The Deathworlders


Chapter 12: Only Human

Three years and seven months AV
Alliance Embassy Station, Sol

Rylee Jackson woke, and groaned. Talamay must have been stronger than it had tasted.

She groaned even louder when the previous night’s conversation came back to her, and buried her face in her pillow for a second, then rolled over and look up at Pandora’s wing, flung over her cot like a protective lover’s arm.

She spoke the word that heralded a bad start to any day: “Shit.”

Civilian Trade Station 1039: “Infinity Awaits”

Fear was a sickly sensation in Kttrvk’s long throat as he read the message again to be certain of its content.

He read it a third time, just in case.

When a fourth reading still produced no miraculous change in its content, he concluded that its content must therefore be real, and set about writing a reply.

It was a simple reply:


As I explained in my previous letter, the trade route you have designated for our shipment is currently the target of Hunter raids. Four more vesselss have been hit since I sent that letter, all comparatively small: A freighter the size of the Nkvcqtz will be a target they cannot resist.

Our cargo of mineral ores is non-perishable and will come to no harm should we take the slightly longer route that I suggested. I appreciate that the client expects prompt delivery, but I feel certain that they would prefer the shipment arrive slightly delayed, than never arrive at all because the freighter carrying it was raided by Hunters and the personnel and children on board, devoured.

I object in the strongest possible terms to these orders, and request—again—that you authorise us to take the longer route.

-Shipmaster Kttrvk.

He sent it, and the message was scooped up by a handler program, to be updated onto the galactic network in the next regular synchronization, and from there to the desk of his supervisor.

He knew in his bones, however, that the appeal was futile.


Jennifer Delaney. Mid-twenties, entirely out of fucks to give about being a pirate queen, colonial governor or immortal, but not letting go of the space-babe part. Currently wearing fatigues, army boots and a thick black woollen jumper, and contemplating the bar of actual chocolate on the table in front of her, waiting for the alarm to ring or the spaceship to land or whatever else would interrupt her attempt to enjoy it.

She was also reflecting that, while showing up completely arse-naked and demanding to be clothed wouldn’t have been her first choice in ice-breakers—wouldn’t even have made the top hundred—it had undeniably worked. Apparently the soldiers respected a woman who didn’t give two shits for embarrassment and just asked for a pair of pants. She would have expected to be on the receiving end of a lot of lecherous jokes and sly side-of-the-eye stares, but in fact they were, on the whole, treating her with deference and respect.

“Tastes better if you eat it with your mouth, love.”

Somewhere deep inside her, Old Jen was impressed and a little scared by the way that she didn’t jump, just turned in her seat to quickly assess whether the voice that had snuck up on her was a threat. Captain Owen Powell gave her a winning smile full of Yorkshire arrogance, and she relaxed a bit.

“Just…enjoying the moment.” she said. “And don’t call me ‘love’.”

Powell nodded. “Aye, sorry. Force of habit. I’d ask if I can come in, but this is my office, so…”

He entered and sat down on the other stool, on the opposite side of the desk. “So, are you going to eat that?”

“Promise me nothing’s going to start exploding if I do?”

She wasn’t sure what she had expected Powell’s reaction to be: a laugh, maybe, or a joke. Not an understanding look in his eye. “Wish I could.” he said. “You’d best eat it fast, enjoy it while you can. In the army they trained us to brew a cup of tea every chance we get, because you never know when the next one’s going to show up.”

Jen breathed a little half-laugh. “That’s so fecking English…” she said.

Powell snorted. “Ten thousand lightyears from home and the Irish are still being fookin’ Irish.”

That got a genuine laugh. “Alright, fine. I’ll eat the fecking thing.” Jen conceded, and promptly made good on that promise.

Chocolate. Fuck yeah.

Mount Hope Cemetery, San Diego

“May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”

The solemn “Amen” which followed that petition was joined by all bar one of the graveside mourners. The priest closed his book, bowed solemnly, and turned away, leaving only the small knot of family and friends.

It was a good headstone, understated and handsome: just the name “Terri Boone” flanked by carved lilies, her dates of birth and death, and the quote “A loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge.” on round-topped blue slate.

“You’re not a praying man, Mister Jenkins?”

“I’m not, detective. Let’s…just leave it at that.”

“Fair enough.”

Gabriel Arés shuffled his feet and exhaled, feeling in his bones that the occasion should have really warranted something other than a glorious sunny day.

“Do you come to the funerals of all your cases?” Jenkins asked him.

“Not all, no. Just the ones that really get to me. You know, the stupid kid who got caught up in gang violence, or the young mother who died of a bleed on the brain after her husband hit her for the hundredth time…The streetwise P.I. who I kind of feel like I could have helped if I’d only listened.”

“Are you listening now?”

Jenkins was a good two heads taller than the diminutive Hispanic homicide cop, who looked up at him curiously.

“Listening to…who, now?” He asked.

“Ravi Singh, for one.”

“How do you…? Right, you had the login details.”

“I do, yeah. Downloaded the lot. You HAVE read it all?”

“Three times.” Arés told him. “She makes a…compelling case. But come on, secret aliens murdering people in San Diego?”

“What, as opposed to alien monsters on TV getting the shit kicked out of them by hockey players? As opposed to alien embassies orbiting the moon?”

“I know!” Arés exclaimed. A few startled gasps and glances from the other mourners moderated his volume. “I know. I agree. You’re preaching to the choir, compañero. But I have to answer to people, and even if they were persuaded, which they’re not, there’s this little thing called ‘Jurisdiction’ biting me in the culo.

“What about the FBI?”

“The feds?” Gabriel made a scornful noise through his nose. “The pendejo I spoke to said he’d put me through to Special Agent Mulder and then hung up. They’ve got enough to worry about without alien conspiracy theories. People didn’t stop murdering each other just because there’s a couple of alien space stations up there.”

“Need a hand?”

“You’d go all the way to New Jersey?”

“If it got us to the bottom of this, I’d even go back into space.” Jenkins told him, firmly. “I want these fuckers to fry, Arés.”

The detective stared at the headstone for a long while, and then shook his head. “I’m not…You realise I can’t authorise that, right?Not officially. This is a police matter, I can’t bring in civilians to interrogate a witness.”

“That wouldn’t be by-the-book, huh?”

Lo tienes.

“Does going by the book always work?”

“No. But going against it NEVER works, Jenkins, to hell with what cop shows and movie writers think.”

“So you won’t help me.”

“Can’t.” Arés corrected.

They stood in silence for a while. Most of the mourners paid their final respects and departed.

“Of course…” Jenkins mused. “Seeing as New Jersey is outside of your jurisdiction, if I were to go talk with this guy, it’s not like you could arrest me for it anyway.”

