles adorned with a diabetes-inducing amount of whipped cream…it knocked Adam right out of his run and he just had to thump to a stop and stare with murder-eyes. Julian was shoveling it into his face with a fork in each hand as though it were his dying meal, and his blissful expression captured all the religious fervor of the newly converted.

Julian caught his eye. Adam gave him his sternest Look of absolute disapproval and betrayal, and got only a not-at-all-guilty shrug that said, it couldn’t be helped; I was powerless to resist.

Adam sighed, shook his head and resumed his run. Julian would just have to suffer through the consequences later.

The banana waffles did look pretty tasty though. The bastard.


Date point: 14y 11m AV
Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Julian Etsicitty

One of the strangest things about hunting on Akyawentuo was how easy everything was to smell. Things on the People’s world just straight-up reeked and the werne were no exception. He could smell a herd of them maybe a quarter-mile upwind, with the sharp, acrid, spicy musk-type smell of the bull dominating the forest. He couldn’t hear much anything else, the forest was feeling lazy in the noon heat and there weren’t any yshek tromping around on the river-beds, bellowing out for mates and fighting for territory. Birds were mostly keeping to themselves, the insects wouldn’t start their cacophony for at least a few hours.

It was fall, after all. Very close to the coming of winter. The days were still swelteringly humid and often quite hot, but the evenings got downright chilly. No matter. Julian was a Minnesota boy and could handle a little cold. He liked it anyway, it made him feel more alive.

Almost nothing had ever made him feel more alive than the Rite.

He was hungry. He hadn’t eaten since sundown the day before and he had been working hard since then. He had to prove to the men of the tribe that he was strong. He proved it. He had to show them he could fight, would fight if it was needed. He showed them that, too. He had to prove to Singer that he knew the stories, knew what it meant to Give and Take. She questioned, he answered, the tribe seemed happy.

Now there was just the Hunt. He would bring back a worthy prize, and he would be a man in the People’s eyes. His Hunt wouldn’t be exactly like theirs, though, because he had some advantages that the boys of the People did not. His sense of smell was much better than theirs, as was his sense of touch. He was a full-grown man and had a strength better than Vemik’s, and an endurance none of them could match. He could walk perfectly upright, and he could run and jog. No boy of the People had ever had the deck that stacked in their favor.

On the other hand…

The People didn’t exactly swing through the trees. What they really did was leap between branches, and that made all the difference. Humans just weren’t made for that kind of explosively powerful, repeated jumping. Nor could they swing so easily. Chimp could manage it being as short as he was, but Julian cleared maybe an inch over six feet if he stood as tall as he could and was just straight too tall to ever be graceful at it. His arms were proportionately shorter than a Ten’Gewek’s too. He could swing but it was awkward and slow, so that meant a quiet approach from above wasn’t necessarily in the bag.

But he could still climb into the trees when he needed it. That meant his hunting strategy was a bit different than a man of the People might try.

He wasn’t hunting a herd-bull. A Werne like that could literally have torn him in half, and if it didn’t then its harem might just trample him flat anyway. A hunt like that was for the foolhardy or the exceptionally ambitious like Vemik, and there was no shame in going after something more sensible: According to the Singer, it showed wisdom and responsibility.

What he was after was a bachelor bull. They were much harder to find, but they also had a distinctly sharp smell that a fella could catch on the wind if they knew what they were looking for. The People couldn’t always detect it, but a human could, and Julian did. He’d noticed the difference some months ago.

Werne weren’t the most dangerous thing he’d hunted in his life. They were pretty much always gonna be in the top three, but if Julian had to rank them then the Murderpigs and Minizillas of Nightmare still won first place. And there was shit on Nightmare, as on Earth and Akyawentuo, that nobody sane would ever hunt with just a spear. Those big nameless Akyawentan plains predators, grizzly bears, Yshek, and some big fucker on Nightmare that Julian had only seen once, in the dark, from the way it was casually shouldering medium-sized trees aside and straight ignoring the bombfruit it triggered.

