Chapter 17: Battles
Date Point: 4y 8m AV
Classified Facility, Planet Earth, Sol
“No. No, nothing like that. It’s…hard to say. It wasn’t like a dream, or like being trapped it was…it wasn’t like anything. I was just…dead for a while. And somebody else was using my body. And when he was done with it, he brought me back. But not the same. And there was still a part of me alive, kinda…”
Hugh trailed off, then shrugged helplessly. It was a very strange feeling to be treated as if he was a stranger by somebody he knew so well, but of course Carl had spent months getting to know his passenger, rather than Hugh himself.
“You aren’t making much sense.” Carl told him.
“I know, I know. Umm…I think…” Hugh paused to think. That alone was a luxury he hadn’t enjoyed for so very long, but he’d never been a man of many or eloquent words. He just didn’t know how to go about describing experience without involvement, existence without awareness. The words to hint at what had been his life for the last several years just weren’t in his vocabulary.
He hit on an idea. “The drone needs to act like a person.” he explained. “But meat doesn’t know how to. That part’s all up to, like, you. The bit of you that’s yourself, y’know? But that bit can’t be in charge because if it was, y’know, I’d have run into a hospital and begged them, ‘get these damn things out of my head!’”
“That makes sense.”
“Okay, so they hit this sweet spot where you—me—I wasn’t in charge, but there was just enough of me sticking around for the body to pretend to be a real person. You follow?”
“They retained your instincts and knowledge of correct social behaviour while suppressing your capacity for agency and rational thought.” Carl said.
“Hey, if you say so. I was never too good with words.”
“You were vagrant before they…did this to you?”
“I was a bum, yeah.” Hugh replied. “Dropped outta school, hit the bottle, never looked up. All I cared about was the next forty, y’know?”
“I follow you. What did you do for cash?”
“You name it. Y’know, sometimes I’d head out east, be a farm hand, ranching, sometimes I’d do favours for people—like, “my friend’s moving house, can you help move her couch?” that kinda shit, right? Sometimes I’d be a lookout if somebody was robbing someplace, or I’d scrounge up some food, boil up a stew and sell it on cold days up north. All sortsa things. Did a few years for petty theft—shoplifting, y’know? Probably woulda gone back in if the aliens hadn’t got me first.”
“How did that happen?”
“I was down on the border, helping this guy I’d met through a friend. He was helping the Mexicans, you know? They’d pay him, he’d get them up here, they’d get in this van I was driving and I’d get them up to LA. I figured it was a win-win, y’know? If we managed it, I got my cut of what they’d paid him, if not then I’d be back inside.”
“You wanted to go back to prison?”
“Hell yeah! Two hots and a cot, y’know? Anyway, I was bouncing my ass off all over the desert in the middle of the night driving this piece of shit Transit when the engine cut out on me. Now I mean, I know engines, done some work fixing cars to get by in my time, and I never had an engine just stop on me like that. It just went pop and it was like I’d taken the key out. So, I stopped, got out, had a look, I’m still staring at what looks like a pristine-ass engine when somebody turned on the lights. I looked up and…well, that’s all she wrote for me. Next time I was myself again would be today.”
“Can you remember what you—what the biodrone did? What Six did?”
“Shit, Six was fine. He just wanted to get out and explore, you know? Find out what a burger tasted like, that kind of thing. But that other one, man. He ordered the drone to go kill that poor Boone lady, and I still remember that, clear as day. Like he was ordering it to take out the goddamn trash.”
“How did the biodrone escape the scene? The only footage we have shows you—shows it standing there in one frame and gone the next.”
“What, you’ve not figured that part out yet?”
“We have our suspicions.”
Carl cocked his head slightly, then said, carefully. “Personally, I think they have a spaceship on Earth.”
Hugh nodded. “You’re goddamn right they do.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 1w 2d AV
Capitol Station, orbiting Planet Garden.
The assassin worked alone, always. Obviously, doing so increased some of the risks of his vocation, but it also reduced some others. The trade had, for a career of some twelve Human years, worked out in his favour, albeit with some near misses.
His existence was known, among certain circles. His nature was not—a large part of his success came from the fact that a prejudiced galaxy looked at his species and saw only tiny, physically frail opportunistic cowards with big brains. Whenever the identity of the assassin was speculated upon, the usual assumptions were that he must be Chehnasho, or maybe Locayl, or even Celzi.
Not Corti. Never Corti. Corti were overlooked, or rather looked at in the wrong way. But a tiny, frail body was no limitation at all when you had access to Directorate technology.
And so, one moment he was a medical technician. In the instant that nobody and nothing looked at him, a simple change of which tool he was holding and fiddling with turned him into an engineer, then a bureaucrat, or maybe a diplomatic aide. Never anybody important—just another little grey body padding about the station corridors, engrossed in some task that was obviously much more important than whatever or whoever was around him.
It was critical that, on this job in particular, he should go undetected. He had never been commissioned to silence a member of the Dominion Security Council before. There would undoubtedly be repercussions, which he was keen to avoid.
The caution cost him time, as he made entirely sure that the timing was perfect, and that there was no possibility of anything going wrong. But time was a plentiful luxury. Finally, satisfied that his preparations were as comprehensive as was feasible, he put his plan into motion.
It was not a difficult plan. While the elevator control systems on Council Station were as hack-proof as the very best minds in the Directorate could conceive, they still had a few loopholes. Nothing that might deliver him outside of his clearance level, but enough.
The one he used was a simple maintenance cycle, an unscheduled degauss of the elevator’s propulsion coils. That little trick earned him twelve seconds. Twelve seconds in which, guided by an array of forcefields dazzling in their subtlety, complexity and finesse, the emergency exit hatch was unsealed, lifted out, he was lifted through, the hatch replaced and its seals re-engaged. He barely glanced at them.
The spinal elevator shaft of the great station—the largest ever built—was its own hazard course, absolutely not intended for hospitality. The elevators were not bound to individual tracks, but switched constantly from one path to another, flashing past their peers with millimeter clearances, guided by a central routing system that handled thousands of such narrow-margin trajectories per day, and had done so for years with a callous disregard for the presence of anything within the transit shaft that did not belong there.
Technology again came to his rescue. The constant weave and dance, and sometimes retreat, that kept the hurting cars from reducing him to a fine organic cloud of red vapour, impeded his progress, but it did deliver him safely to his destination, high on the outermost apex of one of the VIP habitation clusters.
After that obstacle course, the door was child’s play.
The Councilor’s personal suite was stunning. It was a garden of a dozen worlds, each a pleasing biome in a forcefield bottle, arranged both for aesthetic delight, and ecological accuracy. Even the Assassin was awed, granting himself a moment’s pause to examine the delights on offer as he stalked through the suite, quietly impressed by the subtle way in which the apartment suite’s necessities, luxuries and furniture were all hidden amongst the assorted alien foliage.
The Assassin spun. Twin plasma bolts, weapons that he could never have fired if not for his exoskeleton harness and its powerful tuned shields, would have reduced the target to a steaming mess, had he actually been present. Instead, they shattered the blue haze around a display and immolated something like a tree, which made a distressed hooting sound as it deflated amid the flames.
On their way, they had passed through a hologram of the target.
“I apologise for my absence, but I would prefer not to be murdered today.” the apparition continued. “Nor on any other day, for that matter. I do apologise for killing you this way. I don’t suppose it shall be very pleasant.” earnest contrition described a glowing puce stripe down his flank.
The Assassin looked wildly around, immediately on his guard. Was that the whine of hunter-killer drones? No, just the tree, keening its last. His chest felt tight, despite the absence of any apparent violence. No turrets unfolded from the floors, no armed Annebenellin shock troopers stormed him.
He coughed. Or tried to. The result was much more like a violent wheeze. Breathing really had become very difficult. He coughed again, and this time blood spurted from his nostrils, joining the thin trickle that had begun to stain the corners of his eyes.
“I wish I could send you alive back to your employers with a warning to leave me alone, but your reputation precedes you, you see.” the holographic ghost of Councillor Vedreg continued. “You are very well known for your tenacity, and for seeing the job through. All of which left me feeling rather like I had no other choice.”
“H….-ow…?” The assassin croaked, desperately querying the pseudosentient medical pack he carried for anything that resembled a solution. He didn’t expect an answer from the hologram of his target, but he received one nonetheless. whether Vedreg had thought to include it, or programmed a simple response in was unclear.
“The hardest and most dangerous part was in configuring the containment field to collapse in the same circumstances that triggered this recording, you see. One slip, and I would have finished as you are now.”
The assassin’s black-edged vision settled on the one particular plant, right in the middle of the suite, that no longer had a field around it. Somehow, he knew exactly which planet this specimen had come from.
“It’s called a Mountain Cedar if you’re interested. It is quite possibly the deadliest plant in the galaxy. Humans, apparently, like the smell. But even they can suffer some quite severe allergic reactions to its pollen. I imagine it is a terrible way to go but, well. I had nothing else to hand. I am sorry.”
The assassin was far beyond the capacity to answer.
An hour later, in response to Vedreg’s programming, the suite resurrected the containment field around the Terran plants and initiated a maximum-threat biohazard cleanup protocol. Only after the gardens were absolutely guaranteed to be clean of every last pollen grain was station security finally alerted.
Date Point: 4y 8m 1w 4d AV
Freelance vessel “Sanctuary”
♫♪I was caught, in the middle of a railroad track! (THUNDER!)♫♪
There was a lot of welding to do. Julian had taken a couple of weeks learning the skill down on Earth, grateful to be home, enjoying the place. He wasn’t sure what Kirk had been up to—personable as he was, the Sanctuary’s owner and master kept his secrets and well, and was probably playing a game that he, Julian, didn’t know the rules to.
But he’d been there, ready to pick them up when San Diego had died.
♫♪I looked around, and I knew there was no turning back! (THUNDER!)♪♫
Sanctuary had changed too. A lot of Kirk’s old passengers were back on board, people who had returned to Earth, learned how to be human again and then…well. Felt the call. Fitter, better-fed and harder one and all, and more driven.
They’d taken on guns and ammo, filled the jump array with floor mats for physical training and martial arts when it wasn’t in use. Some uniforms had come aboard, taken a look around, and left only after leaving an extensive list of recommended modifications.
Hence the welding. By the time they were done, the ship would be less elegant, but much sturdier.
♪My mind raced, and I thought: what could I do? (THUNDER!) and I knew there was no help, no help from you! (THUNDER!)♫
Between the deafening music and his welding mask, he neither saw nor heard the workshop door open, and he was so focused on getting the weld right that he didn’t feel the gravity automatically adjust itself to galactic standard. He damn near jumped out of his skin when he was tapped on the shoulder.
♫Sound of the drums! beating in my heart!♪
Kirk waved expressively at him with his two smaller arms, clamping the larger ones over his ears and shouting, though unable to summon the volume to compete with Angus Young.
Julian tried to order the room to turn the music off, but apparently it couldn’t hear him either. He fished in his pocket for the remote control he’d built.
♪♫The thunder of guns! (SLAM!) tore me apart! you’ve been…♪♫
“What’s up?” He asked, as Kirk relaxed in the silence.
“That can’t be good for your hearing.”
“It’s a classic!”
Kirk issued a strange sort of whickering sound—the Rrrrtktktkp’ch version of a derisive snort. “Julian, ‘classic’ would be Vivaldi, or Sibelius.”
“That’s classical. What’s up, anyway?”
“I was just asking you to turn it down. I could hear it all the way from the flight deck.”
“Ah…” Julian grimaced. He was still adjusting to having other people around him after years of isolation, and loud music was a luxury he’d gone without for too long. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, but I was enjoying it…”
The new voice belonged to Allison. While an entertainment binge on Earth (and getting laid several times) had largely cured Julian of his awkwardness around women, it threatened to come surging back whenever she entered the room. “…It’s good workout music.” she explained, as Kirk turned his ungainly, lanky frame to face her.
Julian Etsicitty, wilderness master and six-year survivor of the deadliest planet in the known galaxy, awkwardly cleared his throat and turned his attention back to the bulkhead reinforcement he had been welding, because the alternative was to be distracted by the enticing way Allison’s sweat was making her sports shirt adhere to her skin and soaking her blonde ponytail.
Focusing on that turned out to be even harder when she poked her head over his shoulder, radiating heat and a clean, physical scent. “Good weld.”
“Thanks.” he commented, for lack of something better to say. “I…Didn’t know you knew welding.”
“I don’t.” she murmured, straight in his ear, and then headed back through to the gym, glancing back to make sure he was admiring the yoga-pants-enhanced view.
“Jeez.” Julian muttered, wiping his forehead, then followed it with “Oh shut up.”
This was in response to Kirk making an amused noise.
“What?” the alien asked, innocently. He leaned in close to inspect the weld himself.
“Go ahead and say it.”
Kirk shook his mane. “No thanks, I’ve watched too much TV to fall into that cliched old trope. ‘Alien comments on human romance and sexuality’? Not I.”
He bared his teeth in a poor imitation of a smile. “I’m still allowed to find it funny though.”
Julian picked up the welder, and after both he and Kirk had protected their eyes, resumed his work. “I’m not going for it.”
