Chapter 16: Firebird
Date Point: 4y 2m 1w 2d AV
Classified Facility, Earth
CIA Interrogation Team Planning Session
“Two and a half million people dead. Another half-million expected to die worldwide from the mid-term repercussions, and nobody has even BEGUN to predict the long-term effects. The largest and busiest container port in the United States damaged to the point where the repairs are going to take years. Major earthquake damage all along the San Andreas fault zone, eruptions as far north as Mount Rainier and thank fuck for the tsunami warning systems in Hawaii and along the Asian Pacific Rim because without them the death toll might have doubled.”
There was a grim and angry silence, during which the folder slapped down accusingly onto the table.
“You assured me he told us EVERYTHING.”
“He did tell us about that, sir.”
“The hell he did! He told us it was the one option that would NOT get used!”
“He told us that it was the one option that he wouldn’t use, sir.”
“I want you to go over every single thing that piece of shit xeno”—the word was expectorated with all the venom of a racial epithet—“has told us and God help me but if there’s even a hint that…you know what, just get it the fuck done!”
There was a shocked silence as their collective superior barged out of the room. The tension finally broke when the base commander took a deep breath.
“I do believe that man’s head is about to roll.” he commented, exploiting the full sardonic, drawled breadth of his Georgia accent.
Nobody laughed—the devastation in California was simply too raw and solemn for that. But they did all let go of just a little tension.
“Serve him the fuck right.” ‘Carl’ said. “He screwed the pooch.”
“He’s still our boss.” the CO reminded them. “So keep that to yourself and do what he said. Full review.”
“The Strategic Debriefing is unchanged though, right? Six is still…fragile.”
”…Yeah. For now we proceed as planned. But break the news about Diego to him, see how he reacts. I’m still not convinced he’s serious about defecting.”
Date Point: 4y 2m 1w 2d AV
Orlando, Florida, USA, Earth
“As of this time we are assuming 100% casualties within five kilometers of ground zero. All of the addresses you’ve given, sir, are within that radius. I’m so sorry.”
“I…Thank you. I’ll pass that along.”
“Well, they might have been outside the lethal radius at the time, so we’ll keep your number on file in case any resident of those addresses turns up alive.”
“I appreciate it. Good luck.”
“And you, sir.”
The kids were side-by side on the bed, watching the TV with their fingers interlaced and their knuckles white. He couldn’t read either of their expressions—they seemed to have passed beyond grief and into some miserable calm state beyond, where there was nothing to do but drink in the disaster and pray.
Nobody was listening to the physics expert who was expanding at length on the technical difference between a nuclear explosion and this event, which apparently had the hallmarks of some kind of antimatter-based weapon. They were just watching the hole, still glowing and smoking like Hell’s own aperture.
“They’re dead, aren’t they?” Ava stated. It wasn’t that she was calm and euthymic—it was more that she had no more crying left.
Gabriel couldn’t sugar-coat the answer to that question. “FEMA’s assuming so.” he said. “They’ll call me back if there’s…you know, a miracle.”
“They would have called me by now.” she said.
“And Mom?” Adam asked. Gabriel just shook his head. While his ex-wife and son had often been antagonistic and frustrated with each other, he knew that she had still been his mother. He doubted that even she, as alcoholic and obtuse as she could be, would stay out of contact after such a disaster. Of course, the cell network in the area might just be overworked and badly damaged but…
But Gabriel didn’t believe in clinging to forlorn hope.
He put his arm around them both, and they watched.
Date Point: 4y 2m 1w 5d AV
Classified Facility, Earth
His cell had improved beyond all recognition. The bed was downright comfortable and warm, the desk had been supplemented with a well-stocked bookshelf and a musical device.
This last was bliss next to the eternity of sensory deprivation he had suffered. It was apparently outdated by modern human standards, but used in his case because the “CDs” that he loaded into it came in their own cases with information about the music they contained, and the device’s lack of any broadcast ability.
In short, he felt less like a detainee and more like a welcome guest nowadays.
He had spent hours working through the stack of music left for him, swiftly discarding some, enthralled by others. There was one, however, that he kept coming back to.
♪♫”Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!“♫♪
He was humming along when there was a loud knock on the door.
That part was new, too. The door was no longer being opened by his handlers and his compliance demanded—now they were requesting entry, letting him rule the space a little. It was another liberty, received with a gratitude he was no longer finding so pathetic. If the situation was reversed, he knew full well that any human prisoner in his own custody would not have been treated even a fraction so well.
The hood, earmuffs and restraints were the same, but that part was just sensible. He was still a prisoner, claiming defection, actual motives still uncertain. The logic of his treatment from start to finish was crystal-clear, methodical, oh-so-sensible. He shuffled along, by now trusting his handlers implicitly.
“Hello, Stephen!” he began “What…What happened?”
Stephen had a grim expression as he placed a newspaper on the table between them.
An involuntary groan cascaded down Six’s whole body as he read the headline: “San Diego Destroyed!”
There was a long silence as he read the summary below the full page spread of the huge glowing hole where once had stood the thriving Downtown whose streets had so enthralled him.
“How many?” He croaked, eventually.
“Maybe as many as three million. It’s not clear yet.” Stephen replied.
All the joy and comfort of his newfound privileges fled him, and he withered in his seat.
“There’s no hope now, is there? Your people are going to want justice for this.”
“We are.” Stephen agreed “But peace is still on the table, believe that. Justice doesn’t have to mean genocide.”
“I thought we were smarter than this…I really did.”
He sighed, and rubbed his face. It was amazing how the body language just swept over him—all hosts instilled some of their instinctive behaviours on the occupying mind-state, that part was familiar. But the degree to which the human body imposed its own mannerisms was an order of magnitude more powerful. He doubted he’d ever be the same again for having occupied one.
He looked up and met Stephen’s eye. “What do you need from me?”
Date point: 4y 2m 1w 6d AV
Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada.
♪♫I don’t know about you, but this looks like imprisonment/ what’s worse is that the prisoners don’t know that they’re prisoners/ even defend the…♫♪
“Jesus fuck, he’s alive…”
“It’s Arés.” Kevin answered the phone. “Jenkins. Fuck, Arés, I thought you were dead.”
It was a genuine pleasure to hear that same hispanic lilt come over the line. “Guess I should thank a bullet in the back for that. I went on vacation with my son, we’re in Florida.”
“Well, I’m glad man. I heard about…the thing, that you stopped.”
“Know what happened to him?”
“Sorry, dude. No-can-discuss.”
“If that bastard was respons-”
“No. Can. Discuss. Man, you’re a cop, you should understand this shit.”
”…you’re right. Sorry, Jenkins.”
Arés hung up.
Tremblay gave him an appraising look. The general was off-duty, or at least as much so as he ever got, and nursing one of Kevin’s own home-brews. “He wanted you to break confidentiality?”
Kevin sighed. “Yeah. I mean, I can see why. Poor bastard’s just lost everything, I’d be out to kick ass in his position.”
There was a minute of silent thought before Tremblay spoke again. “So, answer me truthfully. If I hadn’t been sitting here, would you have, I don’t know, dropped a hint or something?”
“Nah, man.” When Tremblay arched an eyebrow. “Maybe a few months ago, maybe. But not after learning about those fucking biodrone things.”
“You don’t think Arés could be one?”
“Hell no! But, y’know, I finally get the whole “loose lips sink ships” thing, right?”
Tremblay nodded, apparently satisfied. “It’s a shame there’s not much we can do for him.” he said. “He deserves something.”
They drank in silence for a bit, before Kevin asked, apropos of nothing: “The Brits are going public with the Cimbrean colony soon, aren’t they?”
“Day after tomorrow, I think.”
Date Point: 4y 2m 2w AV
Classified Facility, Earth
Interrogation Team Planning Session
“I wish I could tell you. We’re very much…what was the phrase? ‘In uncharted territory’ now.”
“Can’t you speculate?”
“I’ll try, but Stephen, you need to understand that I am not human. I think that’s the communications failure that led to this.”