So, he padded along the forest floor as quiet as a mouse, using his eyes and his nose to stay well downrange of anything that might surprise him. He never strayed too far from a climbable tree, though—there were scarier things than werne roaming the forest.

And he was doing everything in his power not to notice Yan slinking well off to the side in the trees. The big Given-Man was stealthy as all hell, but scent just wasn’t the same thing for Ten’Gewek. They didn’t get it.

…Except Julian had definitely seen Yan stay well downwind on other hunts. Hmm.

Later. He could think about that later. Right now he wanted a bull, and he could smell one not far ahead. And hear it, too; it was love-bellowing for all to hear.

He decided it was time for some overhead advantage and climbed his way up a ketta. For humans and especially for Julian, climbing those trees was almost completely about grip strength in the hands because of the smooth lower bark. He’d have preferred a gnarly Forest-Father but none were nearby, so…carefully, up he went.

Once he was among the branches things were easier. He ran down a big one and leapt across the gap to another Ketta, and hardly thought about what he’d just done. On Earth a jump like that would have set records, but if he’d misjudged the gap the fall may well have killed him. He knew he wouldn’t miss. He was…pretty good at that kinda thing, these days.

The final approach was a lot easier, thanks to a nicely-placed Forest-Father with all its gnarly bark and easy nooks and crannies that he could jam his feet into. He’d probably get scraped up a bit, since all he was allowed was a pair of shorts—he emphatically rejected the loincloth—but scrapes could be fixed with sap or, honestly, Neosporin. That was for later.

It was a very big bull. One of the biggest Julian had ever seen. But it was also almost delusional with the werne equivalent of musth. The big fella’s cheeks were swollen with whatever glands were driving him crazy, his eyes were bloodshot, and a thick, almost nauseating smelly mucus weeped from the sides of its cheeks. A bull that big shouldn’t have been a bachelor, but Julian wasn’t about to doubt his luck.

He just had to figure out how he was gonna kill the damn thing, first.

Right. Last check before he struck. The area was clear of other predators or dangerous scavengers. The bull was definitely in that sweet spot where it was big enough to impress but not so big he’d fail to carry his trophy home. The twin horn blades down its cheeks were wide and prominent, perfect for Knives of Manhood but also perfect for gutting an incautious human.

He reviewed the best ways to kill one. The ideal for Ten’Gewek was to drop onto its back from above and drive a knife into its brain at the dimple where neck met skull. Unfortunately for Julian, he didn’t have prehensile feet or a tail as strong as his arm, which made gripping onto a bucking werne downright impossible. If he didn’t get it in exactly the right spot with a spear-stab as he landed, it would throw and maybe gore him. He could maybe do it, and he was strong enough…but that was risky. Too risky.

Option two was wrestling. He could get its neck into a leg lock…and honestly, thanks to Adam his legs were ridiculously strong these days, so he might just be able to kill it with a hold like that. But while he was lately a confident wrestler, he wasn’t stupid. There were a lot of ways to get killed doing that. That was even riskier than option one, so no.

Option three—and here he was starting to get into the things a human could realistically do—was to get it in the throat from the side. He was quick enough, and strong enough. The heart would be even better, but those ribs were thick and unlike most Earth species they overlapped a little, making a tough armored shell. If he drove his spear into the wide blood vessels in its throat though, it would bleed out in seconds but he’d have to be careful that its flailing, kicking and head-tossing didn’t grievously wound him in turn. And again, the theme was risk. He wasn’t here to be macho, he was here to prove he could Provide for his tribe.

Which left the option he’d relied on for killing murderpigs and Zillas: Let the environment do the work. Solitary bulls had no herd to defend, and therefore they had strong motivation not to get hurt. They’d make a show and posture a bit, maybe play at a charge or two, but at the first sign of real trouble they usually turned tail and found someplace else to be. Which meant his best solution was to spook the big guy into running away. He’d still have a fight on his hands maybe, especially in the beginning…but he could manage that. He just needed to make him run away.

And keep making him run away. That kind of moving, full-body endurance was the one real weakness most things had against humans, even the Ten’Gewek. They could train for it sure enough, just like a man could lift to get strong, but earning that endurance was seriously hard work for them. That was especially true of werne, they just didn’t have enough gas to keep going for more than a mile or two.

