The Deathworlders


Chapter 13: Tall Tales

Author’s Note: This chapter was co-written alongside Rantarian and ties in with chapters 67-69 of “Salvage.” Reading that side of the story may help you make sense of things.

Brick, New Jersey, Earth

The name I was given at birth was not in fact Ravinder Singh.

You see…It often surprises me just how few Americans know that India is a nuclear power. We have our stockpiles of weapons, our enrichment program, our power plants…

Any nation which has a nuclear arsenal and is prepared for the possibility of nuclear war, inevitably needs to employ experts in the effects—both the immediate ones, and those that linger—of nuclear weaponry. That was me. I was, once, one of my home country’s foremost experts in just what the bomb does, to people and to places.

A curious vocation for a Buddhist, maybe, but I viewed my role as being that of peacekeeper, or maybe a guardian, keeping the doors of hell locked. Maybe if I could impress seriously enough just how terrible a thing these weapons are, make my nation’s leaders see that nothing good could ever come of their deployment, that awful force might be kept in check.

No matter. The point is, I am one of only a handful of people in the world who know in full the details of the Republic of India’s nuclear program. You can see why my abduction would have caused… alarm, among the Security and Intelligence Services, the military…

The fact that my eventual return to Earth landed me in the USA could only serve to compound that sense of alarm, hence my change of name and reclusiveness. You’ll forgive me if I don’t share my original identity—I doubt that India has forgotten me.

But you of course are not here for the story of why I am living in Brick, are you Mister Jenkins?

Three years and eight months AV
Cimbrean Colony, The Far Reaches

”…oh you should see her, she’s getting so BIG, and we were all so proud of her when she played Mary for the nativity last…”

Jennifer Delaney, mid-twenties space-babe, and feeling happy for the first time that she could remember to hear her mum’s logorrhea.

Tamzin Delaney had launched into her usual update on the lives of literally every person within a ten mile radius of their house almost without preamble, as if it was just another daily message on her daughter’s answerphone, rather than a prerecorded video letter to be sent into space after years of not even knowing if she was still alive or not.

It was… comforting, in its way. Normalcy among the weirdness. She hadn’t changed a bit.

Robert Delaney, on the other hand, had lost a huge amount of weight, and lost the last colour in his hair. He looked less amply jolly nowadays, and more… scholarly. It was quite a change, but Jen had to admit that the only other time she’d seen her old man look so good was in old pictures from the 80s.

He seemed content to sit quietly, left arm around his chatterbox wife’s shoulders, and just listen with a faint smile, but just as Tamzin was launching into the chapter about non-family members, he rolled his eyes and held up a tablet computer he’d been holding out of sight behind the couch. Written on it large enough for the camera to see were the words:

“What she’s trying to say is:”

He swiped down.

“I love you

and I miss you

and I pray every day that

you’re safe out there.”

He smiled, chin wobbling, and swiped down one last time.

We both do.

By the time Jen’s eyes were dry again, most of her mum’s monologue was over, and she wound down with a few anecdotes about the daughter of somebody who had babysit Jen twenty years previously and of whom she had no memory, before glancing anxiously at somebody outside of the camera’s field of view.

”…Is that okay?”

“I’m sure she’ll love it,” the operator assured her. Robert grinned at him from behind his wife’s back.

“Well…Be safe, darling. I…Come home soon.”

The video ended.

“Want to go home?” Old Jen asked.


She had been doing that more and more, lately. Talking to herself, carrying on a conversation between “Old Jen”—the I.T. cubicle mouse whose sole experience with men had consisted of a few awkward and ill-advised office fumbles—and “New Jen”, the competent, confident, slightly cold and battle-scarred Space-Babe. It had helped her get through months of isolation during the long walk, but the habit was ingrained now.

Perhaps even more alarmingly, Old Jen seemed to have a voice of her own now: a shy, querulous voice that longed for safety, for warmth and comfort, to go back to her own bed and maybe a cat and a goldfish and shove her head under her pillow and FORGET.

If she hadn’t been a genuinely nice person, Jen suspected she would have hated herself. As it was, she accepted the voice of her own timidity for what it really was—Her past. And her past was a story of fear, weakness, lethargy…Everything that kept a person back, kept them in a cubicle, kept them too afraid to talk to boys. Everybody had that voice: at least she knew when hers was talking.

Still… sometimes it was alright to let Old Jen cry, so long as she wiped away the tears and kept putting one foot in front of another.

There was some shouting outside, which meant that Kirk had probably arrived. It was only his imminent arrival—along with the influx of colonists from Earth, including Jen’s replacement—that had persuaded her to finally watch the video from her parents and read the messages from her friends and more distant relatives. After today, there would be no further opportunities.

She just wasn’t sure what she was going to do. She wasn’t going back to Earth, that much was certain. And she couldn’t stay here, even if her bath was here. And there was the awful question of keeping her head down and avoiding being noticed by the Great Hunt. But…

…She’d figure it out.

Starship ‘Sanctuary,’ Cimbrean Local Space, the Far Reaches

“I swear I don’t know why you upgraded this thing to be so comfortable when we spend hardly any time inside it.”

“It wasn’t originally supposed to be just two of us, Julian.”

“Right… still can’t believe the other twenty-three went back to Earth.”

“Oh, they’ll be back. I was wrong about something, way back when.”

“You’ll have to tell me later Kirk. Hurry up and get us landed: Long-range sensors are picking up an ALV drive signature, looks big enough to be a… frigate, or maybe even a cruiser. We want to be inside the colony’s camouflage field before they get close enough to spot us.”

“Just the one? A ship that big shouldn’t be out this far…”

“Shouldn’t? Maybe. Is? Yes. Get us down there.”

“Aye aye.”

Cimbrean Colony, The Far Reaches

“Fookin’ ‘ell, they’re coming in pretty hard…”

The Sanctuary was hammering down at the core of a trail of plasma. Powell and all the rest ducked down against a sudden blast of air, and the whole colony shook as the ship extended its fields, pancaking the air below it into a hundred-meter tall cushion that shoved the fireball sideways, scything the top off some nearby trees.

“Jesus H. Tittyfuckin’ Christ!!” Legsy yelled, a sentiment echoed in assorted vulgarities from all across the camp.

Thrumming smugly, Sanctuary settled gently onto the landing field.

“The fook was that all about?” Powell demanded, as the ramp dropped and Kirk’s partner-in-crime, Julian, staggered out and sat down heavily.

“The camouflage field working?” he asked.

“Franklin! Camo the field!” Powell yelled at the SEAL whose job was to handle the colony’s forcefield.

“On it!”

The field shimmered, moving from optimal collection mode to a wide-effect digital camo that would, in theory, make the colony very difficult to see from orbit.

Julian stood up. “There’s a ship incoming,” he explained.

The trooper responsible for the colony’s sensor array—really just the feed from a number of stealthy micro-satellites in geosynchronous orbit—had already grabbed his gear before Powell could turn to shout him into action, and was busy checking it.

“Confirmed,” he called. “One warp signature, incoming at superluminal from outsystem…looks like they’re coming from Celzi space.”

Powell released a frustrated grunt. “Intel said the Alliance was stepping up anti-piracy ops in this sector. If it’s the fucking Russians…” he trailed off, not finishing the thought. If it was the Russians, then the whole Cimbrean operation might well be fucked. Moscow’s aligning itself with the Celzi had caused quite the political row back at home where most everybody favoured neutrality in the interstellar conflict. While the Alliance hadn’t been responsible for the Sol quarantine, their condemnation of the enclosure had smacked more of expedient propaganda than actual moral outrage.

“They’re slowing…sublight.” Baker added. “Active ping! We just got scanned.”

“Think they saw anything?”

“Field’s up, camo’s running…At that range, if our gear’s working as advertised, no they didn’t.”

“Good. If this is just a patrol, hopefully they’ll have a look and move on…”

Baker watched his screen for a good minute.

“They’re not,” He decided. “Looks like they’re pulling into low orbit, set to sweep directly over us in… ten mikes.”

”…shit. Okay, get the Skymaster ready.”

Jen glanced at the imposing device in the heart of the camp. The “Skymaster” was a repurposed M242 Bushmaster mounted on a complicated gyroscopic base and field emitter array that transformed it into an effective ground-to-orbit weapon. It had been one of the first things the platoon had set up after the forcefield had come online.

As she watched, it pivoted and swung skywards, aiming into the western sky.

“Nine mikes,” Baker warned. Powell nodded grimly. His face had that same cold, calculating look that Adrian had used to wear in moments of real danger.

“Prepare to active ping,” He ordered. “If we see any sign that they’re hostile, we shoot first and the questions can go fook themselves.”

Baker confirmed the order, then counted down: “Eight thirty.”

Jen cleared her throat. “You sure about this?” She asked.

“Sure as I’ll ever be. Baker? Active ping.”

The sensors specialist nodded, and tapped something on his equipment. He gritted his teeth at what he saw.

“Ah, shit, their grav-spike’s up.” he reported.

Powell spun and addressed the two men manning the Skymaster. “Gun team! Five rounds, ASX!”

“Five ASX, ready…lock!”


The Skymaster thumped. Jen felt it in her chest as the weapon opened a force-field walled tube of vacuum in front of it, into which it fired a round which accelerated away on a warp pulse in a line of exotic blue radiation. The warp field would collapse scant millimeters from the target’s hull, delivering the round long before the Celzi cruiser could even register that it was under attack. In theory, if the cruiser’s shields were still down while its warp field dissipated, the rounds would strike its hull unimpeded, smashing through the fragile ceramic armour tiles and delivering shaped explosive charges directly to the superstructure.

If its shields were up…in theory the gun could overwhelm them with sustained fire, but during that time the cruiser might lower its spike and flee, blowing Cimbrean’s cover.

Baker’s report soothed that particular worry. “Target well hit and de-orbiting, but they’re still intact. Communications could still be up.”

Powell set his jaw. “Five more, fire for effect.”

“Five more…Fire!”

The gun slammed into life again, and Jen felt her heart jump in her chest as five more rounds in as many seconds vanished skywards, pulsing upwards in a streak of blue light.

Powell keyed his radio. “Kirk, get ready to hit orbit an’ fook off, if this all goes to shit we need it reported back to Earth. Jen, you’d best go with him.”

”…Right. Take care of this place, Powell.” Jen said, while Old Jen whimpered objections at her about not abandoning everyone.

“You didn’t even name this place!” Powell objected.

“Folctha,” Jen called as she ran. “It’s called Folctha!”

She jogged behind the slender alien as he cantered across the lawn and scrambled up the Sanctuary’s ramp. Julian had sprinted ahead and was already powering up the ship’s kinetics as the door closed.

“We good to go?” He asked.

Kirk shook his head, a slow gesture on his long-necked kind. “Not yet. That ship will see us if we take off right now, and its gravity spike is still up, they’ll get a good look at us if we run now. We need to wait until it’s below the horizon.”

