Chapter 23: Back Down to Earth
Date Point: 10y2m2w AV HMS Caledonia, Deep Space
“He’s a fucking ninja, but he never watches his surroundings properly; too focused on the goal. Claymore, tripwire, something like that. Force him back into it with a couple of Aggressors, or maybe lure him into it by being a tempting target.”
“Makes sense… What about you, Vandenberg?”
“Me? I wouldn’t last two seconds in CQB against an Aggressor. And hey, that way they could maybe live-capture me, get the implants out again.”
“Just what the hell are you boys talking about?”
The five of them turned. “Hey Kovač.” Adam smiled at her. The diminutive blonde NCO in charge of biomechanics and EVA system life support gave him a friendly wave, though her attention was on her tablet.
“pH balance check and last QA, guys.” she announced. “Show me your butts.”
They dutifully turned around with an assortment of chuckles, presenting the life-support packs that rode low on their back and pelvis for her to assess with her tools. “So what were you guys talking about?”
“Uh, what we’d do if one of us was biodroned.” Firth told her.
She shuddered. “Yuurgh. Just the thought of that…!”
“I know, right?” BASEBALL agreed. “Fuckin’ shoot me, if it ever happens to me.”
This sparked universal agreement. “So you’re basically having a ‘who would win in a fight?’ conversation.” Kovač noted. “Very macho. You’re good, Firth.”
“Yeah, but this way it’s practical an’ shit.” Sikes noted.
“Well, don’t let me stop you…” she assured them, after a few seconds of silence. “You’re good, Burgess.”
“Okay…” Vandenberg thought for a second. “Blaczynski?”
“He’s too cautious for an ambush. Just gotta put the pressure on, I guess. Suppress him and work round the side.” Firth noted.
“Okay… WARHORSE then.”
Kovač giggled. “Sniper round. From long range.” she suggested. “You’re good, REBAR.”
Everyone nodded, muttering variations on the theme of “Oh yeah.”
“Hey!” Adam objected.
“No, she’s right dude. No way I’m confronting your ass up close.”
“Yeah, but, dude-”
“From extreme long range.” Vandenberg added.
“Come on, I’m not an aggressor!”
“Take it for the compliment it is and move on, brother.” BASEBALL suggested.
“Gee, thanks…” Adam rolled his eyes.
“Shame to ruin that face, though.” Kovač teased. “You’re good, Arés.”
“Same goes for you, Base.” Vandenberg said. “Get some JETS guy to do it from a thousand yards.”
“Damn straight!” Burgess agreed, and exchanged a fist bump with him.
”…What about the Major?” Firth asked.
“Major Powell?” Adam asked, still trying to ignore the comment about his face. Kovač had a knack for making his ears go red, though right now they were mercifully hidden under the collar and neck sheath of his EV-MASS.
“What other fuckin’ Major am I gonna be talkin’ about, dumbass?”
“You’re good, Sikes.”
“Airstrike.” Sikes said.
“What?” Adam asked
“Airstrike.” Sikes repeated.
“Dude, come on, yeah he’s a fuckin’ badass but he’s not THAT-”
“Nah bro.” BASEBALL interrupted. “It’s not about him being too scary, though he fuckin’ is. It’s about giving him a proper sendoff.”
”…you’re right.” Adam agreed. “He’d deserve nothing less.”
“Nuke the site from orbit.” Firth nodded.
“It’s the only way to be sure.” Kovač finished for him. “Helmets and masks on, boys.”
They scooped the helmets up and put them on, pushing them down firmly until they engaged with the rigid component of the seal at the back of the skull with a sharp clack! The mask locked into place along the jawbone and mated with the suit’s air supply and to the helmet with similar mechanical solidity. The flexible rubber seal that did the rest of the work of keeping their faces protected from vacuum slid together easily and automatically.
Kovač tugged the roll of duct tape she’d been wearing as a bracelet off her wrist. “Seal check!” she announced.
This was a simple ritual—each man carefully examined the seal of the man beside him and announced it was good with a ringing slap to the helmet. Kovač then double-checked for him and then applied some tape over the seal for good measure. It probably wouldn’t actually do anything, but everyone felt better for it.
“All good!” she tapped at the large button on her tablet. “KMP check.”
The spacewalkers stood and jolted in place a bit as they used the controls on their wrists to test their Kinetic Maneuvering Packs, and another round of “Good” was called.
Adam helped the guys shrug on their equipment packages and make sure their loads were properly strapped on and distributed. That was his job specifically, backed up by BASEBALL, and he did it right. He took pride in that.
“Good.” he declared.
“That’s our checklist, you’re green-lit.” Kovač stepped back. “Over to you, Vandenberg.”
“Thanks, Kovač.” She nodded and joined the rest of the techs in heading for the airlock. REBAR, being the senior NCO, was in charge of the EVA they were doing.
“RIGHTEOUS?” he prompted.
Firth nodded, and touched the side of his helmet. “CIC, RIGHTEOUS, we’re green-lit for EVA.”
The reply came back in a few seconds. “RIGHTEOUS, Caledonia CIC, we have you ready. Condition Amber.”
“Condition Amber!” Firth called. “Clear the deck!”
One of the techs by the airlock echoed the call - “Clear the deck!” and they filed out. Once it had cycled and the light above it indicated full seal, Firth nodded to the guys, they exchanged fist-bumps, and he touched his helmet again. “CIC, RIGHTEOUS, go for doors. I say again, we’re go for doors.”
The acknowledgement was lost as a siren hooted five times—giving plenty of warning to anyone who might need to dash to hit the emergency button—and then the gravity went away. So did the air, brushed to the corners of the room and held in place by a forcefield that swept the deck empty. They all glanced at one another, checking for any signs of distress. Everyone’s suit was working fine, and they watched the huge flight deck doors push outwards and then split into two halves, which both swung aside.
Naked stars yawned at Adam from incomprehensibly far away, somehow made to feel close and dangerous by the fact that literally nothing separated him from them save distance and his EV-MASS. All he could hear was the faint muffled sound of his own heart, his own digestion, and the rush of air into and out of his mask past his ears.
“CIC, RIGHTEOUS. Commencing spacewalk.”
“RIGHTEOUS, Caledonia CIC: have fun.”
“Man, we have got to get some sound or music or something in this shit.” BASEBALL commented. “Vacuum’s too quiet.”
“I hear ya… There’s our box.” Firth agreed. Adam’s HUD filled with a flight waypoint and instructions on how much thrust to give himself, which he followed to the letter. Firth knew best when it came to EVA navigation.
Caledonia threw a spotlight on their target as they got close to it—a round vehicle, the proportionate shape of a hockey puck but twenty feet across and bright blue, covered in alien labels and script. One standard type three Dominion life raft. Without the light, both it and the bulk of their mothership would have been damn near invisible. The human eye had never really been designed for the lighting conditions in interstellar space, some light years from the nearest star. In fact, aside from the spotlight and the blinking beacon atop the liferaft, the nearest and brightest point of light was the gravity spike that Caledonia had deployed to catch the tiny craft so that it could be brought aboard.
They swung into place. As Firth set up shop notionally “above” the life raft to keep an eye on its velocity relative to Caledonia, Adam went with Sikes and Burgess joined Vandenberg in approaching antipodal spots on the rim of the little craft, where the two Defenders set to work welding larger versions of their suits’ KMPs to it while the Protectors held them in place.
It didn’t take long before REBAR reported “Done.” prompting a quiet cuss from Sikes.
“Done. I owe you fifty.”
“Damn right you do. RIGHTEOUS, over to you.”
The five of them settled on the life raft and held on as Firth took over piloting it into Caledonia’s waiting flight deck.
As they crossed the threshold, Firth made a satisfied noise over the comms. “Okay, Caledonia CIC, RIGHTEOUS, we’re in the bay, close the doors. WARHORSE, you may as well wake ‘em up.”
Adam gave him a clear thumbs up and used the computer on the inside of his wrist to connect to the life raft’s comms, a process which automatically shut down the stasis field within.
“Hello in there.” he announced. “You’re being rescued by the United States Air Force.”
They’d gone over that one a few times, how to begin that introduction. In the end, they’d decided that any humans in such a life raft would probably have been in there for long enough to not know who the SOR was, and aliens wouldn’t know the difference anyway. And, seeing as Adam himself was still after all a pararescueman…
“Before we pop the hatch,” he continued “we just want to warn you guys that we”re humans from Earth, so if there”s any special precautions you need us to take to protect you from harm, you let us know.”
A male voice answered in definite untranslated English as the doors finished closing behind them, though there was a rough edge to it, like he had a throat infection or something. “No need, pal. We’re American.”
Adam grinned inside his mask when he heard a feminine exclamation of disapproval in the background, and the male voice clarified. “Alright, two Americans and one Canadian.”
“Three humans?” he broadcast an all channels, and the guys all held up a fist in celebration. “Jackpot! Y’all okay in there?”
“Three cases of recent vacuum exposure. We really need a doctor, fella.”
Adam waved at BASEBALL, who gave him a thumbs up. “Copy that. Sit tight folks, we’ll have you out of there in a minute.”
He switched his broadcast channel. “Caledonia medical, WARHORSE, do you copy?”
“WARHORSE, Caledonia medical, loud and clear.”
“Life raft contains three human wounded, zero Echo-Tangoes. Three cases of recent vacuum decompression, probable pulmonary edema, ebullism and DCS, possible pleural effusion. BASEBALL and I will triage, ventilation on standby please.”
“SOR, stand by for lunar gravity…” Adam swung himself out from the liferaft to arm’s length, and together they fell gently onto the deck at one-sixth of a G. Pressure returned with a thump, and as soon as the raft was down on the deck and safe, the gravity ramped up to one G.
Two lights over the main flight deck doors turned green. “Two on the board.” Firth announced, no longer needing the radio. “REBAR, we’re good to break seal.”
“Clear to break seals.” Vandenberg acknowledged. “Get ‘em off, guys.”
Adam got his helmet off as fast as he could, and hit the door release even as the first of Caledonia’s medical staff came squeezing through the airlock onto the flight deck with trolleys and life support equipment.
The occupants were in a bad way. The fit-looking tanned dude in the back had badly bloodshot eyes but seemed to be breathing fine. The whipcord athletic blonde woman to his right was coughing pink froth, but most worrying of all was the young asian woman in the front. She was barely moving, and he could see clear signs of shock.
“Shit, you guys weren’t kidding about the medical attention.” he said, and hauled himself in with them.
“You should see the other guy.” the blonde told him.
“Hah! Bueno.” He turned back out the door, using the excuse of talking to the people outside to cover prepping a dose of anaesthetic—the Chinese girl was going to need to go on life support immediately, and for that she needed to be asleep.
Not for the first time, he wished that they were authorised to use Crue-D for first aid. “Base, get the blonde patient, she looks oedemic.” he instructed. “REBAR, I’ma need that board there.” Vandenberg nodded and stepped smartly to retrieving it, so he returned his attention to the Chinese girl.
“Hey, can you try and grip my hand for me?” he asked her. Though she was able to raise her hand and sort of grip, there was nothing there in terms of strength, but she was so focused on the task it was simplicity itself to give her the shot with his other hand. She didn’t seem to notice.
“Okay, that’s fine.” He accepted the board from Vandenberg. “I’m just gonna get this board under you and we’ll get you taken care of, alright?”
She nodded weakly as he manoeuvred her gently onto it and he realised she hadn’t actually spoke yet. “What’s your name?”
“Uh…” she frowned. Apparently the anaesthetic was kicking in. “I”m…Xiù. Xiù Chang.”
Adam didn’t allow his surprise to show. Of all the people he could have pulled out of a life raft, he’d found Regaari’s friend? Besides, her breathing was definitely too labored for comfort. There was fluid on her lungs, and that needed to be gone sooner rather than later. Surprising coincidences could be handled later.
“Nice to meet you, Xiù.” he told her, as he lifted her easily down from the life raft and onto the waiting trolley.
“A-a-and you?” She was definitely falling asleep now. “Uh… what’s your name?”
He took her hand, comfortingly. “I’m Adam. Staff sergeant Adam Arés, USAF Pararescue.” he replied.
He was pretty sure she was asleep by the end of the sentence.
“Right… let’s get that chest drain in.” he told the medics.
Date Point 10y2m2w AV The Arabian Sea, Earth.
It would have been easy to lose track of the MV Nasarpur without care and attention to detail. The ship was not large, and its running lights were just one of many visible across the open leagues of calm sea. Perfect sailing weather.
If there was one thing a biodrone was extremely good at, however, it was sustained attention to detail. The human it had once been could never have summoned the willpower or focus to stare at one target for hours on end, blinking only when biology demanded it. He would have shivered, or grown bored or sought conversation. He would have stretched his legs, or relieved the insistent pressure in his bladder.
Insofar as biodrones could be said to have desires of their own, it might have wished to receive an order to stretch its legs, or urinate. No such order was forthcoming, and until a Controller deigned to pay it any attention, no such order would be forthcoming. All that it had, therefore, was the data provided to it by the ghost of a personality, lacking anything functionally resembling willpower or agency. That ghost was interrogated often, when the biodrone was required to blend in. Had it been striving to blend in, the biodrone would have used that information to justify stretching its legs and urinating.
But it had received no order to blend in. And so it did not.
The order it had received was to watch the ship they were approaching. And so it did. No provision had been made for it to hand off this duty to another biodrone so that it could stretch its legs or urinate, and so it did not.
The Controllers had not left it with the autonomy to make these decisions for itself, and this was wise of them: If they had, the ghost of its personality would have responded to what had happened to him in the only sane way: it would have screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
The MV Nasarpur was mercifully close. Soon, a Controller would make contact and issue an order to prepare for combat.
Insofar as the biodrone was capable of looking forward to something, it was looking forward to that order. Urinating had a clear logical role to play in battle preparations. Relief was only one legitimately interpreted order away, and that order was imminent.
Until then, it watched the MV Nasarpur.
There were ten of them, biodrone bodies collected from around the geopolitical region collectively known as “Middle East”. The concept of being in the middle of the direction of prograde was nonsense, but the biodrone was not granted the autonomy to ponder that absurdity.
Many more biodrones had been assembled from all across this irrationally named region, but the ten in this boat were all, for lack of a term that more accurately and satisfactorily encompassed them, soldiers. Fighters, perhaps—men whose lives had left them proficient in the use of weaponry, though each for very different reasons. One or two were soldiers indeed, the volunteer agents of a legitimate state’s legal monopoly on controlled violence. Others had first raised a gun to protect themselves and their families, and never found an opportunity to put it back down. The rest had taken up arms for religious reasons that the drone’s programming simply was not equipped to understand, even if it had been granted leave to try.
The order came and the biodrone rushed to obey over the side of the boat, which took a good minute or two. Parameters flooded in as it did so—data about the layout of the target ship, how many men were on board, their armament and training, their exact locations, the location of the cargo they were protecting.
The drones conferred, bypassing crude language to form a network which evaluated the unique skills each one had inherited from the human it had once been and liaised this information back to a central Controller, which ran a rapid-fire of thousands of different simulations based on their suggestions, keeping the most successful, permutating upon them, combining them, throwing raw processing power at them until it had arrived at the most effective approach which carried a maximal probability of satisfying all mission objectives.
That approach hinged upon two simple truths. The first was that their vehicle was invisible to the radar of the ships trailing MV Nasarpur at a discreet distance, and produced almost no audible noise—certainly not any that would be heard over MV Nasarpur’s own engines.