Not Julian. He loved to run. Always had, always would. Adam loved to run too, and the one biggest most importantest rule he never ever reconsidered or bent under Adam’s cheery persuasion or all the hell of the work leading up to this, was that he had to be able to run.

Adam just grinned, and taught him everything he never knew about running. Nowadays Julian was pretty sure he could outrun just about anything. And he could definitely outrun a werne.

There were plains to the north. No good, there might be the big plainswalkers out there. No point in driving his prey into another predator’s jaws. To the east there was a river full of yshek, so the same problem. South was back toward the village: Good for carrying his trophy if he took it down before they got there, but if it got too close then some other hunters might drop it and he’d have to start over.

West were the mountains and gullies where they’d made their last stand against the Hierarchy. A running werne could easily stumble and break its legs in that rough terrain. And if it didn’t, the hard scramble would still wear it down.

Julian grinned, and knew that he was going to kill well.


Yan Given-Man

When he was a boy, Yan had learned from his Singer that everything that lived did things in their own way, in their own time. You could tell how a man or a hunter would solve a problem by looking at how they moved, how the gods had made them. “Watch your enemy,” she had said. “He will tell everything you need to know to Take him.”

Jooyun was not an enemy. He was a good friend, and soon he wouldn’t be a stranger but a cousin of the tribe. Yan watched him carefully anyway. And the thing he learned when he watched Jooyun do anything, is that he would solve his problem by moving. Forever.

Yan didn’t know if he could ever move like that, just keep going like the day would never break. He ‘trained’ for it anyway, like Heff and Wawsh had been teaching him. He was glad for all that hurt and hard breathing their teachings had given him, because keeping up with Jooyun was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

For any man of the People, spooking a bull like that into running off would have been an insane tactic. There were no cliffs in that direction, just forest and rough ground. Prey spooked here and now would just escape.

Jooyun didn’t seem to care when he sprang up from hiding, spread his arms and yelled “YAH!” at the bull, adding a couple of thrown stones for good measure. The bull bellowed, leapt back, then attacked Jooyun. He was very smart, though. He stabbbed the werne quickly in the flank with his spear, staying well away from its dangerous head. The werne turned and charged again, earned more wounds in its vulnerable haunches. Jooyun had stabbed it so hard in fact that it lost its footing for a moment, then turned and crashed off between the trees.

Yan groaned as he realized what was about to happen but Jooyun just grinned savagely, hefted his spear, and took off after his wounded prey at an easy, loping run.

At first, keeping up was easy. Then Yan paused for breath and Jooyun got a little further away, a distance that Yan never quite managed to claw back. Then it happened again, and again until the human was hard to see, little more than a dark figure blurring in the dappled light through the canopy. A few times, he vanished from Yan’s sight entirely.

He had to use the moments when Jooyun had lost the trail to thump through the trees with every ounce of his strength. He knew he was making noise now, but that didn’t matter, he wasn’t trying to be completely hidden anyway. It was all he could do to catch up. And then Jooyun would find the trail, and Yan would fall behind.

All day long. For an alarmingly long part of the afternoon, in fact, Yan had to track Jooyun rather than follow him. He left more sign than would be perfect for a warrior, but no man of the People could manage what he was doing, either. Jooyun chased, and his signs were small and subtle.

They had battled several more times, most unsuccessfully for Jooyun…but that didn’t matter. At the end, he didn’t need to overpower the werne. He didn’t need to drop down on it from a tree, lay a trap, rush it, wrestle it or anything.

Jooyun Sky-Hunter just walked up to the werne from behind and stabbed it right through its skull. It was so completely exhausted it couldn’t thrash its head, couldn’t stand. It had given up. Yan would have been deeply afraid of that, if he weren’t too tired to care.

And he had to make it back to the village ahead of him, too. He was mostly sure Jooyun knew he was being followed—Yan hoped so, he’d tried to be subtle about it but he had wanted to be seen. It would be best if they didn’t need to talk about it…so back to the village he went.

