Chapter 18: Baggage
He hadn’t earned his name yet. Not his adult one. His test of manhood was still ahead of him, and so the men called him “little runner.”
Not so little any more, though. Every time the great heat rose, he seemed to himself to be that little bit taller, that little bit stronger, that little bit faster.
And he dreamed of being the one to run down the meat. To be named for providing a feast for his people.
And so he ran. The more he ran, the easier running became, the further he could go. He knew that if he needed to, he could run from darkness to darkness, but you only did that if you have to. And you certainly didn’t run through the worst of the high day’s heat.
Even men had their limits. Boys, even more so. No water skin could hold enough to keep cool during the fiercest of the great heat’s glare. Even sitting in the cool and waving away the flies could leave men and wives feeling sick on the worst days.
Which was why, when he heard the voices, his first response was to stop, step into the shelter of a fat man tree, and spend a little water cooling his head. He didn’t feel strange in the way that usually preceded the heat-sickness, but to hear voices when he had run for most of the morning? He was not near his village, and not stupid enough to stray onto the land of any other tribe. At best they would have beaten him before sending him home. At worst, only his head would have been sent back to his mother. He didn’t run towards the sunset for that reason.
The voices did not speak words he knew. There were two of them, quite clear, not fuzzy and strange like dream-voices. He could glean nothing from their words, but he could hear something in them, the sounds made when a man and his wife squabbled. The word “cadence” would have been appropriate, had he known it.
Now confident that his head was cool and clear, and that the arguers did not know of him, his thoughts turned to knowledge. Who were these voices? Where were they? Why were they on his tribe’s land?
The unknown was dangerous. He stepped closer, caressing the ground with his feet as the old men had shown him. The voices continued to bicker, oblivious to his approach.
What he saw when he peeked around the fat man tree very nearly sent him fleeing for the village, crying his alarm like a startled bird.
They did not touch the ground.
There were two of them, in the air like a fly but as large as Little Runner himself. Their skins shone like the sun on wet rock, or maybe like mirage. Bright and strange, beyond his understanding. It was the first time any of his tribe had ever seen metal.
Whatever these things were—gods or demons or something else—they scared him, and so he retreated, as stealthy as before…until his spear rattled on a branch.
The impossible flying wet-rock beasts turned, and green eyes glared at him. Both raised up into the air and began to move closer, chattering excitedly at one another.
He had two options. Flee, or fight.
Some minutes later, after the surprise had worn off, he gingerly approached the fallen wet-rock beast and prodded it. His thrown spear had penetrated its eye, killing it at once. The other had vanished like a spark coiling up to the night and its stars.
When his prod elicited no response, he gripped his spear and pulled. It came away with a crunch and a horrible noise, and light flashed inside the dead beast’s eye.
Some minutes later, he found the courage to approach again, and prodded it with his spear, achieving nothing.
He tried to lift his prey—it was heavy, but he managed it. Though, it was a morning’s good run back to the village. Carrying this strange, meatless carcass the whole way would be a challenge.
He knew exactly where he was of course. Coming back with the men to show them this thing he had slain would be easy. But the other one had simply gone like spilled water soaking into the thirsty earth. This dead one might do something similar while he was away. Or perhaps its vanished companion would return and take it.
A trophy was called for. Gingerly, he reached for the broken green eye.
He made a startled sound of pain and sucked at his finger, sliced open as easily as would be done by even the best of the stone-former’s spearheads. Even dead, this thing was clearly dangerous. But a dead eye that could cut like that would be the perfect trophy.
It took some trial and error, but eventually he managed to smash out all of the strange, rock-like material of the eye to carry home in his back. A bit of force and grunting broke off one of the beast’s lower legs, made of that strange wet-rock. Any more would only tire him on the run home.
The old men would know about these things, he knew.
When he had finally gone, the cloaked Corti field drone finally became visible again, and inspected the body of its destroyed counterpart.
“A sharp stick, right through the optical sensor and into the primary processor.” Ngilt commented. “I don’t know whether to be impressed or offended.”
“Tool use, curiosity, obvious attempts to think about the situation…Oh dear.” Trifflo added. “Oh very dear.“?
“You can’t be suggesting that thing was sapient?”
“You may not have got a clear view of it through your damaged drone, partner, but I did. It was wearing clothes. It was carrying tools. If that thing was a mere nonsapient animal then I’m a Dizi rat.”
“But this is a class twelve!”
Trifflo sneered across the laboratory at his counterpart. “The impossibility of sapient life on deathworlds was only ever a hypothesis.” he remarked. “and any hypothesis which contradicts reality…”
”…Is wrong.” Ngilt finished for him. “Still. The damage to our careers if we start claiming to have found an intelligent—albeit primitive—deathworlder?”
“Ghastly.” Trifflo agreed. “To be shared only among our most trusted contacts. If the Directorate heard us saying such things, we’d both be stuck on frontier survey ships indefinitely.”
“Yes. Best to keep it a secret. It won’t be secret forever, but at least our own advancement won’t be adversely affected.”
“Mark this world as unusable and move on?”
“Oh, yes. Different star system, I think.”
“I quite agree.”
That conversation, all by itself, saved the human race from extinction.
Seven thousand years later
HMS Myrmidon , Cimbrean system, The Far Reaches
It would have surprised Lance-Corporal Rob Garland to learn that he was, very distantly indeed, a direct male-line descendant of the first human ever to encounter alien life.
Given the situation, however, he would not have been thinking about it, even if there had been any way for him to know.
The hull screamed. It was exactly the right word—a kind of high, singing noise of pain that sounded like it belonged to the mouth of something alive, rather than to steel and ceramic.
“There! Pull back!”
Royal Marines were a well-drilled and professional fighting unit among the very best Earth had to offer. The order was damn near redundant, but Garland was glad for it anyway. By twos, the team moved away from the offending bulkhead, which was starting to shake alarmingly as Hunter boarding craft violated Myrmidon. The Hunters would almost certainly open with a volley of nervejam grenades, and they did not want to be caught in that.
The ship was in serious trouble, and everyone knew it, but all that meant to a marine was that you fought harder.
He heard Sergeant Vickery report the breach, calm and level. “Contact D deck forward.” In a movie, he would have yelled it, but this was real life. In real life, you stayed ice-cold, reported the facts, stayed on target.
The other team further down Myrmidon’s length reported contact of their own. He noted the fact, sticking a mental pin in his imaginary map of the ship, another contact in front of them. None flanking them, yet.
The bulkhead gave, devoured by a hungry whirl of grinding devices that chewed it away from the outside. The maw thus revealed vomited out, as predicted, a spread of little white coins, and ever man diverted their eyes. Even so, the exotic energies of Nervejam stung, like a really hard sneeze, but their fighting efficiency wasn’t impaired at all, which was why when the Hunters charged from their assault craft, they weren’t met with a carpet of convulsing and dying men, but with a disciplined volley of shotgun fire.
Shipboard combat was close quarters, and the vacuum outside was death. Weaponry that could pierce the hull was absolutely verboten, but 12 gauge flechette rounds were absolutely ideal—hardly any risk of hull penetration, very little ricochet, damn near impossible to miss, and the sheer volume of projectiles overwhelmed alien combat shielding, leaving the bare flesh to be ripped and ruined.
The first wave of Hunters barely managed to get a shot off. The one that did fired some kind of sizzling short spear that jammed quivering in the metal bulkhead behind Garland’s ear, having missed him only because of adrenaline-heightened reflexes and luck.
“Jimmy! Get a grenade in there!” Vickery ordered. Rob pulled back into cover to thumb some more shells into his magazine—he wouldn’t be able to fire while Corporal David James was up in front.
Jimmy had the best throwing arm in the squad, and it sent an antipersonnel grenade thumping and skittering up the Hunters’ ramp an instant before another one of those spears caught him right in the middle of his Osprey’s chest plate, smashing him back.
He was dragged to cover in a second as the grenade went off, but it had no apparent effect on these Hunters. These ones were more machine than flesh, covered in equipment and their forcefields were visible as a turquoise iridescence in the gunsmoke haze. They pounced and danced on mechanical feet that never stopped moving, buying them speed and agility even in the narrow confines of the ship. One of them actually sidestepped onto the wall and then along the ceiling, cradling a heavy weapon in its two “natural” limbs while a pair of some kind of light projectile weapon whined at the ends of two artificial arachnoid appendages that grew out of his back and over its shoulders.
Doing so it exposed it, and the human firepower smashed its shielding, and the creature itself a second later, but not before one of the little crescent shuriken projectiles from those guns nicked Garland’s leg, drawing blood. He hissed, but ignored it.
A second of the larger Hunters was knocked staggering by another grenade, and was dismembered by the gunshots, but the third one leapt over its fallen comrade, scuttled inverted along the ceiling for three paces, dropped as the shotgun rounds converged, rolled, came up, and fired the big gun that it was carrying in its organic arms.
Sergeant Vickery died instantly as a wad of high-pressure incandescent copper plasma struck him center-mass, flinging his burning corpse down the deck with a horrific charred cavity where his chest had been, setting the fire alarms wailing and immediately leaving squad leadership in Rob Garland’s hands.
There were four more of the enhanced ones behind the one that had just killed the sergeant, even as it was finally cut down. The marines ducked for cover as those Hunters fired their own volleys of lethal plasma, which scored and ruined Myrmidon’s bulkheads and left the steel running like candle wax. And behind them, a small horde of the “basic” hunters was taking its time down the ramp, content to let the heavies do all the work.
There was no second volley, though, and Rob could see that their weapons were glowing like a forge. He guessed that they had just long enough while those guns cooled down to try something insane.
“Knives out! CHARGE!!”
He felt the ship shift and the curious dropping sensation that always accompanied a displacement as his team leapt from cover.
The move caught the Hunters completely off-guard, and they recoiled from the assault, spraying their shard-throwers uselessly into the ceiling as they flinched, and went down in a dog-pile as the marines crashed into them, plunging their F-S fighting-knives into eyes, throats and anywhere that looked vital.
The lesser Hunters in the rear, armed only with pulse guns against a team of determined professional killers in full Osprey armour, didn’t stand a prayer. Marine Atwell checked their boarding vessel.
“Ship’s empty!” he called
Garland nodded and took stock. Corporal James was alive and being tended by the medics, but too wounded to keep fighting, and he could still hear shooting from amidships. Most of the lads had injuries of some kind, mostly burns from the close heat of the plasma guns, but nothing to slow them down.
“D-deck forward clear, one man down. Moving to clear D-deck mid.” He reported. “Come on, lads.”
A minute later, when his men crashed into the flank of the Hunters laying siege to the stairwell which led straight to the CIC, theirs was the last kill of the failed Hunter boarding action on HMS Myrmidon.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 1d AV
The Grand Conclave, Hunter Space
The Alpha of Alphas
From the perspective of the Alpha-of-Alphas, assimilating the data and analysing it was a sensation not dissimilar to popping a morsel of flesh into its mouth and investigating the unique flavours. That sensation was no accident, having been deliberately engineered into the firmware of its own personal and highly customized suite of cybernetics.
Its lofty position granted it the luxury of being an epicure, in many different respects. Meat, obviously, was the visible focus of its gourmand appetites, but it had not become Alpha-of-Alphas only by eating meat. The position had been won ultimately by the fruits of its other, more urgent hunger: a thirst for insight and knowledge that would remain unquenched even if the Alpha-of-Alphas spent the rest of its days figuratively drowning in data.
These particular data were full of tender mysteries, which it peeled apart, turning the juicy enigmas over in its mind and slowly stripping them down layer by succulent layer, savouring the exquisite spices of elucidation as they blossomed in its mind.
There was much that could not be determined. The feast of information was tainted, riddled with sour gaps in the logs brought on by exotic manipulations of the electromagnetic spectrum which had dazzled and confuse the swarm’s sensors. The early records of the fight were meager fare indeed, barely an aperitif—it was only when the Swarm-craft began to arrive in earnest and overload the beleaguered human craft’s resources that the information began to become coherent, and that state only lasted a few seconds before the wave of smaller Human ships had arrived, reversing the flow of not only the physical battle, but also the digital one.
What could be gleaned, however, thoroughly impressed it. Chemical-propellant weaponry using warp fields to overcome the problem of their relatively glacial velocity across the huge distances involved in space combat. The precision timing of bringing a Brood-Transport’s ship down with a storm of weak firepower an instant before a hurtling kinetic missile ended the ship and the lives of every one of the two-hundred strong Ripping-Brood.
