Chapter 25: Where We Stand
Date Point 10y4m1w2d AV
Etsicitty house, North Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth
“Um… Allison fell asleep.”
Julian glanced down and to his right. Allison had indeed fallen asleep, curled up next to him on the bed with her head down on one arm.
He brushed some blonde hairs out of her face. “So she did. It is midnight…”
Xiù glanced at the wall clock guiltily. “I’d better let you sleep too.” she suggested.
“I guess… I mean, you don’t have to.” Julian told her.
They’d spent eight hours together just hanging out. Sitting and lounging around on the bed, discussing everything from current world politics to all the Disney movies that had been released in their absence. There was an elephant in the room that hadn’t been touched on at all, but at the same time, not touching on it had seemed… right, somehow.
“Yeah…” Xiù began to scoot off the bed, then paused and turned back. “Um… thank you.”
“For not freaking out.”
Julian chuckled quietly, and looked back down at Allison. “Freaking out… I’m more worried about pinching myself and waking up.”
That earned one of Xiù’s biggest, prettiest smiles. “Two females who’re into you at once. Every male’s fantasy?”
Julian diplomatically ignored the unconsciously Gaoian way she’d phrased herself and kept playing with Allison’s hair, acutely aware that there was honestly a ’yes’ in there, but there was something more important underneath. He shook his head. “Not that.” he said.
“Are you sure? I can see your ears going pink.” She teased. He laughed, but it faded quickly and he stopped playing with Allison’s hair and took a thoughtful breath.
“I don’t want to wake up and find I’m still on Nightmare.” He said. “All alone.”
He swallowed and fidgeted into a more traditional cross-legged position, feeling suddenly vulnerable, and tried to turn it into a weak joke. “Kinda suck, wouldn’t it?”
Xiù’s smile had faded a little, but she nodded understanding. She opened her mouth to say something, then a thought seemed to occur to her and she darted forward to give him a stinging pinch on his forearm. He clutched at the spot reflexively and blinked at her.
“Still here?” she asked.
He paused, then shut his eyes and nodded, grinning. “Yeah. Still here.”
She offered him her arm. “My turn.”
Rather than pinching it, he took her hand and studied the three ragged scar lines that ran from her elbow to her wrist and up the back of her hand to the knuckle. Hunter teeth were scalpel-sharp, and would have cut cleanly if they had sliced across her arm rather than raking along it. As it was, the marks were there to stay.
She hesitated and bit a lip. “Please… don’t.”
He let go of her hand again. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay, I just… don’t like them.”
Julian looked at her arm again. “If it helps.” he replied. “I like them.”
Xiù studied her scars as if wondering whether they were looking at the same things. “How can you like them?” She asked.
“If you didn’t have them we’d never have met.”
“I don’t, um.” She frowned. “What?”
“Well, think about it. You only have them because you survived getting them. And, here you are. If you’d never got those… who knows where you’d be?”
Xiù swallowed and looked at her arm, as if seeing the marks there in a slightly new light.
“So… yeah. I like ‘em.” Julian finished. “‘Cause you’re here.”
“My God, Julian.” They both jumped as Allison chimed in. “That was fucking romantic.”
“Well, I mean, uh…” Julian cleared his throat awkwardly and never made it as far as a coherent thought.
“Sorry.” Xiù apologised.
“S’okay.” Allison sat up and thrust an arm up into the air, stretching. “Just…”
“Don’t kiss him.” Xiù nodded, looking a touch crestfallen. “I know.”
Allison laughed a little and gave her a hug. “Actually… I’m warming up to the idea.”
“If you both want to.” Allison nodded. “Yeah. Though, uh… maybe get my permission first? I don’t think I’m ready for… not yet.”
“Small steps.” Julian agreed. He looked to Xiù, though he was pretty sure the moment was wrong.
Xiù backed off the bed and perched on the edge “Not… right now.” She said.
“Yeah. Not yet.” Julian agreed.
Xiù stood up and aimed a thumb over her shoulder toward the other bedroom. “I’d better… and let you…”
“You sure?” Allison asked. “It’s a big bed, and he’s warm…”
Xiù shook her head. “I need some time to think.” she said. “It’s okay.”
It was Allison’s turn to seem disappointed. “Okay…Sweet dreams, babe.”