“And then?”

“And then we go with plan B I suppose.”

“I hope that’s not the plan B I’m used to…” Old Jen muttered, sotto voce. Louder, she asked “What’s plan B?”

“We deploy the system defense field we stole from the Confederacy,” Julian told her.

“An expedient solution, but also a politically awkward one,” Kirk expanded. “It would damage Earth’s reputation and bargaining position. I was instructed that the survival of the colony is more valuable, but…”

“But the fewer pawns we sacrifice the better,” Julian finished.

Jen blinked. “Somebody stole one of those things for us?”

“Julian did,” Kirk said, a revelation which caused her to re-examine Julian. After his stammering embarrassment at finding her in the bath, she’d pegged him as another Darragh and largely ignored him.

Stupid of me she realised, examining him with New Jen’s eye for danger. That earnest, cautious expression had done a good job of hiding the fact that he was fit, strong, and scarred, and clearly a survivor. It was only the slightly pathetic reaction he had to being in the presence of her—of a woman, she realised—that had made her dismiss him. Had he been standing with more confidence, she would have had no trouble imagining him stealing hardware like that.

At least it was a lesson learned harmlessly.

“What’s going on out there, anyway?” She asked, changing the subject.

Brick, New Jersey, Earth

Did you know, the Corti never dabbled in nuclear fission on anything more than an experimental basis? Three deaths and an event that came alarmingly close to being their own version of Pripyat later, and they abandoned the program and never spoke of it again. I found that interesting. Of course, that was before their eugenics program, and after their intellect had expanded and their compassion had shrivelled, they were well past the point of need to meddle with such comparatively crude science.

The Corti who abducted me—do you meditate? You should. I was taken while meditating and did not even notice until I opened my eyes again.

Their names were Hvek and Twanri. A mated couple, and as close as the Corti ever come to being head-over-heels in love. Nice enough people, if one overlooked their condescending habit of constantly attempting to impress upon the “lesser species” just how intellectually superior they were. I was not impressed—they had deliberately stolen me to tap me for expertise that they themselves lacked, after all.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Corti schoolchildren would regard the class on radioisotope decay as mundane and boring. But there’s a gulf of difference between academic understanding of what causes nuclear fission to happen, and direct experience and knowledge of what the effects are when it happens uncontrolled. For that, they turned to the human race.

We aren’t the only known species to have detonated these weapons, nor to have dabbled in nuclear fission with the safeties off. But we are by far the most intelligent of those races which did so. That’s probably why they spent so much time repeating their obvious mental advantages—insecurity.

They chose two of us—myself, and Mikhael, a Ukrainian gentleman who offered guided tours of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. And chose, it must be said, perfectly. You could not have asked for a better pair to give you a complete analysis on both the academic and practical consequences of the aftermath of a nuclear event. Which of course gave us something of a hint as to what we were there to do…

Adams had a secondary role besides manning the forcefield, namely communications, and he called out as something on his own gear beeped.

“They’re hailing.” he reported.

Powell frowned. “Can they escape now?”

Baker shook his head. “No way, that ship’s coming down hard.”

“Fook it. May as well hear the bastards’ last will and fookin’ testaments. Open the line.”

The voice that came through was clearly Australian and desperate.

“Attention arseholes! Please stop fucking shooting at us, we are NOT Alliance. I repeat, we are just a pack of poor fucking bastards in honest need of some god damned help.”

There was a long, embarrassed pause among the soldiers. Then, Powell leaned forward, took hold of the microphone, and replied:

“Attention ship—Ceasing fire. You are to proceed as follows: Crouch down, tuck your head between your legs, and kiss your arses goodbye. Sorry.”

There was no response from the radio. The silence on the ground was, eventually, broken by Legsy. “Fucking helpful advice that, sir,” he commented. Several of the men released the laughs they’d been holding back.

“Shut the fook up and get the lads ready to abandon base if we have to.” Powell ordered. “Actually, fook that. Where’s it coming down?”

Baker scratched his head “She’s aiming for…that big lake to the east.”

The captain glanced at the sensors screen, then grabbed his field binoculars and turned to face westwards, raising them to his face.

Other heads turned to follow his aim. Some few seconds later, a cloud formation withered and died in the face of incredible heat as the Alliance cruiser wallowed through it.

The ship was coming in at a shallow angle from low in the western sky, wreathed in smoke and fire as its shields struggled to stay up and ward off the hammering force of atmosphere. As they watched, a flicker and failure robbed the ship of what might have been an engine or something, which peeled off and corkscrewed away toward the south.

“No way is that thing surviving the hit.” somebody opined.

“We’ll check it out anyway, there’s at least one human on board, so we need to ID the body if nowt else.” Powell replied. “Legsy, get the mules and one of the trucks started up, send half the lads out there.”

“Which truck, sir?”

“I don’t fookin’ care! The one with the broken mirror!”

He keyed his radio. “Oi, Kirk. Hold off on escaping for now. Looks like we’ve got a couple of hours to check and see if owt survived the crash, you may as well unload the colonists.”

There was a pause, and then the alien’s simulated voice replied with a single professional word: “Understood.”

Seconds later, the Sanctuary emitted a dull thud that must have been its end of the Jump Array accepting an arrival. It was only the first of the ten that would deliver the first colonists and their equipment and effects to Cimbrean.

Ten minutes later, Powell was riding shotgun in one of the Mules as it bounced and skidded across fertile flood plains. The stream that ran through the palace grounds at Folctha met up with a larger river, which in turn flowed out to the inland sea, from which a column of white smoke provided a clear marker as to the final resting place of the downed cruiser.

The mules were half pickup truck, half quad bike, and quite capable of getting themselves out of damn near anything the terrain might snare them with or, in the worst case, being physically hauled out by some strong men. Their supply of the diesel the little vehicles ran on was limited, but the development plan included finding a local plant species to refine into a biofuel. Besides, if anybody had survived the splashdown, the platoon needed to have men on the shore waiting to collect sooner rather than later, and the only way to get down there fast enough was by vehicle.

They pulled themselves to a loam-spraying halt as the sky flashed brilliantly from the direction of the sea. Every man in the mules and the truck flung themselves overboard and hit the dirt, half expecting a lethal shockwave to rampage up the valley and toss the vehicles flying, the product of some kind of nuclear meltdown or similar cataclysm. What instead arrived, after too many tense heartbeats, was a great echoing thunder of detonation that went on too long and was too gentle at that range to have been anything so apocalyptic.

“The fuck just happened?” One of the SEALs asked, being the first to break the silence.

“Maybe it blew up?” Opined a Canadian SOR trooper.

“That’d put paid to any survivors then.” Powell said. “Better hope not, we’ve still got a human to bag and tag. Mount up, let’s get down there.”

Waves were still lapping the sands and pebbles when they halted on the beach, and not a moment too soon: a trio of what looked like cargo transports of some kind were hovering across the water, propelled by rowing of all things.

A dishevelled hulk of a man, all muscles, wild hair, wilder eyes and unkempt beard splashed into the surf and waded ashore. He raised his hands in response to the guns that immediately aimed at him, but smiled.

“G’day,” he said.

Folctha colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Powell’s decision to order Kirk to remain had paid off, allowing the first civilian contractors and colonists to traverse the jump array from Earth, Already a team of determined-looking men were setting off into the forest with electric chainsaws, bent on constructing a log cabin to serve as a bunkhouse, as a rather more solid and permanent alternative to the tents of the military camp.

Somehow, they had even managed to squeeze a tiny backhoe into the miniscule space available inside Sanctuary’s end of the array, which was busily going to work laying the foundations for the bunkhouse and projects that would follow.

Jen wondered where whichever government or governments were responsible for this whole plan had found civilians with the right skills who could be trusted with the secret and were willing to take the risk. There must have been months of planning behind this venture, at a bare minimum.

“Miss Jennifer Delaney, I presume?” the voice had an accent that was pure southern England, reminding her vaguely of red tunics, flags and old stone buildings. It belonged to a slim, earnest-looking man in his late middle age who extended a hand as they met.

“Just Jen.” she asserted herself. Formality could go wrestle a Vulza. She shook his hand though, prompted by Old Jen into remembering that preferring to be informal didn’t mean needing to be rude.

“Jen it is.” the newcomer agreed, amicably. “I’m Sir Jeremy Sandy CH, your replacement as governor here.”

“Oh thank goodness…That’s a weight off my shoulders.” Jen admitted. “I’ve not done much governoring, I’m afraid I’m not cut out for desk work.”

“No indeed, you look like you’d find it bloody stifling.” Sir Jeremy readily agreed. Jen found that she liked the man, despite the pomp and poshness in his accent. Even if he was just very good indeed at reading people and saying what they wanted to hear, it was still nice to be charmed after months or, hell, years with no company but Adrian, herself, aliens, and a platoon of terrifyingly intense special forces.

“I can’t help but notice you’re about as English as the Queen.” she said. “Is Cimbrean a British colony now, or…?”

“The King, nowadays.” Sir Jeremy revealed. “But yes, it is. There was a lot of legal wrangling and courtroom drama involved, but ultimately Britain successfully argued that because the colony’s founder and first governor is a British national, as is its first military commander…” he waved a hand, dismissively indicating what had surely been an extended and heated debate within the halls of power. “Of course, that argument was much easier to make considering the confidential nature of the project. The absolute requirement of secrecy around Cimbrean’s development stopped it from ballooning into the political row of the century.”

“That makes sense.” Jen considered.

“Well, it probably won’t remain British for so very long. The Chinese, Argentinians and Russians are all making uncomfortable noises about expansion and Imperialism. Who knows? It could become the fifth member of the Union, or an overseas territory, but I think it more likely that Cimbrean will—quietly, respectfully and by common consent—go independent once on her feet, and become a Commonwealth member.”

“Assuming she survives.” Jen pointed out. “If the Great Hunt finds this place…”

“We have a contingency prepared.” Sir Jeremy assured her. “In fact, you’ll be pausing during your departure to deploy it.”


“Kirk will explain. Let’s just say that the need for absolute secrecy is going to be resolved soon. Among other things, a leak is inevitable, so we need to go public with the project sooner rather than later.”

“So it can have a positive spin put on it?”

“As you say.” Sir Jeremy smiled. He looked around drawing a deep and contented breath. “Gosh… clean air.”

“Clean, yes, but it’s also a bit thin next to what you’re used to. Don’t exert yourself too hard at first or you’ll feel sick and shaky.”

“Yes, I remember the briefing. Still… It’s refreshing. I’ve spent months in offices in London and Toronto ahead of this assignment, finally being here is wonderful.”

You’ll enjoy the night sky.” Jen told him. “There’s no light pollution here, so you can see EVERYTHING.”