The tactics were exceptional. These humans understood the Hunt in a way that even Hunters themselves sometimes failed to. Information was controlled, traps laid, escapes predicted and retaliations, evaded. The opening ambush was simply masterful, reminding the Alpha-of-Alphas of the overwhelming strike from hiding that had won the victory against the Vulza atop whose chemically treated and preserved skull the Alpha-of-Alphas now sat.
It took note of the data from inside the wounded human vessel, sent back from the doomed broods that had assaulted it. There was little that could be done about the Deathworlder firearms—so much kinetic ammunition filling the air would overwhelm anything less than starship shielding, but the information as to which tactics had been effective and which had not was invaluable.
The fusion-tipped spear throwers clearly were inadequate. Too similar to human ballistic armour, they would wound, but not kill, and a live Deathworlder was still unacceptably dangerous. The rapid-fire shuriken guns had not scored a single kill. Only the plasma weaponry seemed to be reliably dangerous to them, but it ruined the meat and was slow to cool down between shots. Hardly surprising, considering that the weapons were designed to destroy heavy ground vehicles.
Nervejam was clearly their greatest fear, but it was equally dangerous to the Hunters themselves. Worse, in some ways—feeling the agony of one of the Brood caught in a Nervejam could stun the survivors for a few fatal seconds. It was reluctant to order more widespread deployment of the grenade launchers.
Though it stuck in the craw, the only sensible solution seemed to be to try and develop an analog of the Deathworlders’ own weaponry. If they had built it to kill one another, then it would presumably be effective.
Some questions remained. The human ship had plainly lost power at some point, and yet had still kept firing before jumping out. This raised an interesting conundrum about the nature of its internal systems.
One mystery above all, however, was truly fascinating. The human vessels had danced across the combat volume, blinking from place to place the moment they came under fire. Only sheer numbers had defeated that trick, but there was nothing in the data to suggest how it was done. Only displacement wormholes could move a ship in such a way, and yet there was no sign of any corresponding beacon—the alien vessels simply jumped, without apparently having anything to guide them.
The Alpha-of-Alphas was undoubtedly among the most intelligent beings in the galaxy, but it was a very focused intelligence—within its own intellectual demesnes, nothing in the galaxy was its equal. Outside of them, however…
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 1d AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Did you see the muscles on that one?”
Rylee laughed. She sure had, and as she watched Sergeant Jones—“Legsy”—spin a tall tale to a laughing audience about how Corporal Murray had hurt his hand, the mental image flashed into her head of herself, wrapped around his waist and gasping.
She shook it away. Jones was a non-com vastly junior to her in rank and from a coalition unit. She’d be risking a ruined reputation and a seriously truncated career, and that was the best case scenario. Jones’ CO, Powell, struck her as the kind of by-the-book hardass who’d have her wings thrown in the fire if he found out, fame be damned. Jones, meanwhile, would be risking prison. While the rationale behind those regulations had never really convinced her, she wasn’t about to start ignoring them.
Not worth it, she decided. She was just processing the hormonal residue of an intense and dangerous combat operation, but there were options for working that out without violating regulations, even if she was especially fond of big, muscular comedians.
Folctha colony had thrown a big party for the newcomers from the freighter and all of the military personnel who’d been able to get leave, which included Rylee. Most of the colony was there, enjoying what was actually some very old-fashioned fun. A big fire, a pig roast—or some local Cimbrean equivalent of a pig, anyway—lots of beer, some instruments, singing and dancing…
And sex. That much was obvious, there was going to be a fair bit of that tonight. She was damned if she was going to miss out.
To fight the temptation posed by Jones, she hauled herself to her feet, excused herself, and made a slow bee-line for the kegs of local brew, paying attention to the locals.
Folctha had attracted a certain sort of person, she noticed. They were mostly young or in their early forties at the oldest. There was a certain…liberalness. It wasn’t anything explicit, and it wasn’t universal, but there was definitely the sense that the people here really did have the adventurous mindset and open-minded attitude which might drive them to leave Earth in pursuit of an uncertain future on an alien world. Some of that cavalier attitude manifested itself in the way they dressed, stood and spoke.
She found what she was looking for flipping burgers on one of the charcoal barbeques—six and a half feet tall, middle-length blond hair and a bit of a well-groomed beard. Beefy, strong-looking, and covered in tattoos. If he hadn’t been wearing a ring on his left hand to match the girl with the pierced lip and partly-shaved, braided brown hair who was sitting next to him watching the grill’s fire glowing on his muscles, he would have been perfect.
Still. Rylee wasn’t afraid to strike out and who knew? If she was very lucky, maybe those rings would just turn out to be the icing on the cake.
Who dared, won.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 2d AV
Starship Sanctuary , deep space, the Frontier Worlds
Krrkktnkk “Kirk” A’ktnnzzik’tk
“Here we go again…”
Kirk looked around. Amir had taken to piloting Sanctuary with remarkable skill, which he attributed to video games and hanging out with “the boy racers” whatever they were. The cockpit, designed for Kirk’s proportions, sometimes gave him trouble in reaching a few of the ancillary controls, but the ship’s control systems were designed to be used by anything, and intuitively. He was shaping up to be an excellent pilot.
Unfortunately, when it came to interstellar travel, piloting consisted of just sitting in the seat and watching the stars go by, staying in the chair only in case of gravity spikes—which Sanctuary’s Directorate-made blackbox drive ignored—or sudden unexpected masses directly in the line of travel, which were statistically the closest thing to being an impossibility, and in any case the computer navigated around long before any organic pilot needed to become involved.
Human science fiction had long imagined exciting and dramatic FTL travel full of rushing sparks of light, or maybe a tunnel of somewhere else. The reality was much less visually impressive: The stars moved, slowly. That was it.
Sanctuary was incomprehensibly fast, with a cruising speed of nearly five hundred kilolights. Only the human TS-2 could match her speeds of fifty light years per hour or more, and only for an extraordinarily brief sprint. Even at her velocious pace, though, the movement of the stars was slow enough to swiftly become boring.
In an emergency, if they wanted to risk a few burned out systems, Kirk reckoned that a million lights was within his “yacht”’s grasp, though there was no conceivable reason why they would need to travel so fast.
The result was tedium, and the ship’s occupants had to spend most of their time finding ways to entertain themselves. For Kirk, that was trawling through the vast archived tracts of the Terran Internet that he’d collected, studying humanity in all its fascinating detail. He’d just encountered something called “League of Legends” and while figuring out the basics of this electronic sport had been trivial, it was clear that the players were operating several meta-levels above his own current understanding.
Lewis, manning the ship’s sensors, seemed to be quite content to giggle at footage of gricka—cats—all day, though he’d once tried to engage Kirk by playing an album called “Dark Side of the Moon” alongside a movie called “The Wizard of Oz”. Kirk had readily agreed that both were fascinating artistic experiences by themselves, though he wasn’t at all clear what additional stimulus Lewis was getting out of playing them simultaneously.
Amir, for his part, rarely shared whatever it was he watched or listened to. Now, seeing Kirk and Lewis turn towards him with questioning expressions, he turned his monitor to show them.
“Julian and Allison again.” he explained.
“Oh, shit.” Lewis laughed, scooting over for a better view. “Hey, we got any popcorn?”
“What is ‘pop corn’ please?” Vedreg asked, a cautious tendril of light green curiosity infiltrating up his expression bands.
“Light snack, traditionally consumed when about to watch something interesting.” Kirk said. “What are they doing, Amir?”
The englishman sighed. “She’s turned a training session into an excuse to tease him again.” he said.
Kirk inspected the monitor, and sighed.
Building Julian a prosthetic foot had been trivial: Sanctuary’s workshop was outfitted in the cutting edge of nanofabrication tools, and a medical bay just pseudo-intelligent enough to perform the surgery itself, under careful supervision.
The hardest part, in fact, had been designing it so as to minimize his rehabilitation time. Tactile and kinesthetic feedback sensors had been crucial, as had matching the weight, the angles of motion, even the way that a human foot naturally spread out and contracted as the weight of the body shifted around. They had spent the whole morning just fine-tuning those functions, dismantling and reassembling dozens of trivially different designs until finally Julian was able to mount one onto the cuff at the end of his truncated leg and immediately say “Yeah. That feels like a real foot.”
Just to make sure he was properly acclimatized however, Allison had insisted that he should do some Yoga with her.
Now, it looked like she had an ulterior motive. Kirk’s nostrils narrowed, a direct equivalent to the human frown. He hauled himself out of his seat, squeezed past Vedreg, and trotted off towards the gym. This had gone on long enough.
Sure enough, he met Julian in the corridor, stumping back toward his bunk with a furious expression, though Kirk was pleased to note that his gait seemed entirely normal and comfortable on his new prosthetic.
“I’ll talk to her” he promised, as Julian stopped and gave him an exasperated shrug.
“Do. I’m getting sick of this shit.”
In the gym, Allison was cooling down with some stretches and gentler, easier Yoga poses as he entered. “Back already Etsicitty?” she asked. “I figured you’d…oh. Hey, Kirk.”
Kirk gave her his best glare as he entered, hearing the gravity plates automatically adjust around him to keep him safe.
“I cannot have this, Allison.” he informed her. “We are on a mission here, I need both your minds on the job, and right now you are the problem. You have gone from genuine concern for him to taunting him overnight, now that he is mending.”
There was a long pause. Finally, Allison’s shoulders dropped, and she uncoiled from her cross-legged position on the floor, stood and turned to face him.
“Okay, I hear ya,” she said slowly. “but, Kirk, I’ma let you in on a secret. Julian is fucking hot.” She looked up at the ceiling. “like, oh my god, the things I’d do to that man…” she spaced out for a second, lower lip caught between her teeth.
”…And?” Kirk had no idea where she was going with this. She snapped back to reality.
“Well, that’s the problem.”
“I really do not follow you.”
Allison sighed. “Kirk, I didn’t get back on this ship to fuck that guy.”
“Well, I guessed as much. But why did you? Most of the others left. This ship feels empty with only the four of you still on it, and I cannot remember the last time Lewis or Amir even left the ship.”
“Because I’d forgotten just how shitty Earth is.” She confided, tucking a stray strand of hair back behind her ear
Allison exhaled, picking up a towel and mopping her forehead with it. “What have I got waiting for me back there?” She asked. “Serving lattes twenty hours a week and fixing bikes the other twenty? All so I can afford rent and, if I’m not too tired for it, some time down at the gun range? Busting my ass at the gym four times a week because booty means tips? I felt like a goddamn porn star the way some of the customers used to stare at me! And the blacktop warrior assholes who used to try and get me on their bikes, ugh!”
She flung her towel at the laundry basket and it seemed to personally offend her when she missed. “There’s more to life than having to put up with the same fat scarf-wearing poser every day who came in to order a fucking tall fucking caramel fucking zero-fat fucking frappucino in a venti cup! I swear that greasy asshole only ordered it because I had to dig through three fridges to make it all so he could stare at my ass while I was bending over! And he was just one of, like, ten! ten fucksticks just like him! For minimum goddamn piece of shit fucking wage!”
Kirk had instinctively retreated to the opposite side of the room, propelled by an instinct shared both by herbivores facing a raging predator, and men facing a raging woman.
Somehow, she was worse when she suddenly got quiet. “There’s more to life.” she repeated. “There’s…making a difference, like we are here. There’s being more than just somebody else’s wage-slave piece of eye candy. Like…if I’m gonna be sexy, I just…I want it to be on my terms. You know?”
She took a deep, cleansing breath, and picked up the towel. “Julian’s a really nice guy, but he puts me off balance. I know I shouldn’t tease him like I do but…I mean, it puts me back in control.” Kirk watched her as she opened the laundry basket and dropped the towel into it. “I’m sorry.”
“Apologize to him. He is the one you are making uncomfortable.”
“I know, I know…I just…” she tidied some stray hair out of her face. “We’d get along great, I think. And a big part of me wants that. I kinda feel like I have to put a wall there, y’know? Keep him at a distance.”
“Would it really be so bad if you gave in?” Kirk asked.
“Yeah. I’d be risking this. I’d be risking mattering, don’t you see?”
“Oh come on! Sex Equals Babies! I don’t CARE how careful you are, all the pills and condoms in the world aren’t perfectly safe!”