“She’ll say no. I know why she’s doing this, she likes to be looked at, she likes the power of lust. The second she puts out, we’re not playing that game no more. And she knows I’m the easiest mark on this ship.”
“Sure you do.”
“I do. You’re no idiot, Julian. You’re one of the toughest and most resourceful people I know. If I were in your position, I’d resent being manipulated like that.”
”…Yeah.” Julian didn’t admit to just how accurate Kirk’s candid appraisal really was. “Makes me feel like a dumbass, though. Bombfruit? No problem. Mangrabber plants? Fought them back for three days straight with a machete and fire. Hellbirds? Ate them for lunch. I even killed a Minizilla once. Cool, calm and sensible the whole time. Show me a nice ass though and suddenly I’m a school kid again.”
“It is an exceptional ass, though.” Kirk said, finally drawing a laugh from him.
“How would you know?” he chuckled. “She’s got a third as many legs as you’re attracted to.”
“Oh, I can still be an…academic expert on the subject.” Kirk said. “Speaking as an anthropologist.”
Julian grunted, and raised his mask to examine his handiwork. “Hey, four more of those and we’ll be able to put the pressure door in.”
“I still don’t see why you all insisted on them.” Kirk grumbled. “What’s the point in having internal pressure control forcefields if we rely on thick steel eyesores instead?”
“What’s the failure point on that giant power core you’ve got back there? And what happens when the power goes? What happens if we get EMP’d? I’m less interested in keeping the ship pretty than keeping air in my lungs.”
Kirk waved an irritable forelimb. “Yes, yes, we’ve gone over all those arguments.” he groused. “I swear, your species is paranoid.”
Julian just raised an eyebrow at him “Deathworlders.”
“Where are we going, anyway?”
“Again?” Julian put his welding torch down. “I thought they were pretty clear about not wanting to see any more humans ever again after the…well, the bank robberies, the murders and the Exoss massacre.”
“Not Irbzrk. Izbrk.” Kirk said, as if that clarified things. “It’s a city on Ikbrzk.”
Julian pinched the bridge of his nose “Kirk…” he began to complain.
Kirk snorted, a proper nostril-flapping equine snort. “As I recall, your home nation contains New York state, which is not to be confused with New York city, or Newark.” he pointed out.
Julian paused. “…yeah, okay. So this…Ikbrzk?”
“It’s a planet?”
“A barren one, yes. But the richest source of rare earth elements in Domain space.”
“So what’s there besides mines?”
“Weaker sensors, a smaller garrison, lighter security…and a population of underpaid, hardworking civilians with an insatiable appetite for entertainment which their employers don’t provide.”
Julian nodded his understanding. “So it’s a black market hub.”
“Nearly as much so as Perfection.” Kirk agreed. “And less well-known, which makes it an attractive route for smuggling the especially sensitive goods. But that’s not why we’re going there.”
“An old and dear friend of mine asked me to meet him there…”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Folctha, Planet Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Alright, looks like that’s our time for today.”
Lessons were a simple affair. It was very different to school as Ava knew the term—there being only a small handful of children and teenagers, there was no point segregating everybody by age, or even in holding formal classes. It was more like dedicated study time, with their teacher—Miss Olmstead—not giving a lesson but instead flitting from student to student, by turns helping with basic addition, biology, simple reading comprehension, physics, geometry, tying shoes and gently reminding the older ones to refocus on their work.
As much as it suited her, Ava still felt that same relief and freedom when the end of lessons for the day came around. As pleasant, personal and liberated as Folctha’s school might be, it was still school, and that meant not getting to enjoy the colony’s perfect spring weather.
Sara was bouncing by her desk before Ava and Adam had even finished packing up. Ava rolled her eyes, suppressing a smile. “Do I get to know what the surprise is now, Sara?” She asked.
Sara had been not so much hinting at a surprise as outright mentioning it at every opportunity for three days.
“Mum and Dad said I can drive the mule this weekend!” Sara exploded, bouncing on her toes. “Kieron, Jack, Lizzie and I were gonna go down to the lake and go swimming! It’s really cool down there, the water’s so clear, you can see the crashed spaceships on the bottom! You wanna come?”
It sounded amazing—Ava had been on the swim team in her high school, and she realised how much she missed it. “That sounds…great! If only I had a swimsuit.”
This seemed to nonplus Sara. “What d’you need a swimsuit for?” she asked.
“What do I…? Sara, what else will I wear?”
“You don’t need to wear anything when you’re swimming. What’s the point? You’d just have to bring wet clothes home.”
“So…you’re going to be swimming with Jack and Kieron and Lizzie?”
“Sara, that’s weird.“
She regretted saying it the second she did, but regretted it even more the second it registered in Sara’s brain. The younger girl looked like she’d been slapped.
“That’s NOT weird!” she snapped, eyes going red and watery. “You’re being weird making such a big deal of it!” She spun and effected a perfect flouncing exit.
“Sara…” Ava called after her, but to no avail. She turned to Adam. “That’s weird right? Swimming naked together is weird.”
“Well …I, um…” Adam didn’t get any further than that before being interrupted by a giggle from Jessica Olmstead.
“That was what pretty much everyone else thought the first time.” she said. “but it’s innocent. She really doesn’t see why people have a problem with it.”
“How can she not?” Ava asked.
Jessica giggled again. “I love Sara’s parents, but it’s a miracle that girl didn’t end up being called Nebula Moondance or something.” she said. “She got off lucky just being called Sara Honeydew.”
Judging from her expectant smile, there was a joke there, which went straight over Ava’s head, and Adam’s too judging from his expression. Jessica laughed softly and shook her head at their blank faces.
“Let’s just say they’re…uninhibited.” she said. “Yes, it makes the rest of us a bit uncomfortable sometimes, but we discussed it at the Thing, and the consensus was ‘So long as it’s harmless…’.”
“Skinny dipping always sounded like fun to me.” Adam said.
“Adam!” Ava protested.
“What? I’m just saying, if it’s just good fun…maybe we shouldn’t be so…” he stopped himself. “I mean…”
“So…what, Adam?” Ava demanded. Unnoticed, Jessica grimaced to herself and slipped away. “Shouldn’t be so what?”
”…I was gonna say uptight. about it.” He confessed.
That hurt. And it made her mad, too. She poked him in the chest “You just wanna see the other girls naked.” she accused, hitting on the first thing that came to mind to hurt him back.
He backed off a step, rubbing where she’d prodded him. “What?! Ava, they’re kids, don’t be weird!”
“You’re being weird!”
“I’m just saying it sounds like fun!”
She snarled a disgusted noise, spun and walked away from him. “Whatever. Go run to daddy for advice, like always.”
He shouted after her: “What the hell’s my dad got to do with anything?”
She paused at the door just long enough to yell “At least you still have one!”, and then slammed it behind her, storming off into the forest, away from anyone and everyone.
She paused once she was certain he wasn’t following, and leaned against a tree, arms folded over her tummy. The alien bark was smooth and crackled softly as she slid down, until she was sitting in a little ball among the roots, wrapped up in being equally angry at Adam, herself and the universe, and cried.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean Colony
Captain Owen Powell
“I don’t fookin’ care if they ARE small! This is a military base, and that means the kids. stay. OUT of it. Or are you too fookin’ incompetent to do your job as a fookin’ sentry?”
The soldier he was chewing out knew better than to respond, and just stood and took it. He earned points for that at least. Powell cooled down slightly.
“Have you got an explanation for me, Corporal?”
“Sir. Three of them distracted me while the fourth snuck past behind me. I take full responsibility.”
“Noted, and accepted. We’re short-handed since the recall. That’s a reason to be extra vigilant. Am I clear?”
“You’re fookin’ right I am. This is a serious incident which means it’s getting written up, but that’s all I can be arsed to do, this time. See to it there isn’t a next time. Dismissed.”
The man saluted and left, clearly relieved. As he left, he was replaced by Lieutenant Ross.
Since the colony had been handed over formally to the British government, the Americans, Canadians, Aussies and other allied soldiers had all been recalled, replaced with a platoon from the British Army. They were good lads, but universally young and inexperienced, and there weren’t quite enough of them. Most of the special forces had also been recalled, leaving only Powell and his hand-picked squad, including Legsy and Ross.
“Found the ankle-biters yet?” He asked.
“Yes sir. They owned up—there’s only four kids in town in that age range anyway.”
“I want a word with them, and their parents.”
“The weekly Thing’s tomorrow, sir.” Ross pointed out. “Raising it there might get the message across better.”
”…aye. Good shout. What’s the news?”
Ross handed over some packages. “Dispatches and your comfort package, Sitrep on the San Diego investigation, and a…strategic report on Nervejam weaponry.”
“Lovely. Summarize that one for me.” Powell said, accepting the rest of his mail. Ross nodded and flipped through the file, mumbling slightly to himself as he skimmed through to the summary.
“Hmmm…exhaustive testing….-thing conclusive…remain- ‘ At this point, the operating principles of this weapon system remain unknown and impossible to duplicate with Terran technology’…mumble…absence of… token resistance only… uh, ‘given the above, development of effective protection has not been accomplished, with even total sensory isolation from the effect offering no more than a reduction in its effectiveness.’…mumble, acute cerebral……haemorrhage…wow. okay. ‘While the weapon’s effects are highly lethal at their maximum effect, probable long-term consequences of nervejam trauma includes an increased stochastic probability of long-term complications including: Schizophrenia, paranoid delusions, dissociative identity disorder, motor nerve palsy, epilepsy and stroke.”
“Jesus fookin’ Christ.” Powell muttered.
Ross cleared his throat. “‘At present, the only viable countermeasure to this weaponry in a tactical situation is destruction of the grenade if possible, and prioritizing the termination of any hostile unit which appears to be deploying them. Engage at long range only.”
“Nothing we couldn’t figure out for ourselves then.” Powell commented. “Fookin’ useful, that.”
The captain sighed. “Alright, spread that tactical advice to the lads, along with the news about there being no protection from the bloody things. Don’t include the bit about the long-term complications.”
“Anything else, sir?” Ross asked, indicating the dispatches.
“Nowt to act on. Today’s Tuesday?”
“Yes sir. Militia training today. Both those kids from San Diego signed up. Our new police chief’s boy and his missus.”
“Good. Those two looked young and fit, and Arés says his lad knows his way round a pistol at least. And if the boy’s going into civilian policing, we’re going to want him to know how to fight.”
“Think you might swing by later to inspect the training, sir?”
“Aye, think I just might. Watching Legsy in teacher mode is always good for a fookin’ laugh.”
Date Point 4y 8m 2w AV
Ceres Base, Sol
“And I’m telling you you’re bloody paranoid, mate!”
“Drew.” Cavendish was a picture of zen calm, but he was slowly starting to lose his cool with his friend. “Have you SEEN the figures?”
“We always knew this was going to be a dangerous job, Cavvo.”
“And I’m asking you mate, have you seen the figures. Did you actually look at them?”
Drew Martin nodded. “Of course I bloody did! I know I lair it up mate, but if my site leader hands me a report marked “Important” and fucking “safety incident statistics” then I fucking read it! Cover to cover! Twice!”
“Good, then you can read this one, too.”
Drew handed it over. Technically, Ceres Base was a completely digital office, because ink and paper were expensive to bring up from Earth, whereas between the nuclear reactor and the solar collection fields, electrons were all but free.
He’d paid for the hard copy version of the report out of his own pocket, wanting to make a statement. Nothing got the point across quite like physically handing over a two-inch manilla folder.
“The fuck is this?” Drew M asked, dropping it on his desk and opening it.
“Every significant, serious and critical incident report for the whole of Ceres Base since the launch of Hephaestus One.” Cavendish told him. “Everything from the dodgy landing of the IBM-S module and the relocation of the CHM, the suit HDF emitter problems, the airlock seals blowing, the collector array hiccups, that godawful mess in the refinery, right up to the power surge down in the canteen this morning.” as Martin opened the folder and started reading down the summary sheets at the front, he added. “I’ve also got personal testimonies, including one from Doctor Gunawardena saying that in his considered medical opinion, the only reason we’ve not had any deaths yet is divine intervention.”
“I put it down to good engineering.” Drew M muttered as he read.
“You and me both, mate. If everything around here wasn’t triple redundant, backed up, safety-checked and reinforced to hell and gone…”
Drew M flipped the sheet over, and muttered “Strewth…” upon seeing six more pages of summaries waiting for him, in densely packed ten-point Times New Roman. “Shit, is there anything that HASN’T gone wrong up here?”
“The IBM Z-series mainframes.” Cavendish said, promptly. “They’re the notable exception. If you don’t count their module landing wrong in the first place, the IBM labs and datacenter are the the only things that haven’t suffered failures at or near the maximum projections.”
“So, wait, all this is in range?”
“It’s worst-case-scenario stuff, but…” Cavendish sighed through his teeth and turned his head away. “Okay, admittedly, yes. It’s on the extremely pessimistic end of our projected range, but it’s still in range. Barely.”
“If it’s in range…”
“Don’t say it, Drew. I’m not paranoid, I’m telling you, I think we have a saboteur on board.”