“Why does that change anything?”
“Humans are deathworlders. You’re evolved to live on a planet which is routinely dangerous, and you’ve especially evolved to rely on—and exploit—other humans for your survival. While every social sapient obviously has the instincts for guessing at the motives and possible future actions of others of their species, and other sapients, your instinct for it is much more acute. So please, be skeptical of just how accurate my conclusions are likely to be.”
”…Okay. But please try.”
On screen, Six’s recorded self sighed and rubbed his chin.
“I imagine that by now, my personality backup will have been activated. Being as senior as I am, I can tell you how I would react to this news and how it might affect their response.”
“I would be shitting myself. This is a full-blown catastrophe from the Hierarchy’s perspective—our mandate is secrecy and deniability, and now an enclave has been raided and a city-busting self-destruct option deployed because there was no faster alternative that would have guaranteed destruction of all our assets. Seventy-Two has probably been decompiled. They may find him blameless, in which case he will be recompiled but that takes months.”
“Decompiled…so, they’ll have taken him apart and read his memories?”
“Read everything. His decision-making process from start to finish, what he knew, everything he experienced and thought right up until the moment the process was begun. The analysis is thorough beyond description—there is no organic equivalent.”
Six coughed, and thought. “What they will see, is that I went silent, and that some time later, a precisely targeted assault hit Seventy-Two’s base of operations. Frankly Stephen, that operation was a huge mistake on your peoples’ part.”
“You mean besides the two and a half million deaths?” Six snorted. “It means I’m now known to have failed to retain at least some secrets. They certainly won’t suspect that I am now collaborating with you, but If I were my restored self, I would recommend an immediate full decompile and analysis before any merger went ahead. And on top of that, I would insist on the backup being the dominant personality. Releasing me back into the Hierarchy to work from the inside is no longer an option.”
“I think we’re drifting off topic here.”
“You’re right, we are. Sorry. As for what they will do next…” Six shrugged expressively. “We can probably rule out the best-case scenario where they come to the same conclusions I have about our chances. We had already, fortunately, established that any kind of a direct conflict would carry unacceptable risks both of widespread discovery and of your people actually winning. Which means their most likely avenue of attack will be sabotage and politics.”
“Meaning, that they will influence the media to portray humanity as a dangerous threat on par with the Hunters. They will infiltrate the security councils and vote in favour of resolutions that are detrimental to Earth. If they can, they will attempt to return to Earth and do the same thing to your own politicians and media outlets. If your people build starships, they will attempt to spin it as a waste of resources. Seventy-Two’s networks will not have died with his enclave, there will still be avenues they can use to back politicians who might put heavy taxes on space industry, or they might engineer internecine warfare down here to distract you and keep you looking down.”
They stopped the playback.
“That’s not a lot to go on.” Said their new boss. As the CO had correctly guessed, his predecessor had been swiftly (though quietly) fired over San Diego, and the new incumbent was keen to avoid a repeat.
“Or too much.”
“Exactly. I need more than a few educated guesses at their possible strategies if I’m going to form a coherent response.”
“Six hasn’t been in the loop for months now. At this point, we can’t reasonably expect him to give us more than that, sir.”
“Then what use is he to us?”
There was a general looking-around. ‘Carl’ finally broke the silence. “For what it’s worth sir, I’m convinced that he means every word about trying to change the Hierarchy’s approach and become our agent on the inside.”
“You think we should release him?”
“It’s a huge gamble, but at this point, we’ve got every truly relevant bit of information, and the rest is speculation that we can probably do for ourselves. And I think that gamble would pay off.”
“I’ll take that under advisement. Is there anything more of use in that recording?”
“You’ve got the gist of it, sir. He was fairly consistent in his opinion of how they’ll respond. He did, however, namedrop a potential individual of interest.”
“Nobody human. He thinks they’re where Seventy-two got his ‘biodrone’ implants from.”
“Intriguing. I think I’d better call my British opposite number.”
“The Brits? Why?”
The boss chuckled. “Let’s just say they got their hands on something that makes Scotch Creek look like a scifi convention…”
Date Point: 4y 2m 3w AV
Ceres Base, Sol
They laid their hands on the table.
“Okay, that’s two pair threes and nines for the Englishman, and…Three Queens for Togo-san. Sorry, Cavendish.”
“Pay up, ya pommie bastard, he won fair and square.”
Heikichi grinned uncertainly, still a little uncomfortable with the way the Drews casually insulted each other at every opportunity, but by now used to it and well aware that it was all friendliness.
The truth was, Drew C and Drew M were now fast friends, with the stoic and efficient Brit serving to neatly offset Drew Martin’s antipodean ebullience. On the job, both men were complete professionals. Off duty, they were the hub of the base’s intercorporate social life, running as they did a little unofficial venture—known universally as “the Speakeasy”—in a corner of the survey drone service hangar. There was no alcohol to be had: everybody needed to be sharp at all times in case of emergencies, but it was amazing just how entertaining fruit juice could get if you knew a few secrets.
There was a general cheering from the Mitsubishi contingent as Drew handed over his chips then stood up to go mix a Triple-B—a “Blue-Balled on the Beach”.
He paused as the facility-wide tannoy chimed.
“All mining and construction section chiefs, please report to Meeting Room A. Mining and construction chiefs to Meeting Room A, thank you.”
Drew M just shrugged at him. They left the Speakeasy in the capable hands of Emma Henderson, one of the BAE engineers whose job revolve around keeping all the air inside the facility, and jogged up the stairs to the third floor of the survey drone hangar module and took the well-travelled shortcut through the misplaced Cargill Hydroponics Module.
The CHM’s managers had wisely decided to install a clear tunnel to keep traffic separate from the experimental crops, rather than ban the use of one of the most convenient routes through the station, meaning that for a minute or so they walked surrounded on all sides by growing plants, greenery and botanical research. The accidental placement of the CHM at the heart of the facility rather than on its outskirts had proved to be a real morale-booster—everybody seemed to love it, and there were always a few off-duty workers just hanging out in the tunnel, enjoying the sight of life flourishing in the experimental conditions.
From there, one of the many intersection modules, each of which played a vital role in damage control and life support. They hung a right through one of the three E·ON Power Modules, another intersection module, and finally into the Facility Administration and Resources Module.
It was a running gag on base that the companies which comprised the Ceres LLC had jointly and equally paid for this particular module because none of them individually wanted to buy the FARM.
Meeting Room A was just like any other meeting or boardroom. The same table, the same chairs. The large, expensive and structurally compromising windows seemed like an anachronism in the otherwise utilitarian Ceres Base. There was little point in having a breathtaking view of the inside of an irregular concrete dome, after all.
But eventually, that dome would be the innermost of a triple pressure hull 3D-printed in concrete made of Ceres’ own regolith. Eventually, landscaping and lakes and a simulacrum of a park on Earth would fill the open space inside the domes, complete with a projected sky and a day/night cycle. People could endure confinement inside the pressurised modules only for so long before the desire to get outside and feel a fresh breeze on their face could grow distracting. The facility intended to have that opportunity available for morale purposes quite early on, as soon as there were several sturdy layers of airtight concrete between the fragile human occupants and the voracious nothing outside.
The Drews weren’t the first to arrive, nor the last. They settled in at one end of the table and swapped small-talk and speculation while everybody filed in, some still dirty and sweaty from hardsuit time.
The last to arrive were the people who had presumably called the meeting. Only the very senior management wore suits on Ceres, and these four did—the representative managers for BHP-B, BAE and Skanska, along with the facility administrator, Adele Park, who did a quick head-count and nodded.
“Thank you all for coming.” she told them. “Before we begin, I need to confirm that the content of this meeting is subject to your non-disclosure agreements. Is everyone on board with that?”
There was a general nodding, and so she stood aside for the BAE rep.
“Last week, BAE Systems successfully bid on a contract for the British Ministry of Defence to begin construction of a fleet of starships.” he said. Drew C raised a hand. “Yes?”
“Last I checked that barrier’s still out there.” he pointed out.