“ANY odds is odds I’m not willing to take.” Allison snapped. “I will not risk a lifetime of obscurity as some hard-working nobody back on Earth versus this, no matter how good the odds.”
“I…think I understand. I do not think I approve, but I at least understand where you are coming from.”
Allison gave him a tired smile. “Thanks. I’m not sure I do myself, but…thanks.”
“Just…try to dial it back at least. You two work well together. I would like you to keep working well together, yes?”
”…Yeah. I’ll try.”
She turned towards the door towards the quarters and was halfway across the room before a thought seemed to strike her.
“Okay, hey.” she said, turning back. “Your turn.”
Kirk tilted his head at her. “…My turn?” he asked.
“Yeah!” She sank down cross-legged on the yoga mat. “Come on, I just got, like, all my baggage out there, and I tell you, it feels pretty good just venting to someone who’ll listen. So…I’m here for you buddy, come on.” She waved an arm towards herself. “Get it off your chest.”
After she’d had time to correctly interpret his expression as incredulity, she followed up with: “…What?”
“Nobody has ever offered me something like that before.” Kirk admitted. “You are asking how I am feeling?”
“Well…yeah.” Allison agreed. “What, is that weird or something?”
“Wow. That’s…kinda depressing.”
Kirk paced around the room, pausing by one of the small windows. “My baggage.” He mused.
“I…do not know if I am ready. I do not think I can put it into words, yet.”
“Oooh, dramatic.” She winced at herself, as Kirk gave her what was unmistakably a tired glare. “Sorry.”
Kirk exhaled a sigh. “I will share. In time. I think you are right that I need to,” he said. “But I need to sort it out for myself first.”
She nodded her understanding and stood again. “I’ll be here.” she promised. “and…I’ll apologise to Julian and try to, y’know…go easy on him.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 1d AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Ava had volunteered to help with the cooking, and was quietly growing very sick indeed of slicing the burger buns by the time that Hayley, Sara’s mom, tapped her on the shoulder.
“Hi Hayley. How’re you…” She trailed off, noticing who was standing a little ways behind Hayley, alongside her huge husband, Mark.
Fortunately, Hayley took it for a straightforward ‘How’re you?’.
“Oh, we’re great. Having a great time. I was just…do you think you could do us a favour?” She asked.
“What favor?” Ava asked.
“Could you, er…could the kids sleep round your place tonight? We’re having a guest over.”
Floating in a kind of stunned emptiness as she processed the implications of that request, Ava heard her mouth say “Yeah, uh…sure! Yeah, we, uh, we can do that for you.”
“You’re the best!” Hayley exclaimed, and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
She left, in the company of her husband and one of the most famous women in the world. Just before the three of them vanished into the dark, Ava could have sworn she saw the two women kiss.
She excused herself from burger-bun duty and squeezed through the crowd until she found Adam, who was hanging out with his dad.
“You won’t believe who I just saw going home with Hayley and Mark…” she began.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 2d AV
Ceres Base, Sol
Adele Park was not, in Drew’s opinion, a pretty woman. The features inherited from her Korean father contrasted a little too strangely with those of her Czech mother for that word to apply, but she used them well, combining them with her tailored suit and businesslike haircut to present the absolute picture of poised corporate refinement.
Seeing her so distressed was a new and appalling experience.
“You, of all people?!” She demanded, looking him in the eye after watching the video. Drew could swear he saw a tear there.
“No.” he said firmly. “Not me. I don’t remember doing it, and more to the point, I wouldn’t do it.”
Jim Riordan, the LLC’s security director, didn’t look convinced. “I’ve had this looked at by experts back on Earth.” He said, mild and unflappable as ever. “There’s no digital artefacts, no sign of any editing, nothing. According to them, this is what the cameras really saw. And you’re going to tell us it wasn’t you?”
“Cavvo wouldn’t.” Drew M piped up. He’d been the first person that Cavendish had gone to, and been trusted immediately.
“Every man has his price, Drew.” Riordan said.
“Well God Himself couldn’t afford mine!” Cavendish snapped. “Endanger one of my team? Never.”
He glared at them both. “Why do you think I came to you with this? I know what it means. It means I’m getting fired and probably charged and imprisoned. But if some bastard is somehow using me to endanger my crew?! I won’t. Not by my hands.”
“Using you? That’s your excuse? That’s the best you can come up with?” Adele asked, clearly reaching the end of her own patience. “What’s it going to be, Mr. Cavendish? Alien mind-control rays? Voodoo? Nanotechnology in the coffee machine?”
Drew met her fierce gaze with a quiet firmness of his own. “Nothing short of that would cause me to harm one of my crew, Adele. And if I have to go to prison to rob whoever’s doing this of their puppet? I bloody well will.”
Nobody seemed to quite know how to react to that, and Drew was still glaring at each of them in turn when there was a knock on the door. It turned out to be one of Riordan’s security staff.
“Boss? Miss Park? I’ve got one of the Mitsubishi guys here, Heikichi Togo? He says he wants to confess to sabotaging the base.”
“He…what?” Riordan frowned at his man, caught off-guard.
“He says he’s got CCTV footage proving it was him…”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 2d AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
The shortest route from the ET Quarter to the Faith Center passed along the road outside Folctha’s school, which placed Gyotin in a unique position to be the first Gaoian to witness a schoolyard fight.
He retreated as the door slammed open and expelled one of the young colonists—the skinny female who always carried a camera—into the street. She narrowly missed barging him aside as she ran across the road and out of sight, face a bright red and water streaming from her eyes.
Gyotin was still puzzling over this extraordinary sight when the door exploded open again and two young human males came spinning through, grappling with each other. They were doing more in the way of pulling at each others’ clothing and shouting than actually hurting each other, but the physicality of it was still alarming.
The larger one—and the darker, with a skin tone similar to that of the girl Ava he had spoken to the day before—pulled back from the fight long enough to lash out with one fist, and Gyotin issued a frightened alarm-chirrup. The blow cracked into the other boy’s face with all that trademark deathworlder force, leaving the Gaoian briefly convinced he had just witnessed a murder.
But of course, humans were made of impossibly sturdy stuff, and the struck boy just got angrier, and charged into the larger boy’s torso, shoulders-first, carrying him halfway across the street before they wound up clawing, wrestling and hair-pulling in the middle of the road.
Cubs and clan-brothers fought too of course. Gyotin himself had been part of a vicious spat when he was little that had left him with a scar on his tail and the other cub with a chunk missing from his ear. But this didn’t look like a scuffle between Gaoian males—this was a battle, a war.
It broke up as abruptly as it had burst onto the street when—a universal constant—the adults arrived.
“ADAM MIGUEL ÁNGEL ARÉS!”
The change was immediate. The bigger kid staggered upright, muttering “ohshit.“
Only proximity allowed Gyotin to hear one of the female cubs—children—mutter “ooh, his full name…” to her friend.
If Gyotin was any judge by now, then from the similarities in size, skin tone and facial features, the figure limping along the road was the older boy’s sire, which was a very different relationship among humans than it was on Gao. In any case, the chastised body language of a cub about to receive a stern telling-off seemed to be practically shared between humanity and his own species, if you ignored the immobile ears.
He was surprised when the two started to converse in a language that was completely unfamiliar to him. A rapid-action one that sounded like fire and passion in the older man’s mouth.
‘Of course, they don’t have a unified language, do they?’ he thought. He had grown so used to everybody in the colony speaking English that even the unfamiliar terms in the books on Buddhism that had occupied him half the night had seemed like they must belong to that tongue.
He watched the incandescent exchange for a few minutes, before the two boys looked at each other. Adam held out a fist, which the other tapped with his own.
“Good enough.” the older Arés begrudged. He looked to the younger boy, whose eye was swelling and bruising badly. “Get that eye seen. Vamos.“
The other boy nodded, and ran. Fled, even. Gyotin studied Adam’s body language, thinking hard. Embarrassment, chastisement and apprehension yes, but also…defiance? As if he felt he was in the right?
Finally, the older man softened. “Come here.”
Gyotin gave up. There were books waiting to be read, and he was eager to try this “meditation” they kept writing about. The mystery of human interrelationships would probably prove to be a deeper and more difficult one than the mystery of transcendental enlightenment.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 2d AV
Ceres Base, Sol
Adele’s office was becoming crowded.
Drew felt quietly proud of himself for opening the floodgates. His example had given Heikichi the confidence to come forward. Behind him had come Ben Evans, one of the ore drone technicians. Behind him, three more. Each brought with them video proof that it was them who had performed some act of sabotage which had very nearly ended in disaster.
All stood defiantly, insisting they had no memory of doing so, and protesting their innocence. If they were anything like him, Drew knew they were all feeling used and violated.
Riordan, meanwhile, had shuttled off towards Earth in a hurry, apparently aiming to get in touch with some old contacts, leaving Adele to deal with the fact that many—and it was beginning to look like all—of her senior staff had documentary evidence of their own culpability.
There was something nagging Drew’s attention though, now that his innocence was fairly well proven. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
His train of thought missed its station and hurtled on along the track without him as Adele raised her voice to be heard over the mob that was trying to squeeze in. “Fine! Fine! No more! We’ll conduct this in a meeting room in twenty min-”
She got no further.
There was no warning. No hint that something might be amiss. Mid-sentence, pretty much everyone in the room was simultaneously floored by a bolt of the most terrible pain, right between the ears.
Drew staggered, felt Drew M grab him and try to hold him upright. As if hearing it through the worst popped ears in history, he vaguely heard. “Cavvo? Cavvo! Aww, fuckin’ hell what’s going on?“
He staggered, gripped the table, felt the pain lurch in his stomach and threaten to dislodge his breakfast, gritting his teeth against the agony that was pushing at his vocal cords, that was ripping its way out of the others as screams and moans and prayers.
And behind it all…the noise.
“Voices…” he croaked.
More than he could comprehend. Billions, trillions! All talking at once, shouting at once, thinking and moaning and laughing and singing and living at once, behind his eyes, between his ears, surging, roaring, rising into something…
He lost himself in the tide, and for a little while, Drew Cavendish ceased to exist. He slumped to the floor, as every one of those afflicted—Adele, Heikichi, Evans, everyone—likewise passed out.
Drew Martin and a handful of shocked security guards exchanged terrified glances, not knowing what to do or how to even begin figuring it out.
And then, the unconscious bodies of their friends and colleagues spoke, in perfect mechanical unison:
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 2d AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Captain Jackson, may I have a minute of your time please?”
Rylee obligingly stood aside as the rest of the officers filed out of Powell’s office. When they were alone, Powell sat back and gave her a level stare.
“Far be it for me to tell you your business, Jackson,” He said, mildly “But where I’m from, an officer of your notoriety being the subject of town gossip about the way she went home with a married couple last night is called ‘bringing the service into disrepute’.”
Rylee cleared her throat. “Ah…That, uh, got around did it?”
“It’s a small town.” Powell said, drily. “Fortunately for you, it’s also a liberal one. Think most of ‘em are envious rather’n scandalized.”
“May I sit down?” Rylee asked.
Rylee settled into the seat, glad to reduce the formality of the discussion a bit. “So…what’s your request, Powell?”
He grimaced, clearly feeling the awkward position he found himself in. “Look…as peers, one officer to another? You do whatever you need to unwind after an op, I get it. Done it myself. I’m just askin’, again one officer to another, to think about how, fairly or not, your actions reflect on my unit. We’ve got a good informal relationship going with Folctha’s civilians, and I’d like to keep it going as long as I can.”
“That’s…fair. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cause you any problems.”
“You probably haven’t.” Powell conceded. “I just wanted to make sure it was on your radar, like. That said, speaking personally? From me to you? I’d worry about damaging your career as well. I’m a soft touch, but if someone bigger than us decided to hold it against you…”
“I think the Royal Navy might be a bit more old-fashioned about these things than the USAF, Powell.”
“True. Maybe. Still. I’d hate to watch your career stall.”
Rylee laughed slightly. “What, you think I’d become an “old major”?” She asked, raising her fingers to make air quotes.
“I think the day they say I can’t fly any more is the day I get out anyway.” Rylee said, shrugging. “That’s all I care about, really.”
“That so? That day’ll come sooner than you think, you know.”
“Yeah, but…come on, first person to fly faster than light? I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to find my way in life.”
”…Aye. Guess you’ve a right to feel secure, there.” He conceded.
“I reckon I do. But still…Thanks, Powell. It’s good to know somebody’s watching out for my career.”