At least it would take Jooyun much longer to get back. The werne’s head was almost as big Jooyun’s torso, and he needed to remove it with a flint-knapped knife and protect the carcass from scavengers before he could bring it home. That bought Yan the time he needed, but not by as much as he would have liked.

He did manage to get back to the village ahead of Jooyun. Walsh taught him how to stretch and that helped with the pain, enough that he could walk without grimacing. So did the ‘ibuprofen’ the big human had snuck him. Now there was a Giving-Magic worth praising. But he’d barely begun to feel the medicine’s effects when the thrumming of a shouting-stone heralded the hunter’s return.

He was pleased to see that Jooyun was at least dead tired on his feet. His entire body from his crest down through his strange black loincloth and down to his feet was covered in a mix of sweat and werne blood. He could hardly walk and wobbled over to his women, who’d spent the whole hunt waiting and worrying in the Singer’s hut, helping to prepare a magic medicine fit for sky-people that would still be acceptable to the gods.

Something involving mushrooms from their place-under-another-sky, apparently. Carefully brought in a little crackling clear bag to be stewed and drunk, rather than snorted into the mouth.

They kept their distance from him when he returned, though, and teased him for being “the grossest boy.” Yan couldn’t blame them. They did cheer him on of course. Everyone did. That bull was a prize to match Yan’s own when he had Hunted so long ago.

“Don’t let him rest!” the Singer reminded them. Jooyun gave her the same plaintive look that all men did at this moment. Surely a few heartbeats to massage his aching feet—foot—wouldn’t hurt?

Yan trilled quietly to himself and watched the proceedings unfold. Jooyun drank deeply of the brew in the bowl. And the gods Spoke to him. And they spoke long this time, not a little vision but a grand one.

Through him, they spoke of family. Of the blood of kinship between all Peoples, between places-under-every-star, between People and Gods. They spoke of love. And then he Danced. It was a wild dance, a strong one. Yan was proud and he knew Vemik was too.

When the women finally led him away to wash him and help him rest, the Singer caught Yan’s eye and grinned. His niece had always enjoyed it when she knew more than her old uncle.

For once, Yan decided to let her have a victory. He had a pair of knives to craft for the newest man of his tribe.

He had a name to Give, too. Jooyun Sky-Brother was a man of the People.


Date point: 15y 3m AV
Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge

Yan’s crest had grown taller. It was going black at the tips. He had mixed feelings about that.

On the one hand, the ‘canned’ food that the Humans had taught the people was a strong Giving. Maybe the strongest yet. For the first time in his life as a man of the People, Yan had no want for food over the four moons of winter. He didn’t waste away, he didn’t shiver with an empty belly. None of the People did. In fact, everyone grew stronger. And with the herds left alone through the winter, they’d multiplied so well from the first rain that there would be more meat than the People would know what to do with.

He had never been stronger at the first rain. His crest had lost no color. And when the warmth finally hit him, and his Fire reignited…it was so much stronger then it had ever been, much worse than the first time. He was becoming a black-crest, and the gods were letting him live through it.

On the other hand, a black crest was a special thing. It was a four-finger blessing from the gods and no Given-Man in living memory had earned such a thing. That too was a strong Giving, the strongest Yan had ever had. And a Giving from the gods could not be ignored, by anyone. Yan was so far ahead of the other Given-Men in anything that mattered, they were reluctant to dispute him in any way, no matter how much he wanted them to.

They had proclaimed him Chief of the Given-Men on the first night of the Lodge. That was a Giving that was testing his leadership greatly; he had to have their honest counsel and that was tricky, because even Den and Arsh were afraid of him. That was a thought that would normally swell his cock with ideas of strength, victory, the pleasures of Taking…but not now.

He needed their wisdom because with the Givings he’d been given, the gods would soon demand a Taking. Balance needed to be kept and Yan would need to be wise indeed to navigate the marshes his blessings were creating around him.

“We must increase our number, Yan Given-Man.” There was nodding amongst everyone, while the magic smoke did its work on them and to the werne meat hanging in the Lodge.