The second was that biodrones were expendable.
Everything was timed down to the second. Their boat pulled up alongside the Nasarpur, and three of the biodrones boarded her, using grapples, rope ascenders and a muscular boost from their fellows to scale the merchant vessel’s curving flank. Three more were delivered a little further forward, and the last four boarded the ship at its nose.
Or tried to. One of the biodrones turned out to have had a higher estimation of its abilities in life than was actually warranted, and plunged into the water, never to resurface. None of the others paid any attention beyond adjusting their plan of attack to account for the loss.
The drone that had needed to urinate was among the three that reached the deck at the prow. Theirs was simultaneously the most important part of the raid, and also the easiest - they were tasked with disrupting the ship’s ability to call for help. This had to be done first, and it had to be done silently.
It involved ghosting up three flights of stairs to a mid-level door on the ship’s forward tower. An unfortunate crewman was stabbed before he had even finished turning to see who was opening it.
As for the radio equipment, there were three men in that room, none of whom were alert for danger, all of whom were bored and undisciplined. Military they may have been, and trusted, but all of their careful preparations had simply never accounted for alien activity.
The third of them was dead only a second after the first, just enough time for the biodrone that entered the room first to switch aim, backed up by its fellows. The gunfire would draw attention, but instructions from the Controller, followed instantly and perfectly, meant that any attempts to radio for a report or to call for distress would meet with failure. The radio wasn’t turned off, it was simply turned wrong.
The three biodrone teams went mobile. Confused sentries on the deck gasped their last still wondering what was going on even as 7.62mm rounds ripped through them. Panicked shouting from below deck heralded the arrival of the garrison protecting the ship’s cargo, whose haste to fight back led them to blunder straight into grenade tripwire traps and ambushes.
As the Controller had planned, two of the biodrones were killed, sacrificed in distracting the defensive force long enough for their fellows to outflank and enfilade the enemy.
Another was sacrificed storming into the last knot of defenders with a brick of high explosives on a five second countdown in its arms. The few who survived its detonation were executed before they could recover their wits.
That left six biodrones, two of which were wounded. Those two were tasked with throwing their fallen counterparts overboard. The healthy four went to work with hoists, winches and trolleys, getting the loot they had come to steal up on deck.
With no human left on board who had even the mental capacity to shoot at it, the spaceship that had been trailing MV Nasarpur for hours dropped its cloak and lifted the cargo off the deck and into its hold. It remained visible for only five seconds.
The biodrones had one last task.
If it had been able to, the biodrone might have wished not to take this next step. But the Controller had given clear instructions. Obedience was inevitable. Within it, what might have been the last shred of a human being reflected that at least he would soon be released. Words that meant nothing to the Biodrone’s guiding programming drifted through its head like a passing thought, consigning the soul of its body’s former owner to Allah.
Together, the biodrones vaulted the rail and sank. The rings of white water they made when they hit were barely worthy of comment next to the disruption caused by the merchant vessel’s own wake.
Twenty minutes later, when a helicopter full of marines from PNS Zulfiquar arrived in response to a failure to make routine contact, they found only the corpses of their comrades and a worrying absence of the ship’s cargo.
Date Point 10y2m2w AV HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Hey DEXTER. Man, you are not going to believe who we just pulled off a life raft on the edge of Elder Space. Although, maybe you can guess, because you wouldn’t be interested otherwise, huh? Anyway, we found your friend Xiù!”
“You tellin’ DEXTER?” Sikes stuck his head into the tablet’s camera field of view. “Hey DEXTER!”
This prompted BASEBALL, Firth and REBAR to join in too, and Adam just grinned at the camera as they expressed a series of happy greetings to their Gaoian friend-slash-mascot, before he finally shooed them away.
“Yeah, you’ve gotta visit us sometime man. We can do, like, a joint training thing or something. Maybe see what you’ve got to teach us, like that fucking pulse-gun trick you pulled, that shit was insane!” He cleared his throat. “Anyway… yeah, we found your friend. Looks like she’s been stuck in that pod for about five years, and they had a rough time of it, but she’s alive. By the time you’ve got this they’ll probably have taken her back to Earth, but don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll be able to sort out putting you two back in touch again…”
“Uh… Yeah, give my regards to this Ayma of yours. Guess she’ll want to know too. And… yeah that’s about it. I’ll see you around, southpaw. Peace!”
He stopped the recording, and sent it without bothering to play it back. Regaari had been in touch a couple of times since Capitol Station, and Adam knew that he’d be delighted by the news.
“All done?” BASEBALL asked. Adam just grinned at him. He’d saved lives, had some good training that morning, been able to send some really good news to a friend…
“Good day.” he commented.
BASEBALL had been doing that a bit for a while now. Something was bugging him, Adam could tell, but if Base didn’t want to share, that was his business. He wasn’t about to push it. “You got anything planned?” He asked instead.
BASEBALL shrugged. “Goin’ drinking with TITAN. Dude’s not been laid since he got shot. You?”
Adam exchanged elaborate handshakes and backslaps with the other three as they left. “Ava’s friend Sean’s coming up from Earth. Apparently his uncle’s like this journalist or something, doing a bit on the Byron group, yeah? We were gonna go up the lake, go for a swim. Really looking forward to that, they only just declared it clean this week. I’ve not been up there since before I enlisted!”
”…something bothering you, bro?” Adam asked him.
BASEBALL stood awkwardly in the middle of the locker room, drumming his hands nervously on his thighs and licking his lips.
Adam stood up. “Dude… what’s wrong?”
BASEBALL apparently reached a decision. “Brother… you better sit your ass back down. I’ve got something you need to know.”
Date Point 10y2m2w AV Whitecrest Clan Enclave, city of Wi Kao, Planet Gao.
Where other officers of the Clan had busy offices full of clutter, keepsakes, mementoes and memories of jobs well done, Regaari’s was characteristically rather more Spartan. This was largely because he never used it. He was usually too busy with fieldwork.
Whitecrest was all about security on a big scale, and that meant Intelligence, information, data, and the correlations and relations between those data. Most of the most important of that data crunching went on right here in the Clan Enclave, a subtle edifice of geometric shapes clad in Takwood and greenish glass, separated from the bustle of the city of Wi Kao by a low stone wall, a decorative moat, and some well groomed parkland.
It was a fittingly prestigious and understated home for a prestigious and understated Clan, and its sprawling warrenous basements were full of officers doing vital though unglamorous work.
Regaari, as a political officer, should not have been among them. The location of his office was a relic of the Clan’s disfavour, though that had softened over the years as the Fathers responsible had retired and as Regaari’s own influence had grown. His friendship with Giymuy had done wonders for the Whitecrest breeding program, and the fact that he was now forging bonds with a Human military unit…
Several of the Fathers were worried, he suspected. A younger male with that kind of influence—and certainly one with as many cubs as Regaari had now sired—was a threat to the established order.
His immediate future was doubtless going to involve either attempted assimilation into the Clan leadership or—vastly more likely—relegation to yet another satellite position with all the appearance of prestige.
Right now, though, politics ruled the day. That was Regaari’s job, and Regaari was good at his job. Indeed, he’d become even better at it ever since discovering just how modifiable his new cybernetic hand was. Had he worn sleeves, he would literally have had some tricks up them, first and foremost of which were the petabytes of storage space and the holographic projector in his palm. His workstation was literally attached to him, available at an instant’s notice.
“Yulna’s going to win.” he declared.
Father Terrik—the elderly officer ostensibly responsible for supervising Regaari’s work, scratched at his ear with an air of scepticism. “I had thought that her attachment to the human female… just like Giymuy…?” he suggested.
”-Is much less of an issue than Mother Suri and her supporters like to believe.” Regaari informed him. “I had Brother Ruuvi conduct a meta-analysis of the datasphere commentary. Most of the females just don’t care, and of those who do the majority are broadly positive.”
Terrik inclined his head. “Positive?”
“For reasons ranging from the pragmatic to the compassionate.” Regaari elaborated. He activated the gesture-based command in his new paw that caused it to project the files in an almost physical format above his palm. With his remaining natural paw, he could select, move and even throw the files around—copying them to another device was as simple as throwing them towards said device. This he now did.
“That’s my full report.” he explained, as Terrik studied and accepted the incoming file. “It details my findings, my reasoning and my supporting evidence. Much as I like and respect Yulna, I’ve made every effort to remain neutral and unbiased in my assessment, and I am still convinced that Mother Suri has a negligible chance of being the next Mother Supreme.”
Terrik stood. “I will read it in full and present it to the Fathers.” he promised. “Your recommendation, I take it, is to side with Yulna?”
“The risk to the clan is negligible, and the potential benefits considerable.”
Terrik made a thoughtful head-duck to acknowledge Regaari’s point, and let himself out.
Regaari gave it a few minutes and toured his office. He used the time in tidying up the minimal mess and examining his few keepsakes—a crystal data wafer full of Xiù’s precious collection of Earth entertainment, one of Giymuy’s walking canes that she had bequeathed to him, and a framed picture, a gift from the SOR, depicting all of them gathered round him and beaming those big toothy deathworlder smiles. Actual pigment printed on paper—a technology so obsolete in Gaoian society that it might have been an antique or relic, and obsolete by human standards too, but this one was glossy, crisp and new.
That was enough procrastination. He headed out, locked up his office, combed a bit of stray fur back into place as he jogged down the hall, and let himself into Brother Ruuvi’s office.
Ruuvi was an ally, a genuine one. A fellow victim of clan politics whose career had been similarly holed by voicing honest concern to the wrong Father, he was even more fervently in favour of reform and a change of leadership than was Regaari. Unlike Regaari, he’d been “promoted” to leadership of the clan’s digital security and information wing—what the SOR had called “SigInt” - and, like Regaari, had taken his new role and excelled at it, adapting to the demands of the job with the aplomb and rapidity that had made Clan Whitecrest’s reputation.
Regaari didn’t bother with a greeting—they’d been planning this particular sting all week. “Well?”
“He read the summary and then forwarded the file to Reyu, Redilo and Yemmil.”
Regaari sighed in relief, and Ruuvi chittered. The set of his own ears was relieved, though: Terrik had been the subject of an unresolved question, whether he was working with the little cyst of Fathers who held the reins of power in Whitecrest and were getting progressively cosier and cosier with the monolithic nepotism of the Dominion, or whether he was doing the right thing no matter what that right thing might be.
Forwarding the file to three Fathers who had, in Regaari’s estimation, successfully balanced authority with conscientiousness was strong evidence for the latter.
“Excellent.” He growled. “I think we-”
He was interrupted by his communicator, which cheeped at him in a one beep, two beep, three beep rhythm until he checked it.
Ruuvi noticed his colleague’s ears prick up. “Good news?”
“A message from WARHORSE.”
“You have a human on your priority message list?” Ruuvi asked.
“I have three humans on my priority message list.” Regaari retorted, and opened the message.
Thirty seconds later, his hindclaws slid and scrabbled on the smooth concrete flooring as he bolted out of the room.
Date Point 10y2m2w AV Demeter Road, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Do you think he’s going to ask you again?”
“Not any time soon… we’re still putting it back together, you know?”
Ava was nursing a coffee on the couch opposite the recliner Sean had claimed for himself. It was still hard to see her looking so relaxed and at peace in a relationship with Adam, but that wound was healing for Sean. It was clear that the two of them doted on one another, which definitely helped. If the last month or so had continued to be the same old story of neglect and frustration then he’d have suggested calling it off, and guessed that Ava would have finally seen the light.
But… she’d been vindicated. Once Adam had finally seen the need to actually connect with his girlfriend then by her own admission he’d been perfect, devoting every second they could spend together to them. He took her on dates, they enjoyed the young woods around Folctha together, she was in the best shape of her life thanks to his one-on-one attention… it sounded idyllic.
“I thought things were going well?” Sean asked her.
“It is!” she agreed. “It’s just… you don’t put a relationship back together overnight. Even with the nice apartment and all the time we’re spending together, you know…”
“Right. All that time apart, all the changes.” Sean agreed.
“He’s not changed as much as I was afraid he would.” she conceded, setting her coffee down. “Sure, he’s big as a bus nowadays and he’s got all these skills and training but… he’s still got that goofy laugh, those stupid dorky jokes. Whenever he’s being romantic, it’s like he’s been planning it for three weeks…” She sighed, toying with a stray curl of hair. “I’ve probably changed more, deep down.”
“Just… things, you know? My way of looking at things.” she shrugged. “I don’t know. I just… I think…”
Whatever she was trying to think aloud went un-thought at the distant sound of a door slamming and a rapid rhythmic thudding sound that grew stronger by the second. Ava grinned and stood up as what were unmistakably the footfalls of an extremely heavy man came thumping up the last flight of steps. “He’s home early! That’s great, that means it must have gone-”
Adam didn’t bother with his key. The doorframe and lock both disintegrated as he just swatted the door so hard that even one of the hinges broke, leaving it hanging drunkenly from the top corner. His expression wouldn’t have looked out of place on an angry war deity, and Ava actually shrieked a little and took a shocked couple of steps back.
Sean’s own reaction was no less violently startled—he flinched away from the broken door and wound up having to scramble to his feet to avoid tipping over the chair arm and onto the floor.
Ava had retreated even further across the room as Adam bore down on her, until her back was against the wall and she was penned in against it by the palm he’d smacked down right next to her head. She was wearing any expression that was the very picture of equal parts bewilderment and fright. From where he was standing, Sean couldn’t see Adam’s face, but he could see the rage simmering in every line of those titanic muscles.
For a deadly few seconds, the only sound was the creak of the last tortured hinge swaying back and forth, as Ava’s face went from intimidated shock, to dawning horror.
“Shit.” she squeaked. “You know.”
For all the fury of his entrance, Adam’s voice was dangerously quiet and level. “You were stupid enough to talk to BASEBALL.” he pointed out.
However Ava wanted to respond, it didn’t come out except as a silent mouthing of the start of a word, and some desperate looking around, blinking rapidly as she tried to think of what to say. She cowered and gave an involuntary terrified gasp when Adam bunched a fist and drove it into the wall so hard that the plaster caved in.
“Where do I start?” He growled. “All this time? And who- was it this skinny shit here?”
He rounded on Sean who backed away, raising his hands as if they’d do any good at warding off somebody who out-massed him a couple of times over.
Adam took three smart steps forward and immediately had Sean by the front of his shirt, yanking him around so hard that he heard the seams fray. “YOU?! You wanna own up to this? Did you-?”
There was no refuge save for honesty. Sean did the best job he could of straightening and looking Adam in the eye, swallowed, and nodded. He knew neither if his head was about to go the same way as the wall and the door, nor what he might do to stop it if it was.
Rather than knocking his block off, Adam just made a disgusted noise and gave him a contemptuously gentle shove, landing Sean on his backside a few feet away. He turned and stalked back to Ava, who’d moved out of the corner he’d trapped her in and was watching him wide-eyed, hunched over and trembling, with her hands hugging her upper arms.
“You know what BASEBALL said you said?” He demanded. “He said you said you don’t owe me a fucking apology. What the fuck?!”
Ava finally found her voice. “Hear me out.” she pleaded.
This was not, apparently, what Adam had wanted to hear. “HEAR YOU OUT?!” he barked, and she backed away two stumbling steps as he took a pace toward her. “Hear you out?! Sure! Sure I’ll fucking hear you out! You’ve got FIVE seconds to explain yourself, Ava!”