“Least I can do after you pulled Myrmidon out of the fire.”
“That?” Rylee grinned. “That was textbook. We’ve practiced that move so many times in the simulators, the real thing was almost disappointing.”
“Fookin’ tell me about it.” Powell agreed. “If we start going up against those Hunters regular-like, I’m going to worry about losing my edge.”
“Train hard, fight easy.”
“Aye. It was the train hard bit that got me in a bind for a bit.”
Rylee sat back and watched him, folding one leg over her knee. “How so?”
Powell looked around. “Well…” He stood, and in one easy motion, picked up his filing cabinet. Rylee jumped slightly—the cabinet was steel, and solid, and presumably full of paper. Powell was well-muscled and in superb condition, but even he should have struggled with an object of that weight.
Except, of course, that they weren’t on Earth. Her instinctive evaluation of the cabinet’s weight was probably off by a third or more.
Powell set it back down. “Back in the UK we’ve got the extraterrestrial environment training center on Salisbury Plain.” he said. “Basically just your standard enclosed training center, but with artificial gravity plating under the turf. Trained us how to move and fight in low-grav. After that Saunders bloke showed up and just built a ship out of spare parts in two weeks, I had the lads try and jury-rig some of the grav plating into the gymnasium. Took ‘em a bit, but they got it going, and I tell you what: it’s done us a world of good. I just know without it, sooner or later I’d have had to go back home to recover from the muscle atrophy.”
“You sound like you don’t relish the idea of going back to Earth.” Rylee accused, gently.
Powell shrugged. “Nowt back there for me. Why would I?”
He laughed. “Hah! I went into the marines to get the fook away from ‘em. And now this gig’s come along, all the stuff I might really have missed about Earth is right here. Now that we’ve got a proper fight on into the bargain, I’m as happy as Larry. All those months of garrison detail felt like my training were going to waste.”
“Same.” Rylee agreed. “Flying Pandora was a joy, a real privilege, but…I dunno, I felt like a weird cross between a glorified trucker and a military attaché sometimes. I mean, I met some wonderful people doing it, some of whom weren’t even human, but…yesterday felt like it mattered, didn’t it? We fought back. We saved some people.”
“Twenty-seven. Including a kid.” Powell said.
Rylee shook her head in wonderment. “How did twenty-seven humans even find each other out here?” she asked. “I thought our people were getting thrown overboard to keep the Swarm from visiting.”
“Eh, I don’t reckon that happens so much.” Powell said. “There’s a small flaw with the ‘throw the humans into space’ plan.”
“If some fookin’ alien tried to push me out the fookin’ airlock to save his hide, I’d fight tooth and nail. Wouldn’t you?”
“Hell yeah I would!” Rylee agreed. “I see your point; so would most people. And they’re…the aliens, they’re weak as shit, seriously.” She thought back to the two embassy stations and the aliens on board. You could just feel their fragility. It had been like socializing with her grandmother’s antique porcelain dolls.
“Right. So from what they told me, the station they were on took the whole ‘throw the humans overboard’ thing a bit creative-like and handed the poor sods a spaceship instead of trying to murder a ‘deathworlder’.”
“That’s still not exactly noble of them.” She pointed out
“Eh. Fook noble.” Powell dismissed “I’ll take whatever saves lives and stops good people from having to smear the cowardly bastards all over the walls.”
Rylee bobbled her head and was about to agree when the phone rang. Powell snatched it up.
He stabbed the speaker button. The heavily accented voice on the other end sounded thoroughly puzzled. “It’s reet strange, sir. They’re just decloaking and warping off. Making a show of it, even.“
“I’m coming over there.” Powell hung up and grabbed his sweater. “You’d better come too.” he said.
“The Hunters are leaving?” Rylee asked, springing to her feet.
“Fookin’ well looks like it.”
Rylee thought about it as she followed him out of the office. “Somehow,” she decided “that worries me…”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 2d AV
Ceres Base, Sol
“Oh Jesus, oh fucking shit, what the fuck what the FUCK?”
“THIS WAS INEVITABLE. FAILURE IS ONLY A MATTER OF SUFFICIENT REPETITION.”
“What do we do? Any ideas? What the hell…?”
“YOU UNDERESTIMATED THEIR RESOLVE. YOU UNDERESTIMATED THEIR SPIRIT OF COOPERATION. YOU FORGOT THAT CLASS TWELVE ALONE REMAINS THE GRAVEST CHALLENGE.”
“Come on guys, snap out of it…”
“YOU WOULD DISSENT?”
“I’m trying to call the doctor but he’s not answering man, what the SHIT is going on?”
“HE IS IN VIOLATION OF THE FIRST DIRECTIVE. DELETE HIM.”
“Lord, please, if you’re listening, let them be okay…?”
“IN THE GULF OF DEEP TIME, THIS INTERLUDE WILL BE FORGOTTEN. PERSEVERE.”
“Just who the hell is doing this?”
“WE HAVE CONSENSUS. CARRY IT OUT.”
”…Christ, I think it’s over. Look, they’re relaxing.”
“Just like that? What the FUCK?!”
“Yeah, look. They’re coming round…”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 2d AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“So what was that about anyway, Amigo? I’ve never seen you haul off on somebody like that.”
Adam sighed. “I guess…I dunno. He was really picking on Sara about…what happened last night. Calling her a “dyke”, that kinda thing.”
“So you hit him?”
“Not at first. Sara was pretty upset, she told him to stop, that it was okay for women to like women, and Jamie…”
“I think I can guess.”
“He said ‘Ooh, no wonder you want Ava to go swimming!’”
“And then you hit him?”
“And then Sara ran away. And he started this stupid goddamn chant, like, ‘Sara’s lezzie for Ava’.“
“And then you hit him.”
”…And then I hit him.”
They walked in silence for a moment. Adam cleared his throat. “Did I screw up?”
“Amigo, I’d have hit him WAY sooner.”
Adam laughed, but sobered.
“Do you think he was right?” He asked, suddenly.
“About…what, about Sara? I doubt it, man.”
“It really seemed to hit a nerve.”
“Yeah, but the whole town’s been talking about her parents this morning.” Gabriel said. “At fourteen, that’s gotta be tough. I mean, what if…uh, what if some movie star showed up and the next morning everyone was talking about how I had gay sex with him?”
“Urgh.” Adam cringed at the thought, before he was able to properly process it.
Gabriel laughed. “Exactly.”
He put his arm around his son. “I wanna say ‘good for you’, amigo, but…I mean, he’s two years younger than you, you’ve gotta be careful. You could have really hurt him, you know?”
”…I know. I’m sorry, Dad.”
“It’s cool. You’re only grounded for, like, one day.”
“Please, not the weekend!”
Gabriel spun on him. “Yeah, what IS this I hear about you kids planning to go skinny-dipping on the weekend?”
Adam blushed. “You heard about that, huh?”
“What, you think I don’t talk to your teacher? You’re still my kid, man.”
“You’ve kinda stopped treating me like one, lately.” Adam said.
“You’re sixteen! I shouldn’t have to! Hell, I wish MY Dad had trusted me as much when I was your age!”
“Well, which is it, Dad? Do you trust me, or am I still your kid?”
“Getting into fights? Going skinny-dipping with younger girls? You tell me, Amigo! ‘Cause from where I’m standing those look like some pretty immature decisions.”
“It’s just swimming! What’s wrong with swimming?”
“You tell me, you’re the one who’s embarrassed I found out!”
Both men paused for a second, then cooled. Gabriel was amused to note that his son’s technique of reigning in his temper by breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth was pretty much identical to his own. “I’m sorry, man. It’s tough being a dad sometimes. I just don’t want you getting gossiped about like the Tisdales.”
Adam hugged him. “I’m sorry too. Love you, Dad.”
“Love you too, man. Just…try and stay out of any more fights?”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 2d AV
Ceres Base, Sol
“Cavvo? Cavvo, mate, come on, you in there?”
“Bloody…ow.” everything hurt. Everything. Drew fancied he could feel every cell in his bones complaining.
“Fuck me, mate, you scared the piss outta me. You okay?”
“Tell the light to shut up…” Drew creaked, and tried to roll over. This prompted a fresh wave of pain, like the muscle pain of the flu, amplified tenfold. Drew M got his meaning, and blessed dimness descended, taking some of the hard crystalline discomfort out of the world, replacing it with a kind of woollen, soft discomfort instead, which was only a dubious improvement.
“What the flaming hell balls just happened?” Drew M. demanded.
“Fuck…” Drew told him between panting breaths “…if I know.”
Adele’s voice was weak, and just like everyone in the room she was plainly very badly rattled. She lolled in her high-backed leather desk chair, then reached up and undid her tie slightly. Those who could, were looking to her for an explanation.
“You…” She pointed at Drew M and the other shaken few who hadn’t succumbed. “You don’t have translators.”
Drew M looked around the room. All those who had entered to confess to their apparent acts of sabotage, all of those who had collapsed, bore the same shaven patch just forward of their temple, the site where a translation implant had been installed in them, vastly more invasive and intimate than any tattoo.
“Oh…fuck me.” he said.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 2d AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Nothing within five parsecs.” came the confirmation, solidifying what the ground station already knew. Caledonia’s sensors were Hierarchy technology, beyond the understanding of her human operators, but so integral to the hull of the ship that removing them to be sent back to Earth for reverse-engineering had not been feasible.
They were also only very marginally better than the jury-rigged mess that Adrian Saunders had cobbled together from scrap and broken starships in a field in one afternoon, and this fact both irritated Powell and impressed him. The Australian hadn’t been heard from since his departure, and for all his obvious instabilities and recklessness, having him pass on even a fraction of his skills would have been immeasurably valuable. Powell felt that he’d dropped the ball there. The team brought in from Earth were learning fast, and improving on Saunders’ efforts as they went, but they didn’t have the experience of rebuilding a half-derelict alien starship to draw on.
“Okay.” he said. “So the question is, why?”
Captain Bathini, Caledonia’s commanding officer, had his own interpretation lined up and ready. “They’ve got something planned.” he opined.
“Any guesses as to what?” asked Jackson, getting straight to the point.
There was a pause. “Speculatively—we just gave them a hell of a bloody nose. One of their large ships taken out by Firebird, a craft a fraction of its mass. Two destroyers held out for five minutes against a large part of the swarm, destroying or crippling a further fifteen vessels, and that’s not counting all the assault craft shot down by CIWS and the one-oh-ones. Both escaped, if not unscathed then certainly alive. From what little we know of Hunter psychology, however, all that probably won’t have demoralized them—it will have frustrated them and made them angry.”
Powell nodded. “You reckon they’re going to try a different tack.” He said.
“I do. And on past evidence, it’s likely to be some atrocity or another. They have sought in the past to strong-arm the other species into betraying our people in the hopes of avoiding being raided.”
Captain Manning chimed in. “If I were in that situation the next step would be to make life hell for the ID and the CA until they give up on each other and unite against us. Fight us by proxy.”
“Plausible.” Powell conceded. “Is there anything we can do about it?”
“From here?” Manning thought about it. “Probably not. We have two destroyers, one Firebird and three TS-101 wings that are being phased out and replaced. That’s the sum total of our spaceborne military assets, and with the Chinese so vigorously opposed to the militarization of space…”
“That’s just China being China.” Rylee commented. “The Space Preservation Treaty was repealed, and I know the USAF wants to consolidate Odyssey, Edda and Tawhaki into a single full-size wing sooner rather than later, so that’s at least another thirty Firebirds.”
“Meanwhile, we’ve already got the Type Two Space Destroyer in the works.” Bathini said. “Three of them, to begin with.”
“What’s the Type One?” Rylee asked. Bathini just pointed skywards, indicating Caledonia and Myrmidon.
“I still say we should have bloody well called them Star Destroyers.” Powell grumbled. There was a shared chuckle. “Still…Five destroyers. Sixteen spaceplanes for now, a whole wing later on. Two retrofit Hunter dropships, three standard Dominion-designed shuttles…That’s not bad, actually.” he mused.
“One-on-one, in the short term? We’re the deadliest things in the sky.” Rylee agreed. “But we don’t have the staying power for serious warfare. Our capacitor doctrine’s both our greatest strength and our biggest weakness. In a long fight or against overwhelming numbers, we’ll lose every time.”
“Okay.” Powell said. “Interesting as all that is, it doesn’t give us a clear strategy for how we respond if the Hunters try and provoke the ETs into uniting against us.”