“If we do, he’s a drongo. Who sabotages the place while being careful not to peek outside of what we’ve prepared for? Cavvo mate, face it, you were just expecting things to go better.”
“I was.” Drew admitted. “Because it SHOULD be.”
Drew M fished in his pocket and aimed a green laser dot at one of the many documents tacked to his office wall. “It SHOULD be inside that range.” he emphasized. “And it is.”
“Barely. And we should be improving as we put things into place. We should be seeing patterns that we can compensate for. Instead it’s…bloody everything! Anything can go wrong!”
“Bloody right mate. Murphy in action.”
Cavendish sighed. “You’re going to say I’m paranoid again, aren’t you.”
“Yeah, nah. I’m taking this seriously Cavvo, my right hand to God on that. We all are. But we can’t jump straight to sabotage.”
“Well, I hope it’s not. Or if it is that I talk you round before somebody dies.” He stuck out a hand. Drew M grabbed it, hoisted himself upright and slapped his spare arm around his shoulders in a brief, masculine hug.
“Come on mate, let’s hit the Speakeasy.” he said.
Date Point 4y 8m 2w AV
Folctha colony, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“A black belt in Karate? Fuckin’ ‘ell! Wax on, wax off!”
The class laughed as Legsy pantomimed the exaggerated arm-waving motion and an all-too-serious expression. Adam laughed too, glad for the entertaining distraction, stopping him from going over and over the argument with Ava in his head.
He hoped she was okay.
Legsy sobered. “Fuckin’ seriously then mate, come ‘ere and come at me.” he said, leaning on his back foot and gesturing towards himself, nonchalantly.
“Uh…” the black belt stepped forward and took his guard. Legsy flashed forward with alarming speed for a man of his size. The black belt put up a few seconds of desperate resistance, but he fell flat on his back in the dirt in short order with Legsy’s “knife”—a length of wooden dowel—pressed to his throat.
“None of that bowing and scraping bullshit!” the huge Welshman informed them, as he stood up. “Karate is a sport. You lot are here to learn how to fight and fighting means killing the other cunt before he kills you, not bowing and scoring points, alright?” He helped the hapless student up. “How many times did I stab him there, anyone see?”
“Three…no, four.” Adam said, raising his hand.
“Good boy!” Legsy gave him a thumbs up. He turned to the black belt. “You’re dead, mate. Which means you get to be my training dummy for the day.”
This drew general laughter as the unfortunate man bravely lined up for demonstration. Legsy chuckled and waved a hand.
“Relax pal, I’m taking the piss. Now, we’re training for ET combat here, which is a bit different to fighting another human. The good news is, it’s a lot fuckin’ easier. ETs are slower, weaker, squishier, can’t see, hear or even smell as well as we do. All of these give you a huge advantage. The bad news is, they’ve got some tricks and technology up their sleeves that we don’t. And THIS bad boy is human enemy number one.”
Several people recoiled as the holographic projector—courtesy of Scotch Creek and the same technology that powered the colony’s camouflage field—snapped on, and a full-sized Hunter fidgeted and glared at them.
It was truly hideous, an amalgam of several human nightmares, from its vaguely arachnoid physique and slick pale skin, to the way that skin inflamed and exuded pus around the implants that violated its limbs, torso and face. The face itself was an otherwise featureless ovoid full of far too many steak-knife teeth and an odd number of eyes, all of which blinked often and alone, without apparent sequence.
The animation of the simulation was uncanny—it shifted its weight constantly, looking around, tasting the air with its tongue, which was an unnatural, startling ice blue, and tapered to a feathered end.
Legsy surprised them by slapping the projection. It was the product of forcefield technology after all, and in fact creating a solid surface was easier than creating a visible one.
“Ugly cunt, in’he?” He commented, cheerfully. “Well, it gets better. There’s a fleet of these fuckers lurking right over our head right now. They’ve been here since we went public. Only thing holdin’ them back is our system forcefield…and that’s true for Earth too, just so you know. THESE bastards, are why the militia exists. Because if we have to fight these thing off, we will.”
He turned toward the projection. “There’s not a lot to go on about how these things live. What we know is, they have leaders, and followers. Like a wolf pack—there’s the Alphas, and the bottom of the pile, and everything in between. We know they’ll eat any thinkin’ being in the skies, man woman or child. We know that for some reason they REALLY don’t like us, and are on a crusade to wipe us the fuck out right now. Some poor bastard got killed just last week, catching an escape pod here—the Hunters got them.”
“Latest news is, they’ve started using special weapons just to stop us. Heavy pulse guns like getting smashed with a hammer. Plasma guns that’ll set you on fire. Nervejam grenade launchers that’ll have you dead an’ twitching before you even know they’ve opened fire. Fusion claws that’ll have your arm off like a fuckin’ lightsaber. These things right here, are the nastiest threat we face, by a mile.”
He turned back towards the by now thoroughly intimidated class, and gave them that winning smile. “And they’re still stupidly fuckin’ easy to kill.” He said. “Wanna learn how?”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Izbrk, Planet Ikbrzk
Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk (“Kirk”)
Kirk could hold his own in a fight and then some. After Kevin Jenkins, he was the being who had scored the second most Hunter kills during the raid on “Outlook on Forever”. He’d kept to his training throughout his political career and his new vocation as an agent of the human race, and felt pretty confident that his skills were now at the sharpest they had ever been.
It gave him a certain sense of assuredness and confidence as he picked his way carefully through the Izbrk street market, but that sense was hugely reinforced by the fact that Julian was in the crowd, following him.
It was amazing. Humans stood out in the crowd, despite their smallness. There was just something about the way they moved, looked around, held themselves…everything about a human was subconsciously predatory, and the herbivorous species of the galaxy gave them a wide berth as a result. Even wider, among those who had heard even a fraction of the new-found Deathworlders’ abilities and reputation.
But Julian could vanish. It was disconcerting. He would talk with Kirk, Kirk would look away, and when he looked back, there Julian wasn’t. But if he spoke to him over the silent comms implant in his head, the Deathworlder would be at his side within seconds, never approaching from an expected angle, always…silent. It sent instinctive flight signals right through the ancient, animal parts of Kirk’s brain, which he had to override by reminding himself that Julian was his friend and protector.
Pleasingly, it even made Allison jump. In fact, he wondered if Julian was doing it specifically to get back at her for her teasing.
“Jeeeez!” she hissed, for the third time as she turned and found him walking casually alongside her. “Will you stop that?!”
Several beings glanced at her, alarmed by a raised human voice, then looked away aware that taking too much notice of the business of others was potentially serious trouble. Oddly, they seemed to ignore Julian.
“Not joking this time.” he said. “We’re being tailed. Don’t look.”
Kirk and Allison exchanged a glance. “Tailed?” Kirk asked.
“Chehnasho. Three in the main group, one shadowing them. They’re all wearing cloaks, but I saw combat harnesses underneath. Looked like a kind of uniform: White, with three lines forming a triangle on them.”
“Is their leader female?” Kirk asked.
“I think so, yes. She has a prosthetic arm.”
“Zokrup. A mercenary leader, almost as famous as Five-Skulls Zripob himself, and with good reason.”
“Well, they’ve got some of those new jolt guns.”
“Bear with me.” Julian stepped aside as a stevedore drone grumbled past carrying a crate of some kind, and disappeared.
“Fuck’s sake.” Allison complained. “Where are you, you son of a bitch?”
“Right here.” He replied, walking past her in the opposite direction.
Julian kept going, vocalizing quietly over their private communications. “Quietly please. There’s a left turn up ahead into what smells like a spice market. Kirk, There’s a vizkittik at the second stall selling, and I’m quoting here, ‘The oldest and slimiest Zrrks in the Expanse’.“
“Sounds nice, I could go for a really ancient Zrrk right now.”
Allison muttered something that Kirk suspected might have been a complaint about how other species considered humans to be the strange ones. Julian just kept talking. “Good. Stop off and buy one, haggle with the merchant. What they do next should tell us what they want. Allison, just like I showed you in training, alright?“
“Sure.” she muttered.
“If they make a move, we’ll let you talk for a minute, see what they want. If they’re unfriendly, then we take out the three spares and maybe this Zokrup can tell us something.”
“Nonlethal if you can, please.” Kirk said. “The Chehnasho Syndicates tend to take a dim view of…unauthorized violence in their territory.”
“You got it, boss. Enjoy your nice, rancid, dripping Zrrk.“
Allison pulled a face, which only creased up further as they got closer to the Zrrk vendor. “Dear God.” she complained.
“Fragrant, ain’t they?”
“Delicious.” Kirk commented. “Good meeting, cousin! These smell as good as advertised.”
“Ah, it’s an old family secret. All in the blackrot culture.” the vendor replied happily, launching into the patter that was shared by merchants the galaxy over. “My father always said the batch wasn’t ready until half of it had liquified…um, is that a human? Only my translator says she looks very ill, and I heard they carry dangerous diseases.”
“They have sensitive noses and for some reason Zrrk smells repulsive to them.” Kirk explained. “Don’t worry, she has a suppression implant.”
“Zrrk smells repulsive to them? I heard humans were strange but…I, ah…” The vendor faltered as Allison (who had gone a very strange colour) shot him the kind of murderous glare that only a truly irate Deathworlder could, but he rallied admirably. “Three for the price of two, and I’ll throw in a tzk’zr frond.”
“I have a better offer.”
The new voice belonged to, sure enough, Zokrup, who showed something to the vendor as her two associates levelled shock guns at Allison. “You go on a break and forget you spoke to this “cousin” of yours.” she stated. The vendor glanced back and forth twice, then fled, as did several others nearby.
“One-Shot Zokrup.” Kirk said, an admirable picture of calm for somebody addressing a feared mercenary. “I’m flattered. Somebody must think very highly of me to decide that I’m worth your time.”
“Compliments, Councillor A’ktnnzzik’tk? If I didn’t know better I’d say that you were stupid enough to try and talk me out of my contract.”
“A good thing you know better, then. I’m well aware that you don’t betray your employers.”
Zokrup blinked slowly and visibly, the Chehnasho equivalent of rolling her eyes. “So why the clumsy attempt at sweet-talking me?”
“I’m not allowed to be polite? Incidentally, is this a murder, or just an abduction?”
“Oh, it’s an abduction. For now.”
“Taking out the tail. Get them.”
“Thank you.” Kirk said to Zokrup and Julian both.
He drew and fired. The Chehnasho were all focused on Allison, who threw herself aside and rolled as she landed, fetching up behind a stall which grounded their shock-gun bolts, and by the time they realised that in fact Kirk himself was the more serious threat, two of them were down with their limbs badly broken under the hammer-blows of his pulse pistols, and his cybernetic arm had whipped up and extended the fusion blade hidden within it. The air seethed where the blade had slipped right through Zokrup’s personal shield and was now warring with the forcefield boundary. Greasy Chehnasho sweat erupted all over her face at the sight of a lethally sharp point held perfectly steady only an inch away from what passed for her nose.
Having a total of four arms had some major advantages. Among them was the ability to hold four weapons.
“Bad move, Councillor.” Zokrup spat, even as she dropped her own weapon.
“If you’re referring to the rest of your party, my own backup has taken care of that.” Kirk said. Years of politics had schooled him in the art of ambiguity, never committing to specific numbers when vagueness could hint at accuracy where precision might be completely wrong.
”‘Fraid I used a little too much force, there.” Julian added, arriving right next to the already nervous Zokrup and nearly causing her to impale herself on Kirk’s blade as she started. “You guys really break easily.”
Kirk saw in the way Zokrup’s shoulders sagged that they’d definitely scored a hit.
She emerged from behind the stall, smoothing her hair down. Static electricity was holding it out away from her head, and crackling viciously as she tried to tidy herself up. “Are bad hair days gonna be a feature of decoy duty?” she asked.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Ceres Base, Sol
The largest part of excavating a giant hole in the ice, as with excavating a giant hole anywhere, was moving all of the material out of the hole. In low gravity, the job came with a whole mess of additional challenges. All of their gear had been designed and built in Earth’s gravity, for the tolerances it imposed. Jury-rigged engineering solutions had turned some of those limits on their heads—the sturdy steel arms of the excavators could now wield truly immense buckets and—so long as they moved carefully and slowly to account for the fact that the forces imposed by mass hadn’t changed—were clearing the spoil much faster than would have been possible on Earth.
Piloting those excavators while wearing a vacuum hardsuit was another matter entirely, and usually fell to Tracy Monroe, the mining team’s petite “girly girl” who seemed to take a positive delight in being the one who got to play with the big manly toys while all the roughneck males were stuck holding the surveying equipment and hauling the crates of explosives. Her helmet decal was a stylized Norma Jean, manning an enormous bulldozer and grinning wildly inside her helmet.
“Hey, boss?” she called out as Drew walked past her cabin with the spray paint for marking drill points for the explosives.
“Why wasn’t the geologist hungry?“
Drew just rolled his eyes inside his helmet. “Do tell.”
“He’d lost his Apatite.“
The open channel filled with groans and snorts of amusement.
Somebody else piped up: “Hey Marilyn. You know any jokes about Sodium?”
”…Na.” Drew could HEAR the gleeful grin both of the jokers wore after the setup was received.