Arés half-laughed and half-huffed. “If having a conversation with some guy in New Jersey was illegal then I could arrest you right now for planning to commit an offense.” he said. “IF,” he added, turning to look Jenkins right in the eye “having a conversation with some guy in New Jersey was illegal.”

They considered each other’s expressions for a moment, and then both men stuck out their hands to be shaken at the same time.

“I’ll let you know if I think of anything that could be useful to your investigation, Detective Arés.”

“I’d appreciate that, Mr. Jenkins. Buena suerte.”

Civilian Trade Station 1039: “Infinity Awaits”

“Shipmaster Kttrvk,

“You have received your orders. As per your contract with the corporation, failure to follow your assigned route is punishable by demotion, confiscation of your ship and fines up to 5% of the value of the cargo per [day] of late delivery”

”—Ikktik, Deputy Shipping Executive”

Kttrvk knew at that exact moment that nobody in the corporation even bothered to read their mail.

He weighed up the possibility of refusing and then counter-suing the corporation for reckless endangerment of his and his family’s lives when they took action against him. A fair court would surely come down on his side.

But of course, Long Stars Shipping would never see the inside of a fair court in a case like this, would they? They owned the judges, they could afford the best lawyers, they lobbied for the laws that worked in their favour.

For long minutes he sat, thinking, while his mate Ikkzziki slumbered, rotund with what would be their fourth child.

There was only one possible course of action.

Alliance Embassy Station, Sol

“Good morning, Rylee.”

Rylee flinched. She knew that the voice she heard wasn’t exactly Niral so much as a computer simulation of what Niral’s voice might sound like if she was speaking English, cunningly conveyed to her ears by harmonic trickery in a way that completely overruled the original voice, but the simulation was totally consistent in giving Niral an identifiable voice.

”…Niral! Hey. Good morning.”

“A very good morning.” Niral’s ears were flattened sideways. The effect looked either mischievous or smug to Rylee. Her tall posture, shoulders thrown back and head held high, suggested the latter.

“Oh! You guys, uh…?”

“That we most certainly did.” The Gaoian purred. “The first of many I hope, before we’re certain I’m with cub.”

“That’s umm…Great. I’m happy for you.” Rylee found she couldn’t meet the Sister’s gaze. She was surprised when Niral issued a low keening sound and took her hands.

“Rylee, are you all right?”

“I made a complete ass of myself last night, didn’t I?”

”…A backside? Oh! Um…I don’t know, did you?”

“That’s usually what we call it when somebody makes someone else feel uncomfortable by confessing to being…interested in them. And all the rest. I’m sorry Niral, I was drunk, I wasn’t thinking straight and I ran off at the mouth.”

Niral keened softly again and hugged her. Presumably she was hugging quite hard by Gaoian standards, but to Rylee the effect was of being gently hugged by an anorexic teenager—under all that fur, the Gaoian’s body was small, wiry, feather-light and frail. “I don’t think I understand this ‘drunk’ thing.” Niral told her. “But I wasn’t drunk last night, and I still say you’re my friend.”

“You’re not upset?”

“If I’m going to have alien friends, I need to be okay with them behaving in alien ways.” Niral replied, stroking Rylee’s hair. “I’m not upset.”

Rylee broke the hug very gently, and wiped away a grateful tear, pulling herself together. “Oh, I needed to hear that.” she smiled, then a thought struck her. “Shit, you didn’t tell Goruu what I said, did you?”

Niral tittered a Gaoian giggle. “We were too busy.” she teased. “But…no, I wouldn’t. Not if you don’t want him to know.”

“I don’t.” Rylee said firmly.

There was a moment of comfortable silence, faintly amused on Niral’s part. Then she looked up at the space-plane wing that Rylee had been sleeping under.

“So this is Pandora?”

“This is Pandora.

“Does the name mean anything special? The first Gaoian warp craft was named Tiritya, after the first Mother-Supreme, who united the females of all clans into one clan.”

Rylee smiled. “Pandora was the first woman, according to Greek mythology.”

“The…how can there be a first woman? And what’s a Greek? One of your clans?”

“Yeah, sort of. Mythology means…kind of, fanciful stories, an entertaining way of getting points across using fiction. It doesn’t always have to be scientifically accurate. Besides, they didn’t really understand evolution by natural selection back in ancient Greece. It’s a very old story.”

“Oh. So, your first warp craft is named to honour the first female and not the first male?” The idea seemed to have Niral’s approval, and not for the first time Rylee was struck by the notion that Gaoian females were maybe a bit sexist.

“Well, she was more than just the first woman.” Rylee said, beginning to pack up her cot and stow it away in the ship’s small cargo compartment. “She was a curious soul who opened a box in which Zeus, the father of the gods, had sealed away all the evils and negativity of mankind. When they all flew away to plague humanity, the only thing that was left behind was hope, which she kept.”

She glanced at Niral. “It’s all supposed to be metaphorical.” she clarified.

“I guessed as much. But what was hope doing in a box full of evil things?”

“Hope can’t exist without evil.” Rylee said. She rubbed her hand fondly along the fuselage of the modern Pandora. “Just like up can’t exist without down, or how fast only exists relative to slow.”

“And I suppose your species is in a sort of box…” Niral mused.

“Exactly. I choose to believe that Pandora here is our promise that when the box is opened, we’ll be a force for hope and positivity in the galaxy, rather than a plague of evils.”

Niral allowed the human a few seconds of distant misty-eyed happiness. “I’m sure you will be.” She said.


“So, how much do you know about what’s been going on back home?”

Jennifer Delaney, mid-twenties, space-babe with a mouthful of the first chocolate she’d tasted in years, regretfully swallowed it.

“Not much.” She confessed. “The alien news only covered the big things: the Hunters attacked Vancouver?” when Powell nodded, she continued. “Then there’s a fecking big force-field, we have warp travel now…That’s about it. I know that our ambassador to the Dominion is called Doctor Anees Hussein because he wrote me a letter, and he hinted that we’re maybe wanting to play both sides to our advantage, but other than that, I’m pretty well in the dark.”

“Right. Well, it’s mostly business as usual.” Powell said. “The usual political gobshites, same sports, same celebrity gossip, same bullshit in the Middle East. The Russians are still fookin’ crazy, the Chinese still have a stick up their arses, the Yanks are still fookin’ reckless and there’s still a Marvel movie three times a year like fookin’ clockwork.”

“Nothing’s changed at all?”

“I didn’t say that. NASA and the European Space Agency merged to form the North Atlantic Space Agency, the Chinese, Russians and Japanese are all stepping up their space programs, as are the South Americans and the Australians, and there’s even the Pan-Africa Space Organisation now. I think they’re mostly looking at trying to build space elevators, which is easier at the equator or something.”