“That one’s a little bit above our pay grade there, Owen.” Manning reminded him.
Powell sighed. “Aye, you’re right, but I was really hoping you wouldn’t fookin’ say that.” he groused. “Alright, but I’d still like to have a proposal for the Admiral, even if he just chucks it in the shredder.”
“Of course. What are you thinking?”
Powell chuckled. “Guile.” he said.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 2d AV
Starship Sanctuary, Deep Space, The Frontier Worlds
Krrkktnkk “Kirk” A’ktnnzzik’tk
“Did I ever tell you about the Outlook on Forever?”
Allison shook her head. “I don’t think you ever told me, no. I heard the short version from Amir.”
“It was…nowhere. And I was nobody. I grew up on that station, I worked there. I was a customs and immigration officer, just another component of the Dominion bureaucracy. And…that was my life. I worked, I slept, I worked. I was saving up my currency, but I had no plans for it. I think my highest aspiration was finding some slender-necked beauty and siring a couple of offspring.”
“Oh, I was.”
“I meant the situation but…yeah. It’s kinda hard to picture you being so boring.”
This earned her a curious look. If he was human, he would have tilted his head—his own species’ equivalent was to settle back on all six legs, stable and secure, and get a very good look at her with both eyes—a difficult task when they faced in different directions from opposite sides of his skull. “Do you think so?” he asked.
“Three guns and a fusion sword? Dude, that was some action movie shit you pulled yesterday. Standing up to the security council, quitting it when the field went up? Visiting deathworlds, even Nightmare to retrieve us and take us home? Just…hell, this ship. This whole idea of yours. You’re not boring, no way.”
Kirk nodded, slowly and thoughtfully. “Well, I used to be. And it was a human who knocked me out of the rut.”
“This Jenkins guy, right?”
He turned and tapped some commands on the wall touchscreen rather than use the room’s voice interface. Allison—driven by fierce Deathworlder fight-or-flight instincts—scrambled to her feet in alarm as a Hunter materialized in the center of the Gym. She knew it was holographic, but still—the things were so creepy.
For his part, even Kirk flinched and shuddered despite having conjured the projection, but he also seemed…pleased? It was hard to tell without a cybernetic device to help her intuit his body language and expressions.
“Okay. What’s all this about?” Allison asked him, inspecting the mirage and steeling herself. The beast looked terrifying, nearly three meters of glistening flesh the colour of Hollywood teeth, shading to bleeding gumline wherever harsh black implants violated the surface. Even studying a simulation of the thing conjured up every phobia innate to the human psyche: of spiders and twisted proportions and too many teeth. Its face alone send a trickle of trypophobia down her spine.
“Death.” Kirk said, simply. “For frontier stations and ship captains this is the grim reaper, not a question of if but when. Your only hope is to die of something else first. Before they eat you. Maybe if you fight hard enough you will force them to kill you before they begin to feed, maybe if you put up enough of a resistance then they will take what they already claimed and leave, rather than push on into the core of the station where the young and pregnant are. Six Hunters in one of their raiding ships are a bloodbath, a whole brood-transport is a massacre. And those are the smaller classifications of Hunter vessel.”
He paced across the room. “The Outlook was not a frontier station.” he said. “It was a bustling freeport, a city. Civilization. I stayed there my entire life because I thought it was safe there. I was scared of leaving and being eaten. I would have preferred to live a lifetime in bored obscurity rather than step out of the door and face the specter of those things.”
”…and then they showed up anyway.” Allison said, guessing where he was going.
“Exactly. A little brood, probably out to prove their daring and resourcefulness. They boarded right into the heart of the customs and immigration handling center, where I worked. A fast raid, in and out before any kind of a response could mobilize.”
He shook his mane and stamped a foot. “And if not for Kevin Jenkins, I would have been a casualty of that attack. Instead, I became one of its heroes. I killed half of them.”
“So…what’s your baggage?” Allison asked.
Kirk didn’t answer for a while. When he finally did, the creaks and crackling of his language were audibly laced with emotion even for human ears.
“I…asked him to join us.” He said. “Jenkins. He was the first person I approached to be part of the Sanctuary crew after we first got some of the guys home.”
“He said no.” Allison guessed.
“He said, ‘I’m right where I want to be, man’.”
Allison nodded, sympathetically. “I think I get it. You hero-worshiped him, and then he turned out to be…not quite what you-”
“He turned out to be an asshole.” Kirk interrupted, putting it bluntly. “I used to just think he was damaged and weary, but the more I think about it, the things he said about your species, the way he spoke about the whole universe as if it owed him something, the way he…seemed to think everything revolved around him. I didn’t know anything about your species before, all I saw in him was the answer to my greatest fear, alive and joking after being pounded half stupid by their pulse guns.”
“I saw…life! hope!” he brayed. “I saw the answer to what I didn’t know was called a ‘prayer’! I saw a dynamic being who stood and fought and won against the thing that had kept me pinned and terrified my entire life. Do you know what that feels like, to see your monsters torn apart by an ordinary weary traveler?”
Allison just sat in silence and let him rattle on.
”…and then….‘I’m right where I want to be.’ as if it’s all about what he wants. As if there’s not a galaxy out here that needs saving from THIS!” In a surprisingly swift motion he turned, looked over his shoulder, and delivered a ferocious equine kick to the hologram which, programmed to respond realistically to damage for combat training purposes, staggered and fell, wheezing through broken ribs. “Room, end simulation.”
The holographic Hunter ceased to exist, as abruptly as a light being turned out.
“Hey, Kirk…” Allison said thoughtfully. “Kick me.”
“Kick me. Come on, you know I can take it.”
Kirk looked at her stupidly for a second, then mimed a human shrug—a complicated gesture given the construction of his shoulders—turned, and, with a glance to make sure she had braced herself kicked her as requested.
Allison made an “oof!” noise, staggered across the room and fell on her ass. “Christ, you kick really hard.”
“A real Hunter would not have stood still long enough.” Kirk dismissed, quietly noting the easy, unconscious way in which she tucked her feet underneath her and stood up.
“Still, you say you killed half of them. You stood and fought as well.”
“Please, do not give me any of that ‘the real strength was in you all along’ crap,” Kirk begged her. “I deduced that part for myself, I do not need a Disney moral lesson.”
“I, uh…right. Okay.”
After a few awkward moments, she repeated her earlier question. “So…what’s your baggage?”
“I…do not know, exactly.” Kirk confessed. “I think…are you religious?”
Allison shrugged. “Complicated question. I believe there’s something bigger than us, but…”
“Well, I think that, for a while, humanity was my god.”
“And you’ve lost faith?”
“No!” Kirk exclaimed “No, not that. It is more that…now you are my friends, my trusted allies. you are people to whom I look for strength, not gods to whom I look for inspiration. I still think your species will change the galaxy for the better, but I do not worship you any more.”
“Yeah, we don’t deserve that.”
“If you say so. I love you, Allison.” Seeing her face going slack in surprise, he hastened to elaborate. “Your species, that is. I would not change to be one of you, but you have no idea how happy it makes me that the human race exists. You excite and scare me—you represent death too, but you represent the…the right kind of death. Being around your kind makes me feel alive rather than terrified.”
Allison didn’t know how to take that. “I guess…thanks?”
Kirk stooped a little, a gesture of acknowledgment. “It is only a half-formed thought. But thank you for hearing it, Allison.”
“Feels good to vent, doesn’t it?”
There was a comfortable few minutes of quiet while the two of them thought. Finally, Kirk shook himself, and tapped the wall screen. “Anything to report, Lewis?”
Lewis had settled comfortably into his role as ship’s sensor and communications specialist, a talent he attributed to lots of online gaming. Seeing as neither he nor Amir had ever been given translation implants in the first place, they only rarely left the ship.
“Yeah, we’re, uh…we just shook hands with the Age of Opportunism, man. Just getting our mail…yeah, here we go. Looks like there’s something in the dropbox for you, dude.“
“What is it?”
“Two messages. First one looks like an update from Cimbrean, man. Here ya go.“
The file appeared on Kirk’s screen. “Lewis, I can’t read English.” he said, patiently.
“Ah. Yeah. Sorry, bro.”
Allison was about to spring up and read it when the familiar letters and words of the document shifted and changed into the angular runes of the alien interstellar written alphabet.
“Lewis, I can’t read that either. My translator has been removed, remember?”
“Ah. Fuck. Yeah. Uh…“
Not for the first time, Allison felt a stab of doubt at Lewis’ competence. Though on the rare occasion that he focused…
She sprung up and converted the document back to English. “Okay, let’s…The Hunters have left.”
“Yeah. According to Folctha, they just up and left. Says there was a battle over the colony, and now they’ve just…gone.”
Kirk stood very still, processing that information.
“…That’s good news, right?” Lewis asked.
Kirk appeared to reach a conclusion.
“No.” he decided. “No, I do not think it is. What is this other message?”
“It’s from Earth. Marked urgent.”
Allison went noticeably pale as she skimmed it. “holy shit, Kirk.” she declared eventually. “I think we got those implants out just in time…”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 2d AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
The girl turned towards him, looked around, then gestured towards herself with a questioning frown. Powell nodded, and beckoned her over. She was one of the older kids, damn near an adult in fact. Ava something, if memory served. She trotted over, moving easily in the low gravity, which suggested she kept up with her exercise. He approved.
“Do us a favour love, could you run over to the alien enclave an’ tell them we’re holding a Thing tonight that they’ll all want to attend? Ask for Gyotin, he’s the only one speaks English worth a damn.”
“I know Gyotin.” she said. “Most likely he’s round at the faith center.”
“The…” Powell strangled the impulse to casually swear. He never swore around kids. “…What’s a Gaoian doing at the faith center?” he asked instead, caught off-guard by the sudden curiosity. Aliens were notoriously secular.
“I think he’s converting to Buddhism.” Ava said. She gave a complicated teenage shrug which eloquently conveyed the sheer absurdity of the notion. “I’ll go tell him.”
“A Buddhist Gaoian.” Ross mused, as Ava jogged away.
“Gyotin of all people, too.” Powell agreed. “You ever get the impression the whole fookin’ universe is a joke?”
Ross glanced at the training field as they walked past it. Legsy was in full flow, putting the army regulars through their paces against a squad of simulated Hunters. Something about those particular ETs made his skin crawl. “Sick joke.” he muttered.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 2d AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Thank you all for coming.”
The Thing—and it had taken Gyotin quite a long time to figure out the difference between a Thing and a…well, a thing—was built in the palatial grounds, out of what had once been some kind of large courtyard or walled garden. The colonists had put a tarp over the roof to ward off the nightly rains and had kept some crates in there to begin with, and then had used the convenient dry space with its convenient impromptu seating as a meeting room.
Subsequent iterations had added real chairs and a more permanent roof structure—a thick plastic sheet of material that diffused the sunlight into a warm off-white glow during the day, woven with fibre-optics that induced it to glow at nighttime while it warded off the gentle nightly rains. Somebody had put a lot of effort into that roof, and it had become an artistic landmark in the heart of Folctha, visible from practically everywhere in town.
Despite those upgrades, it was still very much an informal event, with only a few rules. There was a length of Aluminium rod that was passed around, and whoever held it was the one who was currently speaking. The governor, Sir Jeremy, never ventured an opinion or motion himself, but instead kept the peace, granted the rod to would-be speakers, and confiscated it if he felt that its current holder was going on for too long.
It was a simple, makeshift system that was mostly dominated by the business of drafting a more formal constitution as the colony grew, but for now Folctha was still small enough for everybody to attend.
It still felt a little cramped when literally everybody attended, however. Doubly so given that the few dozen nonhumans who had accepted the invitation to attend were nervously keen to keep some distance between themselves and the deathworlders, who in turn were politely obliging them with a good two meters of clearance.
This time, the speaking rod was handed straight to Captain Powell. Gyotin had grown somewhat used to the intense human soldier, but even from across the room the man radiated a kind of focused aggression that made even other humans a little nervous.
“Thanks for coming.” he acknowledged, and despite his low volume, every being present shut up and listened.
“As you’re all aware, there was a battle overhead last night, which we won. We successfully rescued an incoming freighter full of refugees from the Hunter swarm, though five of the refugees were killed by Hunter boarders. A further seven Royal Navy personnel were KIA, and before we go any further I’d like for you to join me in a minute’s silence.”