“Yes.”

They let the thought hang. It was obvious to everyone what needed to happen. Nobody wanted to suggest it and more importantly, nobody wanted the be accused of greed, or anything else. Which made Yan sigh unhappily. This matched up with his old Seeing perfectly. It wasn’t the high-mountain-place, it wasn’t the coming of the humans and their sky-magic, or the Big Enemy.

It was a bunch of quarreling Given-Men who couldn’t see past their own hunting grounds to the bigger problem. Yan could. And maybe that was why the gods had Given him so much.

Maybe this was the Taking they wanted.

“We Gather like in the stories, then. All-tribes in gather-place, all at the same time. My tribe will provide our hunting grounds for it.”

“And what of our hunting grounds, Yan?” Arsh was on his feet, the calming of the magic root blown away by his Fire. “We must eat too!”

“Then we will eat. It won’t be for long, Arsh Given-Men. The People must trade daughters and sons like we have never traded before. You heard Professor Daniel yourself. You know how important this is.”

“And what if I do not allow this on my tribe’s land?”

This was the test, he realized. The true test of Taking-Magic. Every sinew in Yan’s mighty body thrummed with the need to destroy, to Take, to force his will on the other Given-Men. He could do it, too. He was fast and strong enough that he could Take them all and live.

But that would doom the People, and his tribe.

So instead Yan spoke, as calmly as he could manage. “You will allow it, and your tribe will grow fat because of it.”

He didn’t say anything else. Like Taking-Magic, sometimes words said more when they weren’t there, which was a strange Sky-Thought now that he, well, thought about it.

It seemed to work. Arsh gave Yan a calculated look then calmed down, nodded and sat on his tail. The other Given-Men took notice and pondered the problem.

“You can share our hunting ground, Arsh Given-Men.” That was from Kork, who neighbored Arsh but not Yan’s tribe.

“And ours. This is a great Giving you would do.”

Den was always a little slow to figure things out and realized a bit late that his tribe would be encroached upon as well. But he wasn’t stupid, either. “Our hunting grounds for this Gathering too, Yan. This is important.”

That was the magic of the root. The Given-Men could gather, talk, hunt, and share, and their Fire wouldn’t burn them all. They could solve problems. Sometimes they were big problems. This year, it was a problem none of them had ever felt before.

They solved the problem. Hunting grounds were talked out. Oaths were sworn. The fights became playful, the Given-Men caroused and made merry. They had reason to enjoy life. The seasons to come might be dark indeed, but if they kept the wisdom of their ancestors, if they listened to the gods…if they learned from the Sky-Tribes…

Then maybe the People would survive all the seasons to come.


Date point: 15y 4m AV
Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Chief Special Warfare Operator Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff

The Ten’Gewek—well, the surviving forest race, anyway—preferred to live in small tribes of about a hundred or so, each about a half-day’s travel apart at a minimum, and each with very carefully-delimited and scrupulously respected hunting grounds between them. The details of all that were very complex and from what they had heard were a major part of what the Given-Men managed between each other. Usually it was peaceful, sometimes there was a good-natured tussle. If they failed to keep the peace there was the constant, lingering possibility of breathtaking violence, where Given-Men tore tribes apart both figuratively and literally. They were definitely a people who believed in good fences making good neighbors, even if they hadn’t bothered to invent the concept of fences yet.

Or what a neighbor was, exactly.

That was how things were most of the time. Ten’Gewek were territorial and any unexpected meeting between tribes could be tense, especially if one tribe might have poached prey off the hunting grounds of another, or if the tribes hadn’t recently traded daughters. Tribal diplomacy was complex and often involved symbolic, insanely physical “war” between the Given-Men, even if it all usually ended in friendship and shared fires.

But not this time. It was spring on Akyawentuo and the Ten’Gewek were fizzing with energy. The Given-Men had returned to their tribes from their annual Lodge and apparently had decided on a huge Gathering, so damn near twenty thousand of ‘em had gathered over the last week—pretty much everyone left in the species. After some wary meetings they had all pitched their camps in a rugged patch of the woods about ten klicks square. By Ten’Gewek standards that was practically right on top of each other and it set them all on edge.