“It is, but the customer doesn’t seem to care. May I continue?”
“The contract is for three spaceborne destroyers. We were fortunate in that we’ve been adapting our existing blueprints and coming up with new ones pretty much since the Second Space Race began, so we’ve got the plans. We just need somewhere to build them.” he indicated the BHP-B and Skanska reps. “That’s where our friends in the mining and construction industries come in.”
“Ceres is an ideal location for a dry-dock. We have existing infrastructure, none of the debris that would threaten a shipyard built in orbit over Earth, it’s a low-gravity environment and there’s a ready supply of raw materials right here, rolling straight out of the ore processor. We just need one built.”
He handed over to the Billiton rep, who activated the wall screen, showing off what were, to Drew C’s informed eye, clearly some pretty hasty plans.
“Stage one is going to be open-cast mining of Ceres itself.” he said. “There’s a lot of water-ice not far below us, that’s what we’ll mostly be digging through, but we can use it. We’ve already got a small supply pit meeting this facility’s water demands: if we expand that dig into the drydock pit then we’ll generate enough of a surplus to last us for years. Yes?”
This was in response to a construction team leader who was asking why the shipyard couldn’t just be built on the surface.
“Sinking it below the surface will protect the construction work from meteoroids and solar radiation. As a side benefit, the long-term plan for Ceres Base includes subterranean expansion, and the wall of the shipyard pit would serve very well for getting that expansions started, when we get that far. Not to mention the aforementioned valuable water.”
He glanced at his notes. “While the mine itself is going to be pretty standard, we’ll be working in vacuum and weak gravity, which are going to complicate things. Were reassigning Andrew Cavendish and Andrew Martin to foreman the project.”
“Really? Us?” Drew C asked.
The rep chuckled. “If you weren’t aware, Drew, as of three days ago you’re actually the man with the most EVA experience in the history of the human race.”
“That’s…news to me.”
“Well, it’s true. That thruster assembly you constructed on Monday was your eighteenth spacewalk and took you past the eighty-three hour mark. You’ve walked more often and for longer than Anatoly Solovyev. There’s nobody with more EVA experience, and that means we need you watching out for the miners when we bring them in.”
There was a general murmur of agreement and congratulations. Clearly the milestone had gone overlooked by everybody else as well. Drew had other things on his mind.
“If I’ve been out there that long, how’s my radiation count?” he asked.
“You’re fine. Those Red Bull suits have some imported alien radiation shielding technology in them. You got a worse dose when you were cutting granite back in two thousand five.”
Drew didn’t know if he exactly trusted alien technology—when it came to radiation, he felt a lot better with several meters of concrete protecting him, rather than some flimsy xeno solution, but he shrugged it off. The company stood to lose far too much if they lied to him about his dose.
“Okay. Do I get a raise?”
There was general laughter. Finally somebody was asking the important questions.
“Yes, Drew, you get a raise.” The rep smiled, rolling his eyes.
“Bloody lovely. I’ll draw up our safety guidelines and training.” he promised.
“Good. Anyway, once the pit’s at size, installing the gantries and structures to turn it into a shipyard is Skanska’s job. Tom, you want to take over?”
Drew only half-listened as the briefing continued, and barely registered Drew M nudging him in the elbow and murmuring “Good on yer, mate.”
He was getting paid more, and that meant he was a step closer to that tropical island.
Date Point: 4y 3m AV
Amnag-Dwuz Biotech Head Offices
Planet Origin, Corti Directorate Core World
It took less than a second for Director Nmrb’s life to change drastically. He went, during that second, from reading productivity reports and financial information, to falling out of his chair and fouling himself in terror as the expensive imported Cq’twj-wood door of his office—a wood renowned for its sterngth and solidity—was physically ripped out of its frame without there having been any kind of a hint from any source that there might be something outside of it that might wish to do so.
He crawled under the desk, mentally pulsing the panic alarm signal through his cybernetics.
The desk was physically picked up and, to add further insult to the scenario, was flung across the room with contemptuous ease. This did have the dubiously positive side-effect of revealing the identity of his assailant—five humans.
He would have vented again, if there’d been anything left in his system to manage it. Each one of the deathworlders was wrapped head to toe in equipment that had a dull, functional appearance to it, and carrying their weapons with apparent ease when he doubted that he himself would have been able to lift them unassisted.
“Fuckin’ ‘ell, boys!” Exclaimed the biggest one of them, probably the one that had accelerated his table across the room, where two of the others were using it for cover against any potential targets that might come through the door. “And I thought the fuckin’ robo-worms smelled bad!”
“Mind on the job. You. Name.” The new speaker, clearly a ranking individual, addressed Nmrb directly.
“N-Nmrb!” Nmrb squeaked. The big, loud one was carrying a gun that was a good half as large again as the others, and yet Nmrb’s translation implant was tentatively interpreting his body language—the face, sadly, was impossible to see behind the cloth and goggles—as nonchalant good humour.
“Good. You’re being abducted. Do not argue, do not resist, do not try to call for aid. We will know if you do. We don’t intend to hurt you, but the strength difference means you’ll be safer if we don’t have to restrain you. Do you understand?”
“Contact!” one of the others reported. “Robo-worms, three of them.”
Nmrb fought his emotions under control. The Annebenellin guards in this building were equipped for human suppression, this should be a short fight.
The human who had reported contact fired his weapon. It chatter-spat three bursts of firepower. He did not need to shoot any more than that.
“Clear.” he reported, in a flat, calm tone of voice.
The leader turned his attention back to Nmrb. “Do you understand?” he repeated.
They left via the roof, where what was unmistakably a hunter dropship decloaked in the ripping winds, just long enough to collect them.
The second they were aboard and their weapons made safe, the team diverted their full attention to him. Nmrb took a look around the interior. Hunter though it had once been, the ship had obviously been badly damaged at some point and then hybridized with human technology to get it spaceworthy again. The interior was cramped and rugged, with straps and netting holding a variety of equipment snug against the walls and ceiling wherever there was room. Despite this, there was still plenty of space inside, a legacy of the fact that humans were physically much more compact than Hunters.
The commanding human produced a cloth and a flask of water, which Nmrb used to accomplish the humiliating process of cleaning himself. One of the soldiers just opened the ramp and threw the soiled thing out once he was done, apparently unperturbed by the terminal-velocity drop outside, or the angry wind that snatched at him.
They had given him time to think at least. Time to recover his wits and his dignity.
“You have questions for me.” he said, exercising the full extent of his species’ emotional discipline.
“Our commanding officer does. We’re just the collection detail.” said the leader.
“And your commanding officer is…?”
“Always angry.” said the big one. The humans laughed, even the leader.
They were headed into orbit, and that alone troubled Nmrb. While the Hunter raiding-ship was especially designed to infiltrate even heavily-defended words, relying on its tiny size and cloak to evade detection, nothing that might loiter in orbit could possibly do so for very long without the use of ultra-advanced cloaking technology. Even the puny dimple in local spacetime made by its own mass gravity would have to be smoothed out.
Nevertheless, they landed, without having gone to FTL, and without having re-entered the atmosphere.
There was a detail of more human soldiers on deck, plus a human in a different uniform. She stepped forward smartly and addressed Nmrb directly.
“Welcome aboard HMS Caledonia.” She said. “My name is Lieutenant Ellen McDaniel: As your advocate, my job is to see to it that your rights as an intelligent being are not violated during your stay here.”
“Why am I here?” Nmrb demanded.
“You have been detained on suspicion of conspiracy to perform an act of genocide.” McDaniel told him. “Furthermore we suspect that you are complicit in-”
“Genocide?!” Nmrb exclaimed. McDaniel didn’t so much as blink.
“As I was saying, you are also suspected of complicity in the detonation of a weapon of mass destruction within the bounds of the city of San Diego on Earth, leading directly to the death of more than two million individuals.”
She handed him a datapad. “Your arrest is legal under section nine hundred and seven point two, paragraph twelve of the three hundred and third resolution of the Dominion Justice Council.”