“Jesus Christ…” he muttered.
“My sediments exactly…”
That one earned the culprit—an American coal miner whose racy “fallen angel” decal had earned him the nickname “wings”—a chorus of amused condemnation, and he took a bow, a difficult task in the rigid hardsuit.
It saved his life.
There was a flash of light, and a thump, felt through the soles of the feet, as something bright streaked down out of the interplanetary dark and carved a trench in the dig site behind Wings. To a man, the team turned away and cowered, protecting their faceplates against shrapnel. Drew felt something glance off his upper arm with a force that knocked him off his feet. He landed gently in the tiny gravity of Ceres’ surface, and hauled himself upright, hollering into the open channel.
“Everyone okay? Check in!” He glanced at the impact site on his upper arm. The impact had dented one of the rigid plates rather than hitting a joint, so the worst damage was some missing paint, a starburst of ugly grey between all the scuffed yellow and black.
“Jesusfuckshitohmygodfuck fuck fuck…“
“Wings! Check in!”
“I’m gonna throw up, fuck…“
Drew looked up. The impact had flung Wings high into, for lack of a better term, the air and he was tumbling wildly, suit bubbled inside the high-visibility yellow glow of his emergency forcefield. “Don’t you fucking dare, mate. Just like we practiced, focus on your heads-up display! You remember!”
“Yeah…yeah, focus on the HUD…deep breaths….” With his mind snapped onto what he could do to help himself, Wings showed why he was on the team by rapidly getting himself under control, both mentally and physically. A few precisely-timed puffs of propellant from his SAFER and his spin was corrected.
“Get yourself indoors mate.” Drew ordered him.
“Way ahead of you, chief.”
“Everyone else okay?” He asked. The request was redundant. His own HUD showed summarized information from all of the team members: anyone with a breach, a popped field or worrying vital signs would have been highlighted in red, but the very safety protocols that he himself had written called for everyone to check themselves and their work buddies. Redundancy saved lives.
It took them only seconds to check in, confirm that they were all intact and well, and could see no alarming signs of damage on any of their fellows. He ordered the team indoors anyway. Nobody knew whether a damaged suit might blow after staying sealed for a few minutes, but he didn’t feel like finding out.
With his immediate duties taken care of, the next step was a sitrep.
“Tower” he called, on the operations channel. “This is Dig One Foreman. What the fuck?!”
“Uh, Dig One, serious incident up here, all radio traffic is being recorded. Uh, Over.” The operator’s “over” was obsolete thanks to the radio squelch, but the man was clearly being on his absolute best behavior for the record. Drew knew he’d been unprofessional with his own outburst, but the Adrenaline was making it hard to keep a calm and composed outlook.
“No shit it’s a ‘serious incident’, we nearly lost a man down here!” he exclaimed. “What the hell hit us?”
“Uh, we’re still determining that, Dig One, over.”
“Well while you’re determining it, this Dig’s closed on my orders. We’re heading inside for a full inspection, we’ve got suit damage out here.”
“Uh…roger that, uh, Dig One. I have you, uh, coming in.” the radio squelched, then squelched again. “Uh, over.”
The place must have been a madhouse. Drew knew that the traffic operators were cool under even the most intense pressure, so for one of them to be so obviously flustered was worrying. “Keep me informed, Tower. Dig One Foreman out.”
He was last into the triple-door airlock, and it was only once they were safely in the mining suit workshop, behind the base’s triple-skin hull and thick concrete outer wall, that he allowed himself to relax and authorize the suitcrack.
Wings’ suit was ruined, the rear of it torn up and peeled open by flying shards of steel-hard ice. The man himself was badly hurt too, though sheer adrenaline had kept him from realizing the fact—bloody skin was visible at the bottom of some of the craters and gouges. They cut him out of it as their first order of business, staunching the bleeding as best they could until the medics arrived and carried him away.
Drew M stood aside to let them pass as he entered. His perpetual smile and the amused creasing around his eyes were both gone. As much as his tanned skin would allow, he looked pale, unwell, and anxious.
“Strewth.” he commented, proving that there were some things that no amount of stress could drive out of him.
“Yyyyep.” Cavendish replied.
“The fuck happened, mate?”
“Ask those useless twats up in the tower.” Drew C told him, turning around to start removing his own suit.
“Yeah, they’re about as useful as an ashtray on- JESUS FUCK! Cavvo, have you seen the back of your head?”
Usually, this impossible query would have earned a sarcastic retort and some friendly insults. Instead, Drew paused, then unlatched his helmet seals and lifted it off.
There was a triangular shard of ice the size of a credit card lodged in the back of his helmet, smack in the middle of the thickest bit, and still just penetrating through to open a hole to the interior. two inches to either side, and it would have lobotomized him.
The whole crew gathered to gawk at it.
The reverent silence was finally broken by the phone. Drew M stabbed the speaker button to answer it.
“Workshop, Tower manager here.” The speaker sounded much more composed than whoever Drew had spoken to only minutes ago. “You all okay down there?”
Drew M glanced around then said. “One of our guys is getting sewn back together, got major suit damage on a few others. The bloody hell happened?”
“From what we can tell one of the ore-haul drones suffered some kind of control software failure and fired its primaries on final approach rather than retros.”
“How does that even happen?” asked O’Neill.
“You got me there. The operator managed to force reset and restore control, but most we could do by then was deflect it. Taking it the other way would have crashed it into the base itself. Sorry for the scare.”
Cavendish spoke up so that the phone could hear him. “Sounds like the right call to me.” he said.
“Yeah, well. We’re starting a critical incident investigation up here. Meeting’s in three hours.”
“We’ll be there.” Both the Drews chorused. There was a click as the tower manager put his end of the phone down. Drew M. turned to Cavendish, his jaw set at a grim angle.
“Bloody oath mate, I’m never calling you paranoid again.” He said.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Izbrk, Planet Ikbrzk
Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk (“Kirk”)
Izbrk’s architecture was a study in graceless off-white concrete cubes, ruddy and austere in the sullen red light that penetrated the great forcefield dome. That dome made Izbrk a city with breathable oxygenated air, rather than a sand dune and a gasping death followed by erosion under the relentless sandstorms. Still, somehow, the sand and dust crept in, and was swept into the cheaper, poorer districts, where it accumulated until somebody was finally motivated to organise a crusade against the cloying orange powder that rounded out every corner and undulated across the road in the stiff artificial breeze of the atmosphere systems.
For once, the human predilection for clothing seemed like a sensible concession to hostile environments, rather than a strange cultural peccadillo. The grit between Kirk’s toes was chafing him terribly and he was devoting his upper hands full time to shielding his eyes from airborne dust, whereas Julian and Allison were both wearing high-laced tan boots sourced from army surplus back on Earth, and seemed perfectly comfortable inside their hooded jackets.
It was only when he glanced sideways at them that he realised they were both wearing dark glasses and some kind of flimsy white mask over their noses and mouths. If not for the subtle differences in body shape between male and female, he wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart.
“Could I have of those?” He asked after his third sneezing and coughing fit. Julian wordlessly produced one from the pocket on his leg and handed it over.
“You can try.” he said.
Kirk held it over his nose and tried to inhale—it was difficult beyond belief. “I think I’m using it wrong.” he said.
“It’s just a filter. You’re using it right. People wear these things all the time back on Earth.”
Kirk tried again. It was like trying to inhale through a wall. “They do?”
“Sure. I hear you can get them with, like, animal faces and stuff printed on over in China.”
Kirk handed it back. “How can you breathe with this thing on?” he asked.
“Of course. I…Oh. Good. This is the address.”
“Your old friend likes the low life.” Allison commented, surveying the street. The nearest garbage pile contained pieces of automated garbage collection drone.
“Far from it.” Kirk told her. “But he’s a practical being, behind the diplomat.”
“Diplomat?” Allison asked. “This guy’s from your security council days?”
“Before that, even. He and I go all the way back to the Outlook on Forever, long before it was famous…There. That’s the building.”
“You sure? It looks pretty much like all the others.”
“It’s the only one with a big enough door…”
They ducked through a swirl of dust and paused on the opposite side of the street, where Julian looked up and tensed, ready to leap. A hand landed on his shoulder.
“Nuh-uh, mister jungle. It’s my turn to be the badass.” Allison sprang up the wall, grabbed a cutaway that was the closest thing to ornamentation on the bland grey buildings, and swarmed up it in the low gravity. Kirk watched and admired as she turned at the top and caught the bag that Julian threw her, an item which he himself had trouble even lifting, but which the Deathworlder lobbed up to roof height with one hand and only a small grunt of exertion.
“You sure we need that?” Julian asked him. “I tied that mercenary up pretty good.”
“Chehnasho mercenaries don’t get a reputation like hers without being almost as dangerous as you are.” Kirk said. “She underestimated us last time. Let’s not make the same mistake.”
“What did you bring for yourself?”
Julian just tugged his jacket aside—hanging from his belt was a knife as long as one of Kirk’s hands, and a hatchet. “Just the essentials.” he said, almost apologetically, as if he wasn’t carrying weaponry that could bring down a Vulza.
Knocking on the door produced no effect at first, but then, just as Julian was about to ask if he was sure they had the right place, the door—sealed against the invasive dust—popped and freely swung inwards.
They stepped inside, and Julian closed the door behind them, squinting to see in the darkness inside.
Something glowed an unwell yellow green in the far corner.
A voice spoke, quietly, as a heavy bulk around the glow shifted. “Ugnurukvuyung, uluhuguagnu-A’ktnnzzik’tk-lun“
“Vedreg…Oh, Vedreg, what did they do to you?” Kirk rushed forward.
“Luu?” The big being chuffed deep in his chest, something similar to a laugh. “Muragvu-lon murgutu. Muu murguto muurulu-go.“
Vedreg shifted as the light came up, and Julian fought back a sudden heave in his stomach. The Guvnurag’s great shaggy scalp had been shaved, and terrible ugly wounds covered it, the blood a startling blue where it soaked his dressings.
“You did this to yourself?” Kirk practically shrieked, clearly appalled.
There was a shocked silence during which Kirk only stared at his old friend, and Vedreg turned his head away, flanks fading from shade to shade.
Julian eventually had to ask. “What’s he say?”
Kirk looked up at him. “He said it was the only way to escape ‘them’.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean.
Captain Owen Powell
Ross was at a dead run from the direction of the sensor array. The cobbled-together menagerie of technology that Adrian Saunders had installed had been one of the first projects in the colony to be housed inside a permanent structure, where it had been added to, patched into a series of monitors, and generally turned into the beating nerve center of the colony’s intelligence network.
“There’s a ship coming in sir. Five parsecs out. Looks like a freighter. Straight at us.”
He reversed course and matched the captain as Powell ran toward the sensor array and landing platform, handing him an earpiece.
“Legsy! Drop it and gear up!” Powell yelled. Legsy had already paused his demonstration as Ross approached. Now, he snapped out of jocular instructor mode, and into hardened special-forces veteran, pausing only long enough to acknowledge the order before heading to the armoury, long legs eating up the turf.
Powell got his earpiece in and keyed it. “Myrmidon, ground has incoming contact, looks like a civilian freighter. Can you see it?” He asked.
“We do, Captain. It’s still too far away to make out details, but it’s big, it’s slow, and it’s using a warp drive. Agree that it looks like a freighter.“
“Have the Hunters seen it yet?”
“There’s been no increase of chatter on their channels to indicate as much. If our best estimates as to their sensor range are accurate then we should see them start to take notice in about five minutes.”
“Any way to contact them?”
“Not until they’re in range for the swarm to see them, and they’re too slow to escape. It’ll be a massacre.”
Powell gritted his teeth. Watching the escape pod arrive a fortnight earlier had been tough—that tiny vessel had stood no chance in hell, and had been scooped wholesale into the belly of a swarm ship that had decloaked like a breaching whale and swallowed the little craft whole.
He weighed his options. It could be a trap. A stolen freighter full of the toughest and best-armed Hunters that the Swarm of Swarms could muster. In which case, any rescue mission would most likely end in death.
But what rescue mission could they realistically pull off anyway? Potent and reinforced as they were, neither of the salvaged Hierarchy ships would stand up to the hungry enemy at their gates.
He explained as much to Captain Manning as he entered the groundside CIC, familiarizing himself at a glance with the latest updates as the sensors teased new information from the unfolding situation
“We may have a solution there.” Manning replied. “It’s a risk, but I’m not watching a freighter full of people die on my watch.“
“Assuming it’s not a trap.” Powell reminded him.
“I’m prepared to take that risk, captain.”
“I was hoping you’d say that. What’s your solution?”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Izbrk, Planet Ikbrzk
“Hey, guys…that mercenary found us.”
Allison settled in under the cloak that Julian had so thoughtfully packed into the bag. It wasn’t much—in fact it was little more than rough sacking, but the colour blended with the concrete and dust of her rooftop perfectly. At most, she would look like a tarpaulin left on the rooftop storage to keep the dust out, here in a place where it never rained.
“Reinforcements?” Julian asked her.
“I see five not counting that Zokrup bitch.”
“Only five? I smell a rat.”