“It was that or break up with you!” she blurted, finally finding something resembling her confidence again. She was still shaking, but there was an ‘I’m-not-going-down-without-a-fight’ edge to it now.
Adam paused in his countdown and just stared at her. For her part, Ava wrung her hands and stared right back, still trembling like a leaf but clearly determined to say her piece.
“You’re all I have of home.” she said. “You and Dad-”
“Don’t you dare call him that!” Adam snarled.
”…I can’t lose you, and I was going to.” she forged ahead. “I reached the end of my- I couldn’t do it any more, I was sending so much your way and getting nothing back and I ran out, and it was… I had to reach out to somebody.”
“And you couldn’t fucking talk to me?!” Adam demanded.
“I DID!” she shot back. “Every time! Every fucking time, Adam I told you time after time and when did you listen? You didn’t!”
“BULLSHIT!” Adam exploded. Ava’s fire was up and she looked like she was going to keep arguing, but he took another step forward, she backed into the kitchen area, and this time the poor refrigerator took the brunt of his rage, drawing a fearful gasp out of Ava in place of the tirade she’d clearly wanted to unleash. “I listened!” he insisted. “But what did you expect me to do, go AWOL? Is that what you’d want instead? Me in prison and all that time and pain wasted?”
Adam prodded her in the chest, hard. She gasped and rubbed at the bruised spot. “I went through hell, and the only thing got me through was thinking you had my back.” he growled. “Broken bones, torn muscles, nearly drowning, pain pain pain, day in, day out for Five. Fucking. Years. And don’t even get me started on some of the nightmares I’ve had because of what I’ve learned!”
He prodded her again. “ALL while having to put up with the exact same loneliness that you couldn’t handle! You think all that time away from you was easy for me? And I’ve had temptation, oh yeah I have! More than a passing little devil, do you know how easy it is for guys like me to get laid?”
“SHUT UP!!” The fridge rocked as it suffered further abuse. “Do you know how often I gave in? Do you know how often I thought about giving in?”
“NOT EVEN FUCKING ONCE!!“
In the aftermath of that roar, Sean could have sworn the loudest sound in the room was his own heartbeat, then Adam’s finger curled back from under Ava’s nose and his head dropped. “Not once. Not even once. Not once.” he mourned. “Not one single goddamn time, Ava. I did all of this for you. To keep you safe, to…”
He trailed off.
Ava was weeping openly now. The fear in her body language was gone—for the first time since Sean had known her, she looked ashamed.
“But…” she put a hand on Adam’s face and he swatted it aside to glare at her again. “Adam, all I ever wanted was you.”
Adam didn’t move for a moment. Then he swayed upright, backed off, and gave her a long, slow, tearful appraisal. “Right.” he grunted. “It’s all about what you want.”
“Fuck you, Ava. I don’t know what happened to you, but I never fell in love with a selfish backstabbing whore.”
He spun, strode to the door, and put the last hinge out of its misery with a petulant backhand. “Get out of my house.” he ordered, and was gone.
Date Point 10y2m2w AV Commune of Females, Wi Kao City, Gao
“You are approaching a commune of females, male. Identify yourself.”
Regaari was in no mood for games. The message from WARHORSE was far too important to pass to Ayma digitally—this was a conversation, and one that he was itching to have.
“You can’t be serious, Sister Layra, you’ve seen me every third or fourth day for a quarter of a year, it’s me!” He pointed out, making a bee-line for the door.
He nearly walked into her ceremonial fusion spear, which was suddenly charged and spitting hot while aimed levelly at his chest. Behind it, her ears were up and her eyes bright with dutiful challenge.
“Identify. Yourself.” she repeated.
Frustration, outrage and the burning need to deliver his message had badly eroded Regaari’s composure anyway. Having a weapon levelled at him was the final insult that forced him to do something that, under normal circumstances, no sane male would have even considered—he snarled at a female.
“Regaari. To deliver a message to Mother Ayma. Now get out of my way you witless, parasite-infested, officious plodding four-paw!“
Her speartip lowered and her ears rotated backwards out of sheer surprise and, whether out of genuine intimidation or whether she had finally got her head around the urgency of his mission, she stood meekly aside after a moment’s consideration.
Regaari swept past her.
Unlike the Whitecrest enclave, the Commune of Females wasn’t a single architecturally planned building but several, built organically over the centuries as the needs of the females had changed and as available funds and labour had dictated. Not that the females were ever short on either funds or labour thanks to the thousands of attention-hungry males who lived in the city outside their walls.
Still, at some point a senior Mother had declared that the entrance to the commune needed to be something both imposing and beautiful, and so an appropriately grand building, far wider than it was tall, had been constructed. From the outside, its most striking features were its sweeping white stone stairs and the doors at their top—huge Takwood things with borders of angular geometric silver filigree that were only ever opened for important occasions. The actual entrances were the rather more discreet though similarly decorated frosted-glass sliding doors to either side, one of which whispered open for him as he approached, and was ignored as he passed through.
Impressive though it was outside, Regaari had always thought that the inside of the commune’s grand building was by far more beautiful.
The floor was an irregular library of differently coloured slate tiles, left naturally just a little rough on their upper surface, but still smooth enough for completely unimpeded movement. Lighting was provided by hidden lamps which bounced warm yellow light up into the vault of the ceiling. At ankle height in the wall, hidden projectors sent ripples of a faintly greenish hue playing over the slate floor tiles, creating a watery effect which neatly complimented the real flowing water that rose in a fountain behind the Takwood doors before being sent to run and chatter down twin shallow meandering channels that reached out into each wing of the building before vanishing into the walls to emerge outside and feed the ornamental ponds.
Every inch of wall was trellis or bas-relief. Regaari always had to take a moment to admire the hanging plants, attended by delicate little flying drones. They had been carefully chosen so that some were always in flower no matter the season, and right now the grand concourse was kissed with delicate whites and blues.
Mothers and Sisters were walking and chatting, sitting on the benches, reading. There was an air of tension that Regaari could smell, and feel in the fur of the back of his neck. Several of the nearby females glanced at him, saw a Whitecrest male, and promptly and obviously turned away to keep their conversation private. He noticed Sister Myun watching him, and the two shared an affectionate though subtle mutual pricking of ears at one another. She had been pulled from gate guard duty for the duration of her pregnancy though she still loitered in the concourse, as much because she loved it there as because she was (by her own estimation) about the most competent of the commune’s guardian sisters.
Certainly she was the strongest and most highly trained, having spent much of her adolescence blending the Gung Fu that she had learned from Xiù with stances and styles more appropriate for a Gaoian, many of which were now part of Whitecrest’s training regime. Regaari had sparred with her during their courtship, and had never once managed to knock her off her feet - the young female could float and flow like dawn mist when she wanted to.
Regaari glanced around to quickly check whether Ayma was present, then concluded that Myun had just as much right to know.
“You know, Sister Layra reported you arriving.” she said as he approached, laying aside her tablet. “I think you impressed her.”
“That may not have been wise.” Regaari conceded. “But this is important, and she was in my way.”
“What’s so important that you’d snap at a commune guard like?” Myun asked. “I mean, Layra probably wants to mate with you now, but if it had been anybody else you-”
“The humans found Shoo.” Regaari interrupted her, ignoring that nugget of intel for the time being.
Myun surged to her feet. “Shoo’s safe?!”
“They picked her up from an escape pod this morning.” Much as he’d have preferred to keep the original, Regaari had to admit that having a prosthetic paw with a built in gesture-based control interface for his data was unbelievably convenient. He summoned WARHORSE’s message and sent it to Myun’s device, which she snatched up and interrogated eagerly.
She impressed and pleased Regaari by reaching up to the communicator clipped to her ear and pinching it before he had even thought to ask her. “Security Central, Mother Ayma has a priority message waiting on the grand concourse. Call for her please. Priority message for Mother Ayma, grand concourse.”
She listened to the response, then growled a little. Her contract with Regaari had earned Myun some prestige—a fact which spoke volumes of Regaari’s own reputation—but she was still very much the junior on the security forces, and somebody somewhere was keen to keep her reminded of that fact. Nothing ever went as swiftly and smoothly as she would have liked. “It’s a personal message, Central, but very important and private. Please call for her. Thank you.”
She sighed and unclipped the communicator, muttering a loaned human curse once it was safely turned off. “Bitch.”
Regaari chittered quietly. “Anyway, I don’t know more than is in the message there. Though, if WARHORSE thinks she had a rough time of it… I’m a little worried.”
“Is there any way to find out more?” Myun asked.
“It’s a lot easier to get a message from the SOR than to the SOR…” Regaari mused. Both of them pricked their ears up as they heard the commune-wide announcement for Ayma.
“Ayma has Yulna’s ear.” Myun pointed out, borrowing yet another human phrase. She did that a lot, peppering her language with deathworlder colloquialisms. Regaari had almost begun developing the same habit, but had carefully avoided it—he had the political consequences to think about. Myun on the other hand seemed to have accepted that her enthusiasm for all things human was equal parts profitable and isolating. Either that or she was too headstrong to care.
“True, but Yulna is not Mother-Supreme yet.” Regaari pointed out. “She may not have as much influence as you think.”
“She’s going to win, and the humans know it.” Myun retorted. She’d been a stubborn cub, and was now a stubborn and slightly naive adult. The fact that Regaari agreed with her assessment was unimportant.
“What’s that expression? About those birds you shouldn’t count?”
”…before they hatch. Chickens.” Myun finished for him, deflating. “You’re right. But… it’s Shoo.”
They both jumped a little at Ayma’s voice. “Shoo? What about Shoo?”
Regaari stood and they exchanged the nose-rub of old friends. “They found her. She’s alive.”
Ayma made a squeaking noise of delight and relief and sank onto the bench beside Myun, ears swivelling like robots in an assembly line as she tried to settle on a reaction. “Where is she?! Can we see her?”
“I don’t know yet.” Regaari told her. “I only just got the message. She’s back on Earth. It sounds like she got into more trouble.”
Ayma nodded. “That would be Shoo.” she agreed, then stood up again. “So we’re going to Earth.”
Both Regaari and Myun’s ears flattened. “You’re… you can’t be serious.” Myun squeaked.
“I have waited nearly ten years to finally see her again and… ‘kick her ass’ for running away.” Ayma proclaimed. “I am not letting a little thing like a class twelve deathworld get in my way.”
She turned to Regaari. “Besides, didn’t you say that the humans wanted to give you some kind of an award?”
“Well… yes, but nobody ever mentioned actually going to Earth.” Regaari replied. “The pollens in the air on that planet would kill us!”
“We can wear breathing masks.”
“Excursion suits. I’ve had a long time to think about this, Regaari: I’m going. I would like you to come with me.”
“Don’t you have a cub to look after?” Regaari asked.
“I also have a Sister who needs my help.” Ayma retorted. “Of the two, Shoo will need me more: the cub is nearly weaned.”
“She’s Clan, Regaari.” Myun pointed out. “What would you do if she was a Whitecrest?”
Regaari hesitated, then ducked his head slowly. “I’d already be calling for a shuttle.”
The females ducked their own heads, then Myun sighed. “I wish I could come with you.” she said.
“You’re pregnant.” Ayma pointed out.
“I know, that’s why I said ‘I wish I could’.” Myun agreed. “But take a message from me?”
“I’ll… take a Whitecrest ship to Cimbrean and arrange things.” Regaari said. “That should take long enough for your cub to be weaned.”
“Good.” Ayma scratched at her ear, thoughtfully. “I’ll… go tell Yulna she needs to do without me for a while.”
“Ayma… she’s been in stasis for five human years.” Regaari said. “And it was an escape pod. She may be a bit fragile.”
Ayma just chittered.
“When was Shoo ever not fragile?”
Date Point 10y2m2w AV Vancouver General Hospital, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Earth.
Colonel Ted Bartlett
The family were waiting outside, pacing and chewing their fingernails and desperate to be let in. Not that it would do them any good. Miss Chang was sedated, and would remain so for several days. She had been jumped straight to Scotch Creek from Caledonia’s onboard jump array and had been airlifted from there to Vancouver General, still inside a stasis pod. She had arrived on an operating table that was perfectly prepared for her and that fact had undoubtedly saved her life.
The fact that she had even made it that far spoke volumes of her tenacity.
Her doctor was in no mood to entertain military scientists, however. “She undoubtedly is.” She agreed. “But I would very much appreciate knowing why I’ve got an Army colonel in my ITU, please.”
Ted nodded. “Doctor Spilny, I need to swear you to secrecy on a few things. This is going to be important to her care, but it’s also important for… well.” he handed over a tablet with a non-disclosure agreement on it. The doctor skimmed it—it wasn’t long—and then scrawled her signature and pressed her thumb to the biometric pad for good measure.
“Miss Chang is one of the few people we know of to survive nervejam trauma.” Ted told her, after he’d countersigned. “Are you familiar with nervejam at all?”
“I heard it’s some kind of alien weapon that can induce fatal seizures…” Spilny conceded.
“It’s… a lot nastier than that.” Ted revealed, solemnly. “I’ll spare you the jargon, but it works by creating a field that disrupts some specific types of quantum activity that’s part of the brain’s normal function. Or, rather, forces it to behave a certain-” he trailed off. “The point is that while the effect may wear off instantly, the damage it does is permanent.”
“Her brain is… scarred?”
Ted nodded, grimly. “Intimately. On a cellular chemistry level. Or… most likely, anyway. The testimony of her friends would suggest as much.”
Mr. Etsicitty and Ms. Buehler had weathered the vacuum of space rather better than Ms. Chang, and were both recovering elsewhere in the building. Etsicitty’s foot was attracting prosthetic and rehabilitation specialists from all over North America, who were sharing detailed footage and images of it with their colleagues overseas. By all accounts the interface between flesh and synthetic material was ingeniously self-sterilising, and might well revolutionize the field of human prosthetics. Bartlett, as a lifelong enthusiast for science, was keeping a weather-eye on that development, but it was outside of his field.
To be frank, so was the case of Ms. Chang, but nobody else was even half as qualified as Ted was, so…
Doctor Spilny frowned at her patient, deep in thought. “Prognosis?”
“I’m not qualified to give one. Obviously, actually testing the long term effects of Nervejam would be… unethical.”
“You can’t… really scale up the behaviour of rats to the behaviour of humans…” Ted squirmed. “But what we suspect is that any existing psychological tendencies or predispositions are likely to be exacerbated. The other thing we noticed was a spike in learning retention and neuroplasticity for some time after exposure, which then tapered off to below previous levels, leaving the subjects, uh, strongly influenced by whatever they were doing immediately after the trauma.”
Spilny frowned at her patient again, watching her chest rise and fall with a click-hiss-wheeze as the ventilator did the work on her behalf.
Ted gave her a minute to think, which he used to produce a copy of the research paper from his briefcase. “The paper should explain more. We don’t really have any advice on what you can do for her, but any observations you can make or data you can gather might help us help her and other future victims.”
Spilny nodded, and accepted it. “I’ll be sure to do that.”
“There’s one last thing…”
Ted produced a handheld implant scanner from his briefcase. It was little more than a grey cuboid, not dissimilar to the tricorders he’d watched on Star Trek growing up. “May I just lean in there and perform a scan?”
“It’s not invasive, is it?”