“I bought a telescope among my personal effects.” Sir Jeremy admitted. “I’ve always been something of an amateur astronomer. The chance to survey new stars and constellations was part of what convinced me to take this commission.”

“Well, we’ve got a couple of hours yet before the expedition gets back from investigating that crashed cruiser, so welcome to Folctha. I’ll give you the guided tour before we go.”

“Delighted!” Sir Jeremy exclaimed, and took her arm. It was an avuncular, unconsciously friendly gesture and Jen quite forgot to stiffen at the unexpected contact. “Folctha?” he asked.

Jen smiled. “There’s a story behind that…” she began.

The enormous human wasn’t quite aiming his weapon at Saunders, but then again Gyotin doubted that he needed to. The squad of humans on the beach were quite plainly the most dangerous thing he had ever laid eyes on, each one of them comfortably wearing a harness of thick armour plating covered in an drab blend of greens and soil tones that his eyes almost wanted to skip off and treat as part of the background, and a gun that the Gaoian doubted he would even be able to lift. All bar the big one with the biggest gun were intimidatingly anonymous, their faces covered in black masks, and with lenses of a brilliant orange over their eyes.

He flopped onto the beach, growling at the pain in what was almost certainly a fractured bone high in his chest, and was surprised when one of the humans lowered his weapon and dashed over to him, unslinging from his back a bag of what were clearly medical supplies.

It immediately became apparent that the human had no translator implant or technology on his person, but even in the curious cadences of an alien language, his tone of voice was reassuring and cheerfully optimistic as he drew a slim white cylinder from his pocket.

Gyotin was in too much pain to really be too worried about a language barrier anyway, and just gratefully rested his head on the sand, awaiting his treatment

It came as a large disappointment when, muttering quietly to himself, he human scribbled a rune or letter of some kind on a piece of paper with the marker, and pinned it to Gyotin’s overalls before leaving and checking on a .Kwmbwrw crewman same ways down the beach.

Gyotin was about to raise his voice in protest and demand to know whether the human felt that some curious ritual involving paper was going to mend a broken bone, when the man simply touched the Kwmbwrw on one shivering flank reassuringly, before checking on the next crewman without leaving a note or rune. This one received more attention, and an injection from a small, presumably disposable, needle of some substance or another. It seemed to work, as the fallen crew member’s pained noises rapidly subsided , to be replaced by an apparently gentle slumber.

Triage, Gyotin realised, as the medic dashed from crewman to crewman, assessing the injuries. Mostly he just repeated the action of labelling his patients, but here and there he administered an injection of some drug or another.

The unconscious human—Markovitz—was loaded onto a small ground vehicle which roared away in a spray of kicked-up sand. The mostly-sane one—Kaminski?—was likewise loaded onto a vehicle, but this one was also occupied by a human who had the body language of the one in charge. They were just close enough for Gyotin’s translator to decide it could hear the “Rush-in”’s half of the conversation: the other didn’t appear to have a translator of his own.

“Kaminski, Roman. Captain, Spetsnaz.”

The other human spoke. The language was a staccato one, short clipped consonants separated by long, broad vowel sounds, punctuated halfway through by what was unmistakably a “fucking”. Gyotin still hadn’t quite figured why humans referred to the act of copulation completely out of context so frequently, but he had come to recognise the word by sound.

“I understand. Our missions are at cross purposes: I had no idea the West had forces offworld.”

“<Gibberish?>” There was a questioning note at the end of that sentence.

“Of course. I surrender, captain.”

The two deathworlders gripped each other’s hands firmly, and the captain nodded, looking relieved. “<Babble. Nonsense?>“

“Thank you.” Kaminski glanced around, and then leaned closer to the other human and spoke confidentially, too quietly for Gyotin to overhear.

The captain frowned, then turned to the enormous human with the giant gun. “Leg-zee! <Jabber! Gobbledygook.>

The big one nodded sharply, and then marched forward, stuck the vast weapon into the small of Adrian’s back, and ordered something. “<Yammer> fucking <prattle>.”

“Sure, mate. Whatever.” Saunders agreed, and started walking, placing his hands gently atop his head. Gyotin wasn’t sure if the easy relaxed swagger in his movements was a symptom of bravado or honest insanity.

He stopped paying attention when the human medic returned and extended a hand. Gyotin took it with his good hand and was hauled—gently and respectfully but with the inexorable force of a human’s incredible strength—to his feet, offering words which, while Gyotin couldn’t understand them, promised medical attention and a future which didn’t include imminent death.

<+maybe they AREN’T all completely crazy…+>

Brick, New Jersey, Earth.

Our first destination—after we had finally calmed Mikhael down and he had agreed not to reduce our abductors to a fine paste—was a class eleven world.

I wish I knew its location, or anything more about it than its classification, but it was a pleasant place. Clement warm weather, stunning scenery, gravity just a little lighter than Earth’s, atmospheric pressure just a little higher. I felt quite buoyant—Mikhael complained of the heat. Supposedly, the world was home to a host of terrifying plagues, but neither of us ever got so much as a sniffle. Incompatible with human biology, I suppose. Or maybe Earth’s plagues are just nastier still. Who knows?

Have you ever heard a Geiger counter in action? Many people are alarmed by how rapidly and often they click just in response to background radiation. That in itself really ought to be a clue as to how cruel a mother the Earth is, when you think about it. That the basic background level of radiation to which we are entirely accustomed seems excessive even to us when we first learn of it…?

…Well, this planet—I suspected that it would only be the first of many we visited, and so I named it “Prathama”—had a background radiation much lower than that of Earth. It was so low, in fact, that Mikhael and I both fretted that the counter was broken, and requested replacements. The replacements corroborated the original, and in hindsight, why WOULD an alien world have the same background radioactivity as Earth? It would hardly be an alien world if it was identical, would it?

We had been dropped on this world, and told to search the area. Given who we were and the equipment our “employer” had granted us, it wasn’t hard to put together that we were searching for fallout zones, but what wasn’t clear was why. Deathworlds, after all, are supposed to be uninhabited. Humanity, we are told, is a lone statistical anomaly, the one race to defy the odds.

If that were true, and if spacefaring sophonts avoid deathworlds out of sensible caution, then why would there be any kind of evidence of nuclear catarstrophe on the surface of such a world?

Folctha, Cimbrean

A cry of “They’re coming back!” echoed across the camp.

Sir Jeremy turned to his predecessor as Cimbrean’s colonial governor and extended a hand. “Best of luck, Jen.” he said.

“And you, Sir Jeremy.” she replied, shaking it. “Enjoy the paperwork.”

“You can call me Jeremy.” He allowed. “I’ll make sure to have the bath enclosed and hooked up to the hot water. You’ll always be welcome here.”

She smiled. “Thanks…” a quick check showed that the truck was picking its way down the hillside. They had only a few minutes until the survivors from the ship reached the camp, and neither Jen nor Kirk had any intention of being identified as having been present. “I’d better run.”

“Before you go…” Sir Jeremy rummaged in his pocket and produced a folded envelope. “This is from the Prime Minister. He would like you to do something more for Earth. I suspect you’ll find it more to your liking than ‘governoring.’”


“You’ll have your own spaceship for a start. Read it as you go.”

“I’ll do that. See you when I see you, Jeremy.” They shook hands, and she ran, sure-footed across the palace rubble and across the open field up the Sanctuary’s ramp, which closed behind her.

Just in time.” Kirk said. “I was about to leave you.

Sanctuary’s engines heaved, and she popped up and was gone in a startlingly short space of time, inertial compensation making the whole exercise feel eerily detached from the way the ground retreated and curled at the edges in short order. Jen’s last glimpse of Folctha was when the camo field snapped on below them, obscuring the vehicles just before they entered the camp.

They paused when Cimbrean itself was nothing more than a distant crescent sliver of blue-white, so small that she could have covered it with a pinhead at arm’s length, and Sanctuary pulsed once as Kirk fired something into orbit around the star.

“What was that?” She asked.

System defence field.” Kirk said. “A little modified. The colonists brought it back from Scotch Creek with them.

“Oh… a whole system? Like the one round Earth?”

“Very similar.” Kirk agreed. “Except that we can turn this one off when we want to.”

Jen said nothing, and pulled the letter from her pocket.

She was halfway through re-reading it when Kirk interrupted her thoughts. “Ready to go FTL.” he informed her. “Where would you like to go?”


“How’re they doing?”

The colony’s newly-arrived doctor was an American, Dr. Martin Adams, and had undergone intensive training in nonhuman anatomy and medicine as a precaution. He had, to put it mildly, been surprised as all hell to have to practice his skills the instant he arrived. He and Powell had met briefly during the preliminary phases of the colony operation, and he had the intense, competent air of somebody who threw themselves completely into their work.

“One of the vizkittiks died.” he reported. “Not much we could do for her. The rest, well… I’ve set their bones, cleaned and dressed their wounds and made them comfortable, but they just don’t heal as fast as we do. Some of them are going to be in here for a long while. Frankly it’s a good thing we all have those disease-suppression implants or they’d be in serious trouble already.”

“And the Spetsnaz?” Powell asked him.

“Kaminsky’s basically fine. I’ve got his arm plastered, and a big glass of water sorted out the last of that “pixie dust” stuff. There’s nothing I can do for the other guy though. I got an IV in him, but if or when he pulls through is out of my hands, captain. Frankly, he needs to go back to Earth.”

“His only ride just left, too… Alright. Keep me posted. For now I want a word with our POW.”

“He’s over there.” Dr. Adams jerked a thumb to a bed with the curtains drawn. “Knock yourself out.”

Kaminsky was sitting up in his cot, looking bored. The man standing guard over the prisoner was a valuable resource kept from doing something more constructive, Powell knew. Hopefully, Kaminsky would turn out to be cooperative and his warder could be returned to a useful assignment.

Russian was a language that still formed an important part of the modern British special-forces soldier’s curriculum, but he knew only a few key phrases. Still, it seemed only polite to use them. “Kак дела, captain?” he asked.

Kaminsky’s English wasn’t perfect and was heavily accented, but was a damn-sight better than Powell’s Russian. The translator implants he had received from the alliance were useless: Powell didn’t have a matching set for them to talk with. Still, he might come in handy as an interpreter for the alien prisoners.

“Better.” The Spetsnaz captain replied. “I could do with vodka though. Several vodkas.”

“You lost men on that ship?” Powell asked him,

Da. Sorry: yes I did. To traps, ambushes, maybe to that fucking foam.” Kaminsky indicated the dormant form of Markovitz, then to an empty cot opposite his own. “Sit down.” he invited.

Powell did so. “So, I want to strike a deal, mate.” he said.

Kaminsky looked interested. “What deal?”

“If I HAVE to, I’ll need to assign a guard to you at all times, and I’ve got fookin’ precious few men to waste on that duty. You can see how a Russian special forces trooper smack in the middle of my mission is a bit of a sticky wicket.”

