The Deathworlders


Chapter 6: Taking Back the Sky

One year and seven months after the Vancouver Attack

One broadcast: +<awe; respect; statement>+ “The Alpha-of-Alphas is here.”

Another broadcast: +<anticipation; glee; eagerness>+ “The first human meat to the Alpha-of-Alpha’s maw!”

The Alpha-of-Alphas broadcast: +<rebuke>+ “The quarry is dangerous. Remain focused.”

Chastened, the Brood-Guard fell into line respectfully around and behind the Alpha-of-Alphas as it emerged from its vessel. It stood nearly a head taller than even the largest of the lesser Alphas, and had undergone yet more extensive cybernetic upgrades, bonding all manner of arcane technology—reputedly of its own design—into its own flesh. The result was a mountain of metal and seething power, with seven blinking eyes gazing balefully out at the world of prey around it, covering all the angles, never resting.

Despite its size and bulk, the Alpha-of-Alphas moved in almost perfect stalking silence, a display of its long experience and skill as an apex predator. Without further communication, the Guardian Brood followed their master as it pursued the most recent contact report.

They paused as the lights flickered, and an instant later the deck heaved and rang to another impact—a stray shot from the battle in the void outside. The Dominion’s vessels were selling themselves dearly, even self-destructing rather than accept capture and the fate of all prey. But this was the first time the Swarm-of-Swarms had shown itself, and not even a third of it was committed to the battle. most was still cloaked, on standby for the event that Dominion reinforcements should arrive. By the decree of Alpha-of-Alphas, the Hunters were yet to show their full strength. That third, however, was still many thousands of ships, and the defenders had either fled or were being swept aside in their suicidal bid to protect the station for as long as possible.

The part inside found their quarry when a Brood-lesser tumbled into the corridor before them, crushed and broken, dead before it had stopped sliding.

The Alpha-of-Alphas broadcast: +<command>+ “Release the drones.”

They did so, a swarm of insect-sized devices that would record what happened next and inject the footage directly onto the prey’s data networks. This, they knew, would prove to the prey beyond any doubt whom they should most be fearing.

The microdrones zipped up and out, retreating to the corners and ceiling of the room the dead Hunter had been thrown from, and then The Alpha-of-Alphas stalked through the door.

Caleb wouldn’t admit it, but he was starting to get scared. The children were hiding in a storage locker behind him, and so far he’d kicked the ass of every white freak that had come for him, even ten at a time. But he was tiredexhausted, even. Punch-drunk from so many of those weak-ass ray guns, floating in a shaky sea of stale adrenaline, bleeding from his nose and ears, bruised over practically every inch of his body, he still willed himself to stand up and face the next monster that came to challenge him.

This one, unusually, came alone. It was larger than the others, and armour-plated. It did not, however, seem to be carrying one of those pulse guns.

Caleb was no idiot—he wasn’t about to assume that the monster was unarmed, and he doubted that he could have got past that armour when at his peak, let alone now. He could see the writing on the wall, and felt strangely at peace because of it.

“Time to die, huh?” he asked the monster, which surprised him by growling a reply in English. it actually spoke the English, too, he could tell the difference.

“Yesth. Ti-ime to die. M-eat to the m-aw.” it said.

“Fuck you,” Caleb told it.

He charged.

The alien raised its arm, aimed at the ground in front of him and fired, once.

He died.

The Alpha-of-Alphas broadcast: +<Satisfaction>+ “The builders are to be commended. These nervejam grenade launchers work exactly as anticipated.”

The servos of its powered exoskeleton whined as it picked up the dead human by the back of his neck. The quarry seemed even heavier in death—the co-ordination and balance that had kept it upright and agile during his life was gone now, replaced by a few lingering twitches as the last jolts of the Nervejam effect rampaged around that delicately-optimized masterwork of a nervous system.

All that was left was a mass of meat and bone as heavy as the Alpha-of-Alphas itself was even in its exoskeleton, and a fraction of the size.