He sniffed. “A whole bunch of private companies are pushing into space as fast as they can, too. BAE, Virgin, Mitsubishi, Shenyang, Red Bull…”

Red Bull?!

“Dont ask. And the cutting edge military technology is…fook me sideways, if you were cleared to know about half of it, you’d shit your new pants.”

“How much AM I cleared to know about?”

“Right, so we took a look at the way business is done out here and promptly said “fook that”, right? Giant fookin’ spaceships with giant fookin’ guns and even gianter fookin’ armour plates pounding the living shite out of each other at spittin’ distance. They’ve got missiles and mines nowadays—apparently they picked that trick up off one of us—but their whole approach is pretty bloody direct.”

“Oh. Really? One of, um, us?”

“Yep. Like to get my hands on that wanker, whoever he was. Give him a lesson in keeping his fookin’ mouth shut.” Powell’s tone was light, but he had a dangerous look in his eye that reminded her a bit of Adrian, though not in a happy way.

Jen suddenly became very grateful for the practice she’d had in the art of lying, and bobbled her head in a way that could mean anything but didn’t really meaning anything specific. Powell apparently took it agreeably.

“Anyway,” he continued “the ships we’re putting up—or, at least, the Lockheed ones that NATO are buying—are built around not that. Long-range weaponry, evasive maneuvers, fookloads of electronic warfare. We use capacitors full of reserve power rather than big reactors, so our ships are small and agile little buggers, built to hit and fade, rip things a new one in the opening seconds, then jump out, recharge, come back and do it again.”

“Our weapons stack up to theirs?” Jen asked. That part was genuine news. She’d known for some time that most weapons that she might find pointed at her were nowhere near as deadly as their equivalent on Earth, but she had always assumed that with thousands of years of science behind them, spaceship guns would be far in advance of anything humanity had yet invented.

“In theory.” Powell said, clearly unhappy about not being able to give a more emphatically positive answer. “Because all their stuff’s based around railguns and plasma cannons, our own weapons, which are neither of those things, should be something they don’t know how to handle. Their shields are tuned to stop slow-firing high-energy projectiles traveling at like, one percent of lightspeed, and the armour’s designed for heat dissipation: it’s all ceramic tiles, fragile as balls.”

“So, if we fire a howitzer at them or something?” Jen asked him, latching on to the first “big gun” word she could think of.

“I see what you’re thinking, but nah. It’d just explode against the shields: too slow-firing. But in theory, if we just chuck a load of lower-energy projectiles at them it’ll overwhelm the shields and smash the armour. See?”

“I’ll…have to take your word on all of that.”

Powell smiled. “I take it you’re not a military hardware geek?

“Not really.”

“Well, I am, and the Lockheed TS-101 gives me a hell of a chubby.”

“Charming.” she deadpanned, trying to give the impression that there were more important matters on her mind than the state of his junk. It seemed to work, because Powell cleared his throat and his smile faded.

“Right. Sorry.” He scratched his upper lip with his thumb, lips pursed in thought. “Anyway, back on topic. There’s…a lot of legal questions about Cimbrean here.”

“Like what?” Jen asked, surprised. She had assumed that all of those questions would have been sorted out long before the soldiers came here.

Powell ticked each question off on his fingers as he asked them. “Is this a colony of any one nation? And if so, which one? Or is it its own nation? in which case are you going to have a constitution, are you going to be a democracy? What’s your immigration policy? What are you going to export and import? What’s the customs policy on things like, say, seeds and foodstuffs, because from what I’m told our native Terran species would go through this lot -” he waved an arm, expansively indicating the ecosystem of an entire planet “-like vindaloo through a short grandma.”

“There are questions about you, too.” he added, looking her in the eye. “You were given the job because you were here and because we heard you’d built something, but seeing as what you apparently built is a battlefield, do you even want it any more? Do you want to go home to Earth? Because the next time Kirk swings by here he’ll be able to send you back, no problem. Do you want to stay on as governor, or hand the job off to somebody else?”

Jen’s brow creased as she considered this. “I hadn’t even thought of any of those questions.” she confessed. “How much of being a colonial governor would be like that? Desk work, lawmaking, thinking about all the fiddly little details and all that?” She asked.

“Fookin’ near all of it, I’d imagine.” Powell said.

“Then I want to be replaced as soon as possible.” Jen said, firmly. There was no way she could go back to a job that even looked and smelled faintly like I.T., not after her experiences out here.

“You sure? Could be a nice desk. Big salary. Power, fame and influence?”

For once, Old Jen and New Jen were in total agreement. “I’d rather just be a space-babe.” She demurred, her voice completely full of resolve.

Powell nodded approvingly. “Good for you.”

Brick, New Jersey.

Ravi Singh’s apartment wasn’t hard to find. In a building of cheap wooden doors, his was the solid, expensive one with three locks and a camera above it.

The response to Kevin’s knock wasn’t a querying “who’s there?” or a friendly “Hello?”, but a moment of wary silence, and then:

“Who are you?”

Kevin held his tattoo up towards the camera. “Not one of them.” he asserted.

He waited patiently throughout the long consideration that followed, and then the undoing of three locks.

After a few more thumps, there was a buzz, and the door opened…revealing another door.


“Step inside.” Singh instructed, his voice muffled through the door.

Kevin paused, shrugged, then complied. The space between the two doors contained nothing except an almost absonant magnetic lock with a keypad, and a shelf on which a metal detector wand was charging.

“Run the wand over your scalp.” Singh insisted.

Kevin Jenkins found that the limits of his patience were being approached, but he sighed and did so, completely bemused as to what he could be looking for.

Singh wasn’t satisfied until the wand had gone over his whole cranium twice, and over the bald patch where his translation implant had once been a good three times, before finally there was a beep from the magnetic lock and the inner door swung open.

Kevin wasn’t sure what he expected from the interior of the apartment. After the extravagant security and clear paranoia, he had expected a gust of stench and a study in dingy squalor inhabited by an emaciated neurotic disaster of a man. In fact, the apartment was clean and tidy, decorated in light and airy cream and a warm maroon.

Ravi Singh himself was similarly clean, dressed in jeans and a white shirt, but the bags under his eyes were exactly in keeping with the suspicious reception: he had the face and body language of a man for whom sleep had long since ceased to be anything other than sporadic, shallow and brief.

He welcomed Kevin into his apartment with a surprisingly warm handshake given his apparent exhaustion and the paranoia of the previous few minutes, then glanced out of the front door, and shut and locked both.

“So. What’s your name, mister not-one-of-them?” he asked. “Can I offer you a cup of tea?”