“I see that.”

“So… do I have to?”

“What is your offer?” Kaminsky asked, carefully.

“Quid pro quo, mate. A little information, and I might be persuaded you’re going to behave yourself and I can put private Hodder there back to work.”

“Where I’m from, my interrogation would not be so pleasant.” Kaminsky joked.

“Been there, fookin’ done that.” Powell told him. “But I don’t see the need to start wi’ threats and pain when you and I can just come to an officer’s agreement, like.”

“I agree. It is better this way.” Kaminsky said. “But are you asking about the spaceship and how I came to be on it? Or about my Australian friend with the alien mutant juice?”

“Alien mutant juice.” Powell’s tone of voice was a flat repetition, but also a question.

“Just something he said, and my suspicions. I’ll tell first one story, then the other, yes?”

Powell acquiesced with a bobble of his head and a shrug. “Sounds fair.”

He listened. Kaminsky’s life had rapidly swung for the strange the second he had encountered the now-crashed cruiser, moving from a relative cakewalk to a desperate fight to survive. All things considered, that the man had escaped only with some mild poisoning and a broken ulna to show for it was impressive.

Whether out of soldierly efficiency, Russian brevity or simple terseness from being a slightly hesitant Anglophone, Roman’s account didn’t take long. They sat considering the implications for a while.

Finally, Powell stood up and shook the Spetsnaz officer’s hand. “I have your word you’ll behave?” he said.

“I would like to go home as soon as possible.” Kaminsky confessed. “I think betraying your trust would only delay that.”

“Good enough for me.” Powell said, then deployed some of his own meager Russian again. “Спасибо за информацию.

Kaminsky smiled. “Пожалуйста.” he said. “Good luck with this Australian, he’s crazy.”

Brick, New Jersey, Earth.

We had grown so accustomed to the sporadic background noise of our counter that when it ticked up to what was, by any human standard, merely a healthy background, we both became quite fretful and uncertain.

Our trepidation was not without good reason, it must be said—the difference between a perfectly safe exposure and rapid but unpleasant death could just be whatever it is that you’re standing behind at the moment. From that moment on, we moved carefully. We tested the water, kept some clean in a bottle to wash any fallout from our persons if we should be contaminated, paused every few hundred meters to probe the air, the soil and the plants for contaminants.

And we found them, oh yes. isotope concentrations in the soil, all from Uranium’s decay chain. Signs of heavy metal poisoning in the local wildlife, including one unfortunate predator that must have had a vast concentration in its equivalent to a liver, concentrated into it by its food chain.

It was lying, dying, by the side of the first sign of civilisation we had seen—a road.

Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Adrian Saunders turned out to be huge. It HAD to be Saunders, even though Jen had been perfectly convinced he was dead. Even without knowing the first name, there were no other Australians with engineering experience and military training on the abductee list. The guy wasn’t tall—in fact, Powell had a good couple of inches on him—but he made up for it by plainly having the kind of physique that strongman competitors and bodybuilders beat themselves up in pursuing. It looked like working muscle, too, rather than pure steroidal bulk.

He let the man stew for a few minutes as he sorted out some paperwork, including a quick re-read of Saunders’ file. When he judged that his prisoner was about on the verge of starting to fidget, he looked up and gave him his well-practiced “I really don’t have time to deal with this shit so you’d damn well better impress me” look.

Contrary to the usual response, Saunders instead smirked and laughed slightly.

“I’m not findin’ this fookin’ funny!” Powell snapped, shutting the man up even if the response was more arrogantly sullen than alarmed. “Do you have any idea what kind of problems you’ve caused just by being here? If you are who I think you are, you’re doin’ a shite job being dead!”

“And if I am who you think I am, you should have a long fucking think before making it known.” Saunders retorted, though why he felt that should be the case was a mystery from Powell’s perspective. “Where’s Jennifer Delaney?”

“You don’t ask questions,” Powell told him. “You answer them.”

This earned another insubordinate frown. Frankly, it was amazing the man had made any kind of a career in the military at all. His body language and defiant expression was more rebellious teenager than professional soldier. “You bastards just shot down my ship—” He began to protest.

Powell interrupted him, not in the mood to let the prisoner claim the initiative. “Captain Kaminski tells me it was a pirate vessel, and that you only boarded it once he’d taken control of it,” He said. “In fact, he’s told me a lot of interesting things about you.”

Saunders gave a dismissive shrug. “So I’m the one who stole it most recently. I’m still the guy who crash landed a starship on a planet and walked away, and that’s not even close to the most fucking terrifying thing I’ve done this week.”

Powell had once led a team which infiltrated a Jihadist compound specifically to stab one man and steal his notebook, then exfiltrated with the entire camp hunting for them. That had taken skill, courage and no small amount of daring. Surviving a water landing in a starship, especially a badly damaged one, smacked more of luck, and luck in his experience was not to be relied upon, nor boasted about. “Not fookin’ impressed, mate.” he said.

This dismissal seemed to score a hit because Saunders shifted forward angrily and raised his voice, apparently oblivious to the five guns that all snapped to aim directly at him, and the way Powell’s hand dropped his holstered sidearm. “I’ve just been on a merry jaunt through fucking hell” he snarled “and all I want is the answer to One. Goddamned. Question!

Powell let the moment of tension play out, until Saunders calmed down a bit and sat back. The angry shouting approach hadn’t worked, forcing him into a more reciprocal, reasonable approach. “Please?” he asked eventually, settling down.

Powell kept his satisfaction from showing, and instead made a show of standing down in turn, as did his men. “Quid pro quo, then.” he said. “You answer my questions and I’ll answer what I can of yours. Something tells me neither of us is going to like the answers.”

“No fucking kidding?” Adrian asked. “Well, I haven’t liked much for as long as I can remember, so why the fuck should I start now? Where’s Jennifer Delaney?”

First” Powell persisted, “Your name.” He gave it a moment, then when no answer seemed forthcoming, he decided to say it outright. “You are Adrian-”

The captive interrupted, jerking a thumb towards the soldiers. “You better trust these fuckers here implicitly if you’re going to finish that sentence. Or maybe we can just assume that whatever you were going to say is right?”

Powell gave him a cool stare. Of course he trusted them implicitly. This was a top secret mission, and the men under his command were the best of the best. Not a single one of them was a security liability.

Besides, whatever reasons the man felt he had for needing to keep his secret superhero identity—and Powell wasn’t about to rule out some kind of paranoid delusion—he hadn’t yet revealed what they might be. Powell wasn’t interested in playing “Interstellar Man of Mystery.”

”…Saunders.” he finished. “As for Miss Delaney, you just missed her. She shipped out when we detected your mob comin’ in. “

There was a long, bewildered pause, and then the Australian broke down and started laughing. It wasn’t a happy laugh—it was a black cynical one, the laugh of a man who’d just figured out that he was the butt of a sadistic sense of humour. “Of course…of course she did!” He exclaimed, somewhere between the laughing and the sobs. “Gone home I bet? No reason to wait for a dead man!”

Jesus fookin’ Christ…

Powell decided, as the Australian slowly pulled himself together, not to correct him on that point. Jen had clearly been holding a torch for this guy, but mental cases like this tended to be a danger to themselves and anybody nearby. Jen was too competent, capable and useful a resource to endanger like that.

“Kaminski wasn’t bloody kidding,” he declared. “Is the rest true? The infrared? The…muscles?”

Adrian nodded as he ran a rough hand through his beard and across his head. “Yep,” he said, voice still trembling, “but I wouldn’t fucking recommend it. How are the Russians doing? Quid pro quo, remember?”

True enough. “Kaminski’s recovered. We have no idea what’s wrong with Markovic outside of ‘Pixie Dust’. Something to do with the alien fire suppressant?”

“Apparently it sends you totally fucking mental before you go catatonic. At least that’s what I’ve gathered from it.” Saunders revealed. “I’d stay away from that shit if I were you.”

<+No shit.+> Powell thought, feeling that his intelligence was being insulted. Who did this idiot think he was dealing with? There wasn’t a soldier on Cimbrean who wasn’t veteran special forces, they didn’t need advice from a crazed resurrectee, they needed the facts, unbiased and plain. Shit like “Don’t breath in the toxic foam” went without saying.

He kept his cool by changing the subject. “You’re a wanted man on Earth, you know,” He told him, keeping his tone light and companionable. “By rights, we’re supposed to imprison you and keep you until we can send you back… but.”

He looked the Australian up and down. “I can smell the kind of shit you’re in, and I’m not going to put this colony and my mission at risk over a dropout who’s legally fookin’ dead.” He said. “D’you know how long that paperwork takes? I don’t have the fookin’ time nor the inclination, so long as you promise to get the fook out of my hair and never come back. Spread the word there’s nowt but ruins on Cimbrean and I might even be persuaded to see if there’s owt useful you can be doin’ instead of stealin’ pirate ships and chasing after a girl who’s got her shit together way better than you do.”

They stared at each other for a few moments, then Adrian unclenched his fists, sighed and nodded. “Looks like you’ve still got some broken down old ships. I can probably put a working one together given a bit of time, a week…two at most, and then I’ll be out of your hair.” he offered.

“Good,” said Powell. Anything to get the man away from the colony and back out in the wider galaxy where he could do less harm. “We’ll give you food, clothes and shelter…and a fookin’ shave if you want it, but you need to get out of here before you become a problem. And for the moment, Captain,” he added, stressing Saunders’ former rank “you are going to give me a full debriefing.”

He listened as the disgrace seated opposite him relented and launched into a characteristically foul-mouthed summary of everything that had happened to him since his abduction.

What was clear was that Saunders was completely out of his gourd, and a danger both to himself and to everybody around him. He briefly entertained the thought of just shooting the dangerous prat then and there and giving him a grave somewhere in the Folctha palace grounds. It would certainly have been the most expedient solution, and when it came down to it the SBS had done a lot worse during their history for the sake of the mission than putting down a figurative rabid dog.

It wasn’t a choice between pragmatism and compassion so much as a choice between conflicting forms of pragmatism, really. In the end, letting him live won out. Getting the word spread that Cimbrean was uninhabited might just put paid to the rumours of a colonial effort that had lured Saunders here in the first place. Not to mention that having the man sighted a long way from here could only increase the colony’s security, next to the trail going cold on its way here. Besides, if he kept taking crazy risks then eventually his luck or tenacity would run out and that would be the end of it.

“The fookin’ dinosaurs built a spaceship.” He said, flatly. It wasn’t a question so much as a simple statement of disbelief.

“Yep.” Saunders said it with his apparently trademark “I couldn’t give a fuck even if somebody else did all the heavy lifting” attitude, but also with the total assurance of somebody who knew what they were saying was absurd and yet sincerely believed it to be the truth.

“I asked for a fookin’ debriefing, not a flight of fancy.”