In Hoeff’s mind that was probably ‘cuz of how the tribes usually had lots more space to hunt and gather. It was frankly stunning how much meat the Ten’Gewek needed to eat in order to sustain their physiques, and he wasn’t exactly ignorant to that reality; he was a military athlete himself and strong as shit for his size, but that meant he had always been a bit of a glutton, even moreso now that Julian and Walsh were double-teaming him with their Hanz and Franz routine. But still, the Peoples’ endless appetites were something else entirely.

That usually meant food and hunting was the biggest thing on their minds in any given day’s activities. But not just then. At the moment there were more Important things to do. Like boastin,’ wrasslin,’ and fuckin’ each other senseless. The gathering had so far been nine days of non-stop revelry with no end in sight. Even Vemik had been dragged from his forge to cavort with his fellows and flirt with the lady-monkeys—no doubt at Singer’s instance—though as always he only really had eyes for her. Hoeff couldn’t blame him, really.

That didn’t stop Vemik or Singer from having fun with the tribes, though. The mood was teasing and flirtatious once the Given-Men were happily settled in next to each other. Daniel had said there was definitely something like a fertility rite at play, which was obvious in everything they did, even their morning songs, though nothing seemed like it had been ritualized or anything…

But something was different. The changing seasons had also brought with them much longer daylight hours and temperatures that were just straight sweltering. That triggered something in them. They’d spent the last month gorging themselves and stockpiling food, anything to get something fresh after a few months of smoked meat and the preserved food that Julian had taught them to make. All anyone had to do was pay a little attention to ‘em and how they lived, and the reason why everything was happening in the first place became painfully obvious. It felt weird just thinkin’ it, ‘cuz it seemed primitive even for them…but the Ten’Gewek were in rut.

Everyone was eager for the newness of a young year. Everyone was suddenly a good deal more…assertive, much more aggressively forward than usual. For the People that was really saying something. A restless energy had settled on them all, as if something big was coming and they needed to prepare.

And prepare their bodies did; the men were at the peak of their fitness and would roughhouse or show off at the slightest excuse, the Given-Men were bulging and lean like goddamned comic book characters. Yan, the de-facto king of the Given-Men, was heroically absurd by anyone’s standard, HEAT included. The huge bastard had lost none of his size over the short, deep winter. In fact, thanks to their new-fangled salted meat and all the rest he’d managed to put on even more weight than was his annual springtime norm. His crest had grown taller and thicker, and faded from a neon red at the base into a deep, shiny black in last inch or two of his fifteen-inch-tall mohawk. It was unlike anyone else’s and several inches taller, too. Nobody had ever seen or heard of such a crest, except in some of the old stories the Singers told…

Hoeff had wanted to ask Yan about all that but the big dude was too busy drowning in the attentions of the lady-monkeys. Several at once, usually, and it’d been ongoing since the whole affair started. The smug, oversexed bastard. Hoeff didn’t think Yan would be willing to entertain interruptions and besides: the Ten’Gewek women were…distracting, to say the least.

Uncomfortably so in Hoeff’s opinion. He’d been propositioned more than once in fact, and found to his personal shame that he’d seriously considered taking them up on their offers, too. They were…very robustly human, in some important ways. Hoeff wasn’t sure what to think about that but he was pretty sure that all his talking gorilla friends would eventually be going back to their stomping grounds tired, sore, stuffed to the gills with food, and most likely pregnant.

Hell of a way to rebuild a species, that.

At the moment it was early morning, right after the Singers had delivered their song to the sun. They all raised their voices across the spread-out encampment at exactly the same time, kinda like a call to prayer back in the Desert. Every song was a little different, but every one…haunting, complementing the others. Individually, the Singers weren’t always that impressive to Hoeff’s ears. Together…

Together they could weave something truly beautiful.

And definitely playful toward the end. Festivities were already ramping up and the sun had barely risen. Hunting parties were coming back laden with prey, new ones were about to head out, fond promises were whispered to each other with trilling giggles and playful body language. But nothing more would happen until the Given-Men had met and discussed the news.