“I’m more of a coffee man, myself…” Kevin said.

“Of course. How do you take it?”

“Uh, black, strong and sweet, please. And my name’s Kevin, Kevin Jenkins.”

“Oh?” Singh arched an eyebrow as he busied himself with a steel and glass cafetiere. “Well, this is an honour. The Butterfly himself. Please, sit down.”

Kevin did so, conscious that his street clothes were a good deal shabbier than the apparent recluse’s black leather couch. “Butterfly?”

“You’ve surely heard the term ‘Butterfly effect’? From chaos theory. The notion of a little insect in a field in France flapping his wings and several months later that little eddy has grown into quite the mighty storm and poof! There goes half of Bangladesh.” Singh smiled grimly, a distinctive closed-lipped smile that Kevin recognised immediately as that of a fellow abductee. You learned to keep your teeth hidden out there.

“I never bought that story.” he retorted. “Sounds too much like the fantasy of a little man wanting to believe he’s important.”

“Does it? But you’re a living example of the principle in action.” Singh said, pouring hot water into the cafetiere. “I truly believe that had you not been aboard the Outlook on Forever that day, we would still be here. The sky would still be open, but we would still be generations away from exploring it.”

“How d’you figure?”

“Without Kevin Jenkins, that would have just been another successful Hunter raid. Without Kevin Jenkins, the galaxy’s media would not have taken an interest in our species. Without that, there would have been no uptick in abductions. No uptick in abductions would mean no warp trail to lead a stray Hunter vessel to Vancouver in search of prey. It’s all quite narrative, really.”

He depressed the cafetiere’s filter and poured a cup of steaming black Blue Mountain.

“If that’s how it works, then what about the patrol officer who kicked me off the Churthuarg station for vagrancy?” Jenkins asked. “Or the Corti who abducted me, or my ex-wife or my lawyer or…you know what, I didn’t come here for this conversation.”

“No, you came here about the Hierarchy.” Singh handed over the coffee in an elegant glass cup. The aroma was perfection itself. “I told the last person who came knocking in no uncertain terms that her death was really only a matter of time once she started probing into this, but she said she accepted that.” He sipped the coffee. “I hope she was truthful.”

“She was prepared for it. Terri left her notes for us to find.”

“You knew her?” Singh asked.

“She and I were…we fucked.”

“Ah!” Singh looked sympathetic. “It must have been a complicated relationship, if all you’ll reveal is what you did, rather than how you felt. And so blunt, too. You must be in a lot of pain.”

“Dude!” Kevin threw his head back in frustration, then leaned forward. “I don’t want psychoanalyzing. I came here for information.”

“That information will kill you.”

“If they’re what I suspect they are, then knocking on your door probably killed me.” Kevin said. “So how about you drop the guru half-speak and get on with the movie.”

Singh smiled again, this time allowing his teeth to show—a genuine, human expression of delight. “Certainly.” he said.

Civilian Trade Station 1039: “Infinity Awaits”

“That’s a dangerous itinerary your ship has logged, cousin.”

Shipmaster Kttrvk spun at being addressed so familiarly by a stranger.

The stranger was a Rrrrtktktkp’ch, standing nonchalantly next to an advertising hoarding on the station’s docking ring, which was helpfully mocking the shipmaster by advertising life insurance. There was something slightly familiar about the Cousin’s facial structure, but the markings were totally unknown to him.

“My itinerary? I don’t have an itinerary. Excuse me.” He turned to leave.

“1047-6533-26972.” the Cousin said, reeling off Kttrvk’s assigned route and stopping the Shipmaster in his tracks. He looked faintly smug when Kttrvk turned to give him a disbelieving stare.

“How did you…?”

“I have my ways,” the stranger said, making it clear that those ways were not for Kttrvk to know. “That’s a dangerous route right now. A lot of Hunter strikes.”

“Well, your information is obsolete,–” Kttrvk said, firmly. “I’m not doing that run.”

“Long Stars Shipping seem to think you are.”

“Long Stars Shipping can choke on their feed!” Kttrvk exclaimed, then moderated his tone when a few nearby beings glanced at him. “I will NOT orphan my children nor put them in harm’s way just because the corporation is too greedy to listen to my pleas.”

“You’ll go to debtor’s prison…”

“An acceptable price for the lives of my offspring, my mate and our unborn.” Kttrvk snapped.

He was not expecting the expression of admiration and approval that spread across the Cousin’s face. “Good for you!” he exclaimed. “But I am here to offer you a third way.”

“And what way would that be?” Kttrvk challenged him.

The stranger looked around and stepped in a little closer. “I represent an organisation that wants to trial some new military hardware.” he said. “Simulations and training runs are all well and good, but there is no substitute for the real thing, and the Hunter problem in this area will only claim more lives unless something is done…but they’re too canny to come out and fight just anything. We need…well, we need to entice them into attacking something.”

“That something being my freighter.”

“You’re quick.” the Cousin said. From a Rrrrrtktktkp’ch to a Vzk’tk like himself, that was a serious compliment.

“My freighter with my family on board.” Kttrvk pointed out.

“My organisation would not offer to use you this way unless we were completely certain of your safety under our care, I promise you that.”

“And your organisation is…?” Kttrvk pressed.

The Cousin paused. “Let’s just say that this technology would impress and awe even the humans.” he said, and made a small conspiratorial gesture that only Kttrvk could see.

Enlightenment dawned. Of COURSE! Everybody knew that it was only a matter of time before the humans got loose from their prison, it only made sense that there would be…organisations…looking to prepare to meet the deathworlders in battle and win.

And anything which could give the humans a pause would surely go through Hunters effortlessly.

Still, Kttrvk would not have become a merchant shipmaster without some guile and caution.

“All of your assurances aside, I would still be risking everything dear to me.” he said.

“If you are pressing for payment, then to assuage your fears and buy your lifelong silence about this experiment, I am authorised to release fifty Dominion Development Credits.”

Fifty DDCs.

It was a vast sum. Enough to upgrade the Nkvcqtz with Corti engines that would hopefully give her the speed to not only slip past Hunter ambushes, but also to trade in high-value perishables. Sensibly invested on the other hand, it would provide a very healthy retirement plan for Kttrvk and Ikkzziki, as well as upmarket gene-resequencing for their children to enhance their intellect and buy them prospects that Kttrvk had never had.

But a career merchant’s instincts swung into place. Never accept the first offer.

“A hundred.” He counter-proposed. “We are risking a horrible death here.”

“Seventy. I understand your concerns, but you are in the safest possible hands. And yours is not the only ship that Long Stars is ordering on this suicidal run. You will merely be the first to leave.”