“Space dragons, fucking X-files grey aliens, blue giraffes, raccoon people, and, yep, the dinosaurs built a fucking spaceship. Not my fault the universe is totally fucking mental.” Saunders objected.

He sniffed, and added: “Fucking good spaceship, too.”

Powell sat back and considered as Saunders rambled on at length about saurian robotic terminators, stasis chambers, the trouble with blue fur, statues, collapsing buildings, missile-riding, Vulza-riding and how much he hated fire suppressant, black holes and Darragh Houston. The whole monologue was being recorded for transmission back to Earth. How much of it was true or even plausible wasn’t a matter he intended to waste much time and thought on, but he did notice that while Saunders mentioned something called the “Hierarchy” a couple of times, he didn’t elaborate on who—or what—said Hierarchy might be.

When it came up again, he finally had to interrupt. “Okay, that’s the third fookin’ time you’ve mentioned this ‘Hierarchy’. Who in the hell are they meant to be?” he demanded.

Saunders had the good grace to look embarrassed. “Long and short of it? They’re the Space Illuminati.”

“For fook’s sake!” Powell exploded to his feet, spun away from the desk and pinched the bridge of his nose as he stood facing the corner for a second, head bowed. “I have no idea why I don’t just assume you’re taking the piss.” he muttered.

“I know a few things…they’re beyond cutting-edge. They’ve got a fucking army. And they love robots. Oh, and they can copy their brains away.”

“Greeeaaat.” Powell muttered. He turned and considered things. “Bloody ‘ell, Why in God’s name do I believe you, Saunders?”

“Don’t fucking ask me.” the Australian gave him a wild-eyed shrug. “I hardly believe all this shit. But you do have a crashed Hierarchy ship sitting offshore.”

“Not like I can do owt with it.” Powell grumbled as he sat down again. Nobody on his team was even remotely qualified to handle, salvage or work with nonhuman technology. A critical mission oversight, in retrospect.

<+And here I thought this debriefing was going to make my job LESS fookin’ difficult.+> he mused.

Adrian shrugged. “You can’t.” he said.

Powell, distracted by his own thoughts didn’t catch the inflection properly. “Can’t… what now?” he asked

You can’t do anything with it. I probably can.” Adrian repeated.

”…My lads and the SEALs could dive that wreck, no problem, but we wouldn’t know the warp engine from the shitter.” Powell said. “You sayin’ you would?”

“I rebuilt a dinosaur spaceship and killed a fleet of fucking arseholes with it.” Saunders boasted, looking as if he was regaining a degree of focus. There was a hint of the once-professional soldier in the way he spoke. “I’m not saying it’s recoverable but if it is…”

Powell considered, scratching his own facial hair. “…If it is, you might actually turn out to not be a complete fookin’ liability after all.” he acknowledged.

Saunders’ professionalism slipped again, and there was a certain manic glint in his eye that only reinforced Powell’s conviction that he belonged as far away from Cimbrean as possible if the colony was to succeed. ““I was going to take some hard fucking revenge on these fuckers anyway, so…you know, it’s no problem.” he said.

Powell weighed his options. Unstable though he was, Saunders was the only man to hand who had the knowledge and experience necessary to do anything with the crashed “Hierarchy” ship before the salt water completely ruined it. And if they were as dangerous as he suggested, then his mission demanded at least sweeping the thing for tracking devices, beacons or other potential mission-compromisers, not to mention intelligence of a long-term threat.

”…Fine.” he relented. “You get to dive that wreck. You find any intel we can use and turn it over,and I might even drop the whole “never come back” thing. Now, I’m still kickin’ you off this planet because I need trouble like you a long way from my mission, but if you can prove you’re not a complete cock-up and turn up owt that’s useful—and rip out and destroy anything that might lead this Hierarchy here…Well, there’s the deal.”

“Honestly I doubt it even has what I want.” Adrian confessed. “But I’ll be sure to look. What about after I’ve left? You got a phone number?”

“Next best thing.” Powell said. “You know Star Trek?”

“Yeah. My old man had an obsession.”

“Good, then you should remember this. There’s an… agent we use. He handles courier work, messages and odd jobs for us. He’s got an interstellar datanet dropbox, if you have a message for us, send it there and he’ll pass it on. The address is November-Charlie-Charlie one-seven-zero-one. Got that?”

“Got it.” Saunders nodded, the soldier showing again for a second, in the attentive way he gave his undivided attention to the important information.

“You know how to stay secure online?”

“I have a guy who can crack cyber security like an egg.” Adrian reassured him.

“You trust him?”

“We’ve seen a lot of shit together, so you know how it is. I know he’s not Hierarchy.”

That would have been good enough for Powell had the Australian been talking about a fellow human, but only one name in the story he had just told fit the description.

“You don’t mean this “Askit” bloke, do you? I thought you said he was Corti?”

Trusting a Corti with valuable information was, as far as the analysts back on Earth had been concerned, about the same thing as trying to carry boiling oil in a colander. The only way it could end was you’d get burned. You only told them secrets if you WANTED those secrets to fall into enemy hands.

“He is,” Adrian acknowledge “And I’ve almost never wanted to kill him.”

”…Whatever.” Powell sighed. “I guess trustin’ you with this means trusting whoever you trust in turn. Just don’t send in the clear, and use a codename. “Kirk”, “Enterprise” and “Federation” are already taken. Got that?”

Adrian considered, and then an impish grin parted his beard. “Reckon I might go with Captain Scarlet. Looks like I’m breaking the theme.”

“If playing the fookin’ special snowflake is what floats your cock, sure. Whatever.” Powell told him. “Got anything more to add before I let you bugger off and start building your pet starship?”

“Just one thing.” Adrian replied, shifting forward in his seat. “I’m about to start waging my own personal fucking war on an enemy I can’t even imagine. If you’ve got a wish list for souvenirs just let me know.”

He wasn’t engaging his brain or else that list should have been obvious, but then again Powell knew the value of repeating things in case something had been overlooked. “Anything that proves they exist and aren’t just your imagination.” He said, extending his fingers to list the items he could think of. “Bleeding-edge technology. Alien hard drives, journals, logbooks, computers, that kind of thing. A working cloaking device, or at least one that’s not too badly broken. Maps, encryption keys…intel, basically.”

“You need a cloaking device?” Saunders asked, sounding faintly incredulous. He waved his arm vaguely towards the tent wall, indicating the unseen crashed starships outside. “You’ve got a half dozen wrecked Hunter ships lying all over the place.”

“Bloody lovely.” Powell agreed. “Now if you can point out which bit of the fookin’ things is the cloaking device, I might consider it a tick in the “not a complete waste of space” column.”

Saunders scowled “Your confidence is fucking overwhelming.” he grumbled. “I’ll put it on the list of shit I have to do.”

“Saunders:” Powell warned “As far as I’m concerned. the one thing that makes you worth the oxygen you’re breathing is that you’re the only bastard on this planet right now who knows a spaceship’s arse from its elbow.”

He looked Adrian dead in the slightly crazed eye. “Remember that, aye?”

The intimidation tactics didn’t seem to work: Saunders seemed to take it more as a joke than as a reminder of just how tenuous his position was, and grinned. “I’ll remember.” he promised.


Powell nodded upwards towards the door, dismissing the man. “Fook off.”

Brick, New Jersey, Earth.

Not that it was easy to tell: The concrete—it was made of hexagonal slabs of poured concrete, rather than asphalt— had been breached by trees, and the forest that violated the hard-top was just as dense along the road’s length as in the good soil to either side of it. It must have been… oh, a hundred years or more since it had been last maintained. Had we not stopped to examine the dying creature, we might have just stepped over the concrete road surface, dismissing it as a rock formation.

But once you saw the hard straight lines of the carriageway’s edge, and saw the material for what it was, other details made themselves known. The way that little clump of tangled thorny vegetation over THERE had a suspicious hint of rusty metal chassis, and the way that the creepers and vines over THERE seemed to have grown down from some kind of scaffold. That sort of thing. Everything was so green and alive that it all but completely obscured those fingerprints of an industrial civilisation.

There are only so many ways to build a car, I suppose. And only so many ways to reliably make it move. Only so many ways to build an internal combustion engine. All fancy and artistry aside, engineering is the art of effecting an efficient solution to a problem, and air resistance is much the same everywhere in the galaxy, as too are the demands of being able to readily carry a reliable and efficient fuel source.

The point is… there they were. Cars. Road signs. clear and visible signs that, once upon a time, Prathama had been home to a civilisation every bit as vibrant and technologically proficient as our own was in the latter half of the 20th century.

A civilisation that was, it seemed, utterly dead.

Cimbrean Date Point: 3Y 8M 1W 3D AV

Lance Corporal Danny Michael watched the Australian shave with the kind of pleasure only possible for a man who’d gone without for a good long while, and the transition between wild-haired spaceman and barely-tanned skinhead was a quick once he got to it. The man, Captain Adrian Saunders of the ADF, was judged by Captain Powell to be of a particularly unstable variety, and so Michael and Marine Paul Richard—his good mate and current off-sider—had been assigned to watch over him in case he tried anything too manic.

Such as fuckin’ well killing everyone.

“You’ve got no fucking idea how good this feels,” Saunders told them, assuming a great many things in the process. Michael had once been taken captive by Islamists who hadn’t recognised him for a soldier, and had paid the price months later when he’d been able to get himself and the other surviving prisoners free and clear of their shitty little compound. It was amazing how thick hair could grow on a man in the hot desert sun, and shaving it off had felt like coming home.

Michael just shared a knowing glance with Richard; they knew each others’ stories and there wasn’t any need for words in front of a crazy bastard like Saunders. That fucker could think whatever he wanted for all Michael cared.

Saunders turned out to be a little more balanced than Powell had feared; there hadn’t been any outbursts of violence that would have required them to put him down like a mad dog, even if doing so would have allowed them to move into other, far more interesting duties. Most of what Saunders seemed to do was to focus on tearing all the alien shit out of smashed up alien ships, and moving it over to the one that was the least fucked up. He’d started work on repairs once he’d amassed a small mountain of technological garbage, and had spent the next few days turning large holes in the ship’s hull into equally large patches.

Even once he’d completed the work to his own satisfaction, the ship didn’t look anything like spaceworthy. If anything it looked exactly like it’d crashed a second time, and was waiting for someone to come and put it out of its fucking misery. Saunders seemed happy with it, however, and commenced his work on the inside with an enthusiasm Michael recognised as a man doing what he was made for. That was another thing Captain Powell had said to watch for: Saunders knew his way around alien technology, and that gave him the kind of dangerous edge that needed an eye kept on it; you could do a lot with a sharp knife, but if you didn’t watch it you’d cut your fucking finger off and then where would you be?