Spilny just gestured to the bed invitingly. Ted leaned in past the assorted tubes, lines and leads, and pressed the scanner gently but firmly against Ms. Chang’s forehead.
Three seconds later, the LED on its back lit up green, and he breathed a sigh of relief. While the SOR and the medical staff on Caledonia had both already checked her for alien hardware, Ted’s own device was the most recent and sophisticated model that wouldn’t be fooled by nonmetallic implants, as had happened in the tragic case of Sara Tisdale’s murderer.
“Thank you, doctor.” He straightened up, pocketing the scanner.
“Thank you, colonel.”
Ted let himself out. He didn’t make eye contact with the family hovering outside, just nodded politely, touched his fingers to his brow, and made himself scarce, wishing he could do more.
Date Point 10y2m2w AV HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
It was Good Movie Night. Sometimes, the guys wanted a good movie to counterbalance all the awful ones they like to watch, and it was a good way to round off a mission day. The dorm was clean, they were all showered, and now there were a few hours of quiet time to lounge around in ranger shorts and watch something.
Hence they were watching ‘The Pink Panther’. The old one, with Peter Sellers. That had been the plan at least, right up until somebody had asked where WARHORSE had got to and John had tried to explain.
“And you didn’t think to tell him sooner?” TITAN was asking, plainly angry.
“Man, when did I even have the chance?” The movie was on pause and the usual comfortable puppy-pile on the couch had broken up into a standing argument.
Sikes opened his mouth to comment, and John nodded in anticipation of what he was going to say. “Okay, okay, yeah, lots of times, but come on man, timing! We were all on edge, we were all… then just as I was about to tell him he went and proposed to her, and then before he had a chance to get over that we had the mission, and…”
“And you should of told him!” TITAN asserted.
“You’re supposed to be our fucking brother man, and you’re lying to Horse of all people about his girl fucking around?” Sikes agreed.
Firth weighed in. “You two are like the bromance of this outfit, how the fuck are you gonna stand by and let Horse get Jodied?”
“We’re supposed to trust you with our lives.” Blaczynski added.
That stung. It downright hurt, in fact. “You know you can.” John protested, quietly.
“Do we? ‘Cause if you can help Horse’s girl suck some other asshole’s skinny fuckin’ dick-”
“Say what?” John rounded on TITAN. “I didn’t fuckin’ help her!”
“You let her keep on doing it, dintcha?” Blaczynski retorted.
”‘Cause the alternative was ripping Horse’s heart out of his fucking chest at exactly the wrong moment, man!” John illustrated the mental image with a gesticulation. “We wouldn’t HAVE him if I’d done it before now. You think he’d have made it through without at least, like, the idea of her? And I’m not sure I’d have made it through without him!”
“You think it was a choice between this, or no Protectors at all?” REBAR checked.
John sighed and nodded. “Could be.” he agreed. “Even Horse has his limits, man.”
The three Defenders exchange quick glances, communicating silently.
“Tell me he was at least pissed at you.” Firth demanded.
“He was fucking furious, bro.”
“Surprised he didn’t tie your ass in a pretzel.” TITAN said. “Fuck, he’s gonna have a face like Armageddon landing when he gets back…”
“Yup.” John agreed.
“Yeah well, you fucking deserve it.” Sikes folded his arms.
“C’mon don’t be like that, it’s not like I did it to help her.”
“But you DID help her though.”
Everyone looked at Murray. Murray was like that—you could completely forget he was there until he opened his mouth, and softly Scottish though his speech might have been, everyone shut up and listened. Never mind that he was the smallest of the SOR’s enlisted men, he commanded attention whenever he chose to.
”…Let’s just watch the movie.”
Everyone paused, then settled a bit. There was a round of nods and murmured agreements, and the guys all sat back down on the couch.
BASEBALL was left standing. “Uh…hey, lemme in there…” he ventured
“Couch is full, John.” Firth told him, not looking at him.
“Dude, I was sitting right there a minute ago-”
“Couch. Is full.”
John directed a pleading look first at REBAR, who was avoiding eye contact, and then at Murray who gave him a complicated facial shrug which said quite clearly that he wasn’t about to rekindle the argument by disagreeing and that John was just going to have to put up with it.
After a moment’s hesitation, John settled for a resigned throat-clear and sitting cross-legged on the hard, cold floor next to the couch, rather than wrapped up with his buddies. It didn’t feel right at all, and not even Sellers’ dignified on-screen antics could fix that.
They watched in silence for a little while, even managing a collective chuckle at the exchange - ‘If I were my father, I’d have you tortured.’ ‘If you were your father, I doubt very much if I would have kissed you.‘
The tension seemed to be just about starting to dissipate—or maybe that was just wishful thinking on John’s part - when there was a distant, muffled roar of some kind and the whole building shook as if a bomb had gone off nearby. Huge, metal-framed and reinforced as it was, they still knocked the couch over in scrambling off it alert for danger.
“What the fuck?” Firth asked.
“Sounded like it came from the gym.” Murray aimed a thumb towards it. “Ah… shit, you don’t think Adam…?”
He was left standing as the rest of them took off at a run.
Waiting for them in the gym was a sight more disturbing than anything John had seen on Capitol Station or in training. Adam’s jerry-can was lying at the bottom of the wall at the far end of the gym from where it was usually kept and had burst open, spilling buckshot all over the floor. The wall itself had a crater in it about halfway up, where the cinder blocks had been smashed in by something very heavy hitting it with huge force.
The 100lb plates were all off their racks and scattered around the gym like schoolyard frisbees. The spring steel barbell at the deadlift station—the one commissioned especially for the Protectors - had bent beyond hope of repair, the one at the squat rack was now roughly the shape of a hockey stick, and Adam was sitting in the middle of the floor, cradling his elbow and sobbing.
BASEBALL was at his side in a flash. “Oh man, brother, I- oof!”
The air rushed straight out of him and he felt a stab of pain in his ribs as he found himself caught in the kind of crushing bear-hug that might have pulped an alien and badly hurt most humans.
There was nothing to do but put his own arms around his best friend’s huge shoulders and hold on, rocking him back and forth.
The guys all left him to it and found stuff to do. Murray, Firth and Blaczynski set about cleaning up the gear, while the Defenders gathered round the damaged wall and held a hushed consultation with one another.
Just as the last of the plates was being racked up, REBAR sidled over and gave John a tap on the shoulder.
“Dude, uh… that was a structural wall he busted.” He whispered. “We kinda need everyone out of here while we make it safe.”
John nodded at him, then gave Adam’s back a hefty pat. “Hey… Horse. Man, we gotta move, okay? Come on, let’s get you something to eat.”
Adam nodded against his chest, and asked, in the most childish tone that John had ever heard him produce, “…Can I have Eggos?”
Everyone had to pause to look at one another, despite the broken wall. Adam Arés - Mister Nutrition himself, the best cook on the team - and Eggos? Those were just two concepts that didn’t go together, but now was not the time to argue.
“Sure brother. Sure. All the Eggos you want, man. Come on. And I’ll sort that elbow out while they’re cooking.”
Date Point 10y2m2w1d AV Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Charlotte and Ben had landed on their feet with the move to Cimbrean. As the only qualified midwife in town, not only was Charlotte busy but she was well-paid. Ben meanwhile had quickly and easily fallen in with the city planning department, and had been instrumental in devising an approach to utility infrastructure that should hopefully mean that Folctha’s roads would never need to be dug up to access the sewerage, cables and pipes that ran alongside rather than beneath them.
Cheap housing, decent salaries and rapid promotion? Folctha was a graduate’s fantasy.
Except when it resulted in Charlotte’s best friend slumped inconsolable over her kitchen table, of course. There was little they’d been able to do for Ava except keep up a steady supply of tea and comforting words and contact.
Eventually, she sent Ben and Sean on a walk to go get some takeaway, from the good Chinese place on the far side of town that didn’t deliver. That earned her an hour of alone time for some girl talk.
Ava certainly seemed to appreciate it. At least, she muttered “…thanks…” as soon as they were gone.
“Darling, you’re going to have to come up for air sooner or later.” Charlotte told her.
It had the desired effect. Ava laughed—a thin, delicate, slightly hysterical laugh, but a laugh nonetheless—and finally unburied her face from her arms. Instead, she rested her elbows on the table and combed her fingers into her hair. “Sorry.”
“For being upset? I think you have a right…”
“It’s my own stupid fault though…” Ava sighed. Her hands dropped to the table and she sat back to stare up at the ceiling instead. “What was I thinking?”
“The bit where you did it, or the bit where you were caught?”
”…God, I don’t know.” Ava looked around the room. “I just… I don’t know.”
The clock ticked for them a good ten seconds or so before she sagged and gave Charlotte a pleading look. “What do you think?”
Charlotte took her hand. “You know… that’s the first time you’ve asked for my opinion on this.”
“Oh…” Ava blinked at their hands. “…you’d have told me not to do it, wouldn’t you?”
“I would have.” Charlotte agreed.
“Why didn’t you?”
“You didn’t ask.” Charlotte gave her an apologetic facial shrug. “And… I don’t think you’d have listened, either.”
Ava paused, then nodded and shut her eyes. “You know why I did it though, right?”
“Darling? You did it because you were lonely and horny and Sean’s hot and caring and he’s a good match for you.” Charlotte asserted. “Don’t over-think it.”
“But that’s just the problem!” Ava exploded, tugging her hand out of Charlotte’s grip to gesticulate. “I didn’t think about it enough! Or… or I thought about it trying to convince… trying to…”
She gripped her hair again “I don’t know where I went wrong.”
“Maybe the bit where you cheated on your boyfriend?” Charlotte suggested. Not unjustifiably, Ava glared at her. “No, darling… maybe it really is that simple. Maybe you should have either… asked him for permission, or broken up with him. Treated him honestly.”
“You’re taking his side?” Ava asked
Ava hesitated, then swallowed, sighed and rubbed her face. “I’m sorry.” She said. “You’re right. I should have. I… he said it himself, he was separated from me too.”
“Working relationships are about honesty.” Charlotte told her. “If you ever have to hide something, if you ever have to lie about something… maybe it’s not working.”
Ava nodded, miserably. “And it wasn’t working for a long time. Right from the moment he decided to sign up.” she said.
“Don’t blame him.” Charlotte cautioned.
“I don’t! I… I don’t. I just… He was doing what he had to. But I should have told him then that I wasn’t happy with it. Maybe if I’d done that…” Ava sighed, and shook her head slowly. “It’s done. Can’t change it. I can’t bring it back, just like I can’t bring Sara back, or home, or… or anything. I wish I could, but I can’t.”
“So… what are you going to do?”
Ava flapped her arms in a resigned shrug. “Move on. I can’t stay here, not with Adam and Gabe, I’m not… I won’t be able to…” She paused, exasperated by her own lack of eloquence, then stood up. “The boys’ll be back in, what, an hour?”
“Give or take…” Charlotte agreed, as Ava shrugged her coat on and headed for the door. “Why, what are you-?”
“I’m going to say goodbye to Dad.”
Date Point 10y2m2w AV Byron Group Exploration Vessel 8 “Creature of Habit”, The Border Stars, Proximal End.
“Hey Jenks, we’re coming up on RS-449!”
The Byron Group had sunk billions of dollars into starships, and the first few had all gone missing. As had the one sent to find out what happened to them. Byron Stellar Exploration’s working theory was that they had all suffered some kind of technical failure, and as such the Group’s starship-building program was on hold until they figured out what that failure might be.
Number 8 therefore was a Dominion-built vessel, custom made by the assembly gantries at Irbzrk Shipyards after a substantial bribe. It stuck in the craw to rely on alien tech, but at least it was alien tech built to the customer’s exacting specifications. It was, in the shipyard’s estimation, the ugliest thing they had ever built, and they had described it in contemptuous terms that translated to something like “throwback”
It wasn’t hard to see why. BGEV-8 was shaped for atmospheric re-entry, water landing and seaworthiness, all of which had put constraints on her physical properties and dimensions which had completely forbidden the Irbzrkian designers from flexing their creative muscles, especially when the clients had insisted on redundant steel bulkheads throughout and that every single component in the ship be A: modular and B: accessible at a moment’s notice. She looked more like a seafaring relic than a modern spaceship
There had been plenty of technical challenges to during the design phase, long before the commission had been sent to Irbzrk. For starters, a ship’s top superluminal speed was in part a function of its sublight power-to-weight ratio and acceleration, and in part a function of power to the warp engine. While BGEV-8’s power-to-weight ratio was excellent, disguising that the order had been placed by a human organisation had required ditching the capacitors and WiTChES, and relying on the Dominion’s preferred convention of a big reactor of some kind. This had limited the available power.
The result was a stately top speed of thirty kilolights. Enough to reach a nearby star in about two hours, but still decidedly pedestrian, and this had brought the supply problem into effect.
Humans needed nutrients. LOTS of nutrients. A crew of seven could chew through two hundred pounds of food in a week, and at thirty kilolights BGEV-8’s exploration missions were expected to take months.
Months worth of supplies would have made the ship heavier. Making the ship heavier would have hurt its power-to-weight ratio and slowed it down, meaning that it would need to carry even MORE supplies, which would have slowed it down further… and so on. While the equation did eventually balance itself, the end result was a much larger, much slower, and most importantly much more expensive ship than Byron had wanted.
The solution was stasis. Everyone’s bed doubled as a stasis chamber, and the ship did a pretty cunning job of making sure that you went to bed, you got a good eight or nine hours of sleep, and just as you were waking up fresh and ready for a new day, time stopped working for you until the duty officer decided you were needed again.
Naturally, nobody wanted to be effectively alone for subjective weeks at a time, so in practice there were always two duty officers, and things were carefully mixed up so that everybody worked with everybody else at some point in the rotation.
Today was Kevin’s second day awake. He’d put Joe Gibbs to bed last night, and this morning had woken up to find Mitch Hamilton preparing breakfast for him.
He liked Mitch the best out of their crew. Mitch could fix a decent coffee and breakfast, though everyone agreed that Kevin was the best cook on board.
Kevin was also the best general odd-jobber, inventory-sorter, cleaner and handyman on the crew, which was why he was its quartermaster. Everybody else might have had the assorted skills that went into flying the ship or surveying whatever interesting planets they stumbled across, but Byron had quite correctly decided early on that every ship needed somebody whose job was to keep everybody else comfortable, clean, well-fed and, ideally, well-advised.
Sure, being a glorified custodian wasn’t exactly glamorous, but the pay was even better than he’d been bringing in at Scotch Creek and there was just… something about being back out in the galaxy again. Something about the thrill of knowing that for better or worse they were doing something real, contributing to taking some of humanity’s eggs out of a single, vulnerable basket.
And, if he was honest, something about the thrill of danger. He wasn’t a vagrant in a galaxy unaware of and unprepared for the human race now: he was a ship’s quartermaster
“Gotcha. I’ll wake ‘em up.” he called.
Waking the other five was as simple as hitting the touchscreen on the wall as soon as he entered the room and selecting “wake all”. Instantly the black haze filling every bunk faded, and his five colleagues—friends one and all—were sitting up and looking around.
“Station day?” Jennie asked. She was their biochemistry expert, a specialist whose job revolved around examining whatever organic compounds and weird alien life forms they turned up. It was a good thing she was just as capable with keeping the ship in peak condition, because their most recent circuit hadn’t turned up even a single Temperate world, a fact that made her tenure on this first survey vessel increasingly tenuous. Why waste crew resources on somebody who could be better used in a follow-up expedition?