“You aren’t Dominion signatories.” Nmrb snapped, scanning the datapad.
“The right of non-members to exercise Dominion law against signatory members is outlined in section…”
“Yes, yes…” Nmrb was familiar with the principle. It was both irritating and alarming to see that the humans had become so well-informed about the minutiae of Dominion law, so quickly.
He pressed his thumb to the biometric patch at the datapad’s corner, confirming his legal status—detained for questioning, but not yet on trial, with a maximum duration to his detainment no longer than three standard diurnals, and not a short unit duration longer.
“Thank you. Please follow me.”
The Caledonia’s layout had a degree of familiarity to it, but some unique twists. It was almost a Corti ship in its construction, but there were elements to the architecture and configuration that were more in keeping with Alliance shipbuilding principles. Whoever had originally built it had obviously not been human, however: the deathworlders’ aftermarket modifications cut through the ship like a sour note, crude but sturdy in contrast to the technological elegance that surrounded them. The most striking change was the introduction of thick steel doors at regular intervals along the corridors, operated physically and probably requiring more strength than most beings could muster. It was clearly a counter-boarding measure, though Nmrb couldn’t for a moment envision who—or what—would be so self-destructively reckless as to board any vessel known to contain more than one human.
Their tour was not a long one. McDaniel led him into a room whose original purpose had probably not involved the human-built furniture that dominated the middle—a large oval table and several chairs.
“Mr. Nmrb, sirs.” McDaniel said, impressing him with her ability to pronounce his name correctly.
The room contained several more humans, these ones very plainly commanders to judge by the apparent structure of the rank insignia they wore. The one anomaly was wearing no obvious uniform at all, just patterned dark green lower-limb garments, a black torso-garment, and a dark green head covering with a badge on the front depicting a blade bisecting two parallel blue lines, and the motto “By Strength And Guile”.
“Right.” he said. None of the others spoke, giving the impression that this…under-identified individual either outranked them, or held their esteem. He flopped a large hardcopy printout onto the table. “D’you recognise these fookin’ things?”
Nmrb examined the image, eager to co-operate and be returned to the planet below.
The things in the image were a little hard to place for a second, but then he interrogated his memory cybernetic, and felt dread settle on him.
He was looking at a complete set of the custom neural implants. These ones had been carefully removed from their recipient’s brain and preserved as best as crude Terran surgery could allow, but the delicate nanofilaments that actually did the work of interfacing with the recipient’s neural structure on the ultrafine level were all unsurprisingly severed. There was no way the patient could have survived their excision, assuming they had been alive at all when they went on the operating table.
“Those are not from our standard catalogue.” he said, stalling for time.
“That’s not what I asked. I asked if you recognise them.”
The Corti reputation for intellect was not accidental, nor the product of bluff and propaganda, and Nmrb was sharp even by Corti standards. He resurrected knowledge and skills that he had not been called upon to exercise in many years, and analysed the items in the picture with a cyberneticist’s eye, rather than an administrator’s.
“This one appears to be a custom motor neurone bridging implant.” he said. “It seems to have been specialized for installation in your own species, but-”
“I didn’t ask you what they are.” the human repeated. Something about his tone of voice shot straight into the primitive depths of Nmrb’s hindbrain and sent desperate signals to the effect that something very dangerous was angry at him. “I asked you whether you fookin’ recognise them.”
“I d-don’t.” Nmrb stammered, lying.
“That’s funny, because they’ve got all the signatures of having come the labs YOU worked in and administrate.”
“In which case,” suggested one of the other humans, this one wearing insignia which if Nmrb understood the logic correctly—indicated that he was the highest-ranking officer. “Allowing him to continue his analysis of their function may be worth our while.”
Nmrb decided that he liked this one, even as he recognised the strategy of using the voice of aggression and the voice of calm reason in opposition against one another to pressure him.
He cleared his throat, and bowed slightly to the advocate of sensibility. “As I was saying. This next one is…a top of the line interspecies communication implant, we don’t even sell these yet. This third one look like a…neuroplasticity inhibitor?”
“You sound confused by that.”
“Neuroplasticity inhibitors are built to correct a disorder that affects about one in every eight thousand Corti.” Nmrb explained. “I can think of no reason why one would be installed in a human. This fourth one appears to be a high-end augmentation package. Those are highly customisable so I cannot tell you its exact function, but typical options would include cybernetic instant-access memory, logical sub-processors, focus and attention boosters, or even communications. We currently have no production models of any of these implants suitable for installation in a human.”
“Economically unviable given the quarantine of your homeworld.”
“But you could build these.”
“We did build these, it seems. Just from looking at a picture, I cannot give you more information than I already have.”
“So this is a custom order. We will need to know who the client is.”
“And how am I supposed to explain this breach of client confidentiality to the board?”
The unmarked one with the surly attitude spoke again. “The ‘client’ is responsible for the destruction of a city on Earth, and we’re fookin’ angry about that.” He snarled. It really was incredible how this being’s anger seemed to directly bypass every refined Corti mental trick and intimidate the lingering animal part. “D’you think that explanation might work?”
“Given your…unexpected and alarming apparent ability to operate away from your homeworld despite the existence of a supposedly impenetrable barrier, I’m sure that this information will have…some effect, yes.” Nmrb agreed, finding it quite hard to retain his composure under the human’s oh-so-carnivorous glare.
Date Point: 4y 3m AV
HMS Myrmidon, in orbit around Cimbrean.
“Well, it’s official. The existence of this colony is now public knowledge, both on Earth and out in the greater galaxy.”
Sir Jeremy Sandy seemed remarkably well-rested considering how hectic his last few days must have been. Preparing the colony to go public, recording a press statement, finalizing the provisional draft of the opening proposals for the first Colonial Council, a formal naming ceremony for Folctha and so much more should have taken a real toll on him. Instead, the Old Man—everybody referred to him as that, respectfully—seemed composed and steady.
It was the considered opinion of Captain David Manning that the Old Man must have absolutely cast-iron discipline about his sleep schedule.
It was a skill he himself had never learned, and he was constantly suffering for it, but there was just so much to do. Assimilating the two plundered Hierarchy vessels—since renamed Caledonia and Myrmidon—into the Royal Navy was always going to have been an immense task, especially given the total lack of appropriate orbital facilities to refit them, anywhere in humanity’s controlled territory.
That hadn’t changed. While Earth’s stipend from the Dominion as a newly-Contacted race, plus the compensation settlement for the Enclosure, had been more than enough to afford a top-class shipyard, the fact was that securing such a thing from either side would have upset the delicate neutrality that was the Global Representative Assembly’s choice of policy.
Besides, there was good reason not to trust the alien tech. So much of it was unknown, so little of it operating at standards of safety or redundancy which would have satisfied even the most slapdash of human engineers. Thin single-skin hulls held together by forcefields were, presumably, at least safe enough to run a major interstellar economy or two on, but they didn’t come close to the rigorous demands of the British Armed Services.
All of which meant that such infrastructure would need to be bootstrapped on Earth, which would take months at the bare minimum.
So, the ships were effectively being refit in flight. Even having large chunks powered down, depressurised, replaced and powered up again. They were barely recognisable as being the same sleek vessels that had first arrived at Cimbrean months ago. Gone were the quantum reactor cores, spirited away to Earth for study and replaced by vast banks of supercapacitors. Gone too were the coilguns, plasma cannons and missile tubes. The outer hulls, once mirror-polished artistic marvels, had been methodically stripped off, reshaped, sanded, and slathered in matte-black RADAR-absorbent stealthing paint. That alone had taken the crew literal months of angle-grinding and wire-brushing, made all the more complicated by the fact that, helped though they were by the artificial gravity, they still had to work in spacesuits. Which meant training them first.
Caledonia’s urgent mission had pulled her away long before the refit was completed. There was still a cloud of marooned hull panels orbiting gently at her anchorage. Myrmidon was more intact—her stealthing was complete, and the first two of a total of seven Skymaster guns had now been installed, powered and connected to their magazines, as had the first of a trio of Phalanx CIWS.