Once he’d heard both doors click shut, Julian stood, pulled his shirt off over his head, threw it into the laundry hamper and turned out the light. Near-pitch darkness marched straight into the room and set up shop like it had never really left.
He undid his belt, let his jeans fall to the ground, and climbed into bed. Beside him, Allison finished squirming out of her own clothes, and she snuggled up to him. “You okay?” she asked.
“…You’re warming to the idea?” Julian asked her.
Allison kissed him on the cheek by way of a reply.
“What? I said it, and I meant it. If that’s what you want…”
“This is starting to sound like you want… I dunno, like some kind of a poly thing?”
She kissed him in the dark. “What do you want? Be real, baby, what would you like?”
“…Lots’a different bits of me are all saying ‘both of you’, and for all kindsa different reason.” Julian told her, honestly. “But…”
“I’m kinda scared there’d be a loser, if we went that way. Like, one of us’d wind up being the spare wheel. I don’t want that to happen to any of us: you, me or her.”
His night vision was coming in, and he could just make out how Allison rested the side of her head in her hand and thought about what he’d said. “…God, that’d really hurt her, yeah.”
“How would we avoid that?”
“We’d be real.” Allison said. “That’s the key to any good relationship.”
“Right. So, why should that change just because we’d be three and not two?” she pointed out. “One-on-one relationships can have a loser too.”
“You really want to do this, don’t you?” Julian asked.
Allison put her head back down on his shoulder. “I don’t know why exactly, but I do.” She agreed. “I don’t want to spend my life stuck in other people’s’ comfort zones. Yeah, if we do this, maybe one of us gets hurt. And it won’t be Xiù. I won’t do that to her.”
“But…?” Julian asked.
She nuzzled into his shoulder. “So maybe we get hurt. I’ve been hurt before, and I don’t think it’s so bad next to never trying.”
“So… are we going for it?”
“I want to.” She said, simply. “Do you?”
“Then it’s up to Xiù.” Allison kissed him again, then rolled over. “Be the big spoon?”
Julian smiled to himself, and cuddled up behind her, infiltrating his arm over her waist. “Yes ma’am.”
“Mmmm…” she issued the hugest, most content sigh and wriggled back into him. “I love you.”
“What, no ’good boy’?”
She nodded sleepily. “They mean the same thing, dummy.”
He smiled, kissed her just below her ear, then put his head down and let her fall asleep. “…I know.”
Date Point 10y4m1w2d AV
London, England, Earth.
Any being who travelled from planet to planet needed to get used to sleeping according to what their body demanded, rather than according to the local diurnal rhythm. When travelling from Gao to Gorai could mean landing at a completely different time of day and in a day/night cycle that was nearly a third longer. It never paid to try and adjust to local time unless you were intent on staying for a while. The difference was even more pronounced on Earth, with its too-short day.
Hence why Regaari was awake at 5am.
The other three weren’t. Warhorse and Baseball, in true deathworlder fashion, seemed to have learned a skill that Regaari wouldn’t have thought possible, in being able to just sleep, wherever and whenever they were, for as long as they needed.
What was even more impressive was that Regaari knew that should he make the smallest noise of alarm or distress, both men would be awake and alert immediately.
They seemed to have discovered a quirk in Ayma meanwhile. After their nightly ritual of shampooing, rinsing, conditioning, rinsing again and then blow-drying, she went completely berserk. The moment the blow-dryer was turned off and she was able to escape the ordeal of being bathed, she would flit restlessly around the room, cleaning up every object that was even microscopically out of place, flipping TV channels, asking questions about every subject that crossed her mind, and even on one occasion pouncing from the bed onto Warhorse’s shoulders and imitating a human cry of “Giddyup!”
After about an hour of this she would, quite suddenly, crash and sleep until somebody woke her.
This had left Regaari to occupy himself for several hours a night every night, and so he had discovered the Internet.
Data networks were easy. Every species had one, and each was a reflection of the minds of its creators. Which, when the minds in question were human, meant that the Internet was anything but easy. Being almost completely illiterate in English only complicated matters.
Still, after some trial and error, Regaari had eventually managed to navigate the prickly shibboleth maze of in-jokes, references and running gags, some of the more enduring of which were as old as Warhorse. Beyond them was an opportunity.