It would be a shame to see her go.
“Yup. Mitch is shaking hands with them right now. Today’s Friday, fourteen-thirty ship time. Coffee?”
Everyone nodded eagerly and promptly set about their morning ablutions. Three years of working together had sorted out a few kinks and sticking points there: When everyone was awake, nobody got to soak in the shower or meditate on the shitter: you got in, you did your business, you cleaned up, and if you forgot to take your clothes or towel in with you, too bad for you. Modesty was a luxury, and not one that the rest of the crew were obligated to engineer on your behalf.
Everybody was grabbing cups of coffee with wet hair in short order.
Mitch, however, was frowning when he stuck his head round the hatch to the flight deck. “Yo, they’re refusing us docking.” he called.
Everyone exchanged glances, and Monica and Derek—co-pilot and flight engineer respectively—squeezed into their seats, leaving the three scientists and Kevin to eavesdrop.
“Did they say why?”
“Nope, not yet… uh, Resupply Station four-four-niner, Byron Group Echo-Victor Eight again. We’d sure appreciate an explanation. Why are being denied permission, over?”
“Because we’re human. Why else?” Kevin murmured rhetorically, quietly enough so the three on the flight deck wouldn’t hear.
“You think something happened?” Their resident astronomer, Charlie, asked him in a whisper.
“Like what?” Jennifer asked.
“Swarm of Swarms. Bet you.”
“No bet.” Ryan grunted. He was their geologist and, as such, by far and away the most profitable member of the crew. He liked to joke that the job of the other six was to get him to someplace where he could dig up something valuable.
“Yeah, never go against Jenks’ nose for xeno politics.” Charlie agreed.
“Never go against his nose for politics full stop.” Jennie agreed.
“Jesus, they’re launching fighters.” Derek announced. “They really don’t want us docking.”
”…Woah there, take it easy Four-four-niner, you can plainly see we’re holding position. May we at least synchronize comms?”
“Remind them they have to under Article Seven of the-” Kevin began to tell him.
“I know, Jenks.” Derek snapped.
“Yowch.” Charlie muttered.
“It’s cool, he’s just stressed… I’ll get the big screen turned on.”
Ryan frowned at him. “Why?”
“Because there’s gonna be a message from Byron waiting for us.”
He was right. No sooner had Derek bullied the station into grudgingly allowing BGEV-8 to synchronize with the interstellar communications relay than the ship was announcing a priority message for all eyes.
Monica put a few tactful light-minutes between them and the station and they went dark in interplanetary space before relaxing enough to gather in the ship’s common area—a circular lounge with furniture that folded into the deck to make room for the gym mat—and load the message.
Sure enough, their billionaire employer’s frowning visage was the very first frame of the message.
“If I’m any judge, you’ll have an inkling something’s gone wrong by the time you get this. If I know nonhumans, they’re probably in the grip of a panic again. Enclosed is footage which explains why in detail, but I’ll make it short: The Swarm of Swarms attacked Capitol Station. Destroyed it, in fact. Some kind of human spaceborne special forces called the SOR got involved and… ah, it’s all in the video briefing that follows these orders.
“Come back ASAP. Carter, Brown, you’re clear to use the emergency recall. I want the seven of you at our policy meeting. See you shortly.”
“Emergency recall?” Kevin asked.
“You heard the man, Mitch.” Monica said, and tugged the chain that she’d had round her neck from day one out from inside her vest. Mitch Carter produced something from his pocket and together they slipped into the bridge.
“Emergency recall?” Kevin repeated.
“Little something the Group gave us after losing all those other ships.” Monica replied.
There was a subtle sound, a little like somebody had thumped a bulkhead with their fist and caused the whole ship to give a dull ring. Interplanetary dark space was gone in an instant, replaced to one side by a grey and cratered horizon and, rising above it…
“Oh no.” Kevin moaned. “That stupid son of a bitch.”
“What?” Ryan asked.
“He’s had an open jump beacon to Earth this whole time?”
“Our emergency recall, yeah. What, is that a problem?”
Kevin spun on his heel and headed for his locker. “That’s between me and Moses Byron.” he replied.
Date Point 10y2m2w AV Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches.
Jess paused and looked up from her desk. “Doorbell? Are we expecting Ava tonight?”
“I’ll get it.”
Despite time and physiotherapy, Gabe’s old injury was getting progressively worse, and hauling himself up out of his chair was still difficult. Which was why he made a point of doing it every time he had an excuse—he might be on a one-way trip to a wheelchair, but he was damned if he was letting it take him without a fight.
Besides, letting Jess do something as simple as answer the door for him would have made him feel like a cripple, and he hated that.
It was Ava alright, wearing her oldest and favorite jacket, the simple, rugged one that she and Adam had got together before coming to Cimbrean, with the “From Ashes” patch on the sleeve.
She gave him a tiny, sad smile that made him hesitate mid-greeting. “…Hey Dad.”
“Adam found out.”
Gabe let out a long-contained sigh, stepped forward and gave her a hug. “I’m sorry, Ava.”
She hugged back, tight and shaking, and mumbled something he didn’t catch.
“What was that?”
“I said I’m sorry, I… I didn’t see. I was so stupid, I…”
“Shh…” Gabe just held her a bit longer.
Eventually, she pulled away. “I’m… gonna go back to Earth.” she announced. “Try and, and… Try and be somebody. Somebody who isn’t a complete fuckup.”
“Hey, for what it’s worth…” Gabe began “like I said, you’re a daughter to me nowadays. I won’t lie, when you told us I was… kinda disappointed in you. But I love you anyway, okay? I know you’ll do okay.”
“I don’t know…” Ava sighed and leaned against the wall. “I can never seem to figure out how to do the right thing.”
“Want some advice?” Gabe offered. She looked up at him, waiting. “Well, okay, it’s more of a story…”
When Ava’s expectant gaze didn’t change, he nodded and told it. “There was… back in San Diego, there was this woman, a Private Investigator. Terri Boone. I met her… about a year, year and a half before the bomb went off. She’d shot an intruder in her apartment. He was on her couch, had a gun, had no right to be there… open and shut case of self defense.”
“Anyway, Boone claimed that the guy she killed was working for somebody else, and that they’d just try again. Which, that’s a serious claim, we took it seriously… nothing came of it. Nothing we could follow up on, anyway. There were… nothing we could legitimately find, nothing admissible, pointed to this guy working for anybody but himself. Right?”
Ava nodded, listening.
“Well… my whole job was about what was admissible. Building a case that’d stand up in a court of law and not get thrown out on a technicality. Procedure, procedure, procedure, right? That’s the nature of police work, and it’s like that for a good reason. So, I found myself stuck. I believed Boone, but I couldn’t continue the investigation because I’d have strayed outside of procedure. Can’t do that, so I had to drop it.”
He sighed. “A few months later, she was dead. And… She was tied up in the bombing of the city. I can’t go into it. But sometimes I ask myself if I could have done anything differently. If maybe had I just been lax on procedure that one time, maybe those two million people would still be alive. It’s possible.”
He held up a hand as Ava started to speak. “Or. Maybe they could have blown up three cities. Or ten. Or maybe the whole world would be bombed flat from orbit by the Hunters by now. I don’t know. And that’s kinda the point. I regret not doing more for her…But I can’t think of a single thing I’d do differently. You see what I’m saying?”
Ava thought about it, then nodded slowly. “You can’t do more than what seems like a good idea at the time.” she said.
“Right. You screw up, you move on, you learn, you screw up again.” Gabe gave her a wry smile. “Some of us screw up worse than others, but… There’s no secret. You’ve just got to forgive yourself and move on.”
“Learn from your mistakes…”
“Right…” Gabe nodded. “Do you regret…what you did?”
“You gonna do it again?”
“There we go, then. You’re a better woman than you were yesterday.”
Ava managed to laugh at that, though she sobered again quickly. “…I’m going to miss you, Dad.”
“I’ll miss you too. Come back, okay? When you’re ready.”
“When I’m ready. I promise.”
They hugged again. “Goodbye, Dad.”
He watched her down the stairs, then let himself back into the apartment. Jess took one look at him, stood and gave him a hug. “Are you okay?”
“How much did you hear?”
“All of it.”
Gabe sighed. “I’ll be… I’ll just learn from my mistakes and move on, like I told her to.”
“That’s easier said than done.”
Gabe just shrugged, and shrank down into his chair again, rubbing his face. “Esi es la vida.”
Date Point 10y2m2w1d AV Byron Group Head Offices, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth.
“Look, Rachael, I’m telling you this is important.”
Kevin had dealt with his employer’s personal assistant before. Byron had a policy where literally anybody in the company could arrange a meeting with him, and crewing one of his ships was one of the positions that earned you a place in the short queue for those meetings… but there was still a queue. The idea that somebody might want to meet with him urgently apparently wasn’t in her briefing. “And I’m telling you that Mr. Byron sees people with appointments.” she repeated.
“And how long will an appointment take to arrange?” Kevin challenged her.
“If it’s really that important I can fit you in for tomorrow at-”
She was spared Kevin’s frustrated lambasting by her phone ringing, and Moses Byron’s voice on the speaker. “Rachael, if you don’t let him in I do believe I’ll just need a new door anyway.”
“Yes, Mister Byron.”
She gestured to the door for him.
Byron’s office was just as calculated as everything else about the man, in Kevin’s opinion. He had pretty much instantly pegged Byron as a self-interested bastard who had his head on straight enough to spot that public opinion was a more valuable currency than mere dollars, and everything the man did as being part of that philosophy.
The office wasn’t large, and you’d have been forgiven for mistaking it for that of a high school principal or a junior manager, rather than a man whose personal wealth eclipsed anything that Kevin could have imagined earning in several lifetimes. There was nothing either ultra-modern or obviously antique on display, just a few small bookshelves, some framed family photographs, a nice view. You had to look closer to spot that the desk was a bespoke piece in pale oak, see the hand-stitching in the office chair, or notice that the coffee next to the machine in the corner probably cost more per hundred grams than the ones Kevin had served in his bars had cost per thousand.
It all spoke to a fondness for the benefits of a billionaire’s life while keeping up a pretense of frugal moderation.
“Got to hand it to you, Kevin, not many people demand to see me.” Byron told him, standing up politely. He was like that, always polite and engaging even if he was obviously nettled.
“Yeah, well, not every day I learn we’ve had a back door open around the moon for… what, five months?” Kevin told him.
“Mister Byron, that’s like the worst idea since… It’s a really bad idea.”
Byron’s head inclined slightly to one side. “Why? You know something I don’t?” he asked.
“What, besides the Swarm of Swarms? You sent us that video, boss man.” Kevin told him. “You think if they can do that to Capitol Station, they’ll struggle with us?”
Byron pushed his chair out of the way and stepped over to the wet bar in the corner. “The Hunters” he said “Don’t have a dang thing anywhere even close to Sol.”
“And how do you know that?” Kevin asked him.
“Oh, that’s easy.” Byron said. “All we needed was a Hunter’s corpse. No shortage of those about, didn’t even have to send a fightin’ Homo Sapiens out to grab one. Just put in a call to the right people. Once the eggheads had its communication implants, engineering a sensor that could pick up their chatter was simplicity itself. They assure me there are no Hunters anywhere near Earth. Drink? I ain’t no bartender but I mix a decent Creole…”
“And what about other threats?” Kevin asked, declining the offer with a hand gesture.
Byron paused in pouring a drink for himself. Kevin noted idly that although he’d offered a creole, what he was pouring for himself was actually a Shirley Temple. “You mean to tell me you know about some other threats?” he asked, quietly. “What, you were involved in strategic intelligence briefings while you were cleaning tables at SCERF?”
“One of the NDAs I’m under forbids me from telling you how many NDAs I’m under nor for what reasons.” Kevin shot back. “We’re talking serious felony stuff here. But fuck, if it’s serious enough and if I have to, I’ll break every last fuckin’ one and go to the pen knowing I tried to avert disaster.”
Byron arched an eyebrow at him.
”…Though I’d take it as a personal favor if I didn’t have to.” Kevin admitted.
“That serious, huh?”
A new voice entered the conversation. “More than you might guess, Mister Byron.”
Kevin and Byron turned to the door. A slim, trim woman in a dark suit gave them a slim, trim smile and invited herself in. Of Rachael, there was no sign. “Mister Jenkins. I’m pleased to see you have this well in hand. I’ll pretend the bit where you mused about sharing classified information was purely speculative.”
“Special Agent… Williams, right?” Kevin greeted her, dredging the name up from memory. They hadn’t met since the Hierarchy debriefing at Scotch Creek, back before the San Diego blast. “Pleasure to see you again, always nice to see my tax dollars walk in the door wearing Armani.”
“Good memory.” Williams acknowledged him.
“How’s your partner? Hamilton, right?”
“He’s at his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, thank you for asking. I was invited but, well… there was a serious incident involving an unknown, unshielded and only barely encrypted jump beacon orbiting the moon. Lucky for you that ship you rode in on was broadcasting Moses Byron’s name everywhere, or you’d have been dead within seconds of arriving.”
Byron cleared his throat. “I’m not used” he declared “to being ignored in my own office.”
“Where are my manners?” Williams asked, smoothly producing and opening her identification. “Williams, CIA.”
Byron glowered at the seal she was showing him for a good few seconds as if expecting it to be so cheap a forgery as to fall apart in her hands. When this failed to happen, he grudgingly put his drink down and extended a hand. Williams didn’t shake it.
“So.” Byron sat down to cover the snub. “Would either of you care to indulge me as to why in the good gosh-darn the Company just walked into my office and my PA is nowhere in sight?”
Williams turned a hand palm-up, inviting Kevin to speak. Kevin’s caution briefly warred with his desire to launch into a full-blown rant at Byron, and won. Somehow, he suspected he was being tested here.
“There’s… let’s call it the Big Bad. Out there.” he said. “Bigger and badder than the Hunters, that’s for sure. It wants us all dead, it might use the Hunters to get what it wants… and it’s old. Old like you’d laugh me out of the office if I told you.”
“How Lovecraftian.” Byron drawled, swirling his drink. He had that look Kevin had seen on several men in his time, the intense one that spoke of furious calculation going on silently while the face remained impassive.
“I’d almost prefer Lovecraft.” Williams said. “Mister Jenkins has put it with supreme delicacy, so allow me to be blunter: we are, in real terms, no more militarily powerful on the interstellar scale than we were ten years ago. Forget Cimbrean, and the Firebirds and the V-class destroyers. Forget the Hephaestus LLC and your own accomplishments, forget even the panicky politics of the Dominion. In real terms, the human race collectively is still very much insignificant. But so is a grain of sand, and if you’ve ever got one of those in your sock, Mister Byron, you know just how irritating a grain of sand can be, and how badly you will want to scratch it.”
She flashed that slim, trim smile again. “Except that in our case, scratching is for now impossible thanks to the system containment forcefield that you violated.”
Byron took a sip and set his glass down. “This seems” he observed “like the kind of critical information that a man in my position, doing the things I was doing, ought to have been told.”
“You were, and still are, judged to be a dangerous personality.” Williams told him. She stepped forward and, uninvited, put her briefcase on Byron’s desk. “Given that you had the information to know that your stunt with that beacon was a bad idea and went ahead with it anyway, that judgement stands.”