No matter. The Prize awaited. Its helmet dismantled itself, dissolving into a swarm of construction nanites that crawled back into their hive at the nape of the Alpha-of-Alpha’s neck. It considered its limp prize for a second, and then opened its jaws as wide as they would go, bit into the human’s throat with all the strength it could muster, and—with some effort—ripped free a mouthful.

The meat was indescribable. Dense, lean, rich, full of that indefinable spark of sentience. It exceeded even the Alpha-of-Alpha’s most extravagant fantasies.

+<ecstasy>+ “MEAT TO THE MAW!!!”

the cry was taken up among the brood, it spread to the swarm, and from there to the Swarm-of-Swarms and through them, every Hunter in the Galaxy.

The first Great Hunt had been successful.

Two years and Five Months after the Vancouver attack

Captain Rylee Jackson. It was a good name, and she hoped that people would remember it, and for the right reasons. She hoped that she would be remembered for earning this mission on skill and merit, rather than being sneered at as a diplomatic bit of political correctness, given the job just because she was a black woman.

It was a crazy mission. She’d gone to church, said her prayers, prepared herself as best she could. There was a non-zero chance that things could go horribly wrong, but all test pilots knew that. You just had to trust your sled.

“Houston, Pandora. Final checklist complete.” she intoned, her tone steadier than she felt.

“Copy Pandora. There’s no window here, Rylee, so just go whenever you’re ready for it.” She knew that her flight operator down in Houston was probably just as scared as she was, but there was that voice, the calm and steady one that said everything, no matter how dramatic, with perfect clarity and confidence. She knew that even if she disintegrated in a few seconds, that professional tone would never crack. She could become a smear of plasma across half the heavens, and add her name to the victims of humanity’s odyssey, and that voice would coldly describe her demise as a “malfunction.”

In its way, that was comforting.

“Houston, Pandora…Let’s take back the sky.”

She allowed herself a smile of triumph at not repeating Armstrong’s mistake and choking on her big quote. Still congratulating herself, she pressed the button.

Two seconds and a billion kilometers later, with a ferociously ecstatic whoop, Rylee Jackson entered the history books as the first human being to outrun light.

Jenkins’ bar erupted. The entirety of the Scotch Creek base staff had crowded in to watch the moment when their two years of hard work had paid off, and paid off it had, in style. From Claude Nadeau’s breakthroughs in electrostatic field emitters that had allowed Pandora to fly on gargantuan weightless wings of pure force-field and boost itself into space for a fraction of the expense required by a traditional rocket, to Ted Bartlett unravelling the secrets of spacetime field distortion technology and inventing a distortion drive that actually worked on a reasonable budget of energy, without any awkward relativistic time dilation and without ripping apart the sun in the process.

General Tremblay smiled indulgently as the crowd of ecstatic scientists formed a circle with their arms around each other’s shoulders and launched into a drunken, cacophonous rendition of “We Are the Champions.”

“Heck of a day.”

He turned to Kevin Jenkins, who had been the one to start the song on the bar’s music system. He had fit into the base perfectly, falling comfortably into his niche as the Scotch Creek Research Facility’s resident purveyor of alcohol, caffeine, filling food and televised sports matches. Probably two-thirds of the major breakthroughs at the base had taken place over coffee and bacon cheeseburgers at the bar’s increasingly-scuffed wooden tables.

“Heck of a day,” Tremblay agreed, trying to make it sound like his heart was in it. Jenkins just handed him another coffee—black, two sugars—with an expression that said he could see straight through the general’s attempt at positivity. He was as bad as Dr. Sung sometimes.

“Shitty time for a divorce, general,” Jenkins said.

Check that. Jenkins could be far, far worse than the doctor sometimes. He didn’t have a professional code of conduct stopping him from being blunt.

“How…how did you guess?”

“Doesn’t take a rocket surgeon,” Jenkins told him. “You’ve been sitting there staring at your wedding band looking like you took a dump and found a kidney in the bowl.”

“Is there such a thing as a good time for a divorce?” Tremblay asked.

Jenkins thought about it. “When you wake up the morning after a night out on Vegas and there’s a shaved orangutan in your bed?”