Nine days into their watch—Michael was thankful that they’d only pulled day duty on the bastard—Adrian Saunders was eating a breakfast of branflakes and fruit, sitting amongst a morass of cabling, panels, and all sorts of technological doodads that Michael could have told you sweet fuck all about. Powell walked in, took one look at the huge fuckin’ mess, and shot an angry look at Saunders. “Day nine, and this thing is a complete fookin’ mess!”

Unlike most men, military or otherwise, Saunders was entirely unintimidated by Captain Powell. If anything, he seemed to regard the concept of other people intimidating him as something of a joke, which Michael took as much of an affront that Powell himself did. “It’s a whole shitload better than it was when I started,” he said, although it didn’t look it from the unused junk that was laying everywhere. “And you’ll remember I said a week or two. I haven’t broken any promises yet.”

Insubordinate as usual, but Powell had taken to ignoring it. Had it been Michael in his place, he doubted he would have been quite so forgiving. “I’m told you’re still relyin’ on our generator to power this piece of shite,” Powell noted, still looking all kinds of pissed off. “Will this fookin’ thing even get into space?”

“Not without its own generators,” Saunders admitted, taking a big bite out of his fruit and chomping away happily on its crisp flesh. Michael wondered if he did that on purpose in some attempt to further infuriate everybody around him. “Don’t worry, I’ve got something in mind.”

The assurance didn’t make Powell any happier, and if anything his glare grew even darker. “You fookin’ well better, mate, because I’ve got people asking who the arsehole working on the ship is. It’s not lost on everybody that you’ve turned up alongside a bunch of prisoners, and you’re the only one walking around happy as can be. They’re wondering why that is!”

A fair question to Michael’s mind, he’d heard the talk amongst people in his time off and he and Richard both had gotten asked questions about it. Telling the colonists it was secret under ‘operational security’ had worn out its usefulness over the last couple of days, and now there were all sorts of fuckin’ rumours going around.

Saunders took his time and finished the piece of fruit with obvious relish before continuing, although it didn’t seem like he was being so much wilfully annoying as just crazy as fuck. “Well,” he said thoughtfully, “I’m planning on testing the kinetics tomorrow, and if all goes to plan I’m headed out to sea the day after. These boys of yours like water?”

Michael experienced the sort of sinking feeling most often attributed to submarinal activities and just being goddamned unlucky, and he could see that this little expedition was most likely going to involve both.

“They go where you go, so long as it’s on this planet,” Powell replied, effectively repeating what he’d said when he’d first assigned Michael and Richard to their duty. “That includes out to sea.”

“They’ll need some wet gear,” Adrian unnecessarily informed them with far more fuckin’ amusement than Michael cared to see. “You might be able to get by just using some vacuum suits. The Russians had some they might use.”

“I’ll see it’s done,” Powell replied curtly. “That all?”

Saunders hesitated in his response, and turned to check on one of the boxes of components he’d been separating from the others and had actually been taking notes on. He slid it across the floor with an extended leg, pushing it over towards Powell. “I got you a present,” he said. “Now you can be like Kevin Bacon.”

Powell looked into the box, apparently enjoying the same lack of comprehension about the fuckin’ psycho’s babbling that Michael and Richard experienced on a constant basis. “What the fook has Kevin Bacon got to do with fookin’ anything?”

Saunders had the temerity to sigh, as though he’d expected something more of them. “Hollow man. That’s the cloaking system I promised you.”

Irbzrk Orbital Shipyard

“I’d have preferred to leave you somewhere further away.” Kirk said. “The more we can do to minimize the rumours of Cimbrean’s continued existence, the better. And from what you’ve told me, the people on this station might know you.”

“I’m counting on it.” Jen replied, watching with apparent interest as Sanctuary slipped into the station’s tug field and was pulled in to moor—Julian knew that Kirk preferred a mooring to an enclosed landing bay. What it lacked in ease of access to the station’s facilities, it more than made up for in rapid departures.

Julian frowned. “Counting on it? I thought you were going to lay low.” he asked.

“Oh, I am. These people have had bad experiences with humans in the past though, so if we rock up and I start flinging around these… Dominion credits of yours, they’ll have me a ship built tomorrow.”

“Won’t they recognise you?” Julian asked. “I mean, if nothing else that red hair’s pretty distinctive.”

“Easily solved.” Jen said. She rummaged in the pack of gear she had persuaded Powell to give her, and produced a razor and shaving foam. Julian frowned, confused and a little shocked.

“What do you need those for?” He asked.

“Right now? Shaving my head.”


“The nice thing about hair is that it grows back.” Jen interrupted him. “Whole heads don’t, and that’s what I stand to lose if the Hierarchy figures out that I’m still around.”

She found her scissors, and trotted towards the bathroom. “See you in a minute.”

About thirty minutes later, she returned, towelling off her head. She looked… skinnier, Julian decided. Even though he knew full well that removing her mane of red hair had done nothing to her waist or those firm dancer’s muscles, somehow the exposed line of her neck and scalp contrived to make her look taller and thinner, as if she had been stretched out. She made eye contact with him and he looked away, embarrassed. He hadn’t forgotten that she was the first—and to date only—woman he had met since his abduction, nor what she looked like naked. He mentally growled an order at himself to get it together. Kirk was good company, but if Julian had his way, their next trip to Earth would involve a visit to… Nevada, or Amsterdam, or Australia maybe. Somewhere he could rediscover that kind of human touch.

He briefly entertained the option of just coming out and suggesting it, but the same common sense that had seen him through seven Nightmare summers flagged that one as an immediate bad idea. Even if Jen didn’t react angrily, she definitely wouldn’t react positively, either, and he needed to salvage something resembling a professional working relationship with her.

She fished a green hat out of her bag. It looked like it was designed for cold weather, judging from the earflaps, the fuzzy insulated lining and the pocket on the cheeks which hinted at some kind of a mask to protect the face from wind chill. For now, she just tucked it onto her head with the flaps up.

“Is there anything else you need before you go?” Kirk asked her.

“No.” Jen said. She shook their hands, gripping Kirk’s cybernetic delicately, though he’d had it reinforced to cope with human grip strength. Then she was gone, out through the airlock and onto the station.

Kirk was already halfway to the command chair before Julian remembered to follow him.

“Next?” he asked. Kirk checked the inbox, then compared the codes within to the book he kept under the chair.

“Earth.” He said, mildly surprised.

“No shit?!” Julian exclaimed, delighted. “I get to go home?”

“Well… yes. If you want.” Kirk said. His simulated tone suggested very strongly that he’d rather keep Julian around, and Julian could see why—they seemed to have clicked well, Kirk providing the streetwise knowledge, political insight and galactic general-knowledge, not to mention his fairly substantial intellect, balanced nicely by Julian’s instincts, hard-won skills and sheer physicality.

“Sorry man.” He apologised. “It’s just been… years, you know? Do I get a vacation? I’ll want to catch up with family and… sort things out, you know.”

“And get laid.” Kirk translated, reminding Julian that he was dealing with a passionate student of human nature and a keen judge of people. Kirk knew the foibles both of humanity and of individual humans, probably better than they knew themselves.

He blushed. “That obvious, huh?”

“You’ve not been able to focus properly around Jen ever since we found her in the bathtub, and that was a month ago.” Kirk pointed out. “Yes, you’ll get shore leave, and an expenses account. My gift to you for all the Christmases you missed.”

“What will you be doing?” Julian asked.

“Planning the next phase in our mission.”

“You won’t be taking some leave yourself?”

“On Earth?” Kirk asked. “I can’t. Don’t get me wrong, I would dearly love to visit your great cities, tour your natural wonders and experience your culture first-hand. But a whole leave break spent inside the hazardous excursion suit would be torture.” he shrugged, an expansive four-armed gesture on his kind. “Besides, I love my work.” he added.

He disengaged the mooring clamps, pushed gently away from the shipyards with the gas thrusters, and then hit the wormhole drive. The instant it made contact with its counterpart in Sol, a crease in spacetime enfolded them, and they were gone.

Date Point: 3Y 8M 1W 5D AV

Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

“So what’s up, Kevin?”

“Intel, Martin. Important intel.”

“This to do with your friend?”

“You’d better listen to what I recorded…”

Folctha colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches.

“Alright, girl…” Saunders said to the ship, patting the console in front of him, “now we’re going to see some real cool shit.”

Michael wasn’t sure about that, or about much of anything else right now. Neither he nor Richard felt comfortable flying around on this haphazard mess generously labelled a starship, and even less so given the fuckin’ nutter who was in charge. The huge fuckin’ spaceship ahead of them had been more like the real thing, even if it was half-trashed and mostly sunken beneath the waves, but they hid the impressed expressions well.

Saunders had taken his ship around it, surveying the damage and looking for a half-decent entry point. There was hardly much of a consistent hull remaining, with huge holes decorating the whole thing, and entire sections were missing, but they soon found the top of a gap that Saunders deemed as sufficient for purpose.

Gravity shifted in a similar way to the feeling of an elevator in descent, and pushed them downwards into the cerulean depths. From here the fantastic wreckage took on a moodier, haunted appearance, and in spite of his certainty that there was nothing to be found aboard more dangerous than himself, Michael swallowed. “But this is a spaceship,” he found himself saying, “not a fuckin’ submarine…”

Saunders shot them a knowing smile. “Spot probably can’t go as deep as a sub, but she can probably get us where we need to go.”

Michael ignored the fact that the madman was naming his spaceship and focused on the important issue. “Probably?” he asked, not liking that sort of uncertainty. He might have been prepared for danger, and even death, when coming to an alien world, but he’d really prefer it if his death didn’t involve drowning in a patched together starship that was slowly sinking into an alien ocean.

Richard was less willing to overlook the eccentricity. “‘ang on a moment, did you just call this fookin’ thing ‘Spot’?” he demanded.

Saunders shrugged, looking back towards his console to hopefully focus on whatever crazy shit he was about to do next. Not that Michael wanted the fuckin’ maniac to do crazy shit, it just seemed like sort of a given at this point, and he’d rather the requisite amount of attention be paid to make it a success. “Just looks sort of like a fucking huge dog head…” he explained, although Michael didn’t see how, “in a certain light.”

At least Richard didn’t press the point on that, waiting quietly next to Michael with only a small amount of nervous fidgeting. Saunders was focused for several more moments before he turned to glance over at them. “Opening the airlock outer door,” he warned them, illustrating that he wasn’t a complete fuckin’ idiot.

There was a brief sound of machinery working near the airlock, but nothing that followed it. That, it seemed, was enough to please Saunders. “Kinetic bubble holding.”

Michael shared a glance with Richard, waiting for everything to turn to shit. When it didn’t, Saunders turned to face them properly, lifting up his own helmet in preparation, and grinning at them like the psychotic madman he was. “I’d put my fucking helmet on now if I were you. I’m about to open the airlock inner door, and I’m not what you might call entirely confident we won’t all drown.”