Regaari was an older and much wiser male than he’d been in the days when he had first criticized his Fathers for cozying up to the Dominion. Gone was the earnest, naive young Whitecrest, and in his place was the kind of warrior who didn’t have too many scars not on account of staying out of fights, but on account of winning them. And for all that he was a skilled agent of conflict in the real world, when it came to data and intelligence Regaari knew he was among the rarified stratum of the very, very best.
Compiling a script to trawl assorted translation sources for probable meaning and then convert the written English into the specialist, high-density code that his implants could read was almost trivial. English may have been a context-heavy and intricate language, but the Corti had excelled themselves when they had created the universal communication medium that was the intermediary through which all translation took place. It was believed to be capable of communicating every possible nuance of meaning, including detailed descriptions of sensory experiences in senses that no known species possessed or could conceive of.
Still. The word “fuck” gave it trouble. Perhaps due to their own bias towards orderly and logical systems, the Corti had never considered that an innocuous monosyllable could carry such a titanic freight of varied meaning. It wasn’t that the word specifically had a nebulous meaning, but that the ‘formal’ meaning, so to speak, was just the root of the most hideously tangled snarl of colloquialism that Regaari had ever heard of.
Somehow, he just knew that he’d be debugging the algorithm that decided which particular “fuck” was being used in a given context for as long as he tried to use the script. But, it would do.
What it would do, was allow him to read English and, haltingly, write it too. This was important, because Regaari’s opportunity had three components.
The first was simple intelligence-gathering. Not that he would gain anything classified or sensitive this way, but that didn’t matter. Simply an insight into what humanity’s informed civilians, retired veterans and armchair strategists thought of their species’ position was edifying enough. What he found there impressed him - short on specifics though they might be, a hard core of amateur analysts were busily assembling a dossier on humanity’s strategic position that was every bit as thorough as Regaari’s own, and often rather more informed.
It made for mixed reading. The innate superiority of humans as warriors was ultimately badly outweighed by the logistical superiority of the rest of the galaxy. On the other hand, nobody could think of a way in which the planet Earth itself might be vulnerable save through technological possibilities so outlandish as to be pure fiction.
Part two was more fun than part one. Humans were already well-disposed toward Gaoians. Annoying instincts vis a vis dogs and cute fluffy animals aside, Sister Shoo was substantially better-known to the Internet than she probably suspected. Adopting and protecting her had done Gao an enormous favor, there.
So, part two was further cementing that relationship. Which led to part three - mischief.
Baseball and Warhorse weren’t remotely shy about their affection for each other, and on this particular occasion were asleep and rumbling spooned up close, with one of Base’s hairy arms resting gently on Horse’s waist.
Picking up Base’s phone, logging into a social media app that allowed new photos and video footage to be uploaded directly to the Internet was trivial. Making it seem innocent would have been equally easy - just a curious Gaoian accidentally activating a device he didn’t know how to stop - but that wasn’t the point. The point was to humanize himself and, more importantly, to humanize the SOR.
He mimed the “shush” gesture that he’d learned and played the camera around the room, taking care to capture as good a view as he could of the two Protectors. Ayma got a little screen time, curled up with her nose stuffed into her fur and an ear twitching slightly as she dreamed, then back to Regaari for a wave to the crowd and… done.
Too bad for one staff sergeant John Burgess that his social media profile was set to ‘public’ by default. Less than a minute after it was uploaded, the video had leaked.
Less than ten minutes later, the footage was on Youtube.
By the time, two hours later, that Warhorse stirred in his sleep ahead of waking up for a bright new day and Regaari had to close all the browser tabs, ‘#SleepyBeef’ was trending across the planet and Regaari himself had secured the affection of tens of thousands of humans.
Not bad for five minutes’ work.
Date Point 10y4m1w2d AV
Planet Perfection, The Core Worlds
“I have a bounty to claim.”
The creature manning the desk was a Mjrnhrm, and a long way from home. The acid-etching on the brow-plate of its chitinous head made it clear that this particular one had been exiled for some unspecified crime, and somewhere in its travels some misadventure had cost it a limb. Rather than going for cybernetic prostheses, the creature had opted to receive cloned (or, possibly, donor) organic transplants instead. The replacements were slightly paler shade of mottled dark verdigris.
“The wanted person boards are on the left.” it said, communicating clear impatience and disinterest.
Whether or not its misadventures had robbed it of a sense of manners or whether all Mjrnhrm were like that, Mwrmwrwk couldn’t guess. She’d never met a Mjrnhrm before.
“It isn’t a person.”