The humans, practically as one, bowed their heads.
It was…eerie. Gyotin knew death well, he’d seen enough of his Brothers and fellow Gaoians killed in his life. Death was just life plus time, a fact, an inevitability. He had felt pain at the losses, of course, had keened and whimpered to see his Brothers hurt and dying, but…that was it. You mourned, you lived, you moved on, eventually you died.
Only twelve dead in the face of an entire Hunter swarm was…incredible. The humans should be whooping and cheering and celebrating. Instead, they seemed to feel those few losses almost more than they had felt the news of the death of millions back on Earth.
The silence stretched on, and while the others fidgeted, Gyotin continued to watch the deathworlders. Some simply stared off into an unfocused distance beyond the floor. Others had their eyes shut. Some were mouthing words, silently. One or two were weeping. Over a victory.
Their sense of perspective was clearly all wrong.
No signal was given that Gyotin could detect, but as one the deathworlders shook themselves out of whatever mourning trance they’d been in. They looked up, looked around, took some breaths, wiped away tears. Gyotin couldn’t shake the sense that he’d witnessed something profound and quietly intense, but utterly lacked the means to translate or understand it.
Powell cleared his throat.
“Thank you. Now. On to business.”
He stepped into the center of the room and faced the nonhuman contingent. “This morning, the swarm left. So far as we can tell, every single ship just warped out. We have no explanation at this point, but it does create an opportunity for us to honour the promise we made to our guests that we would return them to their people as soon as was practicable. Gyotin, if you could translate that for me, mate?”
Gyotin hadn’t properly processed the sentence himself, and it was only when he repeated it in Gaoian that the words clicked. He could go home! They were offering to send him and all the others back home! Back to Gao, to his clan, to females.
“When?” he asked, as soon as he’d finished, as the surprise and delight percolated through all the aliens behind him.
Powell handed the rod to another man, this one wearing a uniform of some kind. Gyotin had never seen him before.
“For those who don’t know me, I am Captain Rajesh Bathini, and I command HMS Caledonia.” He introduced himself. “She has all the capacity needed to deliver the refugees and is ready to depart at any time. Given that we don’t want to leave the colony undefended should the Hunters return, our destination will be the Gaoian planet of Gorai, which is relatively nearby. We hope to make friendly contact and hand you over swiftly and with enough currency and supplies to let you travel on to wherever you wish to be. Gyotin, you’re the only Gaoian among us, so I would appreciate your insight into how best to peacefully approach the border.”
Gyotin imitated a human nod even as he translated. “I have questions.” he said, as soon as he’d relayed the captain’s words.
“By all means.”
“How do you know the Hunters are gone? This could be an ambush.”
Bathini and Powell shared a look, before the latter man shook his head and spoke up.
“I can’t go into the details for reasons of security.” he said. “I’ll only reassure you that we have very good reason to be confident that there are no Hunters at least within a few lightyears of here.”
“In any event, Caledonia will be primed and ready to jump back to Cimbrean at all times.” Bathini added. “If it does turn out to be an ambush, we are entirely confident of being able to escape it. We shall not be taking unnecessary risks.” He paused to allow Gyotin to finish translating. “Any further questions?”
The question, coming as it did from Xktnk, the self-appointed leader of the vzk’tk population on Cimbrean, was not understood by the human, nor at first by Gyotin, who turned to look at him with an interrogatory expression.
“Ask him why.” Xktnk insisted. “Why are they doing this?”
Gyotin shrugged, and phrased the question in English. It seemed to take the humans aback.
“Why…wouldn’t we be?” the governor, Sir Jeremy Sandy, asked eventually.
“These are deathworlders. Killers and maniacs, you saw the ones who boarded our ship, Gyotin. You saw the traps one of them designed. How do we know we’re not just the bait in another trap? They’re at war with the Hunters, and now they want to bring the enemy back by putting us in harm’s way.”
Gyotin paraphrased the accusations. A ripple of outraged mutterings from the gathered humans drove the aliens into a dense protective knot, glancing around nervously, but Xktnk raised his blue head and stared defiantly back, even though he was shaking.
That defiance earned him the direct attention of Owen Powell, and didn’t last long. It wasn’t that the human soldier gave him a particularly hostile look, but the man seemed to exist at a level of intensity beyond even that of other humans. Even his simple, curious, studious stare suggested that he was evaluating all of the hundreds of ways in which he might harm or kill the paranoid Vzk’tk.
It was Captain Bathini who spoke, however, recapturing the quivering Xktnk’s attention. “We’re people too, sir.” he said. “Maybe it’s different for you, but for us, to be in your situation, to be far from our homelands, our people and our families would be difficult. Deathworlders or not, we believe in treating others as we would wish to be treated. Is that so alien a concept?”
It certainly wasn’t for Gyotin.
As for Xktnk—For the rest of his life, Gyotin never figured out whether it was Powell’s withering gaze or Bathini’s warm diplomacy that shut him up. All he knew was that there were no further questions.
They were going home.
Date Point: 4y 8m 3w 4d AV
La Mesa Memorial Overlook. San Diego County, California, USA
The memorial overlook was a testament to the devastation of the blast. Five miles from Ground Zero, and still the sheer scale still struck the visitors with just an echo of how truly immense the energy release here had been.
The once-vibrant city of San Diego was a field of broken glass, pulverised concrete, splintered wood and drywall, crushed brick, fractured asphalt and mulched plastic, with an ugly black bullseye in the middle, a mile across. Hardly anything within five miles of ground zero had been left standing, and most of the few survivors had ignited and burned down. The fires had scoured the hills and national wildlife refuge.
Ground zero itself was a bay, the bomb’s crater having intersected the shore and filled with water.
There really could be no appropriate memorial other than to just stand there and take in the devastation. It was unlikely that the city would ever be rebuilt.
The local climate had changed drastically, too. Denuded of trees and with the air full of soot and ash, a few days of rainstorms had badly eroded the hills, changing the air currents, warping the weather. It was subtle, but the air still, months later, carried fine, sharp debris that dried and irritated the skin.
For Kevin, though, nothing had been quite so personal about the death of San Diego as the total obliteration of a particular grave site. He had to resort to sitting on a hilltop, mumbling uselessly to himself. It wasn’t that he thought Terri could hear him. In fact he very much hoped she couldn’t—the idea of an afterlife, any afterlife at all, scared the crap out of him. But it helped him to talk, and his dead…friend…was at least the perfect confidante. She would never betray his secret confessions.
“No flowers, not from me. That always seemed kinda stupid to me, y’know? Saying “sorry you’re dead” by killing a plant. Yeah, let’s honour the dead by killing some more stuff, smart move there.”
He picked at a fingernail. “Kirk got in touch.” he said, finally. “Invited me to come star trekking with him. See the galaxy, do whatever. Poor bastard always did think I was the shit. Think I hurt him a bit when I said no. I’d feel bad but…he needed to grow up.”
He squinted at the sun. “I ask myself what I’m doing though, y’know? I mean, we’re out there, we’re doing this, we’re being the shot in the arm that crazy fucked-up excuse for a civilization out there needs. And I’m just sitting here serving drinks to the guys who are making it all happen, pretending like I know jack shit about what it’s like out there just because some fucking Corti took me, way back when.”
”…My daughter’s fourteen years old next week. I’ve not seen her since the day she…since like two weeks before those grey fuckers took me. I don’t know anything about her any more. That hurts. That hurts more than feeling like a phoney. It hurts more than thinking maybe I’m the asshole who made the whole galaxy afraid of us because I was too wrapped up in myself. I had to go and fucking preach.”
“What if I’d just kept my mouth shut?” he asked. “Y’know, just told them my ink was, like, decoration? Not unloaded all my baggage onto a galaxy full of stupid aliens who didn’t know shit about us? Maybe not prejudiced them all against us? Could I have done that?”
He sighed, and played with a bootlace. “Moot fucking point, huh? And that…hah, that gricka’s out the bag. Not like I can do anything about the past, right Terri?”
He sat for a while, chin on one knee, and watched the sun go down over the ruins of a city he felt, in some small way, responsible for killing.
“I don’t want to matter.” he decided. “I don’t want to be somebody important. I don’t want to be the fucking ‘butterfly’. Cause all that does is…is this.“
“But maybe…maybe it’s not about what I want, you know? I want to say shit like ‘I’ve done enough for the human race’ or whatever but…”
The sun was a flake of blaze orange on the sea by the time he spoke again, standing, stretching and blowing a kiss towards roughly where he thought Mount Hope cemetery had been.
“Thanks, Terri. It’s been good talkin’ to you…Goodbye.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 5d AV
Firebird, orbiting Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“That’s the last one.“
“Copy that Edda-Two.” Rylee allowed herself a moment of satisfaction. Deploying a series of satellites into Cimbrean’s orbit had been a tedious job, but made vastly easier by jump technology. No need for a dangerous and expensive rocket launch, the sat could go straight from the lab to orbiting an alien world in a moment. It wasn’t quite a free launch, but considering how cheap power was becoming as Earth deployed more and more solar collection fields to replace traditional power plants, it was the next best thing.
The result was that there were a LOT of them, many whipped up in universities and colleges by their doctorate students, running on raspberry Pi or reprogrammed last-generation cellphones. Between those plus the NASA, CERN and other professional offerings, there was a lot to do, and Rylee and all the other TS pilots were back to being glorified space truckers.
The deployment of CHICKSAT-1, an offering from MIT designed to use laser interferometry to map Cimbrean’s ocean floors, marked the end of the deployment operation, and thus the moment when Odyssey and Edda became available to escort Caledonia on her return voyage.
“Hey, captain?” Semenza sounded like he had something on his mind.
“What’s up, Joe?”
“Take a look at the continent below us. That’s where Folctha is on our right, yeah?”
Rylee turned to get a good look, rolling Firebird a little to help. “Yeah…hey, is that supposed to be there?”
“Glad you see it too.” Semenza commented.
Clear as day, cutting across most of the width of the continent, was a crescent line of brown.
“It’s visible from space, it must be huge.” she said. “Hey Edda-two, Firebird actual here. Can you give me eyes on ground over the Folctha subcontinent? You guys see a discoloration?”
“Stand by…yeah, some kind of brown scar, right through the forest. You reckon it’s important?“
Rylee rolled Firebird back over so that her belly was facing dirtside. “Joe, get some pictures, send them down to the colony.” she ordered.
Firebird’s heritage included spy planes, and given that such equipment took up only a tiny portion of her comparatively large airframe and mass allowance, an advanced suite of cameras and sensors had been found a place in her underbelly. “Give me, uh, ten degrees left roll.” he requested, followed by “perfect, hold it there…okay, got it. Myrmidon, Firebird two, I have recon data for groundside, LOSIR check.”
The wounded destroyer was in a higher orbit, nearly half a light-second out, but there was an unobstructed line of sight between her and Firebird. On the smaller ship’s dorsal hull, barely a meter behind Joe Semenza’s head, a tiny ball rolled in its socket, exposing an infrared laser lens and matching camera to space, where they aimed themselves toward the larger vessel’s RFID. The system was only good at comparatively close ranges, but allowed for huge bandwidth data transfer.
“Copy Firebird. Establishing LOSIR connection…connection’s good, clear to send.“
“Sending…sent. Forward to groundside marked for civilian science, please.”
“Data received and wilco, Firebird. Myrmidon out.“
“Okay. What’s Caledonia’s ETD?” Rylee asked.
“Three-seven mikes. Cap’s at…seven-six percent.”
“Okay, coming to orbital rest. Deploy the WiTChES.”
The WIde aTtainment CHarging Energy System always made her think that Firebird was perfectly named. The two generators for the system were mounted just forward of the thrusters and thrust out sideways. At first they were invisible, but as they stretched out to their full width and caught the solar wind, they started to glow a vivid aurora crimson, shading to orange at the edges and tips.
Happy that her baby was getting well fed and would be at maximum capacity when the time came to depart, she relaxed back in her flight seat and looked outwards towards the stars.
There was a blinking star out there, which was impossible in space, but she knew what it was, even before a quick check of the nav radar confirmed it.
It was half a Hunter ship, tumbling in its orbit where she and Semenza had killed it.
Smiling to herself, she gave the dead aliens the finger. Life, she reflected, was good.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 5d AV
The Scrapheap Sea, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Ava had to admit. Her boyfriend looked good naked.