Tremblay couldn’t resist it: he laughed. Jenkins gave a satisfied nod. “How long were you married?” he asked.

“Ten years. Stefan’s a great guy and I love him so much it hurts, but…y’know, he wanted me to retire and adopt a couple of kids with him. But then Rogers Arena, this base…” Tremblay sipped his coffee as he trailed off.

“Life happens, man,” Jenkins told him. “At least it’s not boring. Be a whole lot worse for you if you were moping around at home lovesick and not knowing what to do with yourself.”

“True. At least I can focus on my work…” Tremblay smiled at that, his first genuine smile of the day, as he looked at the big-screen on the wall, where mission control at Houston was just starting to settle down from its jubilation and get back to work. “And we did good today, didn’t we?”

“You did damn good, man,” Jenkins said. “Sure, that kid Jackson’s the name everyone will remember, but she’d never have got up there without you. Hell, it was you persuaded the treaty members to unify their space programs. I guarantee that Pandora would never have been funded without that.”

Tremblay nodded, and put his drink down. “Thanks, Kevin. I needed that.”

“Anytime, Martin.”

“She has been in there for [two months] now. We think she managed to tap into a water pipe and from the smell she maybe even set up a Dizi Rat farm in there.

And she refuses to come out.”

“Would you, when the galactic news is full of members of your species being thrown out of the airlock?”

“Look we weren’t going to do that. We were just going to…you know, evict her. Give her a little ship and some nutrient spheres and point her towards a nice Class Eleven somewhere. She’s from a Class Twelve, right? She should have no problem surviving there.”

Kirk issued the equivalent of a frustrated sigh. Like all Rrrrtktktkp’ch, he was fond of his Vz’ktk cousins, but they really were as dense as a bag of gold sometimes.

“I did some research on this one. She used to sell insurance before the Corti took her. She used to sit in an office with a headset on talking to people over audio-comms. On her days off, she used to fashion garments out of spun animal hair, and went swimming in a heated, disinfected pool. She may be native of a Class Twelve but frankly I think she might have starved to death on a Class Six,” he said. A thought struck him and he chuckled. “They abducted her on the way home from that pool, actually. Think she knows where her towel is?”

“Her…Towel? Uh…I don’t…nobody ever…”

“In-joke. Never mind.” It was hard being a fan of human literature sometimes.

”…Okay? Well. I don’t know how you’re going to get her out of there, nobody can fit in there except maybe for a Gaoian or Corti, and even if they could, she’s human. She broke a security officer’s leg accidentally!” “Oh, it’s okay. I think she just needs to see a friendly face.”

The Vz’ktk security officer looked up as the door cycled to admit Maria, Amir and Allison, the latter of whom flipped a jaunty mock salute to the stunned officer before she and Amir stooped slightly and presented their linked hands to boost Maria up into the open ventilation duct below which Kirk and the officer had been conversing. A second later, Amir boosted Allison up into the vent as well, and then leaned against the wall and waited, watching the tall blue being with that unsettling binocular gaze that seemed to flicker all over him, taking in every detail.

“You brought more?!”

“Several,” Kirk said, secretly enjoying himself. “Don’t worry, they’ve all got disease suppression implants.”

“But.. don’t you know how dangerous…?”

“Who, them or the Hunters? They’re nice people. A little strange, some of them, and I really can’t tell if that’s because of the isolation or if that’s how they always were, but trust me, every single one’s as moral and good-natured a being as you could wish to meet. And the Hunters don’t have the first clue my little flying sanctuary exists, so far as we know. Besides, if this goes as well as it usually does, she’ll be on board among her own kind and we’ll be gone soon enough.”

“Sanctuary. You’re…keeping them safe?”

Kirk nodded. “Somebody has to take care of the poor little monsters when the galaxy’s losing its mind,” he said.

There was a scuffle from the vents, announcing Allison and Maria’s return.

Behind them was Abigail, the woman they had come to rescue. She dropped lightly to the deck in the—for her—light gravity, shot the officer a glare that wished it could be as deadly as the rest of her, and shook hands with Amir, who extended a friendly arm to invite her back to the ship.