“A bounty on something that is not a person.” It put the tablet it had been reading down and its vestigial wings buzzed briefly, signalling clear and naked derision. “Please, do regale me, o brave explorer. Which fabled lost planet have you uncovered? A deathworld full of sapient trees? A city built entirely of platinum? Mrwrki Station?”
It buzzed again. Some subtle shift of pitch and frequency that was inaudible to Kwmbwrw ears was enough to communicate the difference between derision and confusion. “What?”
“I have found Mrwrki station.” Mwrmwrwk willed her translator to broadcast sincerity and irritation in equal measure.
The Mjrnhrm tilted its head, studying her skeptically and with no small sign of cautious avarice. Mwrmwrwk could hardly blame it for that - given the size of the finder’s fee on Mrwrki, even the small percentage that bounty officers took from each contract would translate to a healthy lump sum in any currency. “…Prove it.”
“What kind of fool do you think I am?” Mwrmwrwk asked it. “Open the transaction and log my report. Then I prove it.”
With an air that suggested it would have preferred to be grumbling aloud, it did so. Mwrmwrwk promptly uploaded her identity information, and the sensor records she had discreetly copied from Negotiable Curiosity’s memory.
The Mjrnhrm studied the proof in front of it for nearly a full two Ri’.
“It pays to be skeptical in my line of work.” It declared, and opened a few tools and programs that, within the protected environment of the transaction, dissected her file in search of evidence of forgery. “But, I can find no evidence that this is a fake…”
“You present me with a gamble.” It said. “Mrwrki is a myth. No serious being believes it did anything other than explode. And the size of the reward… I can only just afford to pay out.”
“You sound very much like the last three bounty officers I went to.” Mwrmwrwk told it. “All of them have missed the opportunity of earning, by my estimation, forty-four Dominion Development Credits.”
Its vestigial wings thrummed as it thought long and hard.
Then, very slowly and carefully, it poked its pincer to the large blue accept button.
A notification in Mwrkwrki’s field of vision informed her that she was now many hundreds of times wealthier. It was an absurd sum - enough to buy a fleet of ships the size of Negotiable Curiosity. There was no use - or any real point - in trying to conceal her delight, so instead she reared up to her full height, thrust her forepaws into the air and cooed a long and loud trill of Kwmbwrw triumph.
Then she dropped back to all fours.
“A pleasure” she told the Mjrnhrm, which had covered its auditory organs “to do business with you.”
“If I come to regret it, I swear by the etchings of my kin that I will spend the last of my funds on somehow finding the Human Disaster himself and hiring him to come after you.” it replied, though there was a note of amusement and confidence that it would need to do no such thing.
Fighting to preserve a semblance of dignity, she exchanged gestures of respect with the odd creature, shuffled around and ambled out of the bounty office, fantasizing about being able to finally get out from under Bedu’s skinny thumb, of not having to spend an attosecond longer tolerating Hzzkvk, of being able to return to Kwmbwri, get in good with one of the Great Houses, maybe even become a Matriarch herself.
She effectively died in mid-stride.
Nobody noticed. At most, if they were paying attention they would have seen a slight stumble and the way she stopped, took her bearings, and kept walking. To an outside observer, there was no hint at all that anything was seriously amiss.
On the inside, Eleven took stock of the situation, and set about her mission.
Date Point 10y4m1w2d AV
Etsicitty house, North Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth
The vendors on Itrian station are selling gluten-free tigers, buy two and get a third free. It sounds like a healthy option, so Xiù buys three and wanders away to watch the spaceships docking.
One of the docking ships smiles at her. Its face splits like pavement cracking, and what it produces is less a smile than a hungry rictus. She throws it a tiger, which it snatches down like a shark snatching a passing fish.
Freaked out, she turns away and runs off between the trees. Knee deep snow and needled boughs slow her down, and behind her she knows beyond doubt that Death is gaining. Despairing of escape, she turns at bay and raises her hands to fight, unsheathing her claws and baring her teeth. If she’s about to die, she’s going to die like a Gaoian.
Night and oblivion sweep down upon her and she woke up, flailed and thrashed at the blankets for a second, cast wildly about the unfamiliar room and the dream is still real. A Corti’s face sneers at her in the dark and she scrambles across the bed away from it, fighting for room, only to fall off the other side and hit her head on the wall.
Clarity returned. The Corti turned out to be a framed picture on the wall, or something similar.