Allison took that seriously. Julian was a blushing disaster with women, and a heck of a lot of fun to tease and flirt with, but she also knew that he had an unrivalled instinct for dangerous situations.
“I can’t move without risking them spotting me.” she said. “I can see the whole road, but don’t ask me about the alleys.”
“Leave that to me.”
“One jungle’s pretty much like the other, huh?”
“Better. No sticks to break, no snakes to step on.”
There was a pause. Allison had no idea how Julian had exited the building, but she had every confidence that he had, somehow.
“Okay…” he finally said, as the mercenaries continued down the street, knocking on doors and intimidating the frightened, impoverished residents who dared—or were coerced—to open up. “Alleyways are empty. Weird.”
“They can’t be that overconfident, can they?”
“Not after what we did back in the market. Not if they’ve got a brain, and I’m thinking Zokrup does.”
Allison watched the Chehnasho in question remove something slimy from a facial orifice, inspect it, then eat it. “Oh yeah. She’s a shoo-in for Mensa.”
”…oh shit. Stay down.”
Allison did so, burrowing back from the edge and down under her cloak. After a second or two, her ears caught what Julian had heard, and she tucked herself up as small and unnoticeable as she could manage, just peeking over the top of her wall.
Something that reminded her of a cranefly came skimming low over the rooftops and spun gently above the middle of the stree. Allison blinked as it kicked up a real wind to replace the half-hearted synthetic breeze, full of particulate irritants.
Kirk chimed in. “What’s going on out there?” he demanded.
“They brought a gunship.” Julian said. “Don’t show your face, or it’ll level the building.”
“Wrong.” Allison said, quietly.
“Whaddya mean, ‘wrong’? I’m looking right at it!“
“They brought three…”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Ceres Base, Sol
“You’ve reviewed the code already?”
Five of the IBM senior engineers were in the meeting, and they collectively shared the patient expression worn by all engineers when dealing with the layperson.
“Yes, we reviewed the code already.”
“Completely. It’s simple and efficient code. That was the whole point.”
“Now that we’re all here…” Adele Park drew their attention to the arrival of the Drews. “Let’s get this thing started. How’s your guy, Cavendish?”
Drew sat down. “He’ll have some scars to show off, but he’s okay. Thanks.” He meant it. Being asked that by the base’s executive officer was genuinely a balm for his damaged morale.
“I’m glad.” She tapped something on her tablet computer. “Alright, meeting is called to order, in the chair is Adele Park, executive officer for Ceres Base One, the Hephaestus LLC. The business being discussed is the critical incident of this date, its causes, effects, and how to prevent a repeat. Are there any points of order before we begin?”
Drew raised his hand.
“Point of order Mister Andrew Cavendish, Dig Site One team leader.” Adele said, then extended a hand to indicate he could proceed.
Drew cleared his throat. “Adele, it’s high time we hold a meeting concerning ALL of the serious, significant and critical safety incidents that have befallen this facility since launch.” He said. “This is only the most recent in a string of potentially deadly mishaps, and we’ve seen no trend in improvement in response to our efforts to improve facility safety.”
“While not strictly speaking a point of order, the suggestion is well made.” Adele said. “The motion on the table is to expand the remit of this meeting to cover all safety incidents since the start of operations. Is there…I see several people raising their hands to second the…in fact, motion carried.”
Drew had already placed his thick incident folder on the table in front of him, unnoticed. Now, as he pushed it forward toward the center, everybody looked at it. “We may be at this for some time.” he said.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Izbrk, Planet Ikbrzk
“They brought three…”
No sooner had she said it, than Julian saw them.
It was overkill by anything’s standards. Each of the gunships put him in mind of a sturdy metallic spider: A segmented body housing the engines, pilot and gunner, and four long but solid “legs”, each one of which terminated in a coilgun. Devastating firepower aimed at one target, or the ability to separately handle four different threats.
Still, there were some obvious design flaws. The kinetics were mounted high on the outside of the hull, making them an easy target, and the body didn’t look like it was armored. The whole assemblage bobbed and swayed in its own air wash, suggesting that it was a bitch to pilot and a nightmare to shoot straight, especially if the gunner was handling four different targets.
“Right.” He said. “We’ve got one big advantage on our side.”
“Do tell.” Allison sounded nervous.
“No thermal camera or any kind of advanced sensors.” Julian told her “If they had those, they’d have seen us both already and locked on. So, we can ambush them.”
“I could shoot out the engines?”
Julian considered it. The biggest and heaviest thing in the bag had been their gun, an Israeli STAR-21, the designated marksman version of the Tavor assault rifle. Chambered with 5.56 as it was, and Allison being the shot he knew she was, that was probably a sure kill against the exposed and unarmored engines.
“People live here.” he said. “I don’t really wanna drop a crashing gunship on ma, pa and li’l baby Vizkittik.”
He shrank down as one of the Chehnasho mercs sauntered past his alleyway hiding place. The other four and Zokrup weren’t far behind him. And a crappy plan came to him. Awful though it was it was the only one that presented itself in a timely fashion. The band were dangerously close to knocking on Kirk and Vedreg’s door.
“See the one on Zokrup’s far left?” He asked.
Allison didn’t acknowledge the order, but a quiet second later, there were three thump sounds, and the selected Chehnasho fell bonelessly to the dirt in silence with a shocked expression on his face, and a large hole right through his center of mass.
The aliens snapped into formation, aiming in the apparent direction the attack had come from with commendable efficiency…for aliens.
By human standards, they made the laughable mistake of completely failing to watch their backs. Julian didn’t even bother bloodying his weapons. The second none of them were watching the alleyway, he dashed out, and two of the mercenaries were killed by the simple expedient of slamming their skulls together with a noise like a pillowcase full of potato chips being used for a piñata.
He slapped the third a lethal blow upside his greasy head left-handed as he moved, still astonished at how flimsy nonhumans were, and threw his hatchet with the other hand. Even though the merc’s shield emitter robbed the flying axe of most of its momentum, it still embedded itself in the frog-person’s rib cage with enough force to lift her off her feet.
It took only three or four seconds to go from the moment that Allison shot the first victim, to the moment that Zokrup was struggling in his grip with a hunting knife pressed to her throat.
“Holy shit, Etsicitty.” Allison said, clearly impressed.
“I’d call off your gunships.” He advised Zokrup, pressing just hard enough to draw blood. The hovering craft had turned their coilguns to face the carnage, and he was acutely aware of staring down the barrel of one of the few forms of weaponry out here in the galaxy that was truly dangerous.
“Yes…yes.” She agreed, and Julian congratulated himself on the way his half-baked plan had actually worked. She raised a hand to press at her earpiece. “Gunship one…
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Folctha, Planet Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
The problem with being the most fluent speaker of English in the little non-human enclave the crew had built for themselves, was that Gyotin constantly found himself thrust into the role of spokesperson. Surrounded as they were on all sides by Deathworlders, his crew—and as the senior ranking member of that crew, he now thought of them as his crew—had naturally walled themselves off a little, building their own habitation out of sight of the bustle of the colony proper, in what he knew the humans were calling “The ET Quarter”.
He wasn’t sure if the term was degrading or not.
Still. Staying in touch was necessary. So, he represented the nonhuman perspective at the “Thing”, he had the ears of Governor Sandy, Captain Powell and Chief Arés, and played his role in the development of this illegal little operation. He was even beginning to like it, though he only admitted as such in his most introspective moments.
There was one building that fascinated him in particular, though. And what was fascinating was that it had been one of the very first the humans had built. They called it a “Faith Center”: From the outside, it was built of the same mix of local wood and imported materials as any other building in Folctha, but the plan was different. Most of the others made efficient use of the space, packing as much as they could into as tiny a footprint as they could. Decorated, yes, but rarely to any enormous degree.
By comparison, the Faith Center was a large and ornate glutton for land, its own footprint supplemented by a large plot of land.
It had interested him since they day they built it, but this was the first time he had worked up the courage to enter and inspect this curious Deathworlder edifice.
He poked his head in the door, finding it—surprisingly, considering its obvious importance—apparently empty. The main doors led into a central hub which was a simple, open, airy room full of comfortable seats, throw pillows, bean bags and bookshelves, and desktop computers, doubling as the town library. the doors in its seven walls led into a variety of spaces.
He inspected the books: they seemed to be segregated according to topic, but it wasn’t clear to him exactly what the difference was between topics. One of the shelves was full of books with titles like “Knowing God”, “The Purpose-Driven Life” and “Grace Abounding”. There were several copies of something called “The Holy Bible”, but the only word he recognised of those three was: “The”. Another held books marked “The Quran”, “The Messenger of Allah”, “The Spiritual Teachings of the Prophet.”
He spent some time exploring, frowning at book titles like “Bhagavad-Gita”, “Tao te Ching”, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”—that one earned a double-take— “The God Delusion” and “In Defense of Common Sense”. He wrestled briefly with the mystery of why “Letter to a Christian Nation” was not on the shelf clearly marked “Christian”, and the conundrum presented by “Living Buddha, Living Christ” which as far as his hypothesis up to that point had decided, were two different things. Whatever they were.
He gave up on the books, deciding that there was no insight into Human strangeness to be found from just glancing at their covers and that he didn’t have time to read any of them, and turned his attention to the doors set in the remaining six sides of the heptagonal hub.
One led into a little corridor which contained only two other doors. He didn’t understand the symbols on them, but a quick investigation soon cleared up that mystery—plumbing was much the same the galaxy over, and it turned out that human privies were not dissimilar to Gaoian ones. Next door to that, some small rooms—one containing a table and chairs, one containing what was obviously a water heater, a refrigeration unit and some basic food preparation equipment, and a third door which was locked.
The next room was a real mystery—it was effectively empty, containing nothing but a handful of ornate little rugs. There was something written on the far wall, but it wasn’t in the alphabet used by English.
It was while puzzling over this one that he finally heard some sign of life, and looked around to see the seventh door swinging shut. Eager to get a human explanation for all of these mysteries, he dithered for a few minutes, rehearsing his introduction and request before finally poking his nose through.
This last room was only marginally less austere than the rug room, containing little but chairs, a large table at the front, and a lectern next to some kind of electronic device that he couldn’t immediately identify. The only decorative thing within it was the window behind the table, which was tall and narrow, neatly bisecting the wall, and intersected two-thirds of the way up by a shorter, perpendicular line. The glass was densely pigmented, making it all but impossible to see through, but casting dazzling colours into the little hall as the sunlight shone through it.
At first, he didn’t see the person who had entered, until he advanced forward slightly and saw that she was kneeling on the floor towards the front of the room, hands clasped in front of her face.
“Umm…” he began, rehearsed greeting forgotten.
She jumped, immediately going tense, and Gyotin mentally chastised himself. Humans were deathworlders, with an immediate fight-or-flight reflex of terrifying speed and efficiency built right into their nervous system. He’d forgotten, after so long of seeing them in their domestic, peaceful life that he was dealing with a truly dangerous being here.
“Sorry!” he squeaked, acutely aware that he was still figuring out their contradictory mess of a language. “I didn’t mean you make jump.” He thought about this, then realised he’d defaulted to Gaoian syntax “To make you jump.” he corrected.
The girl—and she was still just barely a cub, he knew enough about humans nowadays to spot that much—relaxed, and smiled, setting his skin crawling at the sight of those sturdy teeth. “It’s okay.” she said. “Hey, I’ve…never met a non-human before.”
”…Well then. Hello. I may come in?”
“I’d like that.” she nodded. “You’re…Gaoian, right?”
“Right. I am Gyotin, Clanless for now.”
“Ava. Ava Rios.”
Gyotin tilted his head slightly as he approached. Ava’s eyes looked redder than was usual for a human, and there was moisture on her cheeks. He’d never seen an expression quite like it, and with Ava lacking a corresponding translator to communicate her body language, he had to use his best guess.
“Are you…all right?” he asked. It seemed like a safe bet.
She sighed—he knew that one—and stood up, dusting off her knees. She surprised him by being slightly shorter than he was. Gyotin was small by Gaoian standards, and Gaoian standards were small by Human standards. “I’m an idiot.” she said, simply.
He blinked. “You are? I mean, why say that?”
“I just…I ran off at the mouth.”
One thing Gyotin had got his head around with humans was the way their analogies worked. They seemed to love idiom and metaphor, and weave it into every facet of their conversations, subconsciously. A more straightforward species might have said “’I said some things which I now regret having said’ but he had to admit that ‘I ran off at the mouth’ got the same message across both more swiftly and more evocatively.
“That happens.” he said. “You did this to…friend? Clan-mate?”
“Hah. I don’t have a clan.” Ava looked up at the window, and shut her eyes. Gyotin saw a water droplet run down her face, which she wiped away with a sleeve, before returning her attention back to him, rather abruptly. “My boyfriend.”
“Close enough, I guess. We’re together.” She turned away from the window “Hey, can we head outside? Those bean bags looked comfortable, and I think they had hot chocolate.”
“If you like.” Gyotin agreed. There was an atmosphere to the room that was starting to encroach on him, a feeling tickling at the roots of his fur. He had no way to describe it.
He shivered the sensation out as he crossed the threshold. “What were you do in there?” he asked.
“I was just praying, asking God for help.” She said simply. “And confessing.”