Kirk was secretly delighted to notice that she had a large beige towel draped over her shoulders.

“See? Problem solved. Now you can put out the word that your station is a human-free zone and the Great Hunt will pass you by, hmm?”

He said it lightly, but there was an accusatory edge to the apparently benign observation. He regretted it when the officer wilted slightly, and reminded himself that it wasn’t the poor young male’s fault—he was just following orders, in a job not dissimilar to the one Kirk himself had held only a few years ago.

On a whim he decided to repair things and sent a small currency gift to the officer’s personal network.

“Here. Get yourself some tllktrrk’nq or something. My treat. You’ll get in touch if any more humans show up?”

The officer offered a defeated gesture of assent. “Sure. Yes. I will.”

“Good. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.”

He swept from the room. Behind him, the pressure of sheer charm that he’d been keeping up the whole time slowly deflated, and the security officer recovered himself enough to glance at his personal funds, the ceiling vent, and the door.

“What the sh’rrt,” he muttered.

“Okay, I’ve seen some fast-talking in my time, but you had that guy just swallowing every word you said within seconds of meeting him.” Allison commented during the walk back to the Sanctuary. “How’d you do that?”

“Vz’ktk have an instinctive respect for the judgement and intelligence of my own species.” Kirk explained. “All you have to do is keep talking in an amiable ‘I know everything about everything’ tone of voice and they’ll agree to sell you their sister if you keep it up long enough.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“Exaggerating,” Kirk allowed. “but they really do grow up with the idea that we’re the smart ones. That builds a degree of innate respect and trust.”

The Sanctuary had been modified yet again since the Hunter Ultimatum, growing three rings of cabins that encircled the reactor, enough for four times its current population. Given that they were sized for the average species, they were huge by human standards—the beds large and luxurious, with plenty of room for floor exercises. Kirk had permanently set the gravity, temperature and pressure on those decks to mimic sea level on Earth, and left the human passengers to their own devices.

That ultimatum had made Kirk’s job much easier. Ships, bases and stations across the inhabited galaxy had scrambled to appease the Hunters, and the humans living aboard them had understandably reacted to protect themselves. Finding abductees was now as simple as following the requests for military support from the Dominion’s naval forces.

And of course, the humans they found were more than happy to leave. Showing up with three friendly homo sapiens and sharing the name of the ship seemed to be pretty much all it took, now. The most time-consuming part was all the traveling.

Still, in two years they had averaged slightly less than one new rescue a month.

Too many times they had arrived to find the human they were chasing had already left. A few times, they’d arrived to find their sought refugee had been gassed, or had their hidey-hole depressurized.

One station’s overseer admitted that they had resorted to Nervejam, and Allison caught Maria’s wrist just in time. If that grief-driven slap had connected…

The station’s overseer still got an up-close and personal introduction to the wrong end of Allison’s pistol, however, and a personal promise that there would be a reckoning someday.

The whole ship had been in a subdued mood for several days after that incident.

They’d held a “wake,” a kind of bawdy funeral service. Kirk hadn’t joined in.

Twenty-two humans throwing a party to help themselves feel alive in the face of futility and pointless death was more than even he could handle.

Three of the twenty-two—twenty-three, now—only rarely showed their faces, preferring to lurk up in the cabins and avoid him. The rest were happy to spend time in the large recreational area, playing games, watching movies, or just hanging out and talking. He was pretty sure there was a fair amount of sex going on in the cabins, too: months or years of isolation without seeing others of their own kind had left many of the refugees with unresolved tensions that they were vigorously and gladly resolving.

Kirk had first started researching human sexuality long ago when the Observatory was first established. What he found had initially disturbed him, and then later made him jealous. Among his own kind, the point of reproduction was reproduction. It brought emotional fulfillment and intellectual pleasure to carry out the act of continuing the species, and the act itself was reportedly pleasantly intimate and had some enjoyable sensations. Kirk didn’t know first-hand, having fathered no children.