Twisted up in the sheets as she was, it took her some effort and quite a lot of soft swearing to eventually struggle to her feet and, rubbing the sore spot on the back of her head, inspect the picture.
“Derek and The Dominos…?”
She sighed and sank onto the bed, resisting the urge to yank on her own hair to chastise herself. That way lay a degenerating spiral of self-loathing that she’d been caught in far too many times over the years.
Instead, she crossed her legs under herself, wriggled her spine straight, and settled into a ritual that had got her through so many dark days. Metta, also known as Loving-Kindness meditation, was directed first at herself to build up a positive frame of mind, and from that foundation she could project the same energies towards her friends and her loved ones.
Nowadays, she had a long list of loved ones. That was worth remembering: It helped her love herself and forgive herself for the nightmares and intrusive ideas.
By the time she finished, the overcast sky outside her borrowed window had a blue-grey cast to it that hinted at imminent dawn. She threw on a T-shirt as she listened to the house and decided that nobody was awake yet. Time to fix breakfast.
She had nearly finished mixing the crepe batter when Julian emerged from his and Allison’s bedroom and plunged straight into the bathroom. He wasn’t in there long - apparently he was an efficient showerer - and he emerged wearing his cargo shorts, scrubbing at his hair and kicking his prosthetic foot to shake the water out of it.
She beamed at him. “Hey.”
“You’re in a good mood this morning.” he observed. “Whatever that squeal of delight was, it woke me up.”
She grimaced. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay, I’m a light sleeper.” He sat down on one of the bar stools at the island worksurface, and Xiù pretended not to notice the very welcome attention he was paying to her legs. “What was that, anyway?”
“I, um…” She sighed and blushed. “I found the maple syrup.”
Sure enough he laughed. “Yup, you’re Canadian.” he confirmed, fondly.
She laughed with him. “Shut up!”
Grinning like a retriever with three ducks in his mouth, he nodded. “Yes ma’am.”
“Ooh, do I get to say ’good boy’?”
He chuckled, and rested his jaw on his fist. “If you like.”
“Then get some plates warmed up.”
He stood and she was gratified to see that even he had to go on tip-toes to reach the cupboard that she’d had to jump slightly just to open. “Yes ma’am.”
Xiù giggled. “Good boy. Oh, and put some music on.”
“Oh, I could get used to this…”
He paused in filling the sink with hot water, waiting, and she laughed silently through her nose. “Good boy.”
The bacon was sizzling, the plates were nice and hot and Norah Jones was singing ’Sunrise’ when Allison surfaced. She greeted Xiù with an affectionate hug from behind and Julian with a light kiss. “Something” she declared “smells AMAZING.”
“Breakfast crepes!” Xiù explained.
“Ooh, what’s in them?” Allison backed off as Xiù aimed a playful slap at her hand.
“Sit down and you’ll find out.”
Allison raised an eyebrow at Julian, who just shrugged. “…Yes ma’am!” she said.
“Hmm…” Xiù produced her cheekiest smile. “Good girl.”
Allison pantomimed shock - her jaw dropped, but the rest of her face was thoroughly amused. She sat next to Julian. “…Okay, that’s actually kinda fun.” she conceded to him.
“Isn’t it?” he agreed.
Beaming to herself, Xiù finished her preparations and soon had three steaming hot crepes plated and served, each one wrapped around a solid portion of bacon, cheese and a sunny-side-up fried egg, with a drizzle of maple syrup and a couple of blueberries and raspberries for decoration.
“Dear God, this looks like it belongs in a restaurant.” Allison commented, as it arrived in front of her.
“Or a fancy hotel.” Julian agreed. “This is home cooking to you?”
Xiù just grinned and picked up her fork. “Don’t let it go cold.” she admonished them.
They looked at each other, then picked up their own cutlery and tucked in. Xiù took one mouthful and almost put her fork back down as the taste made her close her eyes in delight.
“Are you allowed to react that powerfully to your own cooking?” Julian teased.
Xiù play-glared at him. “Giff’me a break. I’ff not had thefe in yearff.”
“She’s allowed.” Allison agreed, and swallowed. “Babe, these are divine.”
Glowing internally, Xiù accepted the compliment with a smile, and dived right into her next mouthful.
As always with good food, their plates were empty far too soon, and Julian and Allison soon turned the tables on her by not letting her do any of the cleaning down and washing up.