“And you figured that an ignorant dangerous personality was less of a problem than an educated one?” Byron retorted. “Extinction ain’t exactly in my business plan. Had I known that was on the cards…”
“Spare me.” Williams interrupted. “We know that Governor Sandy hinted about a danger with neural implants to you in private. Anybody with your resources can’t possibly be ignorant of just how aggressively the SOR and JETS were formed, nor of the huge sums of government money that went dark at the same time. And if you were somehow oblivious to all of those, I defy you to look me in the eye and tell me that San Diego escaped your attention.”
Byron’s expression didn’t change, but he did draw a long and slightly indignant breath as he listened.
“You already had all the information you needed, Mister Byron.” Williams scolded him. “And still you proceeded unwisely. I shudder to think what you might have done had we filled in the detail for you.”
“Shoulda co-opted me, then.” Byron grunted.
“Maybe.” Williams agreed. She turned to Kevin. “Mister Jenkins, I appreciate your involvement here, and I’m sure you could contribute in all sorts of ways, but this conversation between the United States of America and Mister Moses Byron is not for mortal ears. I’m sorry.”
Kevin knew better than to argue. Williams held all the cards here.
“Arright.” he agreed. “But before you lay into my employer…?”
Williams nodded and made a gesture of invitation.
“If there’s a learning point in this whole clusterfuck, it’s that we really shouldn’t be keeping our people in the dark, arright? That goes for you too, Mister Byron. Briefing only two members of the crew about the recall meant I never got the chance to warn you it was a bad idea.”
Williams and Byron frowned at each other, then both made a conceding nod. “There’s a fine art to secrecy.” Williams agreed. “Errors in judgement may have happened all round. We intend to address that.”
Byron just nodded again. “Fine.” Kevin told them, breathing a little easier. “You two godly folks have fun talking over the mortal’s head. I’ll see ya at that policy meeting, Mister Byron.”
“I’d be grateful if you would shut the door please, Mister Jenkins.” Williams said. She produced a phone from her pocket, and tapped at it as Kevin crossed the room.
Kevin couldn’t resist just a little eavesdrop as he closed the door. Before it clicked softly shut, the last he heard was “It’s me… Yes, he’s right here Mister President…”
Date Point 10y2m2w1d AV HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
For a blissful few seconds when Adam woke up, there was just the light of sunrise staining what promised to be a clear blue sky and the loose, relaxed feeling of muscles newly mended by Crue-D. In those seconds, the world was perfect.
Then yesterday hit him in the head.
He levered himself upright. He was still in his civvies, basketball shorts and a T-shirt that he’d made himself, one of the few items of clothing he had that was actually loose on him.
BASEBALL was slumped in an armchair in the doorway, snoring quietly with a book on his knee. Somebody had draped a blanket over him, and there was a mug of tea on the floor next to him, untouched and long gone cold. Adam recognized one of Major Powell’s mugs.
Remorse stabbed him right in the heart. Base was going to be suffering from lost sleep for the rest of the day, which was no fun at all on the SOR’s training regime. A quick glance at the clock said it was only 0530. A Cimbrean day was twenty-eight hours long in total - close enough to Earth that people didn’t really suffer from the difference. In fact, the extra hours usually translated to feeling like every day had been both productive and restful.
Still. If Base had been up most of the night…
Base started slightly in his seat, and blinked his eyes open. “Uh? Oh, shit.”
He straightened up, moving his back sinuously with a rapid-fire of little pops and crackles as he cleared out the stiffness from a few hours of bad posture. “Wasn’t supposed to sleep…”
“You okay, bro?” Adam asked him.
“Fuck if I know.” Adam grumbled and sat up properly, swinging his feet down onto the floor.
John didn’t say anything, just bookmarked what he’d been reading, retrieved the tea, sipped it, grimaced, and took both book and drink into the kitchen. A few seconds later, Adam heard the microwave close and hum into life.
First things first—after any serious injury was repaired by Crue-D, the first thing to do was to test it. Twenty push-ups were more than enough to confirm that his elbow was fine, and they blasted out some of the dust in his head for good measure.
He padded through into the kitchen. “You stayed up all night?” he asked.
“Yeah. We figured somebody had to keep an eye on you.”
“Dude, I wasn’t gonna do something stupid…”
“I know, just…” John shrugged expansively, and sipped his re-heated tea.
“First breakup’s always the worst.” John sighed.
“I can’t believe her.” Adam sighed, thumping over to the fridge. To his quiet delight, there was still half a box of Eggos in there. “Where did you even get these on Cimbrean?”
Adam grunted and nodded as he turned on the grill. Able Seaman Thomas ‘Londis’ Magoro derived his nickname from a chain of British convenience stores, thanks to his legendary ability to procure almost anything. If you wanted something and you wanted it quickly, you went to Londis.
“I gotta ask, brother…” John said. “Eggos?”
Adam shrugged “My dad made them for me whenever Mom was being difficult… Guess they’re my comfort food.” he laughed. “Hell, shove enough butter and syrup on them, they’re probably a great fit for our macronutrients, right?”
John gave a half-hearted half-laugh and sipped his tea again.
“Something wrong?” Adam asked.
“Stop trying to put a brave face on it, man. You’re torn up.” John told him.
Adam hesitated, then shook his head and waved his hands resignedly. “It’s done man. It’s over. Fuck her. Just gotta move on, I guess.”
John just gave him a patient stare.
”…Alright! Alright. I’m fucking… I just don’t know why man?! How could she! What the fuck? She just threw it all away? Why?”
“Brother… I love you, but you’ve got the girl-smarts of a fucking ten-year-old.” John grunted, and drained his mug.
“You’re saying it’s my fault?” Adam asked, incredulous.
“Nuh.” John shook his head. “But it takes two to dance, man. D’you really think you were being fair on her? Never there, not really there there even when you were there… you follow me?”
“She’s still the one who-”
“Yeah.” John interrupted. “but… I’ve done that shit too man.”
Adam blinked at him. “You have?”
“I played around, yeah. Ain’t proud of it, but…” John scratched his head thoughtfully. “Look, the cheater’s to blame, but they cheat for a reason. And at the time it seemed like a good reason. That’s all I’m saying.”
Adam didn’t reply, and they lapsed into thoughtful silence until the Eggos were out of the grill and drowned in butter and maple syrup.
“What could I have done differently, though?” he asked. “I wrote her all the time, called her every chance I got, took as much leave as I could to spend time with her…”
“You know what I remember?” John asked. Adam had served him a couple of Eggos as well, and he’d apparently decided he enjoyed them. “You remember that night we were on the plane coming up to Scotch Creek to jump out here, and she called you really upset about something? And at the end of that call she was mad at you and hung up and you had no idea what she’d even called about?”
“Par for the fucking course with you, bro. Every conversation you two ever had worked out like that somehow. I mean… did you ever ask her how her degree was going? Or, or take a look at her website?”
“She has a website?”
John rocked back. “Are you-? You don’t even fucking know she has a website?!”
“What’s on this website?”
“Her photos, man! She’s a photographer, or did you not notice that? It’s her portfolio!”
Adam just stared at him, shaking his head slightly while he chewed.
“Jesus fuck.” John rubbed his forehead. “Do I actually know more about your girlfriend than you do?”
“And this is fuckin’ why, man! This shit right here is why she cheated on you.”
Adam looked down at his plate. “Doesn’t excuse it.” he grunted.
“No! But it explains it though!” John took a breath and cooled down. “She didn’t just do this ‘just because’, brother. She had a reason, even if that reason wasn’t good enough. I mean, how much leave did you have saved up? Sixty days? Use it or lose it, right? I remember, the major had to order us to take leave time.”
“Yeah but, ramping down and coming back up on the training takes a month each! That would have put us behind-”
“Adam.” John sighed. “I’m not telling you if you were right or wrong not to take leave. I’m telling you why it happened, and what more you could have done. That’s all. You could have taken more leave, you could have spent more time with her, you could have actually taken an interest. You didn’t do any of those things and… well, this happened. She’s the one who did it, but you’ve gotta ask why she felt she had to. Right?”
Not wanting to admit out loud that he was probably right, Adam forced himself to shut up and think, rather than argue any more.
He kept to himself for the next couple of hours as the rest of the guys woke up, and as the morning routine of keeping the dorm clean and tidy unfolded—necessary, because it would have reeked of male musk, body odour and sweat otherwise—the simple chores gave his mind time to work.
For their part, the guys clearly sensed that he wasn’t in a talkative mood, and were cool with that. They were just there, solid and dependable and giving him exactly what he needed—room and quiet to think. He appreciated that hugely.
They were in the middle of hanging out the laundry when the dorm’s phone rang. Akiyama fielded it.
“Yo, Horse! Call from gate guard for ya!”
Adam and Base shared a frown, and he jogged over to take the call. “Arés.”
“Staff Sergeant, I have a gentleman here asking for you by name. He says it’s important. Name of Harvey, Sean Harvey.”
“Turn him away.” Adam told them.
“He says, uh… He says ‘Ava’s gone missing’, sergeant.”
Adam must have paused for longer than he thought, because the next word he heard was “…Sergeant?”
”…I’ll be right there.”
He notified REBAR of where he was going and jogged the few hundred meters over to the main gates. Sure enough, Sean was loitering at the guard post, pacing nervously.
Adam didn’t waste time on being nice. “What do you want?”
“She’s just… gone. She went to see your dad last night and now she’s… nobody knows where she is.” Sean explained. “I’m kinda worried she might…”
Adam spun away from him, and was halfway back to the gates when Sean spoke up. “This is why she did it, you know!”
Adam didn’t turn around, but he did stop. “Do you even care about her?” He asked. “Or did you just wanna get your dick wet?”
“Do YOU care about her?” Sean retorted. “Or just about your fucking territory?”
Several hundred pounds of angry SOR operator was in his face half a second later. To Sean’s credit, he did little more than rock back on his heels. He was shaking, but he held his own. “You’re just going to walk away and let her be missing?”
“I was going,” Adam snarled, “to request leave to go look for her.”
“Sergeant?” The guards had stepped forward, cautiously. “Break it up, please.”
“You know where she is?” Sean asked, ignoring them.
Adam didn’t ignore them. He straightened. “What the fuck makes you think you have a right to know?” he asked.
“Because I’m her bloody friend you giant pillock!” Sean snapped.
Adam’s fist clenched. “Friend?” he asked. “Is that what you call it?”
“Sergeant…” The gate guards had drawn closer. “Break it up, please.”
Adam spared them a sideways glance, then very, very carefully relaxed his hand before he aimed a finger at Sean’s face. “You don’t get shit from me, Harvey.” he growled. “She can tell you herself where she got to, after I’ve gone and got her. Fuck her, fuck you, and fuck off.”
He stalked back through the gates, back to the dorm, and right up to REBAR, who’d taken over as their NCOIC since they’d lost Legsy. “Requesting leave.” he said, getting right to the point.
REBAR blinked at him. “Dude, you could have just told the gate guard.”
“Yeah just… I’ma be gone all day. Wanted to grab some stuff and tell you in person.”
REBAR gave him a hug. “Okay brother. You go do what you gotta.”
Adam just nodded and gave him a weak smile. He spun round the dorm, grabbing his light ruck from under his bunk to throw in a couple of pouches of juice, an old sweater of his that he never wore any longer on account of it being much too small, two bags of beef jerky and a small first-aid kit.
He changed his footwear too. He usually wore flip-flops or went barefoot around the base—boots and shoes were too expensive and broke too quickly between the size of his feet, his own mass and his tendency to bounce around rather than lumber. His hiking sandals, on the other hand, had taken everything he could throw at them for two years.
A couple more essentials, including his phone, and he was back out of the gate less than ten minutes after he’d sent Sean packing. He hung an immediate left, followed the fence around two sides of the base and then set out through the young broad-leaf plantation that came right up as close as the foresters were allowed.
It was exactly what he needed. Adam had never been the kind of guy who did his greatest thinking in a quiet room at the best of times, and five years in the service had only strengthened the connection between his muscles and his brain. It was almost like one couldn’t work properly unless the other was busy.
Sure, a simple steady hike—even at the hard pace he set—through gently sloping woodland wasn’t exactly taxing, but it was enough to settle his body into a rhythm and let his brain get down to business.
Anybody coming back down the trail would have been a little alarmed to run into a guy who put pro wrestlers to shame talking angrily to himself. He spent the first two miles aggressively rehearsing all the ways he was going to tell Ava off. Then he spent the next two miles telling himself off, rehearsing ways to reconcile, rehearsing her side of the argument.
When he did eventually run into somebody, it was an elderly couple out walking their dog, probably from one of the little peripheral forest communities. Folctha had attracted a lot of them—elderly couples and early retirees wanting a place where their pensions would go further, a nudist camp, the odd religious commune kept under close scrutiny by Cimbrean Colonial Security in case they started showing any cultish behaviour, or just second homes owned by hard-working Reclamation Project workers and Folctha city employees who wanted somewhere quiet to retreat to for the weekend.
He saw them long before they were in earshot, shut up, met them with a polite touch to his forehead and a “Sir. Ma’am.” and ignored the stares. People around Folctha were pretty used to the SOR, but these two had clearly never met one of the Operators before. Their reaction was pretty standard for first-timers.
The contact was enough to shut him up for the rest of the walk, or at least turn his thought process into a steady mill of ideas being worked over internally, rather than a crazy person shouting at trees. He was almost in a positive mood when he finally reached the point where the trail branched, leading off in one direction toward Scrap Point, a research outpost dedicated to diving the alien spaceship wreckage on the lake bed. The other way went down to Sara’s Beach, a public recreation spot that was actually a good kilometre or so from the spot that he personally thought of as Sara’s beach, but much more accessible.
He followed the second trail until it intersected the paved road and, rather than hanging a right and walking down to the lake shore as the trail signs directed, instead crossed straight over and plunged on into the woods.
The ecological calamity that the Cimbrean Reclamation Project insisted on calling “The Terran Microbe Action Zone” (and which the colonists knew rather less formally as “The Skidmark”) hadn’t ever reached out this far, and so none of the native flora had been felled. It was still being steadily and relentlessly choked out by the Earthling imports, but that was all part of the plan. First had come logging everything within ten kilometers of the Zone, replanting and populating with species imported from Earth, and that was it. The natural aggressiveness and biological advantage of Deathworld life was being left to do the rest.
The result was a confused boundary zone where imported broadleaf trees gave way to a tangle of Earth and Cimbrean flora, the latter steadily dying back as the former out-grew them, shaded them over, guzzled the soil nutrients and, in a lot of cases, parasitized them.
And then… nothing but natives. Native trees, native bird-ish things and mammal-ish things and other life forms that were, for the most part, surprisingly ordinary looking. The bird-ish things had mouths with teeth rather than beaks, and the mammal-ish things were covered in something that was more like moss than like fur or wool, and of course the universal constant in Cimbrean fauna was three eyes… but nothing that actually looked amazingly exotic. Just life, getting on with the business of living and oblivious to the creeping extinction only a hundred yards away.
There was even a stand of Cimbreaner Simiscamellia Delanii, the Cimbrean Tea Bush. It was growing not even twenty yards away from a thorny, berry-laden snarl of Terraner Rubus Fruticosus. The botanists had decided very early on that in order to remain sensible and useful, the taxonomic system of classification needed to be amended to include, above the Domain level, the Planet rank.