Much had been kept, of course. The cloak remained, as did the single quantum core necessary to power it indefinitely. The ship’s “keel”—the thick structural spine to which the engines and hull were both anchored—had been reinforced rather than replaced. The small craft bays were untouched, though everybody wanted some kind of physical door to supplement the atmosphere retention field. The general internal layout was completely unchanged, except for having been stripped of anything remotely resembling electronics. The plumbing and electrical wiring was similarly untouched—even aliens, it seemed, couldn’t screw up the basic logistics of getting water and electricity safely throughout the ship without their leaking or meeting.
It was an immense task, only just now beginning to approach the end of Phase One. It would be another year of hard work before Myrmidon was completely renovated to the satisfaction of her captain and his superiors.
“We could have done with another week.” he told Sir Jeremy. “After that, all the weapons will be active.”
“The system shield is our first line of defence anyway. With all respect, Captain, two half-rebuilt ships won’t hold off the Great Hunt if it comes down on us.”
“True.” Manning allowed. “but I’d still feel safer with more firepower.”
“A week isn’t so very long.”
“In Civic Planning, maybe. Anyway, thanks for the update. Good luck with the Press.”
He returned to his paperwork. There was always so much to do…
Date Point: 4y 3m 1w AV
Independent Trade Station 104: “Auspice of Prosperity”
“The whole station?”
“Oh yes. All because they allowed a few humans to live there.”
The whispering pair spared a shifty glance in Miranda’s direction, clearly thinking they were out of earshot, and were being covert. Maybe they would have been, with any other species.
She tucked into a nutrient sphere, one of the four on her plate. The non-flavour and non-texture of the universal foodstuff was at least better than the bad taste being left in her mouth by the overheard conversation.
She ignored it, slipping into her inhale-pause-exhale-pause meditation, until one phrase slipped past her attention.
“…should throw her out the airlock.”
“Murder me? Really?”
She wouldn’t have chosen to speak. If the decision had been conscious, she would have kept silent. But her weary outrage outpaced her discipline, and the words sang on the air, loud enough to bring conversation in the entire dining hall to instant silence.
The one who had said it—a Kwmbwrw female—both shrank and bristled.
Damage done. In for an inch, in for a mile. She stood, carrying her chair with her, set it up at the two conspirators’ table, reversed and straddled. “Care to tell me how killing a fellow sophont to save your own hide is any better than what the Hunters are doing?”
The other conspirator—this one a relatively slim Locayl—cleared his throat, a gesture held in common with humans.
“My friend Gwnrwt here has lost family to the Hunters.” he rumbled, expression conciliatory. “The subject makes her-”
“Don’t apologise on my behalf, Golron.” the Kwmbwrw snapped. “I can tidy my own burrow, thank you.”
“As you say. If you’ll excuse me while I fetch a second helping then…” the Locayl stood, then addressed Miranda. “Would you like a measure of water? I understand your species need a lot of it.”
“That’s very thoughtful.” Miranda thanked him. “Yes please.”
Gwnwrt watched him go, then sneered at her. “Expecting an apology, human?”
“How would you feel if total strangers were talking about spacing you just for being a Kwmbwrw?”
“Kwmbwrw don’t endanger everybody on the station just by being here.”
“I’ve got to be somewhere.”
“Out the airlock is somewhere.”
Miranda was pleased to see that despite her Kwmbwrw antagonist’s bravado, a cool stare still made her very uncomfortable. “I don’t even know why I bothered.” she snapped, standing. “
Beings scattered as she strode out of the room, instinctively recoiling from the sight of an angry Deathworlder.
She was impressed when the Locayl—Golron—caught up with her down the corridor. His longer legs at least gave him the burst of speed to catch up with her angry stride, though it left him thoroughly out of breath.
“What do you want?” She snapped.
“My friend is…” he began, wheezing.
She relaxed. He had clearly gone to a lot of trouble to catch up, the least she could do was hear him out.
“I wasn’t being kind about her.”
“I…guessed…As much. Whew.” He straightened up, still breathing heavily but clearly more in control again now.
“What do you want, Golron?”
“She thought you were staying here for some selfish reason when there’s an alternative available.”
“I thought so! You don’t know, do you?”
“I was wondering why you would stay here when people like Gwnwrt must make life so hard, and when the Great Hunt is out there scouring for humans and devouring innocents on places like the Exos station, but then it occurred to me that maybe you haven’t heard.”
“Heard what, Golron?” Miranda practically burst.
“Your people have a colony now. A place where you could settle among your own kind, or maybe even go home. No more prejudice, no more…” he looked back down the corridor.
“No more hypocrisy? If I’d lost family to the Hunters, I would never suggest throwing somebody else to them.”
He sighed. “I really am sorry.”
“Don’t be. You didn’t say it.”
They stood in silence for a moment as she thought. “Did you hear this colony’s name?”
“Folctha, on the planet Cimbrean. They announced it a few [days] ago.”
“I bet the Dominion didn’t like that.”
“The planet in question is on the far side of the Celzi front line, and the Alliance have vocally supported your species’ right to self-determination.” Golron told her. “I’m sure the Dominion is very unhappy indeed.”
She laughed, although it was spoiled just a little as Golron recoiled from the flash of teeth. Nobody seemed to understand smiling. And it would be nice…
“Thank you, Golron. I think I might just go there.”
“It’s probably the best thing for everyone.” he agreed. “I’m sorry we weren’t clear with you earlier. We just gossiped rather than actually talking with you.”
“Well, you came through in the end. You and I are fine. Gwnwrt can still go fuck herself though.”
“Anatomically impossible, I know.” she finished the all-too-familiar objection wearily.
She definitely needed to be back among her own kind.
Fortunately, she had just enough saved up. It would be a one-way trip, but the important part was, she could afford it.
Date Point 4y 4m 3w AV
Ceres Base, Sol
“No! NO!!” Drew elbowed his way between the new miners and singled out the culprit. “You do not just check your own seal and trust it. You check your friend’s, and get him to check yours, and then you both get a third opinion!”
He leaned in and tapped the newcomer’s faceplate to punctuate his next sentence, pleased to see that they had gone pale inside their hardsuit. “The alternative (tap) is that you die (tap). Come on, this is the most basic stuff, you already went over this down on Earth!”
“Sorry, boss.” the offender mumbled.
“Don’t give me ‘sorry’.” he growled, grabbing the helmet and yanking. It popped right off. “If you had tried to go out there, we’d have had to blow the emergency repressure on the airlock, and that costs seven thousand pounds and a couple of burst eardrums. Get. Your seal. Checked.”
“Right. Get that helmet back on.”
He watched as the newbie did so, and as his team members checked and double-checked the seal, to everyone’s apparent satisfaction.
“Right. Time to head out there. Now remember, outside the modules the surface gravity is only point-two-seven M slash S. That’s point zero-two-nine Gs. So until we’re clear of any overhead structures, we are going to shuffle, keeping our feet on the floor. Walking normally will bounce you into the air like a bloody ball. If you jump, you aren’t coming back down again for minutes. Your SAFER pack is for emergencies only. Is everyone clear?”
There was a general muttering of “yes boss”. He didn’t bother to ask them to sound off—this wasn’t the military—but he made eye contact with every single one to make sure they weren’t just agreeing by rote.
“Fine. Let’s go.”
There was, he knew, a lot of work still to do. It took time for people to intuitively recognise the difference between weight and mass. It took even longer for them to finally understand that working in a vacuum and under microgravity was actually harder work than down on Earth. Only two—and these two he knew were going to turn out to be excellent members of the team—had started their hardsuit careers by spending time wearing the suit and customising it with tape and padding and a little swatch of velcro inside the helmet and a stylus or piece of wire on one of their fingers. The others would be pinched and blistered by the time they came back indoors in a few hours’ time, distracted and maddened by the inevitable itches, and frustrated by the thick gloves’ inability to handle delicate work.