They only hesitated for a moment before taking the advice. Now they were underwater, and in his hands, and they had to hope like hell that he knew what he was doing. Not fuckin’ reassuring. As it turned out they were worried for nothing, because the inner door opened to reveal a shimmering wall of water at the edge of the ship.

Saunders rose from his seat, stepped over to it and ran a hand through the water. “Gentlemen,” he said, holding up a dripping hand, “I give you the sea!”

Michael and Richard shared another worried glance, it was never good when the man you needed to keep you alive started making jokes at inappropriate times. Richard was unimpressed enough to tell the fucker what he thought, gesturing to his alien spacesuit as he did so. “You’re fookin’ mad if you reckon we’re going out there in these!”

Michael agreed with him though. “This is a space suit, mate,” he said. “See a lot of fuckin’ space out dere? How d’you think we’re supposed to swim in dese?”

That just got more crazy from Saunders. “Oh,” he said, waggling his eyebrows, “I wasn’t going to swim.”

At that he collected three stripped down alien hover devices, demonstrating his own for their benefit. He activated it, letting it pull him away, and dived into the ocean with mad laughter. Richard swore, repeatedly, and Michael was quick to join him. They grabbed their respective devices, repeating the demonstrated action, and let them drag them forward into the water beyond.

Michael hit the man with all of his might when they caught him at the entrance of the crashed ship, and was happy to hear the wind leave the stupid arsehole in spite of the water resistance. “Next time you do somethin’ like that it’s a knife,” he warned angrily. “What’s so fuckin’ useful down ‘ere that you needed to come back?”

Saunders coughed, putting a hand to his side protectively. “Starship reactor,” he said, “it was still live after we landed…”

“Then why are all the fookin’ lights out?” Richard demanded, raising a very good point, though Michael figured it may be possible that being immersed in an ocean hadn’t helped.

“I blew them up last time I was here,” Saunders admitted with an unwarranted casual shrug.

Michael stared at the man, and Richard shook his head in disgust. “You’re just about the worst fookin’ thing a man could put on a spaceship…”

Saunders only shrugged again, apparently fully recovered from his injury, then turned and set off down a burned out corridor lit only by the small red power lights on their makeshift personal propulsion units.

Not a problem, Michael thought, remembering that he’d been in places a lot more fucked up than this burned out alien wreck. Admittedly those had usually been better lit, and never underwater, but they had been full of arseholes with guns so he had that in his favour… probably.

He looked warily at the dark shapes looming in the debris filled environment, jutting out from beyond any place their meagre light could reach. He shook his head and made quick to follow the madman. At some point the day had to improve.

Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

The story was identical on Dvitiya, Trtiya, Caturtha, Pamcama and Sastha. We visited six worlds and found the same tragedy waiting for us every time. Six civilisations, all cut down in their prime. Most, their cities were flat fields, identifiable as having once been cities only by the eroded glass and corroded rebar that littered what was otherwise a verdant field.

On one, Mikhael and I had to flee for our lives back onto the Corti research ship when the biohazard alarms screamed at us. The buildings were still, to some degree, standing. Hvek later commented that the virus we brought back with us was about on par with the Spanish Flu in terms of virulence and deadliness. Given that the world on which we encountered it was a class ten, I can only assume that it killed… everyone.

Can you imagine, Mr. Jenkins, what those poor people must have felt? What the very last of their kind must have been thinking as he coughed his last bloody breath onto his pillow, having survived to watch everyone he loved and his whole world be torn apart by a disease that must have struck them like the wrath of an Asura?

I have nightmares.

Our tour lasted three years. We visited twelve more worlds. I ceased to name them after encountering that disease. But I did the mathematics.

According to conventional wisdom, sapience cannot, and does not, arise on deathworlds. And yet here I had eighteen planets that revealed that common knowledge as being utterly wrong. Statistically, deathworld species should be in the majority.

We are not unique, in short, in evolving here in such a deadly cradle. But we do seem to be unique in surviving the invention of the intercontinental ballistic missile.

The starship reactor had been a relatively unimpressive thing. Michael had been expecting something like out of Star Trek, but what he got was a big white box, about the size of a small truck, covered in small red and blue indicator lights. As it was the only thing lit in the room he didn’t need Saunders to tell him what it was, but the madman’s burst of happy laughter confirmed it.

Richard looked over at Michael and shook his head worriedly. “How are we supposed to move this fookin’ thing?” he demanded. “It’s the size of a fookin’ lorry!”

Saunders kept working, and soon the majority of the indicator lights shut down. “We don’t need the containment unit,” he explained. “I’ve already got like five of the fucking things.”

Michael guessed that wasn’t the same thing as having a functional reactor, a suspicion proven a moment later as the madman drew a two foot white cylinder from the unit; it was covered in a constant outpouring of bubbles from its entire surface, and Saunders passed it over to him without explanation. “Hang onto that for me, mate. I’ve got another four to pull out.”

Richard took the second in hand, inspecting it more closely. “How come you need all these fookin’ things when your ship is a bloody tiny thing compared to this?”

Saunders removed a third as he answered. “Because unlike the aliens,” he explained with unusual lucidity, “I believe in having some fucking redundancy. Four redundancies in this case.”

“Wait, you only need one of these?” Richard asked, looking between the alien technology and Saunders. “Won’t this be putting too much power through everything?”

That was a good point, but Saunders didn’t seem concerned. “Yeah, but I already took care of that,” he assured them. “Five times the power, five times the glory.”

That was less than reassuring, but what was Michael going to do? Saunders was dangerous, but he was also their only way out of a crashed alien starship, and back to base. He pulled the last of them free, setting them aside before wandering over to a small, completely sealed unit that he opened with a utility knife. A moment later he was flashing a grin at them, and hefting his own reactors. “Now,” he said, “let’s go back. We’ve still got two stops to go.”

“Where else are we fookin’ going?” Richard rightly objected. “We’re not supposed to be your fookin’ pack-mules, you know.”

The madman’s grin widened. “Art of war, mate,” he said. “It’s time for me to get to know my enemy. We’re going over to the Hierarchy ship.”

Hvek and Twanri were not bad people. They did not deserve to die. Neither did Mikhael. But in the Hierarchy, we are dealing with the kind of toes that are best left unstepped-on. And we had stepped heavily indeed.

Neither of the Corti suspected just how much Mikhael and I could hear, you see. They deactivated their translators when they wished to converse in private, and for the first two years, that approach worked. By the third, well… Corti speech is perfectly comprehensible to the human ear, after all. Aep rhafe newn dte etchlimya ogtup oonb zurtuu. We learned how to listen to them.

They spoke at length about this Hierarchy, enthused about how Twanri’s hypothesis was gaining evidence with every excursion. Alas, I never overheard them repeat exactly what that hypothesis was—they must both have been so intimately familiar with it that to speak it aloud would have been a waste of their time. But the essentials were clear. For some reason, within only twenty or thirty years at most after first splitting the atom, every species that has ever accomplished an industrial civilization as a native of a deathworld, has self-destructed, spectacularly.

We ourselves came painfully close, as I’m sure you know, but Twanri seemed to take that as proof that, rather than being an inevitable product of deathworld mentalities, perhaps these extinctions were precipitated somehow. She sense the invisible hand of this Hierarchy, gently pushing so many wonderful peoples off the precipice and into the long dark.

I dismissed the idea as excessive and outlandish, right up until the moment our ship came under attack. __

“Spot”. Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Saunders had installed the reactor cylinders as soon as they’d returned to the ship, and even without a passing knowledge in how alien shit worked, Michael could see the difference they made; the movements of the ship were faster and more reactive, while Saunders seemed less inclined to take painstaking lengths to ensure every little movement was the right one. They’d taken a quick trip out across the continent at incredible speeds before arriving in a forest clearing where the only thing of note had been an alien landing pod.

This, Saunders had explained, was the means by which Jennifer Delaney had reached the planet, but it was stripped of whatever he had been hoping to find. He hadn’t left empty handed, however, and had come away with a piece of tech he’d called the navigational unit.

After that they’d returned to the waters near the base, but this time they had remained above the water and Saunders had been content to conduct the dive by himself. The waters here were clearer than by the more recent crash, however, and the remains of a far more broken vessel were scattered on the sea floor below.

Michael squinted to see through the water, trying to get a good view. It was smaller than the previous ship by a long way, and there was more of it missing than remained. “What’s this fuckin’ thing then?”

“Space Illuminati starship,” Saunders answered candidly, and shortly noticed the looks this statement received. “Not making it up.”

Michael scoffed, but he remembered the interminable briefings back on Earth. The point had stuck that the galaxy was a damned strange place and that humanity’s combined experience of it to date probably wasn’t yet even a scratch on the surface. Next to the space dragons, UFO-nut big-eyed aliens and genuine bug-eyed monsters

“No shite?” Richard muttered, his attention returning to the shattered vessel. “Looks like it’s been blown to fookin’ ‘ell!”

Saunders flashed the mad grin at him. “Not all of it, I hope, because otherwise this will be a waste of my fucking time.”

Saunders dove into the waters a moment later, leaving Michael and Richard to watch him from above, although if it hadn’t been for the small glow of light from the propulsion device they’d have lost sight of him amidst all the ruin.

“Holy shit…” Saunders muttered several minutes into his trip, prompting Michael to demand a report, only to discover that the madman was easily startled by nothing more than a fuckin’ fish; at least he could be entertaining.

When he did finally return, it was with a sack full of goodies, and he was eager to try them out. Richard and Michael, still frustratingly dependent on the Australian to get them home, sat patiently while Saunders fiddled with what he’d recovered, plugging in device after device until he finally came to one that caught his attention.

That one had spoken his name. Saunders had paused, aghast, muttered the word ‘tricks’, and had then commenced a conversation with an alien speaker that included some of what Powell had told them and a shitload more besides, even if they could only understand his half of it. Michael and Richard exchanged a glance. FTL communication was supposedly expensive as all hell and low-bandwidth even for the Corti, which was about the only thing that exonerated Saunders of any suspicion that he might be talking to some kind of handler or agent.

For all their boredom, both men were career spec-ops, and knew valuable intel when they heard it—they absorbed every word for later reporting to the Captain. They listened for hours before the Australian unplugged the device and returned to the cockpit, whereupon he set course, at long last, for Folctha. His shoulders had tensed and risen and his expression was murder itself.

“We going home?” Michael checked, acutely aware that if Saunders chose now to set the ship to fly off to some godforsaken end of creation pursuing this ‘Hierarchy’, then both he and Richard were along for the ride and unable to fly the ship.

Saunders turned to look at him with a new kind of cold, hard gaze. It was the kind that revealed a perfectly lucid man in full possession of his faculties—however temporarily that might be—and wanting to use them all to kill someone. Michael felt a chill as that hateful gaze landed on him; he had considered Saunders a threat before, though merely a disjointed one that could be dealt with; the lucid man before him was a different beast altogether, one wearing the face of the War himself. It was the first time he’d actually looked like a soldier, to Michael’s eyes, and therefore truly dangerous.