“So… How long do we have until Jenkins is back?” Allison asked.
“He said ten o’clock or thereabouts.” Julian replied. “Annoying. An hour or two later and I could get the beaver pipe installed before he arrives…”
“You were gonna take that Aspen down.” Allison pointed out. Julian snapped his fingers and nodded. He put the last plate away and headed for the bedroom.
“Beaver pipe?” Xiù asked.
“There’s beavers up in the back woods.” Allison explained, wiping the skillet dry. “Julian says it’s a good thing we got back when we did, ‘cause a year or two more and they’d be threatening to flood out the road. So, he’s installing some kind of a drain pipe to control the water level.”
“And the Aspen?”
“Quaking Aspen coming up by the garage. It needs to come down before it grows any bigger and damages the roof.”
“Wow. This place really is country…” Xiù looked around. “Um, what are you doing?”
Allison hung up the skillet on the rack by the window. “There’s the other truck to have a look at, but I think that one’s beyond repair.” she said. “Julian says the last time he remembers it running he was just a kid. But, you never know.”
“Oh.” Xiù looked around. “I could, uh, tidy up in here?” she suggested.
“You don’t have to…” Allison told her.
”Yuosha’.”, Xiù replied, unconsciously using a Gaoian phrase that served the same purpose as ‘bullshit’. “I can at least throw a duster around.”
Allison raised her hands. “Knock yourself out, babe.” she said. “Go ahead and take all the ornaments down, too.
After getting dressed, Xiù didn’t need long to find the dusters and furniture polish in the utility room, along with a cloth to cover her hair. She flung open the windows and screen doors, put on some louder music that she could hear it over the sound of Julian’s chainsaw, and declared war on anything resembling dust, dirt or grime, no matter where it hid around the house.
The house had clearly gone for years without being dusted, and she quickly had to find another cloth to cover her mouth and nose - every unused surface, door jamb, high shelf, the backs of the appliances, and especially all the remaining wall ornaments and paintings were caked in the stuff.
The end result was that when Julian came back in some unconsidered interval later, his reaction was to sneeze violently. “Jeez!”
Xiù grimaced. “Sorry, sorry…”
He coughed and waved a hand to try and clear the air. “Maybe let it settle before Jenkins gets here.” he suggested, heading to the front door and opening both the inner door and the banshee screen door to let the air properly blow through.
Xiù nodded. “…Right.” she agreed. “…I got the place cleaner though!”
“Yeah you did.”Julian waved the door a few times to try and fan some air through, then gave up and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. “You did a great job!”
“Xièxie!” she beamed at him and sat on one of the barstools.
“So, uh…” he began.
“Speaking of Jenkins…” Julian sat down opposite her. “You never actually said whether you’re coming with us.”
Impulsively, Xiù got up to get herself a water as well - dusting was thirsty work - but she gave him a happy kiss on the cheek on her way past. “I’m considering it.” she teased as he put a surprised hand to his cheek. “Isn’t being a starship pilot on the cards? Wei would be so jealous.”
“Didn’t you want to be an actress?” he asked, as she grabbed the drink.
She sat down again. “That’s not likely, these days.”
“Less likely than being a starship pilot?”
Xiù was giving a wry shrug by way of an answer as Allison came back in.
“Yeah, the Ford’s dead.” she announced. “What’re you two up to?”
“We’re just discussing how flying spaceships is my most plausible career option.” Xiù joked.
Allison made an amused noise and sat down with them. “I bet it beats acting anyway.” she said. “No paparazzi, no gossip, no interviews and cameras… So you’re coming with us, for real?”
What neither of them knew, was that Xiù’s mind had been made up since last night. Home, after all, was wherever she wanted to be.
“Yes.” she said. “I’m coming with you.”
Date Point 10y4m1w2d AV
Military transport plane, somewhere above the arctic circle, Earth
“They’re all over t’ fookin’ Internet! All over it! Here I was thinking your objective in comin’ ‘ere was to prove yer a reliable an’ trustworthy sort an’ build a foundation for an alliance an’ that, and then you go and violate the privacy of two of my lads?”
“I think you’ll find, major.” Regaari was holding his ground, for which Powell had to give him grudging credit. ”That my little act of mischief was carefully calculated.”