He caught a glimpse of the artwork that one of the two customizers had done on the side of his helmet. It was actually a sticky decal, a classic trashy pin-up of a rock chick with tattoos holding up a prominent full house. The scrollwork underneath read “Aces and Kings”.
Trashy and cliched though the decal was, it was a sensible idea for immediate identification, and Drew decided he would get one of his own as soon as possible.
The airlock cycled, and the newbies took their first steps into vacuum.
In his heart of hearts, Drew couldn’t have been happier.
Date Point: 4y 4m 3w AV
Phoenix, Arizona, USA, Earth.
Adam and Ava had school. Neither felt up to it, but Gabriel had put his foot down. They still needed an education, and they needed a return to something resembling normalcy for the sake of their mental health.
Phoenix had heard the death of San Diego. The shockwave had faded to the point of only cracking a few windows and setting off some car alarms by the time it washed over central Arizona, but it had still been loud—nobody in the city had failed to notice it, with even Phoenix’s deaf residents feeling the noise deep inside their chests.
It was tough for Gabriel, too. He didn’t know anybody in this city, pretty much all of his friends and living relatives had lived in San Diego. Aside from a few distant cousins in Guadalajara and the handful of SDPD officers who had, like him, been out of town on the day their city was killed, there was nobody left.
Phoenix, he suspected, was just temporary. But he had no idea where would come next. And after moving all their stuff in and getting the kids off to school, he was finding himself sitting around watching movies and resisting the urge to drink. That way, he knew, led self-destruction.
He was lost in a black mood when his phone rang, the default wooden-ish staccato notes taking a few seconds to percolate through Bruce Willis fleeing the cops in a flying taxi.
“Hello there, is this detective Gabriel Arés?” The voice had a British accent.
“Sir, my name is Sean Howard, I work for the Cimbrean colonial administration. Your name was forwarded to me by a Mr. Jenkins at the Scotch Creek research facility?”
“Jenkins? Yes, I know him. What’s he doing forwarding my name to you?”
“With the colony having gone public and opened its doors to potential settlers, we’re beginning to establish our civilian law enforcement. You came highly recommended.”
“Me?” Gabriel shifted uncomfortably as his abused spine twinged at him. “Why? I’m not exactly fighting fit any more.”
“We still need a chief of police. Somebody to handle policy, set up our police service, and to take an investigative role if—God forbid—we need it. You won’t be expected to go chasing anywhere.”
“So it’s a desk job, then?”
“A highly-paid and senior one in the colonial administration, complete with accomodation for you and any dependents.”
“I’ve got two teenagers under my care.”
“We have a school, sir. We’re trying to attract families, we take education seriously.”
“And why would I want to leave Earth?”
“That’s for you to decide, sir. But we intend to build a good life out of here. A fresh start, the model for humanity’s future. I can’t tell you whether or not you’re interested in being involved in that.”
Gabriel thought about it. After a few moments of silence, Howard spoke. “It’s a big decision, you’re under no pressure detective, but with your qualifications and background we’d love to have you. I’ll let you think about it.”
Howard hung up.
Gabriel was still thinking about it when the kids got home.
Date Point: 4y 6m AV
”-na take ¡cojeme!”
Adam’s hands jerked up in alarm as the world around them blinked. One instant, it was the dull concrete and steel interior of a hangar somewhere in Canada, and the next…well, a palace. Or at least the glass and steel structure on the lawn of a palace that housed Folctha’s end of the Jump Array.
The architecture was a lot strange, but elegant—all curves and loops and domes, looking more like something that had been gently coaxed out of the landscape rather than built atop it.
She giggled at his alarm, and it surprised even her—ever since her parents had died in the San Diego blast, mirth had been hard to find, but it sprang back suddenly, watching her boyfriend jump out of his skin at the sudden change.
“Language.” she teased. He blushed, noticing that others in the colonist group were grinning at him, although most were also clearly recovering from their own surprise.
She smiled at his back as he scowled and hoisted the bags that contained all his and Gabriel’s worldly possessions. Gabriel protested that he could carry his own load, but Adam knew better—the older Arés, a handsome and grey-haired mirror-image of his son, was too stubborn to admit that his injury still impeded him—long hours in the gym had gone a long way toward restoring his fitness, but the bullet had done permanent harm that would never quite go away.
Ava wheeled her own bag behind her, taking in the sights as they emerged through a short tunnel, passing through a gossamer orange curtain of light that tingled her skin and made her teeth feel strange.
The air beyond was cool. Cold, even. Not the biting chill she’d felt during their few days at Scotch Creek, that invaded her clothing and pinched at her skin, but the cold of a crisp spring morning, though it looked like full daytime. The air tasted…sweet, almost. There was only a tang of wood smoke on it, which if anything only enhanced the certainty that this was a place that humanity had yet to leave any kind of a permanent footprint on.
The sun was strange, too. It was…more orange, slightly. A little larger. It made the place look warm, even while the air felt chilly.
There was a smattering of cheers and applause from a small crowd that had gathered to greet the new arrivals. A silver-haired man in a suit was shaking hands and offering warm welcomes.
They’d been prepared for the cold, of course. Cimbrean’s immigration policy included funding to buy some rugged clothes suitable for the colony. Out of their own pockets, she and Adam had paid for some customization, with the result that their jackets bore matching patches on the sleeve—skyscrapers and a phoenix, and the legend “De las Cenizas”.
Avoiding the governor who was warmly shaking Gabriel’s hand and welcoming him to Folctha, she looked around.
To her relief, she immediately spotted that a second group had formed off on the sidelines—Folctha’s junior citizens, some of whom waved at her when they saw her notice them. She tapped Adam on the arm to get his attention, pointed them out, and together they broke away from the group to meet their new peers.
It was quite the mix. Most were obviously English—there was just something about how they stood, did their hair, what they wore that screamed it, even before they spoke—and quite the age range, too. She and Adam were probably toward the older end of the spectrum—the youngest was clearly only about nine years old.
There wasn’t a lot of makeup being worn, she noticed, becoming suddenly and absurdly conscious of her own, subtle though it was. In the last couple of years, makeup had started to become more of a male thing in schools too—the boys had turned out to be just as vain as the girls once the makeup companies had broken a generations-old prejudice and started marketing foundation at the adolescent male market. It had been met with ridicule and even outrage among some parents, but had caught on.
It was slightly strange to realise that now, the only other person wearing any makeup at all in this little group was her boyfriend.
There were introductions, some stereotypically British apologies about being “terrible at names” and apologising in advance for getting them wrong…really, it was just like going to a new school, though as far as she could tell it was refreshingly free of drama.
“So, what are you guys going to be doing?” she asked.
“It’s all apprenticeships right now.” one of the girls—Gwen—told her. “But the colony’s not really settled yet, it’s only a couple of months old. I was thinking I’d go for nursing, maybe doctor, but it depends on what we need.”
“Botany.” Kieron said, firmly.
“I’m already doing it. I’m the colony’s only journalist!” That part had been obvious. Sara—at the absolute most, only fourteen years old—was wearing a big dSLR camera and a tablet computer in a satchel on her hip and had been taking notes and pictures throughout. “What about you?” She asked of Adam. She had that popped-hip, interested look that Ava knew well, so she nestled up to him and took his arm, just to make sure both of them were clearly off-limits. Some of the guys had been looking at her with interest too.
If he noticed the attention, Adam gave no sign of it. “Law enforcement.” he said. “It’s what I was planning on doing back on Earth.”
“Oh, wait, your dad’s our new police chief, isn’t he?”
“What about you, Ava?”
“Like, uh, Gwen said, I guess it depends on what we need. I mean, the plans I had don’t really…I mean, like, who needs a theatrical makeup artist here?”
“Go for it anyway.” Big Jack shrugged. “Can you do hair?”
“Uh, yeah. A bit.”
“There you go then.”
“I don’t know, I never saw myself as a stylist.” Ava protested. “I like the girly stuff, but not, like, enough to do it for a living.”