For Humans, however, the act itself seemed to bring intense physical pleasure, as well as considerable emotional satisfaction and positive social repercussions. Like everything the species did, there were conflicting norms and etiquettes everywhere. There was a stigma to having no sex and a stigma to having too much. There was a stigma to having never had sex, and a stigma to having it prior to engaging in a legal bond-partnership. There was a stigma to sex with members of the same sex—and the fact that this was even an option had been a source of major confusion for Kirk at first—and yet most humans seemed to be to some extent inclined to bisexuality.

Then there were gender identities: ones that correlated with the biological sexes, ones the directly opposed them, and gender identities that had nothing to do with either of the available biological options at all.

The whole thing was bewildering and strange, but also exciting, and made Kirk feel a little envious. He had long since realized that for all their physical impressiveness and mental agility, humans were still just as fragile as anybody else in their own ways. To learn that they had a whole type of pleasure available to them which Kirk would never be able to experience for himself felt a little unfair.

He was wondering how it had helped them survive the conditions on Earth when his train of thought was interrupted by a call from the ship. He had left Lewis in charge of the ship’s sensors and comms.

“Kirk man, uh…like, we just got some pretty big news, dude.”

Lewis was…interesting. They’d picked him up at a Corti research facility on a barren planet that officially had no name but which Lewis insisted was called ‘Kerbin’ on the grounds that he’d been the first to name it. Although he’d originally been taken there as a test subject, his ‘escape’ had apparently consisted of amiably disabling the forcefield on his containment cell before letting himself into the lab to explore some avenues of research that his abductors hadn’t even considered. He was the only one on the crew who’d needed persuading to leave, though it hadn’t been a difficult negotiation: His objections had faded the instant he realized there were ‘chicks’ aboard Sanctuary.

Kirk hadn’t yet managed to figure out if his speech pattern was due to the permanent influence of some Corti experiment or a lifetime of recreational narcotics, or if was just an affectation. Whatever the explanation, it was clear that behind that dopey dude attitude was a mind to rival the very greatest alumni of the Corti Directorate’s education system.

Strangely, he and Amir had become instant best friends. Kirk had no idea why.

“Share it.”

“Uh…news from Earth, dude. Looks like our guys just went FTL for like the first time ever.”

Kirk came to a dead halt in the hallway, oblivious to the beings that were edging around the knot of three humans to get past him.

“Uh…Kirk? Why are you smiling, man?”

“Oh, no reason. It’s just nice when your friends impress you.”

“Meeting is called to order in the chair and so on let’s get on with this. How did they get FTL so quickly?”

The scribe scrambled to finish the block of formalities that were the usual preface to meetings of the Dominion Security Council, and then gave up in bewilderment as the representatives of five different species all tried to speak at once.

While most of the remaining representatives just looked silent and glanced sideways at one another, one raised a huge hand and waited, radiating a patient pink.

“Councillor Vedreg?” the chairman addressed him. “You have an opinion.”

“I do.” The clamour died, and they turned to listen to him.

He took a moment to gather his shawl of office around his upper shoulders and strike a suitable statesbeinglike posture before launching into his explanation.

“We have reason to believe that a functioning wormhole beacon may have been smuggled to Earth during the early years of the Observatory program. Despite having been moved outside of the barrier, the Observatory still exists and has been monitoring spacetime distortions around Earth and its near orbit. Among the many traces we found in the subcycles preceding the launch and test flight of this human craft, were some that corresponded to the generation of experimental wormholes.”

“Reverse-engineering a working Apparent Linear Velocity drive from the temporal stasis technology contained in Hunter assault pods would have yielded FTL technology ahead of schedule anyway, gentlebeings, but when coupled with access to a working jump beacon…”

The Rauwryhr delegate interrupted him at that. “Jump beacons are useless by themselves,” she pointed out.

“For travel, maybe. For the purposes of learning the fundamentals of spatial distortion science, you could not ask for a better specimen technology,” Vedreg explained calmly.