“Well, even if you pass the baton first chance you get, you’re still technically in charge of every civilian aspect of this colony for the time being.” Powell said. He snatched a clipboard from where it was hanging on a tent post and consulted it.

“Let’s see…There’s a list of stuff they’d like you to do. Nothing major: name the colonial capitol, identify any existing human citizens, living or dead…we’ve got real-time two-way communications with Earth but a pretty small data budget of what we can send and receive: more like telegraph than anything. To be honest, there’s not much for you to do. Anything on this list you DO do will be taken under advisement by the civilian experts and contractors we bring in once this place is secure and the camp’s up and running smoothly.”

“That doesn’t sound like it’ll take a whole month.” Jen said.

“We’ve got a lot of tech to deploy, a perimeter to establish, scouting to do, maybe an FOB or two to set up..”


“Forward Operating Base. Somewhere small and camouflaged where if this place is bombed off the map…again…there’ll be a couple of guys left behind to report mission failure.”

“Sounds boring.” Jen complained.

“We’ll find stuff for you to do.” Powell promised. “And I mean USEFUL stuff, now.”


“So? Any ideas as to the colonial capitol’s name?”

“A…few. I’ll sleep on that one.”

“Fair enough. Okay…have you met any other humans out here? Besides Darragh Houston, that is. Actually, where IS he?” Powell grabbed a different clipboard and leafed through it.

“Feck knows. The last I saw of him he was on his way back here, but I did some looking around while I was filling up my bath, and didn’t find any sign of him.”

“Okay, he’s an unknown then…” Powell stopped looking at the page he’d turned to. “Any others?”

“Is that a list of abductees?”

“Every unaccounted-for human outside of Sol, in theory. Don’t ask me how they got it, I don’t know.”

“Okay, uh…a few. Adr…um, actually let’s start with, uh, Margarita. I can’t remember her surname, she was a dwarf, Spanish.”


“Yeah. She um…well, the honest truth is that an invisible death robot cut her open.”

“Invis…? O…kay. I think you’re going to need to brief us on those things.”

“I will.” Jen promised.

“Right.” Powell ticked something on his list. “Here she is. Deceased. At least we’ll be able to let her family know. Any others?”

“Cameron White. Very deceased and good fucking riddance.”

Powell blinked, then flicked through his list. “Oh. Shit. Fookin’ hell, what were they thinking stealing a crazy wanker like that?” he ticked. “Good fookin’ riddance, aye.”

“And uh…Adrian Saunders. Australian Defence Force…” she forced herself not to give in to the temptation to look down, whisper and cry. “…Deceased.”

“Wow. You’ve had a bad time of it…” Powell sighed, flipping through,his document, then ticked off against, presumably, Adrian’s name. “Deceased. Guess his wife and kid will have closure at least…”

Planet 16 Cyg B b, 16 Cygni trinary system.
Hunter supply station

+<contempt; disgust; snap> Report!+

The Omega did so, cowering appropriately as the Beta of the Brood-that-Flays swaggered into the information node chamber.

+<Statement> There have been no transports of the specified size along the prey-route within the last Diurnal, Beta.+

+<Disdain; command> Continue to monitor the traffic. The prey are stupid and stubborn, there will be a few more before their patrols arrive. And they are yet to send our tribute.+

+<Statement> I comply, Beta.+

Any brood above a certain size soon developed a small population of Omegas: They were an unfortunate necessity, as some tasks were too menial to insult the Deltas with, but too important to be entrusted to a meat-slave. This one, however, was especially vile in the eyes of its Brood.

It would have been a source of immense surprise to every other species in the galaxy that the concept of “creepy” was one that Hunters understood. But in fact, it was a central one to their mindset: the Hunters were the Predators, and everything else was the Prey. Predators behaved a certain way, and Prey behaved a certain way. Any deviation from this natural order was creepy.

Hence the Great Hunt. The worm programs that the Hunters had long ago infiltrated into the Prey’s data networks, that lurked invisible and silent, watching, collating and reconnoitering everything that the Prey chattered about, had gathered a great wealth of their speculations on the motive behind the Great Hunt: Opinion was mostly split into two camps, the first being that the Hunters were afraid of the human race, and the other being that the Hunters were jealous.

Both theories were equally amusing, by the peculiar standards of Hunter humour. The humans were a non-Hunter species that were Predators, and which was inspiring the Prey to behave in unPreylike ways. This was disruption of the natural order, a creepy intrusion into the Way Things Were Meant To Be. Their eradication was as obviously necessary as, for example, the correction of a fatal structural flaw that would cause a building to collapse under its own weight.

This particular Omega was only one wrong step away from demanding such action, itself. Its existence was barely tolerated, barely tolerable; it lived forever on a delicate knife-edge where its meat might be harvested and fed to the breeding pools should it deviate further from acceptable Hunter normalcy.

This was not because it behaved in an unHunterlike way. Quite the contrary, it did so very carefully, unfailingly and meticulously. What made it creepy was that it did not appear to do so naturally. Its thought-broadcasts were simple statements, queries, respectful requests. There was never any emotional content. When it joined the hunt-cry, it did so almost dutifully and by rote, rather than with real enthusiasm.

Thus, even the other Omegas, which usually banded together out of bottom-of-the-heap solidarity, tended to view this particular one as an opportunity to claw back an anemic parody of the authority that other Hunters held over them. The fact that it didn’t seem to mind—displayed no discernible emotions at all, whether resentment, resignation, complacency or contentment with its lot—only added to the bottom-feeder’s abnormality. It simply followed instructions, diligently, swiftly, competently, and to the full extent of their spirit and intent, often even going above and beyond.

This hinted at the other aberration: The Strange One clearly had a sharp and calculating mind. It saw patterns with ease that other Hunters would overlook. On the few occasions where it had dared to venture an opinion, none of those opinions had yet been wrong. It grasped new tasks within moments, and performed them as well as an experienced expert after only a few days. For a creature so clearly talented to be apparently disinterested in its own stature or reputation was therefore wrong, strange, creepy.

The Beta bared its fangs at the Strange One and then threw itself into the throne traditionally occupied by the ranking Brood member present in the information chamber, pointedly ignoring the inferior specimen and instead stared out of the large gallery windows around the ceiling of the chamber, enjoying the view.

The fact that Hunters had any notion of beauty or aesthetics at all would have been similarly shocking to most of the prey-species. But in fact, the Hunters were in their twisted way highly spiritual and artistic beings. Most of their understanding of beauty was, perhaps predictably, a sanguine and violent one, revolving around the flavour of well-stressed meat, the patterns made by blood and organs and violent dismemberment, and the panic, fear and horror of the Prey.