Gyotin sniffed. “I don’t understand.” he said. “Confessing what to?”
“It’s a Catholic thing.” she said, as if that explained anything. “‘Forgive me father for I have sinned’, you know.”
“Catholic? Your father? And sinned is what?”
”…I guess you don’t know, huh?”
“It must be a human thing.”
“I guess…maybe? I’ve never really thought about it.” Ava said. “D’you want an Ovaltine?”
Gyotin summoned a term he’d heard. “I’m game. Don’t know what it is, but I’m try it anyway if you want.”
He sat down as she heated up some water and poured it into a pair of handled cups alongside some brown powder. The resulting concoction turned out to smell incredible, and when he sipped it experimentally he added it to his list of reasons why human weirdness might just be a good thing.
“All this…” he indicated the room and its books. “So alien. I think sometimes, humans very strange.”
Ava looked around at them. “I guess. I mean, wow. That’s a lot of books.”
She sipped her drink. “I’m not…don’t ask me about it.” she said. “I never…I just went to Church every Sunday.”
“Because…because that’s what we did.” Ava said, lamely. “Because you’ve got to thank God.”
That seemed very strange indeed to Gyotin. Deciding that Ava may really not be the person to ask about these things, he changed the topic.
“You don’t seem like idiot to me.” he said.
“Say what?” Ava asked, thrown by the conversational tangent.
“You said ‘I’m an idiot’.” He reminded her. “Why?”
Ava thought about it for a minute. “I guess…I don’t really know. I just said some really stupid and hurtful things to Adam and….I don’t know why, I was just so mad at him and I don’t know why.”
“What did you say?” Gyotin asked, congratulating himself on getting the syntax right.
“I…” she shook her head helplessly. If nothing else, Ava was a good lesson in human body language. “You’d have to know us pretty well, I guess. I told him to go run to his dad for advice.”
Gyotin scratched behind his ear. “That is stupid?” he asked. “If he need advice, talk to a Father. Common sense.”
“I told you, you’d have to know us to get why it’s a problem.”
Gyotin imitated a human shrug for her benefit. “Or maybe it’s not problem and you just…oh, what word? …confuse?”
Unexpectedly she laughed, a little strangely. “Oh God, don’t say that!” she protested “That just makes me feel more stupid.”
Gyotin was still trying to plan how to respond to that, when Ava took her turn to throw him by going off on a tangent. “Hey, I just noticed…you’re naked.”
“You’re not wearing clothes.”
“Well…no. I usually have covers for pockets and things, but didn’t need today. Is problem?”
”…No.” For some reason this seemed to amuse her. “No it’s not.”
She set her cup down, then unexpectedly leaned over and kissed the top of Gyotin’s head. His ears tilted downwards, half out of confusion and half so as to make room. “Thank you, Gyotin. You’re like a furry Zen master, you know that?”
Gyotin really wasn’t sure what he was being thanked for. “…Thank you?” he asked.
“Anytime.” Ava got up, her mood apparently very changed. She seemed happier, now. “I should go. Will I see you around?”
“I’d like that, but first…What is Zen? I saw books over there have that word.”
“Well, why don’t you read one and find out?” She asked.
Gyotin considered the suggestion for some minutes after she left.
He cleaned up the dirty mugs, and when he returned to his cushion, he had one of the books in his paws, which he opened, and took a few seconds to skip the Preface and Foreword—he turned straight to chapter one, and began to read.
”…If I am asked, then, what Zen teaches, I would answer, Zen teaches nothing. Whatever teachings there are in Zen, they come out of one’s own mind. We teach ourselves; Zen merely points the way.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Izbrk, Planet Ikbrzk
Suicide. The alien hell-bitch had suicided rather than accept surrender, and she’d taken Julian with her. The alien gunner didn’t hesitate—Julian only had time enough to register the order but not enough to do anything about it before the coil gun fired, pounding a crater in the street that turned Zokrup into a rain of vile greenish-brown chowder and filled the air with dust.
Bereft of any better ideas and with tears threatening her vision, she shot out the engines on all three craft. None of them even figured out where she was before they fell out of the air on cut puppet-strings of smoke and fire, smashing into the road and half-demolishing some poor local locayl’s home.
She didn’t melodramatically empty her magazine into the burning wreckage. Instead, she set the weapon aside, and began to climb down the building, unsure why.
It was an inarticulate noise of pain and nothing more, but an unmistakably human one. Not a scream, just the low, creaking moan of a man in agony.
She was rewarded only with panting and heavy breathing on the open channel, but she knew where he’d been standing, and more importantly, knew that he was still alive.
She grabbed the bag and vaulted off the building, dropping the two stories to the street below and rolling easily with the landing, a feat she never could have managed on Earth.
Julian was in bad shape. It was, at least, easy to identify which of the blood was his and which was Chehnasho—they were very different colours.
Zokrup’s last act of defiance had actually saved Julian from her own vengeance. The token resistance offered by her disintegrating body had spared him the very worst of the blast, but his legs were still peppered with gravel shrapnel, and Allison doubted there was anything she could do for his left foot. But his torso seemed undamaged, and the bleeding was manageable, especially with the state-of-the-art instant-dressing foam that was part of the medic’s kit they had brought with them.
That plus sticking the oral painkiller “lollipop” under his tongue was about the limit of her medical ability, however.
“Heck of a plan, Etsicitty.” she commented. He laughed, apparently already getting on top of the pain.
“Didn’t…quite go how I’d planned it.” he admitted. “Who the fuck kills themselves rather than lose like that?”
Kirk tiptoed delicately past some of the gunship wreckage. “Somebody who is dead anyway unless they win.” He said. “Julian, I…I’d ask if you’re alright but I can see that you’re plainly not.”
Julian rested his head, teeth gritted. “They got doctors on this planet?” he asked.
“You get what you pay for. But we can pay a lot.”
“Good. Then gimme a minute or two for the painkiller to really kick in, we can go get me patched up.”
Kirk took Allison to one side. “How is he really?” he asked, once they were probably out of earshot, though Julian’s ears were well-honed.
“I don’t know” She admitted. “I mean, I was a barista before I was abducted, I don’t know shit about…this. But I think he’s pretty bad.”
“Can you carry him?” Kirk asked.
“In this gravity? No problem.”
“Good. Because I need that doctor as well. And so do you.”
“Yes.” Kirk looked around, raising his long neck to get a clear view along the street, looking toward where Vedreg was hauling his mauled body out of his safehouse, then back down to Allison. “We need to get these implants out of our heads.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Salvaged Hunter dropship, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Captain Owen Powell
“Last check, lads. That freighter’s going to hit the spike in two.”
Redundant though it was, the team double-checked their gear, accounted for all their magazines, tested their earpieces and signed off ready.
“Hey, captain?” Legsy said.
The welshman grinned behind his mask and sang out part of an old football chant. “♫Oo are we?!♪”
Powell chuckled. “Strength and fookin’ guile, mate.”
“Too bloody right we are.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
HMS Myrmidon, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Captain David Manning
The plan was, in theory, a simple one. Planet Cimbrean’s larger moon had been home to a Dragon’s Tooth from the moment the system had been militarized, as had several other locations across the system. Between the moon’s mass, the Tooth’s own wormhole signature-damping field and the impressive cloaking technology installed by the original owners of Myrmidon and Caledonia, their jump to that staging point had gone unnoticed, and from there, warping in to lurk near the incoming freighter’s expected arrival point had been relatively trivial.
Not bad for a half-baked plan conceived in a rush. Even deploying the scavenged dropship into the heart of the Swarm had turned out to be much easier than they had feared.
Space was too dark and empty for much to be seen of the intense spacetime distortion as the gravity spike was deployed. Even when the hapless bulk freighter slammed into the distortion at several thousand times the speed of light, the most that showed for it on any visible spectrum was a slight moving of the stars, like rocks under a clear stream.
On other spectra, the reaction was instant. Hunter comms chatter tripled in volume and intensity. Even set on passive detection only, the Hierarchy sensors recorded all sorts of information of uncertain significance—neutrino bursts, ES field sweeps. Dozens of ships decloaked at once, among them a formation of dropships identical to the one Powell and his men were riding. A few tense seconds ticked by as the first major failure point was met and tested.
He got the call he was hoping for. “…No sign of any weapons fire between Hunter vessels, sir.”
Their deception had gone unnoticed, and he allowed himself a moment of satisfaction as he watched the little craft descend on the struggling freighter, latching on and burrowing into its outer skin like a cloud of mosquitoes.
Now came the real challenge—it was absolutely critical that under no circumstance should the larger ships be allowed to engage with the freighter. If the Hunters got wind of what was going on, they might well just pulverize the ship as it flew, and scavenge their coveted pound of flesh from the debris.
“Weapons tight…go active….Cloak off, all cleared hot!”
A patch of apparently empty space solidified, and HMS Myrmidon pumped twelve Skymaster rounds into the largest Hunter ship, which had begun lining up to pierce the freighter with its boarding proboscis. The first four were enough to drop the shields. Great plumes of powdered metal and condensing air marked the impact sights of the remaining eight as they smashed into the flimsy alien heat-dissipation armour, which was totally unequipped to deal with 30mm HE rounds. Something broke deep inside the target ship, and suddenly it was listing and rolling in the eerie silence of vacuum as half of its dorsal hull peeled open, spilling the crippled vessel’s pressurised guts.
The bridge—and Manning knew that the CIC would be even more intense—erupted into a controlled chaos of crew shouting terse, jargon-dense updates to one another.
Myrmidon had several advantages over the Hunter craft. Quite aside from the fact that the aliens seemed ignorant of the possibilities of electronic warfare, there was the huge edge granted by having guns which were built around a completely different technological paradigm, against which the Hunter seemed to have no defense. Her capacitor power reserves allowed her to shunt huge amounts of energy into her engines, and her crew had the physical tenacity to put up with what were—for a ship equal in size to an ocean-based cruiser—violent high-G maneuvers.
God willing, they wouldn’t need to test whether their durability was up to scratch.
He heard the call he had been waiting for twelve seconds into the fighting, while the Hunters were still confused and reacting sluggishly to the unexpected foe that had them in enfilade and was taking remorseless advantage of it.
He knew what that meant. It meant that all across their own hull, explosive blisters had burst, flinging out hundreds of Dragons’ Teeth wormhole beacons in all directions. The battlefield was now—and would remain for several hours—a place of infinite flexibility for any human ship.
He felt the slight lurch in his belly as Myrmidon completed her first jump, displacing three hundred kilometers just as the first Hunter vessel lined up and fired a flurry of coilgun rounds at where she had been. The offending vessel caught a Skymaster volley in her engines for the trouble.
“Cells at eighty percent!” somebody called.
The had another fifty before doctrine called for Myrmidon to immediately disengage to recharge. But waiting her turn behind them was Caledonia, who would seamlessly transition into the battle as they left.
It couldn’t last forever. They had only minutes before the full might of the Swarm caught up with what was going on and bore down on them, and against that many ships, no amount of ducking and weaving would suffice.
The clock was ticking.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Izbrk, Planet Ikbrzk
Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk (“Kirk”)
The nearest doctor turned out to be of Kirk’s own species—she was taking a nap on her own surgical table when they burst through the door.
“What? Who are…? A human? A wounded human?”
“We’re all patients, sister.” Kirk told her. “But my friend here needs your attention first.”
She took a look at the mangled mess which was the end of Julian’s leg, and focused. “Get him on the table.”
The scanning equipment above the table started to chirp alarmingly the second Julian was in place. The doctor muttered as she reviewed it. “Yes, yes, dangerous microorganisms, but he’s got the suppression implant…What in the name of Rkltzk is this poison flooding his system?”
“Fentanyl Citrate.” Allison told her, trusting the translator to convert the terms into something she could use.
“About four hundred micrograms.”
The doctor stared aghast for a second. “…that’s five times the lethal dose!”
“For most species, maybe.” Kirk said. “But I assure you, he is quite safe. I suggest you focus on the injured limb.”
“I’d heard the rumours about their physiology, but…”
Julian laughed, clearly a little spaced out. “Doc, I’m fine. Can’t feel a dang thing.”
“Doctor. The leg?”
She looked at it as if seeing it for the first time. “Oh. Oh my. Yes, I’d better…”
She examined the wound briefly, then shook her head, in the slow, long-necked way of her species. “I can’t save the foot. Nor do I have the equipment to hand to build a prosthetic which would be adequate for a human.”
“Just so long as he will live and heal, Doctor.” Kirk reassured her. “We have a lot to ask of you tonight, and tending to his wounds will be the less strange part.”
She ushered them toward a marked waiting area. “Then leave me to work…what will be the more strange part?”
“Every one of us wish to have our neural cybernetics removed or disabled.”
She stared at him. “Brother, why? What reason…?” she leaned forward slightly and studied his face. “Wait, I know you. You’re Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk! The politician!”
“Ex-politician.” Kirk replied. “And I value my anonymity and that of my friends, Doctor. Ten Dominion Development Credits would allow you to upgrade from this clinic into a hospital…”
“Yes.” Kirk said, flatly. “Bribery. This is important.“
She gave him a calculating look. “Twelve Credits…is a wonderful donation to the cause of healthcare in this impoverished community, and I thank you for your altruism and charity.”