The Gaoian delegate—a venerable male with long streaks of white around his eyes and muzzle—spoke up. “Need I remind the council that while the reforms to Dominion law concerning the status of intelligent non-FTL capable species is still being negotiated, the law has always been clear that once a planetary civilization has successfully and safely caused one living member to travel faster than light, they are official sentients and must be afforded the full rights and protection of a provisional member?” He said. “I must repeat that it is the official stance of the Clans of Gao that the quarantine field is a crime against the human race and that it should be removed as soon as possible.”

There was the general equivalent of nodding and “hear, hear.”

Vedreg’s flanks flushed a complicated medley of reds and purples. “In a purely personal capacity, Father Vyan, I agree, and I would like it on record that I voted against the proposal when it was first tabled in the Confederate Assembly,” he said. “I was outvoted, and it remains beyond my power to countermand that decision.”

Kirk’s replacement as the representative for the Vz’ktk Domain spoke up. “But it is not beyond your species’ power to ignore the Founding Charter,” she retorted.

“The Confederacy is constitutionally obligated to remove that quarantine field.”

Vedreg clamped down on emotional luminescence, allowing only a forthright grey shaded with firm dark orange to show. “You are correct, of course. However…”

He trailed off, searching for the correct way to phrase his next explanation.

The Corti representative finally chimed in, deploying a careful “…however?”

into the conversation at the precise moment it would do the most harm to his confidence.

“However the barrier cannot be removed,” Vedreg explained.

“It must be,” asserted the Corti representative, calmly.

“I do not mean that my government is officially unwilling to remove it—though that is in fact the case—but that we do not in fact have the ability to do so.”

This was met with an incredulous silence that he rushed to fill.

“Humanity have attracted the ire of the Hunters. FTL-capable sentients though they may now be, they lack the orbital defensive infrastructure to protect themselves from the ‘Swarm of Swarms’ should it descend upon an unprotected Earth. The best guess of our own Xenopsychologists is that the Hunters are not afraid of humanity, but are instead jealous of them. The humans have, after all, attracted considerable attention and fear in recent cycles, and the best guesses we have into Hunter psychology is that they view it as imperative that they be feared.

“The existence of a species which we, their prey, apparently fear even more than the Hunters themselves, is a direct affront to them. So, dropping that barrier would result in the almost inevitable genocide of a species that, for all their physical and mental tenacity, could not hope to survive a sustained orbital barrage.”

Again, the Corti spoke up. “A morally sound reason,” he said, making the words “morally sound” carry the same weight of emotional opinion as he might have said “financially questionable.” “So let us hear about your inability to remove the barrier. Your own experts designed it, did they not?”

“Indeed…to defend our own systems from external military threats. Converting one into a containment barrier was done hastily by the simple expedient of programming the emitter nexus to wrap itself up inside its own field.”

“Surely it can be remotely deactivated?”

“You must understand, Councillor, this was a defensive tool. The risk that it might be hacked and disabled by an appropriately skilled communications expert would have been a military liability. The device does not communicate with other systems via anything other than a physical connection.”

The Corti nodded understanding. “Which is now impossible to establish thanks to the way it is contained within its own field,” He sniffed his disdain. “Rather an unfortunate oversight by your engineers.”

This sentiment was echoed around the table.

“The Confederacy will make all appropriate reparations to the human race of course,” Vedreg said, hurriedly.

“A safe assertion, considering that they appear to be indefinitely contained,”

the Gaoian said. “The Mother-Supreme of our Clan of Females will be notified of this, however. If you cannot make appropriate reparations to the human race, you can at least offer all necessary steps to compensate those humans who were stolen—” here, the furred councillor shot a glare at the Corti representative, which the latter being totally failed to acknowledge “—from their homeworld and have taken up residence in the galaxy at large, and to those species and organisations that have taken it upon themselves to provide them with sanctuary and a place to live.”

“Meaning Gao, I assume,” the Domain’s representative noted, with all of a Rrrrtktktkp’ch’s dry wit.

“Among others,” the councillor agreed, defiantly. She was about to offer a sharp retort when Vedreg held up one enormous hand, flanks shaded to indicate resignation.