Lurking underneath that, however, was an innate appreciation for the universe as a hierarchy of interconnecting parts, all in their place and tied by common threads. To the Hunters, the sense of How Things Should Be was a profound one. Predators fed on Prey, bound together by Nature. Alphas commanded and Omegas obeyed, bound by the common thread of the Brood. Moons orbited planets orbited stars, all subordinate to Gravity.

The planet known to humans as 16 Cyg B b was a particularly spectacular example of this last concept: a gas giant, two thirds again as massive as Jupiter, towing with it a coterie of moons, a vast garland ring and a shotgun blast of stray asteroids, captured comets and rocky dust, and it was into one of these asteroids that the Hunters had carved out their forward base, close enough to the spacelanes to easily intercept any choice prey that might use them, but far enough away to be a practical escape and hidden refuge. Bathed in the light of three suns, the view was stunning.

The Beta became aware that the Strange One was inspecting something on its screen with greater than usual scrutiny.

+<impatience; tolerance; command> Report, Omega+

+<Statement> Beta, a Prey-ship has passed through our sensor cordon at abnormally high speed. <Observation> A ship that fast can only be powered by the grey-skinned Prey’s secret engines and a very large power source.+

+<Interest; Query> Can it be intercepted?+

+<Statement> It cannot, Beta. It simply attracted my attention: I apologise for intruding upon your time.+

The Beta grudgingly accepted the benighted creature’s apology. The day was just beginning to seem as if it would be a slow one without quarry, when the Strange One expressed the one emotion it had ever been known to show.

+<Satisfaction; statement> Beta, a message from the Prey. The Herd of the Long Stars have honoured their arrangement and are sacrificing a vessel as we stipulated. A bulk freighter, High One. Of a configuration likely to contain many long-necks and their young.+

The Beta allowed itself the luxury of a wide-mawed smile. While actually deigning to communicate with the prey was a task so wretched that even the Omegas were only required to stoop to it it because the meat-slaves could not be entrusted with the task, little “arrangements” with the so-called “corporations” that made the greatest use of the shipping lanes was a mutually beneficial arrangement: The Brood had neglected a rich hunting ground over the arrangement with the Long Stars herd, allowing the Prey to grow rich and fat off the easy pickings there.

The growth and prosperity of the Herd only served to fatten the meal and make the hunting that much better in the long-run. Proper cultivation of the meat was important, hence the willingness of the Broods to accept what might be alternatively interpreted as demeaning bribery, as if the Predators should be bought by the prey. Naturally, a high price was only appropriate. The meat itself was an excellent start, of course, but a bulk freighter was a large vessel that could be recycled into many Swarm-ships, and would hold younglings, ripe to become meat-slave breeding stock. The tribute was entirely acceptable.

+<Jubilation; Command> A fine quarry! Alert the Alpha: we hunt. Meat to the Maw!+

+<Statement> I comply, Beta. Meat to the Maw.+

The Beta snarled as it departed for its ship, mood somewhat spoiled by the Omega’s muted, unenthusiastic echo of a response. The Omega would receive only scraps from this prize for its lack of vigor.

Behind it, the Strange One ran an algorithm of its own programming and loaded it into the sensor console. The appearance of that abnormally fast ship was an anomaly, and in its experience, anomalies usually led to interesting data. Data that its true masters would undoubtedly appreciate.


“Wife and kid?” Jen kept the question light, while in her head there were explosions and lightning bolts and screaming.

“Yep. Sandra Saunders née Perry. Lives in Brisbane with her daughter Jessica.”

“He never mentioned having a wife and kid.”

“Well, the sprog’s birthday is about seven months after his estimated date of abduction, so he probably didn’t know. As for the wife, well, wow. That might have something to do with these arrest warrants…” Powell said, looking at something that was clearly impressing him.


“Yyyep. Wanted for counts of Grievous Bodily Harm, Assault with Intent, theft of a motor vehicle, driving while intoxicated, dangerous driving, reckless endangerment of the public, arson, vandalism…” Powell turned a page. “…and littering.”

His attempt to maintain a deadpan expression at that last one failed, leaving the smile straining at the corners of his eyes and mouth.

“He…” Jen paused mid outraged defense, and ran through her immediate reactions. “He didn’t. I knew Adrian, he wouldn’t…not to his wife!”

“Doesn’t say she was the victim.” Powell pointed out.

“Well it must have been somebody who hurt her or, or…He definitely wouldn’t do something like that to somebody he loved.” She protested aloud, mouth rushing off ahead of her thoughts.

Except to protect her. Old Jen reminded herself internally, flashing up the memory of Adrian’s inexorably strong arm clamped tight around her throat.

Her objections faltered. “…yeah. I guess that sounds like Adrian.” she admitted.

“Sounds like my kind of crazy bastard.” Powell said, admiringly. “You sure he’s dead?”

“He was unconscious, and they were venting the atmosphere, trying to kill us. If I’d tried to drag him to the escape pod, we’d have both died.” Jen asserted, though her old self hated to sound so…coldly practical. Again, though, there was that understanding, nonjudgmental look in Powell’s eye, and it occurred to her that maybe she had some things in common with the special forces captain that neither of them really wanted to have in common with anybody.

Powell looked up as somebody knocked on crate next to his office tent and stuck his head through the flap. “What’s up, Brewer?”

The man who had knocked jerked his head towards something. “Solar array’s about ready, captain.”

“Nice. Come on, Miss Delaney, you might like this.”

Jen followed him out of the tent. “You can call me Jen.” she said.

“I’ll do that, then.”

In the middle of the lawn, one of the trucks was parked next to an object about the size and shape of an oil drum. Jump leads trailed from the device and into the truck’s engine, and a couple of men were gathered round hooking up some extra equipment to it.

“So what’s this solar array?” she asked.

“You know solar panels?”


“Turns out force fields can do the same job. All you need is a little jump to get them started, and then they power themselves and give you a bit of surplus to spend on things like water heaters, computers and that.”

“Water heaters?”

“Aye. Should make your baths a bit easier in future.” Powell gave her a winning smile, apparently immune to the scowl that answered him. Jen wasn’t quite so confident as to be perfectly happy about her inadvertent exhibitionism, but the SBS Captain seemed to cheerfully give no fucks at all about trivial things like accidental public nudity.

They watched as the array was powered up, with a snap as something sparked inside the truck’s engine. A ghostly orange dome of energy sprawled overhead, then faded to almost invisibility as the system figured out how much power it needed to draw and settled itself into equilibrium.

“Right. Look, I’m sending a patrol out in a few minutes, why not go with? It’ll take your mind off things and besides: we could use somebody who knows the land, and you know it better than we do.”

“I’m not exactly a soldier…” Jen hesitated.