Adam had to admit. Cimbrean was still beautiful.
He heard Ava long before he saw her. He could hear her voice between the trees and bushes, talking to somebody. He had no idea who—Sean hadn’t mentioned anybody else being missing and people never came this far along the shore from Sara’s Beach…
She turned out to be talking to herself. She was right where he’d known she would be—seated on the same old rock where she’d always sat, facing out toward the same view with her clothes folded neatly on the stone next to her, resting with her elbows and her knees, looking down at her feet.
She flinched when she realized somebody was there, then relaxed when she saw who it was.
Adam blinked. He hadn’t foreseen that she’d be nude. “You uh… Did you swim?”
“No I didn’t swim.” she shook her head. “I just… I’m more comfortable this way up here.”
She leaned over and grabbed her t-shirt.
“Aren’t you cold?” he asked.
She flapped the shirt to get it the right way out. “Kinda, but… It’s not too bad.”
“Who were you talking to, anyway?” Adam asked her. There was nobody else present.
“This is going to sound really stupid…” Ava’s face went a little red as she tugged her shirt on and covered up.
”…I was talking to Sara.”
Adam hesitated, then gently rested a concerned hand on her upper back. “Baby…”
The term of endearment surprised him. After everything, after learning what she’d done, his first instinct was still to be tender and to love her?
“I know.” Ava nodded, and rubbed her face. “I know she’s dead, I know. It’s stupid, I just-”
“She was fourteen, Ava.” Adam sat down. “Maybe not the best source of life wisdom, you know?”
Ava sobbed a laugh, and they sat together in silence for a long time. Not touching, but close.
“I brought some juice. And, uh, a sweater. And stuff.” Adam handed her the bag. A tiny grateful smile put in a cameo appearance as she dug out one of the juice pouches and the sweater, which she shrugged on. She must have been colder than she’d realized.
“I should probably have told somebody where I was going, huh?” she asked.
“Sean was worried for you.”
“And he went to you?”
“Yeah. He’s got balls, I’ll give him that.”
Ava didn’t answer. Instead, she impaled the juice pouch with a straw and drained it.
”…What were you talking to Sara about, anyway?” Adam asked her once she’d finished.
Ava glanced at him, then down at her bare feet. “You know what’s really stupid?” She asked. “Like, really, really, ‘what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-me’ stupid?”
She looked at him again. “You explained everything perfectly yesterday. You put it totally into perspective. I get it, I get just how badly I fucked up, and still there’s this bitch voice in the back of my head that wants me to believe… that’s trying to tell me I did nothing wrong.” She looked out over the lake. “I was trying to get rid of it.”
“By talking to Sara?”
She nodded, miserably picking at a fingernail. “Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it?”
He shook his head gently. “Not really.”
“Nothing makes sense.”
Adam mulled that comment over.
“No…” he decided. “Things do make sense. You know what the weirdest part of all this is?”
“If you’d just… told me, or asked me…fuck! I might even have been okay with it! Because I get it, I understand, you put it perfectly yesterday too. I married the Air Force first.” He sighed. “But instead you lied to me, Ava. For… what, two years?”
“About that.” she agreed, nodding sadly.
“I get that I was neglecting you,” Adam told her. “I get that I was making decisions for us both without consulting you. Hell, I get that he was… probably good for you! What I Just. Don’t. Get. is why you couldn’t be straight with me?” He wiped his own eyes off. “For God’s sake, yeah, breaking up with me would have hurt, but this?”
Ava, who usually shed tears so easily, seemed to have run out. Or maybe she’d just gone somewhere past them, where they were no longer relevant. Either way, her face was a mask of dry despondency.
”…I’ve been asking myself that question all morning.”
“And… I really thought I was doing it for you. Charlotte said it was because I was lonely and horny, but… But I can remember thinking ‘it’s this or I lose him,’ and…” she exhaled and ran three fingers through her hair. “It’s so stupid. I’m so stupid. If I hadn’t got so hung up on holding on to the past, at least I’d still have my integrity, you know? But because I got it in my head I was doing it for you, I went and did completely the wrong thing.”
Adam stood up. “I thought I was doing this for you!” he told her, gesturing at the full, hugely-muscled mass of himself. “But you said it last night: You didn’t want or need me to do this, and I sure as fuck didn’t want or need you to cheat on me…”
He sat down again. “Maybe we both need to stop believing our own bullshit.” he concluded.
Ava just stared at him, so he sighed and elaborated.
“I thought I was doing this to protect you.” He said. “Really I did, I was convinced. But you’re right, if I’d really been acting for you, then… hell, I’d probably have gone into Colonial Security and been there for you every night, and… Instead I just got caught up in this. I was angry and grieving over Sara, I wanted to fight back, and then it turned out I’m good at fighting back. The best maybe!”
He looked out across the lake, choosing his words. “Do you know what it’s like to get pulled along into something like that? Where everything just lines up and you’d never even think of slowing down or stopping because it just feels right? Because you’re enjoying it so much you don’t ever want it to end?”
Ava nodded. “You feel like you’re taking back your life.” She agreed.
“You feel like you’re in control but really you’re strapped in for the ride but because you’ve got a wheel in your hands you don’t notice you’re not doing the steering.”
”…That’s how it was for me, too.” she said.
”…Do you think that’s the truth?” Adam asked her. “Or is it just more bullshit we’re inventing to make ourselves feel better?”
Ava paused. “…I…think it’s the truth.” she said. “Or at least… I hope it is…”
She trailed off, then spread her arms helplessly. “I don’t know any more. I spent all this time trying to do the right thing, and did completely the wrong thing instead. I don’t… I don’t know if I can trust what’s in my head.”
“Then how can I trust you?” Adam asked.
Ava didn’t answer, just stared despairingly at the water. A couple of minutes elapsed in mutual silence, before she finally spoke, quietly.
“We’re done, aren’t we?”
Adam nodded and stood up. “I love you, Ava.” he said. “But there’s just no… I can’t.”
“I know…” She looked up at him, grief and remorse written in every nuance of her expression. “I’m so sorry, Adam.”
”…I’m sorry too.”
He turned his back on her, and started back up the trail.
Date Point 10y2m2w1d AV Vancouver General Hospital, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Earth.
White and beeping.
And sort of a soft blue. Greens, too. Hints of scarlet light, and a click-hiss valve noise that corresponded to a strange pressure in her chest.
Blink. Frown. Focus.
A question floated across her mind in three languages: Where yi nǎlǐ?
That wasn’t right. Wǒ kin I? Shi am nǎlǐ?
So hard to think. She tried to take a calming breath, clear her head, and something started to make an alarming sound.
“Xiù? Xiù! Nurse? Nurse help!”
…Purple? Moving purple, and dark skin, and a soothing tone, like Ayma comforting a wailing cub.
“It’s okay, it’s okay… she’s just awake, it’s okay. Shhh, darling. Don’t fight the ventilator, it’s okay. It’s okay, you’re safe.”
Xiù? What was a Xiù?
So hard to think but… those strangers by her bedside. The tiny elderly woman in tears. The skinny old balding man holding her hand with stress plowing his forehead. The tall fat man behind them with his hands on their…
No. No no no, that was wrong! She didn’t have a big brother! Her parents weren’t-
“Okay honey, shhh… calm now… I’m sorry, this is really distressing her, we’d better put her under again… It’s okay darling, you’re just not ready yet… It’s okay…”
Something in her left hand. Something that made all the wrong go away.
And… colours. Cards, by her bed. “Get Well Soon!” “We missed you!” “Welcome home!”
There was no beeping, this time. No hissing or clicking, nothing in her throat doing her breathing for her. Just… yes, a drip in her hand, and darkness outside the window. Warm yellow light through a slightly ajar door, admitting hushed conversation.
Xiù sat up, cautiously. She was alone, she had time to gather her thoughts, assess the situation.
Fact check. She was in a hospital, with a drip in her hand. The gravity felt normal. The air had a certain… richness to it, warm and nourishing. She couldn’t tell what the voices outside were saying—their volume was much too tactful for that—but the cadences sounded English.
She carefully selected the right word. “…Hello?”
The conversation outside ceased, and then there were brisk footsteps, a rustle of scrubs, and a middle-aged nurse poked her head round the door.
Her face lit up on seeing Xiù. “Oh! Hi!”
Xiù froze, having not planned the conversation this far ahead. “…Hi. Uh…”
“Oh it’s okay honey, you’re a bit disoriented right now, eh?”
“A-a little.” Xiù nodded. “…I’m in Vancouver?”
“Yep!” The nurse patted the bed “I’m Liz. Am I okay to sit down?”
Liz did so, settling comfortably next to her. “You and your friends made a stir when you showed up! You especially.”
“Oh! Where are my-? I’m sorry, can I get you something, sweetie? No solids until the doctor says otherwise, but I could call up for some soup?”
”…Actually, that’d be really nice. Yes please.”
“Okay. You’ll be okay for a few seconds?”
Xiù nodded for her, and managed a little smile.
Liz wasn’t long. Xiù heard her feet in the hall, a quick conversation, and she returned in only a minute or two. Still, it was long enough for Xiù to sort out her head and think through the most pressing questions she had.
“So.” Liz said, bustling back in. “Where were we?”
“Are my friends okay?” Xiù asked her. “Julian and Allison?”
“They’re fine. They’re asleep right now, but they’re just fine. You had the worst of it, actually.”
Liz gestured with her hand, raising her left arm and touching a spot on her ribs, with an expression hinting for Xiù to do the same. When she did, there was a dressing there. “You’ve been asleep for about three days.” Liz told her. “There were a couple of operations. Doctor Spilny will explain it all in the morning.”
“Can I see them?”
“In the morning sweetie. You’re all pretty badly hurt, you need to rest.”
Liz’s tone was kindly and comforting, but firm enough to convince Xiù she wouldn’t get her way there.
She looked at the cards on her bedside again. “We caused a stir?”
“Especially you! Vancouver’s own prodigal daughter, gone these ten years, and-”
“Ten years?!” Xiù’s hand flew to her face in shock. “How long were we-? Uh, right… the escape pod… Stasis…”
“Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie, that just came out. I’m sorry.” Liz soothed.
“No, it’s okay… I knew it was going to be about that, but…” Xiù rubbed her face. It didn’t help. Her hands were shaking, so were her shoulders, and there was an urgent heat coming up from deep inside her, behind her eyes…
Liz, demonstrating the sixth sense of mothers and nurses the world over, pulled her into a hug before the tears even arrived, and let her get it out of her system.
“I’m home… God, I made it, I’m home…”
“Yes you did.”
Xiù disengaged gently and sat up, wiping her cheeks. “…Sorry.”
“Don’t even apologise to me, sweetie. It’s okay.” Liz smiled warmly, and indicated that Xiù’s soup had arrived sometime while she hadn’t been paying attention. Xiù didn’t need prompting—she scooped it up and, after a tentative sip to make sure it wasn’t too hot, devoured the lot.
It wasn’t the greatest soup ever. But it was warm, it was comforting, it was chicken—and it was amazing how many things in the galaxy didn’t taste like chicken—and it lasted maybe thirty seconds.
“Whew!” Liz made an appreciative noise. “You needed that, eh?”
“Oh God yes.” Xiù wiped a little from the corners of her mouth, trying not to be embarrassed.
“Do you think you can sleep some more? You really should.”
It surprised Xiù to note that she was in fact feeling exhausted. Hadn’t she been asleep for a few days? But Liz’s suggestion actually sounded really good right now.
“I’ll… yeah, I think I can.” She said.
“Okay. We’ll be just outside if you need anything. Call if you need anything.”
Xiù promised that she would and settled back onto her pillow. Liz fussed gently in making sure she was properly tucked in, then bade her goodnight and left, leaving the door open.
That left only the ceiling in the dim light, and one thought, as Xiù fell asleep:
Date Point 10y2m2w1d AV Byron Group head offices, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
“My God, what happened?”
Kevin could see why the question was being whispered. Moses Byron, who was always the picture of smiling confidence and vitality, looked stressed. Pale, even. Rather than striding into the room in his usual blustering style, he more… shuffled. Thoughtfully.
“Did somebody die?”
Byron took a moment to survey the crew of BGEV-8, assorted board members and department heads, and cleared his throat. “Been a development.” he croaked, and cleared his throat again. “This, uh… this planning session is cancelled. I’ll let you know personally when we reschedule. For now, uh…”
He coughed. “Rachael. Recall GEV-9 and GEV-10. Tell them under no circumstances are they to use their jump drives—they’ve got to come back the old-fashioned way.”
“Mister Byron, that’ll take them months-!” somebody protested.
Moses held up his hand. “I know. I ain’t changing my mind. Oh, and, uh… Trevor, some fine folks will be along later today to take a good look at your department. Give them full access. To everything, and I mean everything, including Project Ophanim.”
Nobody said a word—they just exchanged bewildered and slightly scared expressions. Finally, Byron spoke again, looking at Kevin. “Everybody whose name isn’t Kevin Jenkins, go find something to do. I don’t care what it is, go home early if you want. Go on.”
People practically fled.
“Based on the little… ‘chat’ I just had with the halls of power in this great nation of ours…” Byron began, once the last door was closed “It seems I need to hire me a no-man. Somebody who, if I’ve got fifty people kissing my ass and telling me we’re golden, if I look at you and you shake your head, we bury that idea and never speak of it again. Sound like something you can do?”
“Does this thing come with a salary?” Kevin asked. He judged it correctly—Byron laughed.
“Hah! And an office.” he said. “Though if half the things I hear about your cooking are true, I might include attending to the comestibles on your list of duties.”
“I could be persuaded to take a job like that.”
“Good… good” Byron cleared his throat again. “…We dodged a bullet. By this much.” he confided, holding up two narrowly spaced fingers for illustration.
“Dodged at least two by my count.” Kevin agreed.
“Yeah… I’ll see you in the office tomorrow. You got a place to stay?”
“HR already got my hotel room sorted out.” Kevin told him. “Guess I’d better see them about somewhere more permanent, huh?”
“You do that.” Byron agreed. He shook Kevin’s hand and wandered out of the room, clearly still deep in thought.
Kevin’s mission pay had already been sorted out, and thanks to the miracle of modern digital banking, calling and paying for a taxi were effectively the same thing.
He’d planned on leaving Earth forever. He distinctly remembered how the word had felt as he spoke it. Forever. Not for five years, not until something better came along. Forever. Get himself out of his estranged daughter’s life and never look back.
It was the first time he’d even thought of her in years, and he ambled through the hotel lobby and into the elevator in a pensive mood, only shaking himself back into the here and now as the doors opened with a chime.
He was about to swipe his phone to open the door lock when a thought occurred to him. Experimentally, he knocked on his own hotel room door.
The door wasn’t locked, and Special Agent Williams was sitting in the large comfortable chair by the window, putting down a tablet. “Well done.” she added. “You have good instincts.”
“Save it.” Kevin muttered, and sat on his bed. “Look, Williams-”
“Ah.” she raised a finger. “Small note on tradecraft for you. ‘Williams’ is a cover name. Professionally and to you, I go by Darcy. Special Agent Darcy, if you want to be formal.”
“Darcy, huh? That a fake name too?”
“If it was, why would I tell you?” She smiled again. “I would have introduced myself as Darcy if you hadn’t dug up Williams to say hello.”
“Pardon me for spoiling your entrance.” Kevin deadpanned. “So what, are you offering me a job as well?”