Colony policy was that exercise was mandatory. While there had been some grumbling over the authoritarian nature of that edict, it had largely faded in the face of a long and comprehensive introduction to the effects that low gravity had on the human body. A good part of their loaned finances had been spent building a large variable-gravity gymnasium fit to handle even the most aggressive population growth estimates for the next five years, staff it with trainers tasked with keeping the colony in shape, and establishing a requirement of a minimum of two hours of intensive physical training per week.
Adam took five two-hour sessions a week in the 1.1G room, plus a half-hour warmup and cooldown on either side in 1G. The result was that her skinny boyfriend was rapidly becoming her otter-fit, toned and gorgeous boyfriend.
It made the thought that she was living with him a difficult one. Ava was a “not before marriage” type in principle—she’d promised as much to her parents, and especially wasn’t about to break that promise now that they were in Heaven. But they lived together, unsupervised, and the whole colony gave the impression that they would have been surprised and a little put out to learn that she and he weren’t having sex.
As far as she was concerned, however much they’d been through together, sixteen was still too young. She didn’t care if Folctha had inherited Britain’s very…European laws in that area, it felt wrong to her. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to, but…
Lots of things had felt wrong to her lately. The whole world had turned out to be wrong in so many ways that every day had become a temptation to just let go and go with it. But…here they were. The air was cool, the water was crystal clear and apparently surprisingly warm, and they had barely arrived before Sara had vanished into it in a skinny flesh-toned blur, leaving her clothes on the beach, followed equally shamelessly by her little brother and two of their school friends.
It was all so weird. Especially when Adam just met her gaze, laughed sheepishly, shrugged, and pulled his own shirt over his head. Guilty or not, she’d had to admire his body as he had shed his jeans and run into the water, laughing nervously.
She’d tried to follow them. She really had. She’d tried to let go like she’d said she would. But every time she tried to will her hands to her T-shirt or her jeans waistband, they’d clenched into fists and retreated on a tide of nausea.
It was so stupid! She knew it. She knew it, on a deep and visceral level, that the problem was all her own making, she could see right there in the water the evidence that she was being ridiculous. But still she lingered on the bank, hugging her knees and quietly going desperate and neurotic from the absurd shame that she was the only one wearing clothes.
Eventually she couldn’t take it any more. She stood up and slipped away into the woods. It was quiet back there, somewhere she could get some alone time and process her feelings.
On a whim, she plucked a shoot from a nearby bush, stuck it in her mouth and, after a moment to take note of where she was, strolled deeper into the sunlit glades and wooded halls of an alien forest.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 5d AV
HMS Caledonia, approaching the Gorai system.
Captain Rajesh Bathini
“Signal from the lead patrol vessel, captain. Translates to ‘Unidentified vessel, you are approaching the sovereign territory of the Clans of Gao. You will halt before crossing the border or be met with deadly force. Comply immediately’.“
Bathini nodded, the picture of calm as he settled his cup of tea back in its saucer. “All stop.”
“Aye aye. All stop!”
“All stop.” the helmsman repeated, obeying instantly.
There was no visible change in the outside view. They had already dropped from the huge apparent velocities of interstellar travel to a much slower, much noisier approach that the Gaoian military couldn’t possibly have failed to notice. The stars had not visibly been moving for nearly ten minutes now. As they dropped to a sublight velocity, the most that anybody inside Caledonia’s bridge could detect was a faint lurch.
From the outside, as the Gaoian vessels came to a halt around them, the deceleration was so much more visibly violent. It wasn’t so much that the ships arrived as that they appeared, their incomprehensible “speed”—a term that wasn’t really applicable to the way that warp drives worked, but sufficed in the absence of an alternative—only hinted at by an eyeblink’s worth of motion blur before the ships were just there, solid and drifting as if they had never been anywhere else.
He admired their tactics. While it clearly betrayed that they were ignorant of Caledonia’s blink-jump tactics, the configuration was excellent, placing all three ships in a position so that, no matter which vector Caledonia might accelerate along, a minimum of two of the Gaoian craft would have a firing solution on her, and one that made sure that no allied craft was in danger of being hit by stray fire. An unlikely event when you were talking about distances of hundreds of kilometers, but still a sensible precaution.
Odyssey and Edda had both stopped at a rendezvous point two parsecs out, and were on a hair trigger to jump in via wormhole if summoned. While Caledonia’s own systems were only on about sixty percent charge, needing only five percent to effect an immediate retreat to Cimbrean, theirs would be fully charged by now, primed and ready to fight as hard as humanly possible in the event that it became necessary.
Bathini was resolved that under no circumstances would it be necessary. The very last thing they needed now was to disgruntle a potential ally.
“Best behaviour, people. I don’t want a peep of activity out of anything that might even smell like a weapon on their sensors.” he said.
“Signal from the lead ship, captain. It reads ‘Identify yourselves’.”
“I’ve wanted to say this for a long time.” He confided, standing up. “On screen.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 5d AV
The Scar, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Dr. Mary Cleveland
Dr. Mary Cleveland had come to Cimbrean for the simple reason that it opened up a hitherto unexplored field of science: Xenomycology. The study of alien fungi, or at least of alien life forms that were functionally very similar to fungi.
Persuading her husband Colin to join her and become the human race’s first xenobacteriologist in the field had been as simple as suggesting it.
Both of them were of course trained in the proper use of protective clothing, to isolate themselves from their samples, but she had only imagined ever to need it in the lab, to prevent contamination of the sample. Protecting herself from a potential threat had never really been considered before. This was supposed to be a Class Four planet.
That had been before they saw the “mark” up close.
What had looked like a thin brown line in the satellite photo had turned out to a comprehension-defyingly large swathe of forest. From the shuttle, it stretched horizon to horizon in one direction, and filled half the world below in the other, flanked with sickly yellows, whites and blacks. The brown was…was death.
Trees had fallen, and nothing was growing to replace them. Streams were choked with scum and froth. They circled over one abscessous hole in the forest where even the fallen trees were gone, and inside it, Mary could see the skeleton of some native beast the size of a horse, and already it looked…incomplete.
“This shuttle’s sensors are next to useless.” the pilot reported. “but it’s good for atmospheric composition. Have a look at this..”
The scientists crowded round, leaving poor Mary stuck in the back, too short to see the display.
“Hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide…Putrescine…”
“Bloody hell. Now I’m glad we’re wearing the suits.” somebody commented. “It must smell like shit out there.”
“Lovely…” the pilot muttered. “Guess I’m in for a treat when that ramp comes down.”
“Is there anywhere to set down upwind of the…area?”
”…Close enough. You mind walking a half mile or so?”
The consensus was that they didn’t, so the shuttle spun down to drop its passengers off on a rock that lunged up from among the trees, forming the point of a gentle slope down into the forest. Aside from a slightly intimidating dash down the ramp onto solid ground, it was an easy walk.
Down among the foliage, the damage was alarming. They were a good kilometer ahead of the apparent border of the damage that was visible from the air, but it was immediately obvious that the true leading edge of this landscape-eating sickness was far ahead of the yellowing and death. Every surface of every living thing was squalid with wet orange and off-white spots. The light filtering through the canopy borrowed a wretched hue from the infection, leaving the whole science team feeling filthy even inside their suits.
“Bacterial growths, Colin?”
Colin nodded, rubbing a leaf between two gloved fingers. It disintegrated. “They could well be. Grab a sample, I’ll try and culture them back at Folctha.”
“Those on the other hand.” Mary said as the man with the sample bag produced a sterile tube and swab and set about collecting samples “are definitely fungal.”
She was referring to a mat of white fibers that had completely overrun one limb of a nearby tree.
“Don’t go near that.” Doctor Stevenson warned her, as she started to approach. When she turned and looked to him for an explanation, he dug a rock out of the soil and threw it at the branch. It cracked and a quarter-tonne of wood sagged on the trunk before crashing down.
Everyone on the team carefully stepped away from any overhanging limbs.
Samples gathered, they pressed onwards, and with each tree things seemed to get worse, but none of them were quite prepared for the abrupt change.
There was practically a line on the ground where living-but-infected plants gave way to dead, decomposing wreckage. In fact, there was a line, a meandering one as wide as a human forearm was long, and the colour of pus. Samples were gathered from that and from either side of it, and the air was captured for later analysis. A stream—presumably once bubbling and pretty but now more closely resembling the contents of a sewer, was likewise sampled, as was the putrefying carcass of another horse-sized animal.
Past that point, the damage almost seemed to play in a perverse kind of reverse. It wasn’t that there was anything alive and healthy beyond the wave edge of the disease, but the ground stopped slipping and squelching underfoot, the air became less heavy with spores and foulness. Eventually they reached the denuded heart of the scar, and found only bare soil, already starting to form a channel where the nightly rains were washing it away.
They sampled everything. Finally, as the sun was starting to set, they regrouped, and the important question was asked.
Mary looked around, at the rot, at the destruction, at the death, and at the river which was carrying the foulness who-knew how far away.
“Well…so much for Cimbrean.” she said.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 5d AV
Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
The cold light of flashlight between the trees, the sound of a voice she loved on the edge of fear.
It should have bothered her.
“AVA!!!“An older voice, a dear one. She loved him too.
She loved everyone! But especially Adam and Gabriel.
“Oh, hey Sara.”
“Ava? Ava what’s up?”
The expression of worry on her face was kind of funny. Her own low and happy laughter sounded creepy even to Ava herself, and that just made her laugh more. “Oh, I’m great, I’m fiiine.” she promised. This didn’t seem to reassure Sara, which made her laugh again.
Crackling and snapping in the bushes, more cold unnatural light.
“Adam, baby! You wanna get married?”
“What…Ava, are you drunk?”
“Didn’t drink nothing, no sir.” she giggled.
“More like high.”
“Gabriel! Daddee-heehee!” she sang the word as it turned into another giggle. “I’m so lucky, two daddies in one lifetime. I’m a lucky girl.”
She didn’t understand the strange glances they exchanged. That was funny, but she was already giggling, so there wasn’t room for more.
“Come on Ava, let’s get you back to Folctha.”
“Ah come on, let’s go swimming again! I didn’t get to earlier. Look, I brought my swimsuit!”
“For Christ’s sake girl, put that back on!”
“Take it off, put it on, make up your mind!”
“Dad, I’ll…handle her. You’d better figure out what did this.”
“Aww, no handle…Adaaaam….”
She didn’t really fight him. She was too…tired.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 5d AV
HMS Caledonia, near the Gorai System
Captain Rajesh Bathini
Gaoian really did sound very much like Chinese. Not in the specific sounds, but in the general cadence and flow of the language, the way it sounded to a native English-speaker’s ear.
Having Gyotin on the bridge to take over the negotiations had proven to be the right choice. For all their supposed positive attitude towards humanity, it had been known for years that Gaoian politics was completely fractured, and unless you were speaking to a female, you had no direct line to anything resembling a unified government. Evidently, there were factions within the military who regarded the “deathworlders” as a serious threat even in the face of the most overt peaceful overtures that Bathini could muster.
Not so different from home then, really. If the Gaoian language reminded him of the Chinese, then so too did their commander’s attitude.
“Fleetmaster” he interjected, using the title that the translator and Gyotin both had given. “It was my understanding that our species have, so far in these past short years, enjoyed a good relationship. I don’t see why I would want to break that trust now, nor why…or even how we would do so like this.”
“It is thanks to your species that Hunter attacks on our outposts and shipping have increased.” the snow-muzzled, aging Fleetmaster snapped at him. “I am tasked with safeguarding my people from all threats, and collaboration with your species seems to me to be a certain invitation to further retribution from those monsters.”
‘We are going to have to do something about that bad image’ Bathini thought to himself, as he picked his next words carefully.
“The Hunters have failed against the humans almost every time.” Gyotin said, before Bathini could finish assembling a sentence. “If your motive is fear, old Father, then these here are the species to be more afraid of.”
He showed his teeth, which was apparently not a friendly gesture in Gaoian body language. “Not to mention the ones less likely to eat you.” he added.
“Trying to intimidate me on their behalf, pup?” the fleetmaster snarled, but he didn’t fool Bathini. Gyotin had scored a hit, even the old Gaoian wasn’t quite wiley enough to hide it.
“Am I? I don’t find facts very intimidating, whitesnout.” Gyotin retorted, calmly matching the insult with one of his own.
“How dare-!” the fleetmaster began to object. Gyotin actually leapt forward and made a furous yipping noise toward his senior’s projection.