“Yeah,” he confirmed coldly, “So take a fucking seat. I’ve got intel Powell is going to want to hear.”

Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

Did you ever encounter Allebenellin, Mister Jenkins? Vile things. Mercenary, callous, venal and stupid. The answer to how a race with such a startling lack of ambition ever accomplished intelligence, let alone how they used tools prior to the invention of their exoskeletons given that they lack limbs, eludes and mystifies me.

In any case, we were crippled with the first volley. They boarded soon afterwards, and poor Hvek and Twanri were reduced to jelly by their pulse fire, sprayed across the command deck. These were the biggest ones, so-called “anti-tank” weaponry, and their fire caught Mikhael in the head. The blow killed him: massive fracturing and cerebral haemorrhage.

Nevertheless, it gave the worms pause, because where the Corti had simply… splattered…here was a creature so tough that, though dead, he was still pretty much intact. They may even have thought he was still alive, which brought me the few seconds I needed to shout the commands, in Corti, which opened all of the doors and lowered the atmosphere retainment fields even as I shut the hatch of my escape pod. Every single one of the marauders was either blown out into space, or else died gasping.

I escaped.

Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches.

Powell heard the starship arrive long before Saunders made his usual commotion; the ship had come in fast and powerful, filling the air with a rolling thunder that echoed through the surrounding forests and sent alien birds into alien sky. Saunders was returning in a hurry, so the news probably wasn’t good, and by the time Powell had found him he was holding Lance Corporal Danny Michael in an arm lock and whispering sweet fookin’ nothings into his ear while Corporal Paul Richard just stood around holding his fookin’ dick.

Powell approached the trio, by now a spectacle for the colonists, with a fairly restrained expression of being completely pissed off, striding over into their view as he demanded to know what the fook they thought they were doing.

Saunders released the man as soon as he heard Powell’s voice, turning to face him with a fiercely present look in his eyes. There was focus there, with anger driving it, and Powell realised he’d have to step carefully until it passed. “Looking for you, Powell,” he replied. “Got a spare minute to deal with another lifetime of bullshit?”

“More bad fookin’ news,” Powell breathed, having expected as much and still finding himself irritated at the man’s glib insubordination in spite of having expected that as well. To calm himself he had to remind himself that this was a man who had stripped down an alien cloaking system and had provided humanity with basic notes on how it seemed to function, thus proving himself useful even if he was as fookin’ shitful as a man could be. “Fookin’ wonderful. Yeah, I’ve got a spare minute.”

They stepped into the office Powell had reserved for himself, closing the door to hide their conversation away from the colonial rumourmongers; the things that were already circulating were bad enough without the truth getting out there. Powell took his seat, knowing he’d prefer to be seated for what was to come if Saunders was being even half-serious, and looked up at the man. “Start talkin’, Saunders.”

Saunders briefed him. Properly briefed him, his voice more level than it ever had been. The story was typically insane—a bat-girl trapped in a ping-pong ball sized computer, and what he’d learned from her. It wasn’t something that Powell would normally have believed, because who would really have thought that some fook’ed up alien version of the Matrix could actually exist? Saunders believed it, though, and more impressively when he glanced at Michael and Richard, they nodded slowly from behind Saunders’ eyeline.

Accepting that also meant that accepting the kind of headache Saunders had been promising; taking a man captive was one thing, but taking his mind was quite another, and presented the kind of security risks he’d have preferred stayed in science fiction.

Saunders finished his explanation by stating his intention to leave as soon as he possibly could. “Spot can fly,” he said, apparently having named his ship like he’d have named a dog, “Even if she’s not pretty, and I’ve got things I need to protect.”

“Don’t forget our deal,” Powell reminded him. “Good faith.”

Saunders nodded. “I’m going to need guns. Guns and ammunition.”

That was more than Powell was willing to simply give away, even in return for Saunders fulfilling their agreement. He’d have to be just as mad as Saunders to start handing over firearms. “I’m not handing over weapons to a crazy man without a good fookin’ reason,” he said. “Quid pro quo, remember?”

“Then I might have something you find useful,” Saunders returned with a smile. “I can build you a scanner that will let you know if hunters are in the system, cloaked or not. Then you won’t be caught with your fucking pants down.”

That was exactly the sort of thing he should have been offering for free, but Powell held his tongue. There was no need to antagonise the man when simply trading away a single weapon and some ammunition would provide him with more of a return on investment than he had believed possible. The Hunters represented a serious threat to the colony, and any way they could reduce that threat was worth the risk. Besides, had he been in Saunders’ situation he’d have done the same, reserving a bartering chip just in case. He’d have reserved several, in fact, which naturally made him suspect that Saunders had done so too.

It was becoming clear that, bug-fuck though he might be, Saunders was going to be an asset. Albeit, one that would need careful handling at arms’ length.

The man may have succeeded in restoring one of the ruined ships to life, but Powell thought he would wait until he produced what he promised. “If you can build us that,” Powell promised, “I’ll make sure you get what you asked for.”

Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

If you’re interested, the escape pod is probably still where I left it, somewhere in the Monongahela national forest. I walked until I found a road, hitch-hiked to Charlottesville. Hvek and Twanri had assured me that I would be amply rewarded for my service, and they had not lied—the Swiss bank account they had made me memorise the details of contained a lavish supply of funds, more than enough to pick a town at random on the map and work my way here by Greyhound.

Most went on this apartment, and on reinforcing it. The rest… keeps me alive, so I can tell my story.

The only reason I tell it to you now, Mr. Jenkins, is because, as you say, entering this room has probably already doomed you. I hope at least that the knowledge of WHO is going to kill you brings you some comfort.

Folctha colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Back on Earth, much thought and theorycrafting had gone into the problem of supplying the soldiers for the possibility of shipboard combat, where a stray bullet could mean fatal decompression, even with the damage control fields. Options had been considered up to and including reviving kinetic pulse weaponry, but with the tactical environment now apparently including things that were similarly tough to humanity—not to mention other humans—that project had been abandoned. Again.

The fact was, the only weaponry that could reliably hurt humans, or anything that had the ability to stand up to a human in combat, was also dangerous to starships and there was no way around that.

Unless—and Legsy was shamelessly self-congratulatory about this—you gave up on relying on the gun to be everything at once, and took a look at the ammo instead. Starships meant corridors. Corridors meant shotguns. Shotguns meant buckshot and slugs for dealing with humans, birdshot for the squishy ones. Problem solved. The smaller pellets of birdshot would have a much lower chance of damaging a starship, but were still devastating to alien flesh, and if you came across anything tougher, you just needed to use different ammo. Problem fucking solved.

The rest had involved persuading the mission planners to furnish their armory with magazine-fed SPAS-15s, which could rapidly change ammo types in response to a shifting tactical situation, rather than tube-fed M1014s which were a little less flexible. That had been easy once Powell had been convinced to back his towering celtic gun-nut comrade. Predicting the need to possibly arm the civilian colonists, the soldiers had arrived with more than they themselves could possibly use, and “losing” one of the shotguns to “Operational circumstances” seemed only reasonable considering how well Saunders had held up his end of the bargain. It went down on the paperwork as having been dismantled for spare parts, and the ammo was written off to “water damage”.

Powell entered the tent that served as the camp’s armoury in time to hear Legsy ask “Watcha think, boy, reckon that’ll do?” as he handed the gun over.

Adrian Saunders looked like a hundred Christmases had all arrived at once, and held the gun like it was the most wonderful thing he had ever laid hands or eyes on. Then, seeing Powell enter, he tried to sober his expression a little. “I…uh…yeah. Yeah, that’ll do.” he said, unconvincingly.

Legsy grinned, handed over the ammunition and then busied himself with cleaning the Minimi that was his own weapon of choice.

“The new sensors are up.” Powell said. “And a fook of a lot better than the old ones. I might just have been wrong about you being a waste of good calories.”

Adrian dodged the apology. “Jen could have told you that.” He replied.

The man still nettled Powell, for all that he’d proven his obvious worth as an engineer and an expert in alien technology. He’d obviously started out as a stubborn bastard, and his experiences had only driven him further into his intransigent shell, even if he put up a smokescreen of flippant no-fucks-given attitude to cover it.

“Jen thinks you’re dead.” he said. “Not a lot of point going into the skills and talents of a fookin’ dead man, is there?

Really, he should just stop poking. Saunders was badly damaged—best to just get on with it. He exercised some willpower and resolved to stick to the facts from now on and leave his opinions out of it. Saunders might be a danger to the colony, but he’d proven he was a useful risk, and probably not worth antagonising.

“Might have been worth knowing you on top of a fuckload of salvageable alien tech though, wouldn’t it?”

Powell wanted to point out that the only man on the planet—the only man in the whole human race as far as he knew—that could even have identified the technology as being still salvageable and in working condition was Adrian himself. Jen had her own set of skills, a sharp mind and was a quick study, but she hadn’t once shown anything more than a working, user-level knowledge of alien technology.

He stuck to his resolution though and didn’t rise to it.

“Your ship ready?”

“Yep. Spot’s all ready to go, provisions are all loaded… Just need to hump the artillery here and I’m done mate.”

Powell didn’t comment that Saunders was holding a bag full of shotgun shells as if it were his cricketing gear, without appearing to be really conscious of it. Even in Cimbrean’s low gravity, that was an indication of the “Alien Mutant Juice” marinating his tissues.

“Good. Right now, according to those fancy sensors you set up, you’ve got a clear sky. No warp signatures within range and that’s… what, a couple parsecs or so?”

“About that.” Saunders agreed.

“So, you’ve got a clear run to get out of here without telling the galaxy about it, and there’s no guarantee that’s going to be true tomorrow. So, would you mind awfully-”

”-fucking off?” Adrian finished, interrupting him with a grin. “Too bad, I’ll miss the food here mate.”

Powell snorted, and extended a hand. After a moment’s hesitation, Saunders shook it.

“Just try not to get killed you crazy fookin’ prick.” he said.

Adrian grinned. “So far so good.”

Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

”…That’s a brutal story, eh?”

“And Terri Boone died after hearing it, Martin.”

“Just playing Devil’s Advocate here, Kevin but… that doesn’t necessarily suggest there’s an alien conspiracy involved.”

“Fuck devil’s advocate. Do you want to go extinct?”


“Neither do I.”

Kevin Jenkins put his phone away, expression grim. “If I’m wrong and Singh is just a crazy hermit, oh well. Sorry to have wasted the loonies, man.”

He leaned forward. “But if I’m right then one of these fuckers could be on Earth right now, looking for an opening. With stakes that high, I think maybe we should take this ‘Hierarchy’ business seriously.” he said. “Don’t you?”