“I am.” she agreed. “Though I suspect the title won’t be as impressive as whatever it is Byron’s calling your new role.”
Either Darcy’s professional façade genuinely did slip for a moment, or else she was by a league the most flawless liar Kevin had ever met. “Hah!” she giggled, and raised a hand to cover her mouth. “Oh, that’s good. I like that.”
“So what would my job be?” Kevin asked her, deciding he probably had got through to the real woman under the Company act, whoever she was, and allowing himself a satisfied smile.
“Oh, exactly the same as you’re doing for Moses Byron - veto any ideas of his that strike you as unwise. You’ll need… well.”
She hefted a light black satchel from beside her chair and handed it to him. Inside was a brand new Samsung tablet still in its box, and some kind of a black device to attach to it.
“What’s the box do?” Kevin asked.
“Encryption, decryption, secure communications…” Darcy shrugged. “Don’t plug it into any device other than that tablet.”
“What’ll it do, explode?”
“No, it just won’t work. But it would still technically be a felony.”
“Communication with what?” Kevin pressed.
“A secure server.” Darcy said. “Full of briefings and reports and documents that you’ll need to read, though I suspect that a lot of what’s in there won’t come as that much of a surprise to you.”
Kevin nodded. “Just two more questions…”
Darcy sat back and delicately crossed her legs. “Shoot.”
“One: Why me? I ain’t exactly the model of ambitious patriotism, you know.”
“Ten years ago, you drove up to the front gates of SCERF carrying the kind of intelligence we were absolutely starving for.” Darcy told him. “You’ve clearly got something that does the job of ambition, even if it’s just that you’d rather not get nuked from orbit. Certainly, you’re smart enough to know that as a real possibility and you’ve taken active steps—potentially at risk to your own liberty and person—to combat it.” She inclined her head. “Now would you say that somebody like that wasn’t worth our time?”
Kevin frowned and didn’t answer.
“What’s your second question?” Darcy prompted him, eventually.
”…Does this thing come with a salary?”
Date Point 10y2m2w1d AV HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Folctha, Planet Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Woah… hey, I thought you were gone for the day, man?”
Adam just shrugged and hung his light bag by the door. “I took a day. Got to sort out some things. Get my head right. But… you know me, I gotta be doing shit to think right, you hear me?”
“I hear ya.” John agreed. “I was gonna lift…”
“Nuh-uh. We’re wrestling. Now.”
Fifty seconds later, the mat was grinding painfully against John’s face and his arm felt like it was one Newton of force at most from dislocating.
“So.” Adam shifted his posture just a little bit while John’s feet scrabbled ineffectually for purchase. “Let’s talk about how you kept my cheating ex’s secret for her, ‘brother’.”
Date Point 10y2m2w5d AV Folctha, Planet Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“I know, I just…”
Ava took one last look. It would have been nice to think of Folctha as her home, but… it wasn’t. Not any more. Not really. It was all white buildings and parks and streets, now. There were cars, there was the beginning of a rail network to connect to the outlying farms and villages. There was a thriving street or two full of shops. There was a supermarket. There were paved roads, advertisements, the neon green cross of a pharmacy. It was a town, now. It wasn’t the Folctha she’d lived in.
She could remember little wooden chalets tucked between the native trees. She could remember being happy in a place that might have been here, but wasn’t here. She could remember…
But that’s all it was. Memory.
Charlotte and Ben waved sadly to her from beyond the glass. She’d already said goodbye to Gabe, and Adam… she wasn’t surprised he hadn’t come. Jess had work. Hayley had left Cimbrean years ago.
She presented her passport, stepped through the security arch, shuffled into place on the Jump Array’s deck alongside Sean, and fidgeted as the last few people did likewise. The gate was closed, there was a short countdown, and…
And she was on Earth.
The Earth end of the Byron Group’s commercial jump array was Hamburg airport, and Ava could sense being on a different planet even if the architecture hadn’t suddenly and confusingly changed without so much as a flicker. Folctha’s municipal gravity generator might have exactly duplicated Earth gravity, but it couldn’t duplicate the heavy richness of the air. It was like coming down from mountaintop to sea level. It was warmer, denser, more oxygenated and more humid. Earth was a hot planet by galactic standards, and doomed to get hotter despite the rapid one-eighty in carbon dioxide production over the last eight years. She could taste and smell that fact in every breath.
“So. Hamburg.” She hoisted her bag. Beside her, Sean snapped the drag-handle up from his and kicked it over into his hand.
“Are we flying back to London?”
“That’s cheapest.” Sean agreed.
“Fifty quid each.”
“Good…” They passed through another security arch. “I can afford that.”
“I won’t hear of it.” Sean told her. “You’re going to need that money.”
“You’re going to need a job. That means buses and the tube and maybe a taxi or two. So keep your money and use it. You can pay me back once you’re earning.”
“You can afford that?” She asked.
“I’ve been writing articles for a bunch of different news sites and blogs, working part-time at ‘Spoons.” Sean shrugged. “I can afford it, just. I was probably going to wind up looking for a lodger anyway. Rent in London being what it is I’d have made a fuck of a lot, too, but… I mean, money’s less important than helping you get on your feet.”
Touched, Ava managed a smile for him.
“Besides,” Sean added “I’ve got something coming up. My uncle Simon gets back from Angola next week. If he follows through on what he was talking about in his emails, maybe you and me, we could land on our feet.”
“What’s he doing in Angola?”
“Covering the election for Reuters.”
“I’ve still got that offer from Byron Group…” Ava noted, glancing at the corporate advertising for the jump array—Earth and Cimbrean, photographed from orbit and connected by a line that cycled through all the classic, vivid fibre-optic colours with the tagline ‘One small step…’
“Moses Byron talks a good game.” Sean agreed. “Hell, it seems like he walks his talk too. I’m just not… I don’t know, do you trust anybody who got that big that quickly?”
Ava shrugged. “People like his whole ‘ethics and integrity’ brand. Even if it’s just an act for the camera, he’s playing that part to the hilt.”
“Is that the same thing as actually being ethical though?”
“Sean…” Ava sighed. “Don’t ask me about morals and stuff right now. I don’t feel qualified.”
He inclined his head slightly, assessing her mood, then nodded and laid his hand gently on her upper back for just a second. “Okay.”
Neither of them said a word to the other for nearly an hour after that, by which point they had boarded their plane, taken off and reached cruising altitude. He’d been looking out of the window for most of that time.
”…Are we okay?” he asked.
Ava had been using the plane’s wifi to check her website. She put the tablet down when he spoke, and gave the question some thought. “We’re… You’re my very best friend, Sean. Is that enough? I don’t think I’ve got more than that to give.”
He nodded, and gave her a hug. “I’m sorry, Ava.”
”…You didn’t do anything.”
“No, I did. I got selfish, and…” Sean shrugged. “I pushed.”
“You didn’t hurt me, Sean.” Ava reassured him. “I hurt myself.”
“And I helped.”
“Yeah, well… you can stop helping me hurt myself by letting me take the blame for this, okay?” She told him. “This whole thing has been a lesson, and I want to learn it, not, not foist off the responsibility on somebody else.” It was her turn to give him a reassuring squeeze. “You learn your lesson, and I’ll learn mine. Okay?”
Sean nodded despondently, aware that lesson he was going to have to learn was the one he wished he didn’t have to. “…Okay.”
He looked out the window again. “…That makes sense.”
Date Point 10y2m2w6d AV Uncharted System, Deep Space
”-show up. There we go. It seems we escaped.”
Vedreg allowed a mingled pulse of relief and released anxiety to highlight his body. A human would have shuddered. “I detest stasis.” he declared. “Death or life on the moment of a button press. Thank you for sparing us any anticipation.”
Kirk dropped his lower-right hand, the prosthetic one, off the escape pod’s control panel and gave a pleased nod. “And we have indeed arrived at our destination. Good.” he announced.
Their “destination”, as far as Vedreg could tell, was a system in the middle of nowhere, some five years’ travel time from the final resting place of the starship Sanctuary at the meager ten kilolights that was their escape pod’s top speed.
Without the stasis field, they would have starved to death before completing even a fraction of the journey, and theirs was one of the largest, fastest and best-equipped lifepods in their late ship’s stable. Most of the others had been much smaller, cruder and slower. As it was…
Both of them glanced in the corner, and mutually decided not to discuss the deathworlder in the room. Lewis had come scrambling into their escape pod seconds before Kirk had sealed it, babbling about Sanctuary’s port living area taking a bad hit and separating him from the others. He was now slumped against the wall with his arms on his knees and his forehead resting against them.
The escape pod’s sensors had reported that all other life rafts had launched alongside theirs, moments before Amir had suicidally rammed and destroyed a Hierarchy dreadnought. Despite Lewis pleading and weeping at the console for nearly an hour, however, there had been no response from any of them. He’d finally given up and sunk despondently to the deck, scooted into the corner and gone very still and quiet. Humans were almost as expressive as Guvnuragnaguvendrugun, sometimes. Some of their emotions played out across their whole bodies.
Vedreg could hardly blame him: Subjectively, scant seconds had passed since Lewis had given up on his friends. Pointing out that as far as the rest of the galaxy was concerned they had been dead for five years would have been both unhelpful and tactless. Lewis had every right to grieve.
Rrrtktktkp’ch on the other hand were much more difficult to fathom without a translator. By the standards of pretty much every other sapient life-form, including their evolutionary ‘cousins’ the Vzk’tk, Kirk’s species were renowned for reserved emotions, impenetrable body language and inscrutable expressions…but if the way Kirk paused upon glancing at Lewis and then patted the grieving human awkwardly on the shoulder was any indication, he was feeling the loss just as intensely.
Kirk had always been stoic even by Rrrtk standards, however. He turned back to the controls, and indicated them to Vedreg.
Vedreg scrutinized the sensor readings. “That.” he noted, with a swish of accusatory maroon “Is one of the two system defense forcefields stolen from a secure military facility of my people. The other of which now protects Cimbrean, I believe.”
“Yes.” Kirk did not seem to be at all contrite.
“I do not approve of theft, Krrkktnkk a”ktnnzzik”tk.” Vedreg chastised him.
“Would you have given permission if I had asked for them?”
“Then theft was the only option.” Kirk tapped some commands, and spoke something untranslated in his native tongue, a sound like a handful of gravel being tossed down a staircase.
“I beg your pardon?” Vedreg asked him. Kirk just made a satisfied nod, and then carefully enunciated a stream of rattling Domain syllables into the comms console.
The system forcefield deactivated.
No sooner had their pod crossed the threshold of where it had once been, than it popped back up, with barely a Guvnurag’s body-length of clearance sparing the rear end of the escape pod. Kirk clearly wanted to take no chances with anything hostile following them in.
Kirk nodded, and turned the translator back on. “Excellent.”
“Dude.” Lewis raised his head. “That wasn’t even Kirk’s line.”
”…what?” Both of them looked at him.
“He said ‘I have been, and will always be, your friend’.”
”…You speak Domain?” Kirk asked, aghast.
“No, I understand Domain.” Lewis hauled himself upright. “I couldn’t speak Domain if you cut my throat. Where are we?”
“How do you understand Domain?” Kirk demanded.
“Dude, I’ve spent months on the same ship as you. I studied it.”
“But… you shouldn’t be able to understand it!” Kirk protested.
“It’s a language isn’t it?” Lewis shrugged. “Fuck, I can’t pronounce Welsh either, but I could learn that just fine if I wanted. Now where are we and why’s it so goddamn important that you quote Spock at the forcefield?”
Kirk stared at him for a bit, then creaked a prolonged Rrrtk throat-clear, and called up the system navigation display as the liferaft boosted up to two lights and headed inwards.
“This system has no official name, and I’m not sharing its co-ordinates, as much as I trust the both of you.” he said. “Officially, it’s unexplored.”
“I explored it.”
Lewis frowned at him. “Dude, when did you have time?”
“It’s more or less directly between Supply Station ‘Haven In The Dark’ and Nightmare, but no spacelane passes through here. At Sanctuary’s kind of speeds, going cross-country meant having to stop to ground the hull charge almost at every system, and this one has an appropriate gas giant.”
“So why are we here?” Vedreg interjected, shading himself to indicate curiosity.
“I… found something.”
“What did you find?”
“I found out what happened to Mrwrki Station.”
Vedreg glowed a cocktail of surprised royal blue and solemn green, but Lewis just gave them both a confused frown. “Dude, not everyone in this boat’s up to speed on galactic everything.” he told them. “What’s Mur-workey Station, and what happened to it?”
“Mrwrki was a Kwmbwrw research outpost on the Lleyvian Frontier.” Kirk explained. “That’s a cluster of stars in extreme… well. ‘up’. That is, perpendicular to the galactic plane, in the direction conventionally-”
“I know what ‘up’ means, dude.” Lewis snapped. “What happened to it?”
“And turned up here?”
“So, we’re going to dock there.”
Kirk hesitated. “Um… Yes.”
“How do you do that?” Vedreg objected. “How do you jump to accurate conclusions so quickly? All humans do it, it’s… infuriating!”
Lewis frowned at him with his mouth slightly open. “How do you not?” he countered. “I mean, why the fuck else would we be here, to take a selfie?”
“We aren’t deathworlders.” Kirk pointed out.
“But you’ve still got a working fucking thinker!” Lewis exclaimed, nonplussed. “Don’t give me the ancient evolution life-or-death bullshit whatever, I’d expect anyone to see that one coming unless the only thing their brain’s for is holding up their fucking hat!”
The two nonhumans looked at one another, then Kirk, with an air of extreme delicacy, cleared his throat again. “Lewis… are you okay?”
Lewis’ laugh had an incredulous note to it. “Are you se-? Dude, like, are you forgetting the bit where our friends got killed? Because that has harshed my mellow a tiny fucking bit.” He pinched his fingertips together a half-inch apart and peered through the gap to emphasize the point.
“Will shouting at us bring them back?” Kirk asked.
“Wh-? Well, no…”
“Then what good does it do?” Kirk folded all four of his arms.
”…So, what, you’re not even going to give the four of them any more than, like, a minute’s consideration?” Lewis asked.
“Goddamn herd xenos, man, FUCK!” the human spun away into the back of the pod, slumped against the wall, rubbed his face and then barked an order at the pod. “Privacy field.”
It snapped on in a fuzz of white noise and mercifully obscured him from view.
Kirk sagged, shook his head back and forth in a long, slow, swaying arc, and then double-checked the navigation.
“Do you have any thoughts on how to help him?” Vedreg asked, not sure what colour he should be and so settled on a kaleidoscope melange of concern, alarm, empathy, fear, and many more.
“There is one simple trick to helping any human, old friend.” Kirk murmured, guiding their lifeboat out of warp.
There was what had once been a space station below them, half-embedded in the surface of a tiny irregular lumpen moon that was much too small to have pulled itself into a sphere under its own gravity. The station was broken open, missing power to half its decks, eviscerated from where it had crashed into the surface of the rocky object, but still largely intact.
“And that is?” Vedreg asked.
“I meant, and the simple trick is…?”
Kirk ordered the lifeboat to dock with the station’s one remaining powered bay, and turned to face him.
“You give them the means to fight back.”
++End Chapter 23++
While Deathworlders chapters will always be published completely for free, with the aid of my backers on Patreon I”ve now been able to take more time for writing! As a result, chapters are now longer and more detailed (As if you hadn’t noticed).
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