“Well, if nothing else, it’s something to do until you find somebody to apprentice under, and you could earn some money.” Sara said. She spoke in a hummingbird blur, so fast that it was sometimes hard to tell where one word end and the next began, and was constantly being told to slow down by the others. “I mean I know my mum would love to get her hair done and her nails and some of the men have really ewww beards now so maybe you could learn to shave too, you could make a lot of money just helping people stay…”
“Hey, no pressure.” Adam interrupted her, hugging Ava round her waist. “We don’t need to rush in, we don’t even know where we’re sleeping yet.”
“Oh, your house is all built and ready!” That was Little Jack, the youngest kid in the group who’d so far remained silent and let the bigger kids gossip. He turned to Sara, whose identical brown hair suggested they were siblings. “Can I show them? Please?”
Sara laughed indulgently. “Oh kaaay” she mock-relented. “I’ll come with you. See you tonight, guys!”
They walked away, Little Jack running forward and then occasionally stopping to grouse about how slow they were being.
“Were you told where you’re staying?” she asked.
“We were told there’d be a house. Dad was pretty spare on the details.” Adam admitted.
“Not just any house, you two are getting your own!” Sara said. “You’re so lucky, I have to stay with Mum and Dad and Jack.”
“Our own place? Like, just us? I figured we’d be staying with Gabriel…” Ava glanced back down the road to where Arés senior was still meet-and-greeting with, presumably, the colony’s most important people. He’d sunk gratefully onto a camp stool while he talked.
“Oh, he’s up on Palace Rise.” Sara said, pointing toward the half-rebuilt palace. “All the admin people live up there. You’re down here on Delaney Row, near the school.”
“Delaney Row?” Ava asked.
“You’ve got street names already?” Adam followed up.
“Yeah!” Sara said. “Jen Delaney was the first governor here. She handed it over to Sir Jerry and left. I heard the soldiers talking about her, they all think she’s really badass and they say she can shoot a gun really accurately and she told them all off one time because they saw her naked and were staring but she didn’t care, so they voted to name one of the housing zones after her.”
“Voted where?” Adam asked her.
“No, the Thing. It’s an old word, I think Norse? You know, Vikings? It’s like, the whole town getting together to talk and vote. Sir Jerry says it’s the best kind of democracy for right now because we’re still so small.”
Sara clearly had an enthusiasm for sharing knowledge that was the hallmark of a born journalist, coupled to the motor mouth of a born irritant. “One of the sessions, we voted on what to call everything. So we’ve got Palace Rise, Delaney Row, Crash Avenue, Camp Uplift—that’s the army, you’ll like them, they’re really tidy…uh, cool— we’ve not got names right down to streets yet because there’s not really any streets and…oh, we’re here.”
Adam and Ava’s house turned out to be tiny. In fact, it could have fit comfortably inside a large room. Inside, though, it turned out to be pure efficient space. It had everything—The living room doubled as a kitchen, complete with cooker, dishwasher and washer/dryer (though these both had signs on them warning that they weren’t yet working), a folding-out dining table that recessed cleverly into the floor when not in use, and a fridge. The bed was up a short, extremely steep flight of stairs that doubled as storage, and below it were the bathroom, complete with a shower and bath, and even a spare room. The whole thing couldn’t have been more than twenty feet long, and even included a porch.
“They’ve still not got the town water set up yet,” Sara continued “but there’s, like, a collector on the roof for rainwater, that should keep you going until that happens. Dad says it’s really clean because Cimbrean is a class Four world, so apparently you can drink right out of the stream if you want, but he said it’s still not a great idea to do that just in case, so the collector purifies the rainwater, and you’ve got a little water heater. It’s really cool, it only rains at night here, you get to listen to rain on the roof every night. It’s amazing.”
She paused for breath, then seemed to recall the principle of letting other people get a word in sideways. “What do you think?”
Ava just looked at Adam, who was gazing around with one of only a few genuine smiles she had seen on him in months. “I think…wow. I think wow.” He said. Ava nodded, pleased that he was so pleased.
Sara just beamed, then seemed to remember something. “Oh, yeah, I made you a welcome gift!”
She produced an ovoid disc of sanded wood—though Ava guess that the wood in question was nothing that might be found on Earth. Before applying a coat of varnish, somebody had carefully pyrographed a single word onto it.
“It’s…a house name sign. You know? With your names, I thought…do you like it?”
“I like it.” Ava told her. Adam nodded beside her.
“I helped!” Jack exclaimed.
“No you didn’t, you watched!” Sara protested. “I did all the work.”
“Nuh-uh, Dad did all the work, you just wrote on it, and I helped because I fetched the sandpaper for him!”
“It’s wonderful.” Ava assured them both. “I’ll hang it up after we’re done unpacking.”
“Oh okay. I should get back up to the palace and take pictures and see who’s arrived so I can put it in the newsletter anyway.” Sara beamed. “See you tonight?”
“What’s happening tonight?”
“We’re having a big cookout like we always do when new people come. Just follow your nose, you can’t miss it!”
“Okay. We’ll see you there.” Adam promised.
The little house became noticeably quieter the second the brother and sister were gone. Ava sank onto the couch with a sigh, finding it extremely comfortable considering how small it was. “Wow. What does she run on?” she grumbled.
Adam just chuckled, still poking around. “Our own place! I KNEW Dad was keeping a secret!”
“I know…hey.” Ava stood up, took his hand, turned him towards her and kissed him. “I’m kinda scared.” she admitted.
“Adam, come on. We’re sixteen. I mean come on, we’re still kids! But everybody’s treating us like we’re not, even your dad. I don’t know if I want to be treated like an adult yet.”
“I guess…” He agreed. “It’s like…our first date was, what, less than a year ago? Ten months.”
“Yeah. And that scares me because now…like, here we are. Living together, on our own, starting a new life. Like we’re…um.” She trailed off, not quite willing to say the word that hung on the end of that sentence.
“Like we’re…Yeah.” He agreed.
She rested her head against his chest, and it made his voice sound bassy and warm as he rubbed her hair and confessed “I’m scared too.”
It made her feel a lot better.
Date Point: 4y 6m AV
Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works, Nevada Desert
It felt like a very personal kind of heresy, but the second she saw her new sled, Rylee fell in love all over again.
She heard her own enthusiasm without really registering that she was saying it. “Oh. My. God. Look at this thing!”
It was definitely the child of the TS-101. The lines were very similar, but…sleeker. Finer. Sharper, somehow. The GAU-8/S housing was smoother and flusher with the hull, the barrel itself seeming an organic part of the vehicle rather than the chunky load it had been on Pandora. The prominent, tumorous ESFALS blisters were now mere subte swellings in the belly. The kinetic thrusters had been moved and sunk into the hull, finally getting rid of an obsolete concession to air intake. The cockpit was longer, lower, built for two.
She was like Pandora after a makeover, with her war paint on. Meaner, leaner and keener. Even in the hangar, even with a tarp still draped over her, she looked like the empress of the sky.
“Thought you’d like her.” The chief engineer said, grinning. She could have kissed him then and there. But there was an important question to ask first.
“When do I get to fly her?”
“Come on, you don’t think we’d tease you like that, do you?” he asked. “She’s ready now.”
“Oh!” Rylee beamed at him “I love you.”
“Ahh, I bet you say that to all the guys who give you a multi-million dollar aerospace vehicle.”
Rylee giggled at that. “You got me. But okay, what’s she called?”
“Officially? She’s the Lockheed-Martin EF slash A three-thirty-six TS mark two. But we’re open to suggestions on a fancy name to go with that…”
Rylee reached up and touched her new beloved’s hull for the first time. It was warm to the touch, and after the events of only a few months ago, she could think of only one appropriate name.
Date Point: 4y 6m 1w AV
Ceres Base, Sol
“…Criticized the President’s handling of the aftermath of the San Diego blast as the USA officially slipped into recession this week with the economy recording its second successive quarter of decline. The Dow Jones and FTSE 100 index fell sharply in response to the news, fuelling worldwide fears that the aftermath of San Diego’s destruction will be a worldwide financial crisis, though China’s SSE Index closed trading up three-…“
“Hey, I was bloody watching that!” Drew M complained. It was uncharacteristic of Cavendish to just march into the office and shut off the news feed.