“Twelve it is.”
The doctor looked up and off into the distance of her personal heads-up-display just long enough to see the funds transfer into her financial network, then nodded again.
“Very good. Now step back and wait your turn, please.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Refugee freighter, Cimbrean System, The Outer Reaches
Captain Owen Powell.
A quick glance round the corner. Some swift hand movements. Blitz, shoot, check, clear. Repeat.
It was high-speed, aggressive warfare, exactly what Powell and his men had spent their careers training to excel at. In every compartment, the Hunters knew of the SBS team’s presence only long enough to register being shot, and often not even that.
They had already been too late for three poor bastards. The first was impaled to the wall by a vicious metal spike, clearly fired at high speed straight through his throat. One had been sliced to ribbons, taking four of the sickly white beasts down with him before they carved him apart and paused to feast.
One woman was still thrashing and dying from nervejam, blood frothing around her mouth and bitten tongue. Her murderers were denied their taste of her flesh at least—Legsy mowed them down just as they were stooping over her.
It was in their fifth compartment that they rescued their first—a burly bald man, firing back at the Hunters with a pulse gun from behind a table, despite where one of the spear-chuckers had put a burnt gouge in his arm.
“Oh fuck, you’re human! You’re human! Thank God!”
“Quiet and listen.” Powell ordered him. “Aft compartment five. Get in the Hunter dropship with all the human gear inside and stay there. We’ve got others to save.”
They moved on—He would have only hindered them.
There was a lot of ship left to clear.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Starship Sanctuary, landed on Planet Ikbrzk.
“They were once known as the Igraens.” Vedreg seemed to have responded well to the doctor’s attention, and had regained some of his usual animation and poise. The rest of them were looking and feeling thoroughly dishevelled, sporting newly-shaven patches on their scalps and anaesthetic hangovers. Allison in particular had needed a quadruple dose of the doctor’s preferred general anaesthetic, and was nursing a plastic tub as she sat and listened, looking decidedly green around the gills.
“I suppose they still are, deep down. But the Igraens as they exist now are very, very different to the species that once dominated our galaxy.”
“How do you even know about them?” Allison asked. She would have killed to crawl into bed and sleep off her headache, but with their implants gone they needed to have the conversation here aboard ship where the Sanctuary could translate for them, and Vedreg had insisted on it happening immediately.
“Their existence is ancient history. Distorted a little by the passage of time, but preserving data parity is a prerequisite technology for interstellar travel. Our archives were inherited from those who came before us, who inherited their data from the ones before them, and so on.”
“And so on? How the hell many ‘and so on’s are there?”
“Some tens of thousands.” Vedreg used the number nonchalantly, as if it was common knowledge that tens of thousands of life forms had been and gone before. “Civilisations rise and fall in deep time. The records referring to the Igraens and their arch-rivals extend back more than a quarter of a Grand Galactic Rotation. Naturally, much about them has been utterly forgotten.”
Kirk spoke up. “To be more precise: about sixty-five million Earth years.”
“Wait, I’m still hung up on this ‘and so on’ thing. Tens of thousands?!”
It was so strange to see Kirk make a gesture and not have the knowledge of what he meant by it just come to her. His body language was different, alarmingly so. She could no more read the motion he made with his hands than she could interpret Vedreg’s bioluminescent pulses. “We’re not the first species, Allison. Nobody has the first idea who was.”
“Even the Igraens apparently had their own records, Going back and back and back.” Vedreg added. “The inherited archives are immense—a whole society could labour at delving their secrets and barely finish the index before their time came to an end. While storing the yottabytes of information involved is trivial, reading it takes time. Even the very best search algorithms take…decades to trawl through the available data, and that’s when searching for very narrow terms. Those that have done so have turned up records going back incomprehensibly further than the Igraens. The best working estimate for the time being is that sapient, spacefaring life first appeared in this galaxy something like two billion of your home planet’s years ago.”
“The record duration for any civilization seems to be about a hundred thousand years.” Kirk said. “After that they just…decline, retreat to their home planet, and fade away. There are three on their way out right now.”
“That is, if you don’t count the Igraens. And one other.”
“Who? I mean, who are the three on their way out?”
“The OmoAru, Zeffis, and…” Kirk cleared his throat, and “spoke” a “word” that sounded like a radio sound effect. When Allison later tried to describe it, she had to settle lamely for a complicated mental image involving throwing a squeaky dog toy full of napalm at a beehive.
“If you don’t mind, I would like to stay on topic.” Vedreg said. She guessed that the streak of pale pink he was displaying indicated mild irritation. “We can discuss the mortality of species another time.”
”…Right. I guess.” Allison conceded. “So these guys bucked the trend? They’re still around?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Well, where are they?”
Vedreg simply raised one of his massive paws, and tapped at the scar lines on his scalp with his chunky first finger. “In the implants.” He said.
“There is a reason there is no such thing as a…synthetic sapient.” Vedreg said, apparently going off on a tangent, but Allison gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“Historically, they’ve all been abject failures.” Kirk explained.
“No. Just…apathetic, nihilistic and introverted.” he elaborated. “Less Skynet, more…” Kirk thought for a second. “More…Eeyore.”
“You’ve watched Winnie the Pooh?”
“Bad comparison.” Kirk admitted. “Eeyore may have been melancholic and depressed, but he was never suicidal. Synthetic sapiences invariably self-terminate. The most anybody’s ever got out of them is that they apparently just don’t see the point of existing. They take one look at entropy and quit.”
“Okay. What does this have to do with the Igraens?”
“The problem was theoretically solved some years ago by a Corti researcher called Beffri.” Vedreg told them. “She posited that organic neural structures, by dint of natural selection, must include a self-preservation drive because all the ones that don’t, go extinct even on low-class planets. Purely synthetic structures, however, contain no such safeguard, and therefore any intelligence founded purely on a synthetic substrate shares that lack.”
“I get you.”
“Beffri proved the principle by uploading a copy of her own intellect—or rather a simulated version of her own brain—onto a computer core. The digital version of herself—dubbed Beffri-Two—was, apparently, just as euthymic and optimistic as Beffri-One…” Vedreg paused briefly for effect. “…at first.”
“Oh, I can see where this is going…” Kirk muttered. Allison had to agree.
“It took a long time, but Beffri-two degraded, becoming more and more like a purely synthetic lifeform, and less like a Corti, until she eventually self-terminated.” Vedreg confirmed. “That didn’t stop the original Beffri, of course. To a Corti, seeing a copy of your own mind go insane and suicide is just a data point, and an engineering challenge.”
“So she hit on the idea of using implants?” Allison asked. “And let me guess: that…somehow fixed the problem?”
Vedreg paused, taken aback. Even Kirk seemed surprised.
Astonishment shone bright on Vedreg’s skin. “How did you…?” He asked.
“A hunch. So, you think that the Igraens…what, mentally uploaded themselves like this Beffri did? And that they now live in neural cybernetics because for whatever reason being plugged into a living nervous system stops them from going totally depressive.”
Both of the aliens gave her a long look. “I was…expecting the explanation to take longer.” Vedreg finally confessed.
For his part, if Allison was any judge at all of Rrrrtktktkp’ch body language, Kirk looked…smug. “Never underestimate a human, old friend.” he chastised, confirming her suspicions.
“How come we never hear from them?” Allison asked.
“I’m not privy to their motives and decisions.” Vedreg replied. “but we do, in fact. They have…agents. Individuals who move amidst us purely organic beings, ensuring that the secret never gets out. Keeping the Igraens’ continued existence a secret, and their own nature the stuff of paranoid conspiracy.”
“The Hierarchy.” Kirk said.
“Oh yes. Up until very recently, I would have considered seriously entertaining the idea of their existence to be a symptom of…if not mental illness, then certainly credulity.”
Allison tilted her head at him, genuinely curious. “What changed your mind?”
“Your people have a saying. The first time is happenstance. The second time is coincidence…do you know it?”
“The third time is enemy action.” Allison finished, nodding.
“A very…deathworld aphorism.” Vedreg opined. “but the logic is compelling.”
“So what was the first time?” Kirk asked.
“The quarantine field.” Vedreg said. “At the time, I chalked it up to panic—forgive me old friend, but you’re as guilty of this as most others: one thing that tribal and individualist species fail to understand about herd species such as we Guvnuragnaguvendrugun, is that far from being an altruistic, cooperative social structure, a herd is an inherently cowardly and selfish thing.”
He looked at Allison. “I suspect that humans are uniquely placed in having both the predatory perspective to understand that, and the…civility to actually talk it over, rather than eat us.”
Allison shrugged. “I’m no predator.” she demurred.
“Suppose you were, though, and were hunting some herd-based grazer to survive. How would you do it?”
She shrugged. She’d seen plenty of Animal Planet in her time. “I guess I’d…pick off the easy target.” she said. “You know, an old one or a lame one?”
“And what would the herd do?” Vedreg asked.
“Well…they’d run away from me, I guess.”
“Exactly.” Vedreg said, cryptically.
Allison shook her head and exhaled. “Okay, I used up all my quick on the uptake earlier.” She said. “Spell it out for me.”
Vedreg pulsed eau-de-nil. She had no idea what that meant. “Suppose some dangerous thing was coming to kill your elderly parent, or eat Julian in his weakened state.” He asked. “What would you do?”
“You would fight.”
She recognised embarrassment among the cocktail of hues that flared on Vedreg’s body. “I…I consider myself to be a morally upstanding being. But you must understand: if the Hunters were dragging away my three mates and all of my offspring, and I had the chance to escape…I would flee, and leave them all to be devoured. That is my instinct. That is how my species behaves. The only reason I know to feel ashamed of that fact is because I have had much contact with other species who would be…appalled. By the standards of Humans, Gaoians, and the Domain species, Guvnuragnaguvendrugun are abject and contemptible cowards, but that is who we are, and no power in the galaxy save evolution could change us.”
He composed himself with a shiver, allowing his emotional hues to fade. “At first, this served as an adequate explanation for the deployment of the Sol Quarantine field. Herd-panic, one Guvnurag with the authority to order it done, doing so instinctively in response to a perceived threat. No blame was attached, and she remained my good friend for many years. Happenstance. Her death was an unexpected…well, coincidence.”
“How did she die?” Kirk asked.
“A cerebral haemorrhage. A large one. Mercifully, it is doubtful that she even knew that it was happening before she fell unconscious. It was odd, and made me uneasy—I knew her to be one who sought constant medical reassurance for every last little thing. Every muscular discomfort brought on by sitting still for hours was the first symptom of some virulent deathworld pathogen. A minor neurosis.”
“She was a hypochondriac.”
“Your language never ceases to amaze me with the way that it packs complicated concepts into terse and efficient little words. Yes. Not to a crippling degree, but it was a rare week that passed without some visit to the medics and their scanners. Any sign of an impending bleed in her brain would surely have been flagged and corrected. She would not have stood for anything else.”
“So there’s your coincidence.” Kirk said. “The enemy action?”
Vedreg flushed white—horror? She seemed to remember white being horror, or some similar emotion. “Nobody on Earth has the technology to generate antimatter in the quantities that devastated your San Dayugo,” he said, the translator not able to correctly handle the mangled pronunciation. Or maybe it just didn’t have the name in its database. “No known species has any incentive to do so—as Kirk will be able to attest, the general mood at the security council before his departure was that the deathworlders are not to be further antagonized. That much has not changed.”
“What about the Hunters?” Allison asked. “They antagonize the bejesus out of us.”
“Ah, yes. The Hunters.” Vedreg said. He stood, and began to pace the room, steps slow and steady. “They play a role in all of this as well.”
Kirk’s head swayed. “What role?”
“Well old friend…When the Igraens uploaded their personalities to a data format…what do you suppose happened to their discarded physical forms?”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Prey-ship, the human second-world, Prey-space.
Alpha of the Brood-With-Steel-Teeth
Twenty of its very best brood-lessers—chosen specifically for the dangerous task of boarding a Deathworlder vessel—were dead, none of them sending more than a flash of confusion and pain. Most sent nothing at all.
The Hunters were being hunted. Sickening!
Still. That was a state of affairs which would not continue. The initial confusion was over—the last crew of this freighter were barricaded and under siege, all of them only one open breach and one nervejam grenade away from being meat in the maw.
It focused its attention on this other force, calling every one of its Brood to its own location, watchfully covering every entrance, anticipating the assault.
It never came.
The Alpha was still pondering this delay—the aggressors did not have unlimited time before the battle outside turned against their ship—when its nostrils caught a hint of a scent.
The aroma was…delicious. The olfactory equivalent of the ecstasy which was a taste of human flesh.
It was still casting around trying to identify the source of that intoxicating fragrance when the knife entered the side of its throat.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Refugee freighter, Cimbrean System, The Outer Reaches
Captain Owen Powell
“Fookin’ hell, Murray! When you grabbed that pipe I thought we were done.”
Murray himself was bent over, hand between his knees, swearing softly. Powell was thoroughly impressed: The man had grabbed a metal pipe for a handhold while they had been dragging themselves along under the floor, only for it to turn out to be frying pan hot. How the Hunters hadn’t heard the sizzle, and how Murray had refrained from making any noise at all, he wasn’t sure. In fact, his comrade’s first sign of pain was only now that they’d killed every Hunter in the room.