“Trust me, you won’t hold them back. Besides, I’m not too worried that there’s anything on this world that’d make you tagging along a bad idea. They’ll only be gone a few hours, just long enough to scout the area.”

“That sounds…good, actually.” Jen allowed. She had become so used to walking that it almost felt uncomfortable just sitting around. Her body practically ached to be moving.

“Thought it might.” Powell shouted at one of the nearby soldiers. “Oi! Legsy! Get Jen here a rifle and a sidearm and teach her how to use them, she’s on your patrol!”

He turned back to her. “You wait and see, by the time you’re back, you won’t recognise this place, and I’ll have your message from home ready for you to watch in private.”

Freighter Nkvcqtz

For all the Cousin’s reassurances, Shipmaster Kttrvk had not been so encouraged as to take the step of leaving station with his mate and children aboard. They had been left behind, staying at a hotel paid for several (months) in advance through the expenditure of just one of the twenty DDCs that the Cousin had agreed to pay in advance, with the other fifty to be delivered upon completion of the mission.

The ship felt empty without them, and he had never felt more alone and jittery. Neither had his crew, all of whom knew that staying on was an enormous risk, but the company’s hazard bonuses—and threats—were sufficient to have persuaded most to remain, though all showed serious signs of stress and fear.

It was almost a perverse release therefore to hear the warning chime from the navigation system before they hit the edge of the gravity spike and the ALV drive’s field collapsed, dumping them back to the world of the sub-luminal.

The sensors immediately identified four Swarm Craft, and large ones, each capable of holding upwards of twenty Hunters. Every crewman onboard, Kttrvk included, promptly grabbed and armed their pulse pistols.

This was not for the purposes of fighting off the Hunters, though it was to be hoped that they could take a few down before being overrun. The pistols were for themselves: if you could help it, you didn’t let the Hunters take you alive. Better to die instantly than to be slaughtered while still conscious.

They waited as the Swarm-ships closed around them and the largest of them settled in to its approach vector, lining up the fusion-ended boarding tube that would violate their hull and inject terrible death onto their decks.

He was beginning to fear just how terrible his mistake had been when the local space sensors alerted him to the arrival—via jump drive somehow, despite the apparent absence of any jump beacons in the area—of five ships of unknown type, configuration and origin.

“Edda Wing: Edda Actual—Weapons free. Til Valhall!!”


+<Alarm; Alert> Beta! Unknown warships have appeared via displacement!+

The alert came at the worst possible time. The Alpha’s ship had just lined up and was extending its boarding proboscis to pierce the Prey’s hull. It was at its most vulnerable, its slowest, its shields lowered to get close to the prey.

Already it was moving, abandoning the force-dock maneuver and trying to gain distance enough to raise its shields and accelerate, but it was too late. Exactly what kind of weapon it was that tore the Alpha’s vessel apart was unclear, but the side evaporated in a cloud of pulverised armour and metal scraps, and air pressure did the rest, bursting the ship and practically ripping it in half. Thirty-four Hunters, including the Alpha itself, briefly broadcast their dismay and fear across the brood network before fading.

The Beta—now the new Alpha—hooked its neural implants directly into its ship’s controls and analysed the situation. There were five of them. The craft were of a strange size, somewhat larger than a fighter or shuttle, but smaller than the next largest conventional class of military vessel. And they were fast, apparently blessed with a generous ratio of thrust to mass.

They were also alarmingly difficult to get a target lock on. Active sensors seemed to slide off their hulls like water off a greasy metal plate, and the ships themselves were small and agile, a combination which made securing a solid fix on their exact location at any given time as much a matter of luck and guesswork as of letting the sensors work. All were clearly being flown by experienced and exceptional pilots—their transversal velocity was high and their movements were coordinated so that if one of the remaining Hunter ships maneuvered to minimise its vulnerability to one attacker, another would be perfectly placed to rake it as it turned.

+<Statement; concern> These are not the tactics of Prey…+

As if to confirm that sentiment, three of the craft converged on another of the remaining swarm-ships as it executed an ill-advised turn in response to a feint. The new Alpha paid close attention to the weaponry they used, probing the space around the attacking craft for signs of what manner of violence was being unleashed. It detected only the burnt by-products of explosive compounds, and a hail of high-speed flechettes.

With its shields up, the second Swarm-ship survived the assault, but was badly mauled, losing a thruster and the coilguns along its larboard flank before the aggressors had swept past, banking and accelerating, keeping their transversal high. The sustained G-forces involved in that maneuver must have been ferocious, and yet the ships showed no sign that their pilots were in distress. A dreadful suspicion started to settle in the Alpha’s mind.

+<Command; urgency> Meet aggression with aggression! We are not Prey! Form up and fight as Predators!+

The Swarm-craft fell in around their wounded comrade, and as one the pack turned, seeking a target. One of the attackers was isolated from its wing, its evasive options whittled down by shepherding volleys of coilgun fire, and there was a stab of triumph from the Alpha’s gunner as it fired a perfect solution that would surely obliterate the offending vessel, turning the tide.

The Alpha had to replay the sensor logs to determine what happened next. In the tiny fraction of an instant it took for the coilgun rounds to cross the intervening distance between muzzle and mark, their target displaced, blinking two hundred kilometers across the sphere of engagement and re-entering the fight unscathed.

Then the entire hostile wing imitated the move. Suddenly, all of the Swarm-ships were flying in the worst possible direction, and their guns were pointed completely the wrong way.

A storm of accurate firepower ablated the shielding around their sterns in seconds.

+<Panic; Command> Disengage! Flee! Fl-+

A 30mm depleted Uranium armor-piercing incendiary round penetrated through all of the ship’s comparatively flimsy internal bulkheads, disintegrating as it went. It arrived in the command deck as a dense knot of incandescent heavy metal that reduced the Alpha to a smear of liquified matter when it passed directly through the command chair before embedding itself in the forward wall. The explosive force of its arrival crushed the other five Hunters on the deck almost simultaneously.

Perforated by hundreds of similar rounds, the rear third of the ship decompressed spectacularly, evaporating into an intricate dancing halo of flashing metallic and ceramic shards, mixed here and there with the odd disembodied piece of Hunter. The handful that were unfortunate enough to survive in the forward compartments did not do so for long—power failed instantly, and with it went the emergency air-retaining forcefields.

From the moment Edda wing arrived on the field to the second the final Hunter ship lost power and fell apart, less than three minutes had elapsed. Not one of the TS-101s had expended even half of their capacitor reserves or ammunition.

Freighter Nkvcqtz

“What. Just. Happened?”

Kttrvk came back to reality. He had done nothing but stare dumbfounded at the swirling battle on the sensors throughout its brief but intense duration. He looked around at his crew, all of whom were wearing identical expressions of utter awe.