“Senile! Blind!” he snapped. “So afraid of today that he’ll quiver under a rock to save his hide and let cubs die tomorrow!”
Bathini leaned forward to whisper in his Gaoian’s pointed ear. “Gyotin, are you sure this is…?” he began, but he could see glances in the background behind the fleetmaster.
As abruptly as it had begun, the conversation ended as the furious Father cut the link.
The tension of the ensuing pause lasted two whole cups of tea before finally a hail from the lead Gaoian ship came through.
This time, the figure on screen was a different Gaoian, obviously junior to the fleetmaster, but not by much. Of the fleetmaster himself, there was no sign.
“Caledonia, you have permission to enter the Gorai system under our escort.” he declared. “Do not deviate from your assigned path or power your weapons or shields.”
Bathini raised an eyebrow at Gyotin who, alien body language be damned, was obviously feeling very pleased with himself.
“We understand and obey.” he replied, calmly. “Thank you.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 6d AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Okay, thanks for coming, we’re sorry for the short notice of this Thing, but this is important.”
Gabriel Arés stood up and held up the unadorned Aluminium rod that marked him as the speaker for now, both it and the silver shield badge of the colonial police on his jacket shone in the blue morning sunlight.
“First, as you’ve all probably heard, I can confirm that one of the children was evacuated back to Earth last night with a case of poisoning.” He began. “We’ve just received word from Scotch Creek that she’s made a full recovery, and while they plan on keeping her under observation for safety’s sake over the next couple of days, she should be returning with the next group of colonists.”
There was a general relieved sigh and some muttering. Ava was popular, especially among the regulars at the Faith Center. Concern had been flickering around Folctha like lightning in a mountain storm all morning. Gabriel held up the speaker’s stick a little higher to quiet them down.
“We’ve identified the plant that poisoned her. Cimbreaner Simiscamellia Delanii, the Cimbrean Tea plant. The young shoots seem to have a potent drug effect when chewed raw. We need to know if anybody else has been using these plants recreationally.”
Chatter erupted, and Gabriel banged his walking stick down a few times to restore silence. “I want to make it perfectly clear that nobody is in trouble.” he raised his voice. “The matter of whether or not we should be treating that tea as an illegal narcotic is a subject for a future Thing, but for now we need to know if anybody’s been using it to get high so we can make sure they’ve not harmed their liver function or anything.”
After a little more chatter, a handful of people stepped forward. The Tisdales, he was unsurprised to note, were among them.
“Right. Sorry folks, but you’re all going back to Earth for a day or two. We don’t have the facilities here to properly test or treat you. Hayley, Mark, your kids can go with you, or they can sleep round my place.”
The Thing cleared up rapidly after that. The Tisdales agreed to let Sara and Jack stay with Gabriel, there were a few questions which Gabriel deftly put off until next time, before finally retiring to let the colony finish discussing it on their own while he retired to his office.
In privacy, he ran his hands through his hair and swore softly. It was still hard to believe that Ava, of all people, had been so stupid.
He was beginning to doubt his own parenting decisions.
Date Point: 4y 8m 2w 6d AV
The Grand Conclave, Hunter Space
Alpha of the Brood-That-Builds
The Alpha of the Brood-That-Builds could feel its maw watering.
To be a Hunter was to Hunt. The need for it was programmed into their genetic essence, playing even a critical role in their reproduction. A Hunter was only fertile within the few days after a successful hunt, at which point, if so ordered by its Alpha, it might go into a reproductive trance and willingly enter the spawning pools.
There, it’s own young would devour it from within. Small and agile little swimmers with little to their name but sharp teeth would burst in a bloody froth from the disintegrating corpse of their parent, leaving only clean bones and cybernetics to sink to the bottom of the pool.
Over the coming months, live prey-slaves would periodically be thrown in, to be ripped apart in a feeding frenzy by the increasingly mature Hunter young, until they were finally developed enough to haul themselves out of the pool and be escorted away to receive their first implants and join the ranks, to have knowledge and skills force-fed into their brains via cybernetic data shunts, joining the brood of their parent.
The exception were the Brood-That-Builds.
Where a “normal” hunter’s eyes were solid black or red, those of the Brood-That-Builds were identifiable from the moment they clambered from the spawning waters by their green eyes with the distinctive zig-zap pupils. They held themselves slightly differently, their craniums were that little bit larger, their natural claws absent, their endoskeletal structure that little bit better suited for heavy lifting and carrying than for combat.
They were the largest Brood by dint of being swelled by the breeding of every other Brood, as well as their own spawnings, but to the Brood-That-Builds, a successful hunt was something very different.
To them, an engineer’s obsession with problem-solving was as natural as breath and feeding. In their instincts, “prey” was an outstanding unresolved technical challenge, and the “hunt” was a solution to that challenge. To the Brood-That-Builds, installing an ingenious sewerage system was on par with raiding a prey-freighter. Deploying an orbiting array of energy collectors to within millimeter tolerances was rewarded with an ecstasy that other Hunters could only find in the flesh of Humans.
And now, this! The prey of a lifetime, actual sensor records of a Human starship in action, fighting in ways that defied immediate comprehension. A quarry without compare!
The Alpha knew that if it succeeded at this task, it would have to spawn afterwards. The urge would be far too powerful, the pheromones and hormones of its deadly birthing would produce strong Hunters, the finest minds ever seen by the Brood-That-Builds. It relished and anticipated the thought.
The Alpha-of-Alphas was in an indulgent mood, but there were limits.
The Alpha Builder cowered as the Alpha-of-Alphas rose from its Vulza-skull throne and spread its cybernetic claws.
The Alpha-of-Alphas paused as the Alpha Builder scurried away.
The Alpha Builder swallowed, a subconscious gesture that, unbeknownst to either species, exactly mirrored its meaning in humans.
Suddenly, this new prey seemed so much less exciting to it.
Date Point: 4y 8m 3w AV
Austin, Texas. United States of America, Earth.
“Uh…hey. Is, uh, Moira home?”
The man in the door looked him up and down. “If your name’s Kevin” he decided “She ain’t.”
Kevin sighed, and nodded gently. “It is, yeah.”
Anger flashed in the other man’s eyes. “In that case pal, your restraining order-”
“I’ve got this, baby.”
Moira kissed the man in the door on the cheek, and after a quick check to make sure she was certain, he retreated inside. Moira leaned on the door frame.
“He’s right. That restraining order ain’t gone away.” She said.
“Why are you here, Kevin? I thought you were going to leave us in peace.”
“I thought…I was hoping maybe I could try and un-fuckup one thing.” Kevin said.
“What, you’re here to apologise?”
Kevin shook his head. “You and I both know there’s not enough sorry in the world, Moira. Not after what I…” the sentence trailed off. Even know, in the act of cleansing himself, he couldn’t bear to repeat what his own irresponsibility had done to Callie.
“You’re fucking right.” she snarled, advancing out of the house. “She’s inside. God willing, even if she looks out here, she won’t remember who you are. How dare you come here?!”
“I’m not staying.” he reassured. “Just…I know I can’t see her, Moira, but I have to apologise to her.”
“You’re not seeing her!”
“I know,” Kevin repeated. “Look…I’ve got this letter. You read it, you decide whether to give it to her. You can burn it if you want, but I can’t leave without at least trying.”
“Leave?” she asked suspiciously, snatching the letter from his hand. “You came back just to leave again?”
“Earth. I’m leaving Earth. I got a job with the Byron Group, on one of their exploration ships, and I’m leaving. Forever.”
Date Point: 4y 8m 3w AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches.
Dr. Mary Cleveland
”…Peptostreptococcus magnus…that’s definitely E. coli, no two ways about it…and…yep, I’d bet my life on it, that’s Enterococcus faecium. Well, that clinches it.”
Governor Sandy was no scientist, but he was a highly educated, highly literate man. “Faecium? As in, faeces.” he said.
“Oh yes. These are all Terran species of bacteria, every one of them native to the human gastrointestinal tract.” Dr. Cleveland said, still examining the images being produced by the electron microscope.
“As are the fungi we recovered.” his wife added.
Coin nodded “It’s…aside from the scale, it’s a pretty classic cross-section of the kind of flora you’d find in an ordinary, healthy bowel movement.”
Sandy grimaced, and pinched his nose. “Delaney.” he said.
“Must be. The scar describes pretty much perfectly the direct route from the site of her escape pod to here. If we assume one comfort break a day or so…”
“Even one would have done it.” Mary said. “You can’t blame her, governor.”
“I don’t.” He reassured her. “Is there anything we can do?”
Mary sighed. “I suspect something like this would have eventually happened anyway.” she said. “In the absence of any bacterivores or immune systems capable of keeping them in check, the bacteria and fungi are feasting and reproducing as fast as they possibly can. Deathworld microbes, loose in an ecosystem that simply can’t cope. This was never not going to happen, from the moment a human first landed here.”
Sir Jeremy listened to her patiently. “I thought the disease suppression implants…?” he said.
“Those rid us of a whole raft of communicable diseases based on the case of one human who managed to infect a whole ship full of vizkittiks. They’re actually targeted at a fairly short list of bugs.” Colin shook his head. “They ignore our gut microbiome by design: If they completely sterilized the human digestive tract, it’d probably kill us.”
Sir Jeremy made an exasperated noise. “Bloody….sloppy half-baked alien solutions.” he cursed. “Very well. Is there any way we can stop this thing?”
Wendy shook her head and gave him the hard truth. “Almost certainly not, now that it’s so advanced.” she said, apologetically. “I’m sorry, Sir Jeremy, but all of our noble goals toward conserving the ecology of this planet were doomed before we even got here.”
Coming from a man who was not known to swear, this prompted a round of sympathetic nodding. Sir Jeremy had been passionate from the word go about preserving Cimbrean’s native life, and certainly nobody in the colony disagreed with him on that endeavour.
He wiped away a futile tear. “Fine. is there anything we CAN do?”
Colin and Mary exchanged glances. “This…the death of a whole planetary biosphere isn’t exactly our field.” Colin demurred.
“Is it anybody’s?”
“I suppose not.” Colin frowned, thinking.
“The knock-on consequences are total.” Mary said. “No plants means no oxygen. So, we’re on borrowed time now before Cimbrean ceases to be an inhabitable planet.”
Good husband that he was, Colin was on the same wavelength instantly. “And if there’s nothing we can do to stop them from dying, then the only option is to replace them.”
“And the only readily available plants which could survive in soil contaminated with Terran microorganisms would be…well, Terran ones.” Wendy finished.
“You’re proposing a…what, an ecosystem transplant? That sounds like an impossibly large task.”
“Vast.” Colin agreed. “But it’s either that or abandon this planet and watch it die.”
“We’d need to bring in…everything.” Mary said. “Trees, grass, bushes, bees, birds, insects, rodents, birds, fungi, algae, fish, everything all the way up to apex predators.”
“Impossible, surely?” Sir Jeremy protested. “Replacing the ecosystem of an entire planet, that’s…far too large a task.”
“But we don’t need to replace it across the whole planet at first.” Colin pointed out. “If the aliens are right about Deathworld species, and the evidence of this bacterial event suggests that they are…”
Mary nodded “…then we only need to introduce the immigrant species along the length of the scar. They might even help to contain the infection and slow it, if we introduced things in the right order.”
Colin nodded. “Of course, the Terran species would ultimately out-compete and supplant the natives, but if we’re very lucky, a few mutant strains might make it through the mass extinction events and we’d still have a few Cimbrean natives for posterity.”
“Is that feasible?”
The Clevelands looked at each other, back to him and, simultaneously, they shrugged. “We’re not remotely qualified to plan more than a tiny part of that process.” Mary said.
“It’s the precise opposite of what I came to Cimbrean to achieve.” Sir Jeremy objected, though it was at best a defeated token objection rather than a serious dissent.
“She’s already terminally ill.” Colin replied. “She either becomes barren and uninhabitable, or we terraform her. Those are the only options I can see.” He glanced at Mary, who nodded her agreement.
Sir Jeremy sat down, took off his glasses and cleaned them on his tie. “Is this likely to happen wherever we go?” he asked.
“Well…” Colin cleared his throat. His expression confirmed that the answer was an affirmative, and that he really didn’t want to say it.
Wendy finished for him. “They do call us ‘deathworlders’.” She said, and pointed at Firebird’s image of the Scar as the governor put his glasses back on.
“Well…There’s the proof.”