“The Gaoian representative speaks the truth, the Confederacy is thus obligated to compensate them,” He agreed, having spent several boring days reviewing the law and precedents that applied in this scenario, none of which had contained any help for the Confederacy. “What are the terms requested by the Clans of Gao?” he asked.

“Food supplies, nutritional supplements and medical supplies necessary to support all humans who choose to accept sanctuary on our homeworld, plus appropriate military hardware and assistance to defend our planet from Hunter retaliation,” the councillor replied, having clearly memorised the terms in advance. “An immediate cessation of the information blackout surrounding Earth and the establishment of diplomatic channels so that all stranded humans may directly contact their loved ones. Remunerative compensation to our people equivalent to ten thousand Dominion development credits per human refugee who settles on Gao for longer than two cycles, and a five-cycle waiver on our obligation to commit units to the Celzi conflict.”

“Those last two terms are unacceptable,” the Rauwryhr delegate objected, siding with the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun.

“Excessive, certainly.” Vedreg agreed. “While the Guvnurag have no grounds to appeal the first, second and third terms, my people have the right to negotiate over the penultimate term, and that last one is a matter for the security council.”

The chairman spoke. “Then it is the ruling of this council that the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy is to pay to the Clans of Gao and to any other people or organisation who harbour human refugees the following: food, nutritional supplements and medical supplies to provide for that human’s needs, military assistance and/or hardware sufficient to realistically defend them from Hunter attacks. Furthermore, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy is required to permit ships to approach the Sol blockade and communicate with Earth,” it said.

“The motions have also been tabled first that the Confederacy is to pay ten thousand Dominion development credits per human refugee to any species or organisation which protects them, with the motion’s opposition requesting negotiation of that amount. As many of each opinion vote now.”

There were a few busy moments while each representative made their decision.

“The second motion is that the Gaoian Clans should be granted a five-cycle waiver on military involvement in the Celzi conflict, with the opposition denying that motion outright. As many of each opinion vote now.

Again, they voted.

“As to the first motion, being the four thousand three hundred and third vote of this council, There were two votes in favour, eight votes against, and three abstentions. The opposition has it, and the requested sum of credits will be renegotiated.” The chairman sounded the little chime that ceremonially marked that a decision was complete. “As to the second motion, being the four thousand three hundred and fourth vote of this council, there was one vote in favour, twelve votes against, no abstentions. The opposition have it and the motion is defeated.”

The second chime was the signal for council scribes, aides and messenger drones to zip about the place in a frenzy of activity. The chairman raised its ceremonial rod and spoke slightly louder about the noise. “This council session will now recess until the next standard diurnal period.”

Two years and seven months after the Vancouver attack

“Civilian vessel, this is Confederacy destroyer Vugarunguvrunek. Identify yourself and state your intentions.”

Vugarunguvrunek, this is yacht Sanctuary requesting permission to approach the broadcast point.”

“Permission granted, Sanctuary. You are cleared for one burst transmission of no larger than three terabytes.”

“Acknowledged, Vugarunguvrunek.”

Thanks to the convenient relay offered by a Corti communications monitoring station that had been installed twenty years previously, it was a trivial matter for the Sanctuary to squirt a total of twenty-five videos towards Earth.

Twenty-four of them were from the human refugees, many of them tearful as they finally took the chance to relieve their loved ones’ fears.

The twenty-fifth was from Kirk.

“Kevin. I hope this finds you still alive and complaining: I know for a fact that you’re well wrapped-up in whatever’s going on down there. You see, I knew about the jump beacon.

The one you stole was trash, by the way: so I snuck a working replacement into your bag. Glad to see it worked as planned. Tell whoever you gave it to that if they tune it with the algorithm that’s on screen right now, we can start sending some of these people home.

Now, on to the really important stuff. If I know humans, you’re probably already well on your way to dropping this barrier somehow, but take it from your old friend: for the time being, that would be a very, very bad idea. You see, a lot has happened up here since Vancouver…”