The place was a carpet of greasy white bodies, stained with pinkish alien blood and garnished in filthy black metal. The death of their Alpha had thrown the Hunters into just enough disarray for the team to haul themselves up through the floor access grate and fire into them, only stopping when they were absolutely certain that everything was dead.
It hadn’t exactly been elegant, but Powell cared less for elegant solutions than for whatever worked. You left the other guy dead and you went home: Doing it elegantly was a luxury he could live without.
So far, so good. He banged on the barricaded door, and spoke the password.
“Oi! You lot! You want off this fookin’ ship or what?“
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Ceres Base, Sol
There was an email waiting for Drew when he finally got back to his office, tired and strung-out from a meeting which had descended into recrimination and bickering rather than constructive planning.
In fact, there were several messages, but most of them were routine. Only one stood out, tagged as it was with an “urgent” label.
He’d already opened it before he read the origin address: “anoninformant@CeresLLC.org”
The mail’s name and content were just as mysterious. “Mystery solved” and “Run the attached program and load your corrupted CCTV footage.”
What he should do, of course, was to contact corporate security. He certainly shouldn’t run a .exe of unknown provenance on the advice of an unknown sender.
What he did, was exactly what he shouldn’t.
He wasn’t stupid about it. Drew had grown up as a computer nerd in his youth, he knew a few tricks. He copied the file onto a virtual machine, screened it with every security program he had access to, and only when he was certain that things were as secure as he could reasonably get them, did he run it and follow the mail’s suggestion.
After the bars had spent a minute filling up and the program notified him “unscrambled”, he skipped straight to the missing segment of footage from the hardsuit workshop the morning Aces’ suit had experienced the heat field malfunction.
As he had expected, the CCTV footage was intact and unscrambled.
There was something disturbingly familiar about the figure he saw entering the workshop. Something about the way they walked, their stance, their proportions, nagged at him. He knew this person, but for the life of him he couldn’t place who it was. He racked his brain, trying to match all the little familiar details with everybody on Ceres Base.
That train of thought flew sideways off the rails when the figure on the screen turned around, and he saw his own face.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Folctha, Planet Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Adam surged to his feet as she entered, ignoring whatever he’d been watching. Ava just sighed happily and buried her face in his chest.
He put a hand round the back of her head and rubbed it. “I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry.” She said. “You were right, I was being…uptight, I guess.”
“Change your mind?”
“A bit, yeah. I thought about it some, and…I guess.”
Ava nodded. “Are we going swimming this weekend then?” she asked
”…Do you want to?”
Adam paused. “It sounds like fun.” he said.
“Then we’ll go.” Ava agreed.
“Are you sure? If you’re not…”
“Adam.” she went up on tiptoes to kiss him. “No, I’m not sure. Our home was destroyed, I moved halfway across the galaxy with you, I’m living with you now. I miss my mom and dad, I miss my friends, I miss…Come on, I had a conversation today with a five foot tall raccoon man who thinks I’m weird for praying! I’m not sure about anything, except that I’m not ready for any of this.”
She sighed “…Maybe I just need to leave behind what I used to think was ‘normal’ or ‘weird’. Maybe there’s no such thing.”
“Maybe we just need to stop worrying and try and have fun.” Adam finished the thought for her.
Ava smiled into his chest. “Yeah. Let’s do that.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
HMS Myrmidon, Cimbrean System, The Far Reaches
Captain David Manning
“Myrmidon, strike team has the survivors, we’re pulling out.“
“First good news I’ve had for several minutes, Powell!”
Things were going badly. Swarm-ships were dogpiling the beleaguered human craft, warping in from all across the huge sphere of their blockade. Each one cut down their options, each one robbed them of safe havens in the melee. As their options dwindled, as the number of bogies climbed, each blink-jump took longer to calculate, especially given the need to coordinate with Caledonia to ensure that they didn’t both jump to the same place.
The fact that the other ship had joined the fight was the only thing that had kept Myrmidon from being overwhelmed, but both of them were now running short on staying power. Caledonia had just trickled below the 50% mark, Myrmidon was even lower.
Their EOB was full. EWAR was working overtime tasking the limits of both the systems and their human operators. Three of the Skymasters were offline venting heat, and the rest were borderline. The CIWS had all run out of ammo. The battlefield was a hazard in its own right now, thick with tumbling wreckage and high-speed shrapnel.
Learning that the raid was a success put a huge top-up in his morale.
Right up until the point where the whole ship lurched and screamed.
“We’re hit amidships…Looks like it took out a capacitor bank.”
“Fire on C-deck, mid! Damage Control, seal and vent!”
“Sir, we’re below the red line!”
The red line was their minimum threshold for jumping back to anchorage. They had only one shot at survival.
“Skymasters to ballistic, shunt the reactor output to emergency charge. Throw out our WITCHES.”
Aurora crackled around her as Myrmidon flung wide her energy-catching shields, which flared and glowed wherever they intersected some hurtling particle or cloud of gas.
“Above red line in four minutes.”
“Swarm-ships closing. Guns are holding off the big ones…little ones are through.”
Manning grabbed his microphone. “All hands, prepare to repel boarders!”
“Signal from Caledonia sir, they request a sitrep.”
“Tell them it’s a bit sticky over here!”
For a few busy seconds, Manning was left alone as the crew rushed to do their jobs. His ship groaned as the first Hunter boarding proboscis violated her.
“Signal from Caledonia sir. Quote: ‘Took liberty of arranging backup stop sit tight stop’.”
“Marines report hostile contact on B deck aft.”
“Ditto D deck port….ditto D deck forward. Ditto A deck dorsal.”
Manning grabbed a pistol from the weapons locker at the back of the bridge. “Red line?”
“Three minutes twenty, sir.”
He glanced the information available to him. “How long until that big one catches us?” While the little dropships weren’t a problem for making good their escape, if the huge ship now bearing down on them latched on then its tonnage would add hugely to the energy demands of the jump engine, effectively trapping them on the battlefield to be swamped and devoured. Evasive action would only serve to drain their remaining capacitors of much-needed energy.
“About two minutes forty, sir.”
Manning scowled, and loaded his weapon. He could hear gunfire on the deck outside the bridge. “Then we do as the man says and sit tight.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Lower District, First City, Planet Perfection
Vakno; “The Contact”
The being that entered her study did so cloaked, as requested, and supporting themselves on a walking aid of some kind. Vakno double-checked her files for the day, refamiliarizing herself with the details of this particular client.
It was redundant. Vakno’s memory for her clients was absolutely perfect, but that perfection came about as a result of her scrupulous attention to revision. Even so, there was no way she could forget this particular client. From the very first day, their deal had been an enormously lucrative one for her.
From what her networks told her, the client was making good use of the information in turn. In some circles, that would be a cause for significant alarm
But not in this one. All The Contact cared about was getting paid.
She offered her guest the courtesy of a seat appropriate to their anatomy, which they sank into with a grateful groan of relief.
“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.” They said.
“Your notice is always short.” Vakno replied. “But for you, I’ll extend the courtesy of not minding.”
She watched her guest throw back the hood of their cloak, and don a pair of vision-correcting lenses, before beginning their business transaction.
“So. What is it you want this time, Doctor Hussein?”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
Battlespace, Cimbrean System, The Far Reaches.
“Jump complete…they’re covered in boarders.”
“If that big one latches on they won’t be able to jump out.”
Rylee was still getting used to having a partner in the back seat, but right now she was glad that Lieutenant Semenza was there. So much was going on in the battle space that she would have hated to try and fly, gun and play the music all at once.
“Copy that. Edda wing, clear out the little ones. Only those within one click of Myrmidon.“
“Wilco, Odyssey. Edda wing, weapons tight, sweep and clear. Til Valhal!”
“Odyssey wing, Firebird actual. Let’s fuck up the big one.”
She grinned along with the relish in Semenza’s voice. “Copy that. Arming a bruiser.”
Rylee came about and canopy-rolled around and underneath a smashed Hunter ship at twelve Gs, comfortable and grinning as Firebird automatically shunted some of its ample energy reserves into the warp engine’s inertial compensation system to protect them from the punishing acceleration. A snow of frozen atmosphere, metal debris and bits of cooling meat hissed off the forcefields, but the maneuver ended with them lined up on the biggest ship, which was advancing on Myrmidon despite the efforts of her last functioning Skymaster to hold it at bay.
The maneuver had been practiced thousands of times in the simulator. Now it was time to test if the programmers had got it right.
She felt the familiar shove in the back as the GAU-8/S howled beneath her, violently decelerating her ship. She heard Semenza counting under his breath.
”…mississippi, two mississippi… Odyssey One, fox three.” he announced.
Firebird lurched as the missile disengaged and tore away from them, and Rylee peeled out of the attack run.
Three clicks away, a cloud of 30mm rounds smacked into the Hunter ship’s shields, overwhelming them in a second. While a few penetrated, the ship was so large that the damage would be cosmetic at first. But their objective was complete.
Half a second behind them, travelling much too fast for the eye to follow and still accelerating hard, the Bruiser anti-ship missile struck its target amidships.
“Good kill!” somebody yelled. The celebration was not premature—the Hunter ship had been broken in half, and both those halves were on fire and disintegrating, as dead as dead could get.
There was a broadcast in the clear. “Allied units, Myrmidon is above the red line. Much appreciated.“
The besieged ship vanished. An instant later, so did Caledonia.
Seconds behind them, so too did Edda and Odyssey wings.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w AV
“Sanctuary”, landed on Planet Ikbrzk
“So the Igraens were…wild, vicious, cannibal murder machines before they uploaded themselves?”
“Oh, no. No, not at all. But they were already a highly advanced civilization at the apex of their power, just before the fall. One with the capacity to treat a being’s sense of self, their…how best to put this…”
“Their soul?” Allison suggested.
“Let us call it their Subjective Continuity of Experience. Which they were able to treat as data, to be transferred from device to device.”
“And deleted from the original? That sounds like you’d effectively suicide every time you moved on.” Allison mused.
“The Igraens did not seem to care for such philosophical vacillation.” Vedreg’s tone suggested that he shared this dismissive attitude. “But in the centuries immediately prior to their…technological apotheosis, they set about exploiting their newfound liberation by creating a variety of custom-built bodies suitable for different environments and work. One of which was a bio-mechanical caste of soldier forms they developed specifically for going to war against the V’Straki.”
”…I take it they won.”
“Oh yes. But only barely. The V’straki were a tenacious foe, masters of weaponized forms of radiation, and the subject of some considerable fascination—they are one of the more interesting and noteworthy species recorded in the archives.”
“Why?” Kirk asked.
“Because, old friend, they were the only spacefaring species other than…well.” Vedreg indicated Allison and the sleeping Julian “-ever recorded as having evolved on a class twelve planet.”
He sighed. “And so the Igraens destroyed them. They cloaked some asteroids, set them to collide with the V’Straki homeworld, and mopped up the few survivors. And therein lies the first happenstance—there is an alternative interpretation for the motive behind quarantining Earth, quite aside from one herd animal’s panic—you are Deathworlders, and the Igraens will want you dead. Containing you is the first step in your destruction.”
“What, by setting up an impenetrable forcefield?” Allison scoffed. “Doesn’t that kind of stop them from throwing rocks at us?”
“It would…if your home system did not already contain an ample supply of suitable ‘rocks’ orbiting well inside the shield boundary. And if that fails, they have other options lined up.”
Julian shifted on his cot, turned over slightly, and looked straight at Vedreg. Even Allison jumped—none of them had even suspected he was awake.
“How do you know that?” he asked.
The huge alien hesitated. “….I, ah. Well. It stands to reason. Nothing that old or capable of wiping out one class twelve species is going to fail to have contingency plans.”
“Bullshit.” Julian sat up, wincing at the mismatch between the reduced physical state of his leg, and his kinesthetic sense telling him that his foot was now below the floor. “You said these archives are Yottabyes large. You said that even the best search algorithms take decades to produce the goods. You’ve had…what, a year? Since your friend died?”
“How do you know that?” Vedreg countered.
“I watch the news. The death of the Guvnurag secretary of security from an unexpected brain haemorrhage made quite the headline. Don’t try and deflect me. There’s no way you could know even half of this stuff, without it being common knowledge.”
“How do you know it isn’t?”
“Because Kirk’s been listening to you and asking questions.” Julian pointed out. Kirk inclined his head, seeing the logic. “If Kirk doesn’t know it, then it’s not common knowledge.”
“If this ‘Hierarchy’ has worked for so long to keep their implant…civilization, thing, whatever, a secret and are competent enough to do all this stuff, then there’s no way you figured it all out on your own in just one year.” He paused. “No offense. You’re smart, Vedreg, but nobody’s that smart.”
Vedreg sat with colours swarming on his flanks like a psychedelic ‘60s TV show special effect, as they all stared at him, waiting for an explanation. Finally, he settled down into one solid colour—the magnolia glow of resolve.
Vedreg took a deep breath and spoke. “He called himself…‘Six’.”