Then again, it was uncharacteristic of him to be unwashed and still wearing his hardsuit’s underlayer around the office.
“Yes, well, we have a serious problem.”
Drew M snapped immediately into business mode—his boots swung down from the desk and he blurred through a series of keyboard shortcuts, summoning the serious incident forms. “What happened?”
“Nothing, exactly. But it was this close to being a dead miner.” Cavendish dropped something on the desk.
“Hardsuit heat regulation field emitter. It’s an essential component of the life support system. Supposed to keep you-”
“I know what it does, mate.”
“This one broken?”
“Malfunctioning. It was drawing in heat constantly. If Aces wasn’t super careful, He’d have gone out that airlock and slowly heated up and heated up until the hyperthermia got him.”
“Kessler. I call them all by their helmet decals these days. Bless ‘im, he’s a careful one, he runs a full diagnostic before we head out, every time. That’s why he caught it. Anybody else…”
“I’ll write it up.” Drew M promised.
“Yeah, well. Don’t put this next bit in the report, mate.”
Cavendish shut the door. “Between you and me, I suspect foul play.”
“Holy dooley, Drew. You sure?”
“If I was sure, I wouldn’t be telling you to keep it dark. But we ran a full check on these things last night. It happened exactly when we were least likely to catch it, and exactly when it was least likely to happen, too.”
“That’d be right.”
“Yeah, well. As team lead I’m making a decision here—full check, every day.”
“That’ll shave an hour off our work time every shift. That adds up, mate—you’ll put the whole project behind schedule.” Drew M protested. His heart wasn’t really into it, though. When it came down to it, they both knew that deadlines were less important than lives.
“As opposed to a man dying out there because of an equipment failure we could have caught that morning? Not on my watch, Drew.”
“Nah, yeah. You go ahead and get that done, I’ll fill in the report. But we’ll keep the sabotage idea on the down-low and keep an eye out for now, right?”
“And hope I’m wrong, yes.”
Drew was in a thoughtful mood as he returned to the hardsuit maintenance workshop. His helmet was lying exactly where he’d left it, uncharacteristically untidy atop the workbench. He’d relented and agreed to a pinup for his helmet decal after they had swept through the team, driven by Jenny O’neill’s decision to have a shirtless and otter-muscled samurai adoring hers. Cavendish’s own was still relatively tasteful—the girl was seen from behind looking back over her shoulder, wearing a blaze orange boiler suit and a welding mask to match the torch on her other shoulder. The only real concessions to titillation were the way the boiler suit clung to her figure just a little too well, a hint of sideboob, and the obligatory pout.
Strong colours and a shape that was easily identified at a distance were the order of the day—the pinups had become a critical part of recognising one another in the strange lighting conditions of an asteroid’s surface. While each of the pinups was certainly nice to look at up close, being able to glance at the side of a team member’s head and see O’neill’s splash of purple Hakama, or Kessler’s strong black and white, was a godsend for immediate identification. Even the experimental RFID system wasn’t so useful, except at longer distances.
“What’s the verdict?” He asked. He’d left the team to run diagnostics on their gear in response to Kessler’s near-miss.
Chitsenga shook her head. Her helmet decal was of a dreadlocked guitar player. “All clean.” she reported.
“Good. Take ten, then we’re going to suit up and get back out there. May as well get a half day in.” They all nodded and filed out to freshen up, grab a bite, take a toilet break or whatever else they did to prepare for hours out in the pit, and pretty soon he was left alone with Kessler, who was still fastidiously calibrating the faulty emitter’s replacement.
“Did you check the footage?” Kessler asked him.
Kessler just grunted and jerked a thumb towards the workshop’s only computer. Drew shrugged, passing off the gesture—brusque even by Kessler’s terse standards—as the product of stress and a near-miss with death, and opened the security camera footage.
He wasn’t remotely surprised when, two hours before the start of shift, eight minutes of footage turned out to be corrupted.
Date Point: 4y 6m AV
Office of the Director of the CIA, Washington DC, USA, Earth
“He was as good as his word, actually. I think our chaps impressed upon him that if we were inclined to bring him back in for another little chat, there would be little he could do to stop us.”
“Yeah, well I met your man Powell. That man could scare the red off the devil.”
“He’s an asset like that, yes.”
“This is pretty grim news, Michael.” the Boss told his opposite number. “If even one of those implants we imported is compromised that way…”
“I was under the impression we reverse-engineered the lot, and that every single one in use anywhere on Earth or beyond was built and installed by our own people.”
“Yeah, but from what the guys up at Scotch Creek told my people up there, the problem with that is that alien tech is still a ways ahead of our own, so we’re not so much reverse-engineering as copy-pasting in a lot of cases.”
”…I see. You don’t have one, do you?”
“Cancelled that appointment the second you sent me the dossier. You?”
“Call me old-fashioned, but I was always rather squeamish about brain surgery.”
“Way I hear it, it’s more like getting your ears pierced. One solid thunk, bada-bing bada-boom, you understand Swahili now.”
“Is that supposed to be an encouraging thought?”
The Boss grunted down the phone. “Heck if I know, Michael. We’d better chase this up over here. Give my best to your wife and kids.”
“And mine to yours. Good luck.”
Date Point: 4y 6m AV
Cimbrean System, the Outer Reaches
She had known that stasis would feel like no time had passed at all. And it had been the cheapest way to travel, in a ship that was little more than a warp engine and a stasis chamber with a basic control console. Punch in the co-ordinates, hit the big button, arrive.
When she hit the button, she was surrounded by the simple functional hangar of the Auspice of Prosperity’s basic shipyard.
A subjective eyeblink later, Cimbrean was a blue-green-white trinket, perfect and beckoning so close in front of her.
She was so struck by its beauty, by how much like Earth it looked, that she didn’t notice the alarm at first. But she couldn’t ignore the urgent text that filled the forward monitor, nor the understanding of its meaning that her translator frantically thrust into her brain.
!+ALERT: GRAVITY SPIKE+!
She looked up as a ship—a sleek steel crescent blade with an ugly insectoid component to its design, thundered silently past her starboard beam, turning and decelerating.
The depth of her stupidity hit her. If the galaxy as a whole knew about Cimbrean, then of course that meant so did the Hunters.
She had delivered herself to them on a plate.
When the swarm-ship of the Brood-Of-Bloody-Fangs took her on board, they had made every appropriate preparation that they could think of. The charge would be led by five Gammas, each armed with fusion blades. They would blow the tiny craft’s airlock off its mountings and storm inside. With speed and pack-work, the hated deathworlder would die too swiftly to strike back.
They did not anticipate that Miranda would attack them first. The instant her craft landed, she blew the explosive bolts on the door and charged before they were even lined up and ready to begin the assault, wielding part of her chair as a crude club.
She killed nine of them.
Date Point: 4y 6m 1w AV
Classified Facility, Earth
He didn’t sit bolt upright in his bed. That would have drawn immediate attention from his unseen observers. Instead, he explored the almost-forgotten tickle of a microwormhole link.
“Ah. Finally. Those deathworlders are cunning, finding a way to interfere with wormholes like that, but it seems our attempts to break through have finally paid off.”
“After that city was destroyed, I had assumed you would abandon me.”
“Far from it. You will be decompiled, of course, but your insight is a valuable resource. Come home.”
Six spared a momentary pang of thought for Stephen and Carl. He wished he could leave a message for them, explain that he was taking the gamble he knew they couldn’t let him take. Explaining that this wasn’t a betrayal.
But of course, he could leave that message. All he had to do was neglect to do one little thing.
He left the message, slipped through the wormhole and was gone.
Where ordinarily he would have left a brain-haemorrhaged corpse, he now left behind his former Host.
In the darkness, Hugh Johnson sat up, and cried the tears of freedom.