Which was why Yan’s massive, bigger-than-bowling-ball biceps were wrapped around Hoeff’s torso and squeezing him like a tube of toothpaste. The Given-Man was a full head taller before one considered that huge mohawk of his, easily possessed enough strength and mass to flatten Julian or Walsh like a bug if he really wanted to, and had arms which were each bigger around than Hoeff’s torso. Yan was usually very careful and generally meant well but the strength disparity was seriously epic, so there wasn’t much Hoeff could do but grimace and bear Yan’s rib-shattering, ever-tightening bear-hug.

That kind of thing happened to him a lot, lately. Yan was the Given-Man and he seemed to like Hoeff’s company, so it was only natural that he would drag the little SEAL along for the ride, heads smashed up close together and Hoeff held up to eye level so the two could watch the news together. Most likely Yan wanted to get any new words explained before the other Given-Men heard them.

Which Hoeff would happily oblige…if only he could breathe. He kicked his feet feebly and pounded his fist against Yan’s literally rock-hard forearm. The big Given-Man grunted by way of apology and loosened up a bit, allowing Hoeff to draw a thin, shuddering breath of stale air. It had all the moist, chewy stench of Yan’s sweat-oily armpits combined with the cloying aromas of the two-hundred other testosterone-dripping gorilla supermen that were all snuggled up close and piled on top of each other. The HEAT had nothing on their combined musky rankness.

Worse, they seemed to prefer there be not a millimeter of space between them and actively competed to crowd closer, which was a problem when the smallest of them was twice the size of Walsh and considerably stronger to boot. Such was the fate of the little guy. All of the Given-Men were squeezed in so tightly around Walsh and crew that if Yan were to put Hoeff down, there was a reasonable chance he’d be accidentally crushed to death in the press to see Ms. Ríos explain the current situation.

It wasn’t pretty.

“Dawn over Lavmuy, the start of another day in a conflict that dwarfs any in human history. But at last, the end may be in sight…at an incredible cost.

This morning, Allied Extrasolar Command declared that major combat operations in the Gaoian Emergency had been completed. An hour later, the Rods From God fell. In an act of stunning aggression, the pragmatic calculus behind Great Father Daar’s strategy became apparent: It took just half an hour to reduce most of Gao’s major cities to rubble, burying the enemy forces under a relentless steel rain.”

There was an awed, solemn note in Ava’s voice. She was a San Diego native, Hoeff recalled. One of the few hundred people who’d survived that city. Now she was reporting over a highlight reel of literally dozens of mushroom clouds blossoming on the horizon.

“As the Rods fell, the Office of the Great Father released a statement explaining that this overwhelming strike was ‘necessary to forestall the permanent collapse of Gaoian society and to prevent a never-ending series of disasters which the Gao no longer have the un-implanted manpower or expertise to manage.’ Speaking at High Mountain Fortress shortly afterwards, Great Father Daar made no attempt to sugar-coat his decision…”

The video cut over to the big furry dude, who stood ready in front of a collection of weird-looking banners. He was…Hoeff felt himself and Yan behind him deflate, along with the rest of the team. Daar stood tall, proud and fierce, a dignified avatar of justice who would brook absolutely no nonsense from anyone. He looked the very picture of a capable and regal statesman.

He looked dead inside.

“Many of our brightest and most talented were implanted, and all were lost within a heartbeat of each other. It is with profound regret that I ordered this action. Simultaneous to this strike, and in coordination with our Human allies, we have begun operations to retake Wi Kao, Lavmuy, Den So, Kanmuy, and Shem Yui. Stoneback’s Fangs will form the leading point on the assaults. The eighty-second Airborne Division will form the bulk of our wedge, and our growing Army of the Gao will secure and hold everything as we reclaim it, as they have already done so admirably across the countryside. May this war come to a quick and victorious end, may we preserve our heartland and our future, and may our Brothers and Sisters get the justice they deserve. Thank you.”