He gathered himself.

“We survived, that’s what. Get the FTL repaired and let’s be gone!”

Planet 16 Cyg B b, 16 Cygni trinary system
Hunter supply station

The Strange One considered the recording it had made, all of the sensor data it had intercepted from the destroyed swarm-ships.

That the aggressors were human vessels was obvious, and a fact which exonerated the Long Stars herd of treachery. Incomplete and all-but-useless as the data was, that much could be gleaned effortlessly. That it should forward the data to its true masters was equally obvious.

But what of its “fellow” Hunters? The information would be of precious little use to them. It contained no hint at all of how the ships had been able to jump across the sphere of engagement without the use of jump beacons, what kind of weaponry they used, nor how the pilots could possibly react swiftly enough to blink-jump out of harm’s way as that first one had. The Strange One knew enough about humans via its true masters to know that even their impressive reflexes were not so sharp as that.

Probably useless as the information might be, the Alpha-of-Alphas especially was dangerously intelligent. If the Hunters were somehow able to glean whatever secrets the humans had unlocked, they would become an even worse blight than they already were. The Hunters were useful, keeping the masses nervous and distracted, but should they gain too much and too quickly…

The decision was obvious. It ran another program, placing a call that it made only rarely, when certain it would not be caught. Right now, with the whole Brood in upheaval over the death of both Alpha and Beta, for the Strange One to continue calmly working at its terminal would be taken as just another symptom of its strangeness and the content of that work would be ignored.

+I have potentially valuable information on the Sol situation+

The reply was instant: +Ready to receive.+

The Strange One promptly transferred all of its files. There was a pause of some minutes, which it used to update its archived mind-state. Now was one of the few occasions it had been able to safely do so.

Eventually, the reply came:

+You have done well, Twenty. The Hierarchy can make use of this information.+


“Legsy” turned out to be an enormous Welshman, who towered over Jen and seemed to take the whole world with irreverent good humour.

“Right! Ever handled a gun before?” He asked, fishing around in the back of a truck.

“Sort of.” Jen said.

“Whatcha mean?”

“We modified some of those shitty pulse guns to fire actual ammo. They were okay, but…”

“Awh, they’ll be nothing next to these bad boys!” Legsy said. “Say whatcha like about the fuckin’ Germans, those cunts know how to make a fuckin’ gun.”

“Pardon your French…” Jen muttered.

“Wha? Oh, right. Get used to it darling, I’m from Llanelli.”

He hauled something out of the truck’s bed. “Anyway, THIS” he held up a gun “is the HK G36C. Before I give it to you, d’you know the rules of firearm safety?”

Jen’s lessons with Adrian on a deathworld she had never learned the name of came back to her. “Always assume it’s loaded and ready to fire and the safety’s off.” she recalled. “Don’t point it at something unless you’re completely okay with that thing ending up dead or destroyed. Don’t have your trigger finger inside the guard unless you’re going to shoot. Be aware of what’s near and behind your target.”

Legsy handed her the gun.

“Safety, magazine eject, charging handle. Got that?“Jen repeated the identification, and he nodded, then pointed to something on the top of the gun. ” This here’s an OCOG—that’s Offworld Combat Operations Gunsight. Designed for use in different gravity, right? Aim it at that target down there…” Jen did so. “See how the chevrons tell you the range, and stay on target no matter where your head is? Okay, tuck it into your shoulder a bit more…right. You know how to hold one, anyway. Give it here.”

When Jen had done so, he demonstrated the correct way to load and charge it a few times before handing it back to her and watching as she repeated the motion. Satisfied, he handed her a magazine with a strip of coloured tape around it.

“Okay, this is a charged mag and that’s live ammunition. Fire off a few rounds at that target by there.” He said.

Jen looked at it. “How far is that?”

“Hundred meters, nice and easy.” Legsy said, happily. “That gun’s effective out to about eight hundred, but the furthest target we’ve got is six hundred meters, which would be that little one waaaay over there.” He pointed at a little speck hanging from a distant tree. “But we’re going to start nice and easy.”

Jen shrugged, turned, raised the gun, sighted, and fired. The recoil was surprisingly hefty compared to the repurposed pulse-guns she was used to and the first shot hit a bit high. She adjusted, and the rest of her shots formed a tight grouping smack in the middle of the target.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell!” Legsy said, clearly impressed. “Okay, recoil surprised you a bit there. Squeeze the trigger, don’t jerk it, and try to be breathin’ out when you fire. Go for that one over there with the orange stake next to it, that’s three hundred meters.”

Jen’s shots hit low. “Sights are off.” she observed.

“Or you’re just shit.” Legsy teased, grinning. “Nah, you’re right. That sight’s not been calibrated for Cimbrean’s gravity yet, you’ll need to adjust it. See that little dial on the side?”

Jen experimented with it, twisted it a bit, and saw how the chevrons moved and widened out a bit. She fired, hit a bit high, twisted the OCOG a little less, fired, hit smack in the middle, and something went click in her brain.

She grinned, aimed, and squeezed off all the remaining rounds in the magazine before laying the gun flat in front of her, pointing downrange.

“You missed.” Legsy said, examining the three hundred meter target through binoculars and sounding puzzled.

“Look at the six hundred meter target.” Jen told him. He frowned and raised his binoculars again, and Jen folded her arms and allowed a cocky smile to form as she watched the giant Welsh soldier’s jaw drop.

Brick, New Jersey

It really was very good coffee.

“Here on Earth, The Hierarchy would be just another conspiracy theory.” Singh told him, settling down into his recliner. “But they are very real. They have acted behind the scenes of galactic politics since the days when some of the older species were still around.”

“Still around?” Kevin echoed, questioning.

“Species come, species go.” Singh said. “You must have noticed that all of the civilizations out there are much of an age with us. A few thousand years older at most.”

“So…what, species just go extinct eventually?”

“Eventually. Usually after tens of thousands of years as warp-capable civilizations. But in time, well…it’s not quite clear why. It’s the grand unanswered question of alien sociology. But yes, in time they all enter a terminal decline. Every race up there is living on borrowed time.”

“No exceptions?”

Singh issued a slim-lipped, grim smile and set his coffee down. “Just one. The Hunters. There are references to them in archaeological archives dating back to the days when humanity was still just a balder-than-average ape with unusual posture. Nobody quite knows HOW old they are. But the rest? Eventually, they crumble, their works decay, they withdraw to their homeworld, set up shop and just…dwindle. They stop breeding and…give up.”

He leaned forward. “Except for the deathworlders.”

Kevin’s brow creased. “…But we’re the only deathworlders, though. Aren’t we?”

“We are, yes, but we shouldn’t be. Let me tell you my story…”