Lately the Ten’Gewek had wanted to know what “Daar Given-Man” had been up to. He’d been instrumental in saving their people, they knew, and the youngest children in particular talked excitedly about him and the “angry werne rides” he gave to anyone asking. But the mood of what was happening spread quickly. Hoeff listened. The boisterous noises of so many nearby people had quickly dimmed to a quiet murmur.

Ava was back on-screen, standing on the concrete at Camp Farthrow wearing a correspondent’s blue body armor and a hollow expression. Her knuckles were white around her microphone.

“There has been no official estimate of the death toll, and an accurate count may actually be impossible in the long run, but even the most conservative estimates suggest that about a billion Gaoians were implanted in some manner…all biodroned in the space of seconds. Sources within AEC suggest that the slaughter in the immediate hours of the conflict may have numbered at least another billion, and we may never know how many Gaoian civilians still survived inside the quarantined cities before the orbital strikes.

Clean-up operations continue in the countryside and around the planet but this morning, just for a few hours, the conflict stands still…and the unprecedented living cost of this war can finally start to sink in. …Ava Ríos for ESNN, Lavmuy, Gao.”

The feed returned to the studio and a trio of blathering idiots in suits started making inane noises about what they’d just heard. Hoeff wasn’t listening. Nobody was. It was just…Billions. That number was too…

[“How…how big is this] billion?” Yan said it quietly but everyone heard him. He put Hoeff down then sat back on his haunches, and the crowd of Given-Men backed up to give them room.

“…I…[I don’t know. It’s too big to know.”]

Walsh added his bit. Quietly, and mournfully. [“It’s big like the stars, Yan. Big like light is fast.”]

“Turn it off, Julian.” Hoeff couldn’t bear to see anymore.

Julian nodded and closed the news app with a contemptuous snarl, before putting his arm back around Xiù’s heaving shoulders. There was a long, painful silence, broken only when Yan turned his head slowly and grunted toward camp with a nod of his head. The two hundred Given-Men turned tail and walked away without a word between them.

He turned back to the crew, thought for a moment, and sighed. “I…not know what to do. But maybe do this.” He lumbered over and swept them up into a vast hug, this one much more restrained than his usual rib-breaker.

Sometimes, alien or not, people were the best medicine for anything.

Julian was the first to speak. “Um…sorry we wrecked your party.”

“No.” Yan was adamant. “Many die, every year. We remember too. This…” he gestured across the gathered throngs, who were spreading the news amongst themselves, “Vemet want us Take from life. Take what good, and Give good to other. No sad.”

Xiù wiped a tear from her face and nodded along glumly. “…I wish we could have helped.”

Yan switched to People-speak. [“I don’t know how we can help. People are dying in countings too big to know.] He heaved a big, sad sigh, [And you showed me where the Hierarchy killed the rest of us. Now only the forest-people live, and there are so few left I almost know them all.”]

Professor Hurt also nodded along. [“Daar wasn’t lying. He wants you to live, Yan Given-Man. You and all your people. You must grow much stronger before you fight an enemy this big.”]

[“I know.”] Yan shook his head and heaved another great sigh from deep in his chest. [“It feels wrong. Daar Given-Man is friend. We would be dead if not for him. And for you. All of you! What do I have to Give? You have the magic of lightning!”] He looked at his fists, and at his feet. [“All I know is what leaves will make you sick and where the yshek live.”]

“And you have saved my life thrice so far,” said Professor Hurt, holding up three fingers. “Not even Julian Sky-Hunter knows how to survive in the wild better than you.” The big woodsman crossed his arms and nodded along. “You or any of your people, Yan. Maybe that’s not as big as you want but…thank you, again.”

Yan nodded, but there was still a depressed air of futility about him. Yan was a warrior. He wanted to fight but he knew there was nothing he could do. At least, nothing on the scale of galactic conflict. As big and impressive as he was in person, without a fleet or an army…

…The professor did have a point, though. Hoeff was no stranger to roughing it but the People had it down so well, it was as easy for them as breathing, or flipping through the trees, or—

Hoeff spoke up as the idea smashed him across the head. “I know how the People can help.”