“Careful-? Oh, aye? Alright. Let’s fookin’ hear it. Come on.” Powell produced his best ferocious glare which, to his consternation, seemed to have no effect on Regaari at all.
Regaari smoothed down a loose tuft of fur. Thanks to his nightly bathing at Arés’ thorough hands, his fur was glossy, light and refusing to behave itself. “Have you been following your own unit’s reputation on social media, major?” he asked, lightly.
“I’ve been too busy wi’ actually runnin’ the unit, mate.” Powell said.
“You should. Prior to our arrival, the SOR was…” Regaari paused, selecting his words carefully. “…the subject of some concern. Accusations of inhumane and unethical surgery, concerns of genetic manipulation, rumours that they’re the product of a Corti research program. The propaganda footage you put out of the action on Capitol Station has only fuelled the concern.”
“Not a one of us is stronger’n a human can get naturally.” Powell said. “Not even Arés.”
“As you say.” Regaari duck-nodded. “But your species tend to underestimate yourselves, major. I think most of you don’t believe that Earth really is a deathworld. Many on the Internet are saying that everything that has happened in the last ten Earth years has been an enormous hoax.”
Major Jackson made a pained noise. “Oh, those fuckwits.” she groaned.
“Human nature.” Powell said.
“Yeah, but I still can’t wait for the day when I can punch people like that consequence-free, like Buzz Aldrin did.” She said. “But Regaari’s right, Powell. Your ‘lads’ scare people just by existing. Didn’t you hear about China complaining to the UN about the, quote, ‘western supersoldier program’?”
“I musta been too busy bein’ part o’ that program.” Powell grumbled. “So, what, you’re saying we’ve got some public image to make up?”
“You’ve got a fuck of a lot of public image to make up.” Rylee said. “Or did you forget that’s my second job? I’ve not been hanging around with you and the lads just for your charming company, I’m on duty here.”
“And how exactly does shootin’ footage of my two youngest and least experienced men in a state of undress and uploadin’ it to the Internet help our public image?” Powell asked.
“It makes them more relatable.” Regaari explained. “Just in this short trip, Baseball and Warhorse have gone from being two anonymous examples of exactly the kind of extreme physicality that has so badly unnerved your species’ commentators, to being ‘the Beef Brothers.’ Now, people are saying ‘they sleep just like everyone else.’”
“My lads aren’t that scary.” Powell said, dismissively.
“Hah!” Jackson smiled incredulously at him. “Hell yes they are! If I didn’t know them so well they’d scare the crap out of me. You too!”
Powel blinked at her, surprised. “…Really?”
Jackson raised a hand to her mouth and called down toward the two enlisted men, who were playing Poker with Ayma. “Hey! Warhorse!”
His head snapped round. “…Ma’am?”
“How big d’you reckon you’d be if you’d stayed PJ instead of going SOR?”
Arés thought about it. “‘Bout… five-eight? Two hundred or two-twenty-five pounds?”
“How big are you now?” She asked.
“Much bigger’n that, ma’am. ” his trademark dopey grin put in an appearance.
Jackson nodded to him, and lowered her voice. “Between you and me? That boy’s a freak.” she said. “A cute, goofy and lovable freak with about the best service ethic I ever saw, but a freak nonetheless. But overnight he’s gone from being a freak in the public eye to having fans. Fans who don’t even know him for the great guy he is, who don’t have a reason to see past the muscles.”
Powell directed a calculating frown at his young charge, and said nothing.
“That sounds like quite a public relations coup.” Regaari noted. His ears were up defiantly, and he folded his arms in imitation of the human gesture, which was awkward for a Gaoian.
“It is.” Jackson agreed. “One that I doubt we could have pulled off. About the only person who could was Regaari, in fact. Protocol forbids us from doing something like this, but Regaari? When he does it, that’s just mischief, you know?”
Powell took a deep and resigned breath. “Fine. Okay. Let’s say I concede that maybe this is a net positive. A big one, even. I’m still not happy at all that you did this wi’out at least consulting me, and wi’out my lads knowin’ you had it planned.”
“Wouldn’t have worked.” Jackson told him. “It’s the whole candid thing that gives it the magic.”
“Major…” Regaari scooted forward in his chair so that his dangling feet could reach the floor. “There may be a cultural difference here. Among Gaoians, for one Clan to do unbidden what another Clan cannot do for themselves - or isn’t aware that they need to - is considered a sign of respect.”
“Fookin’ impudent is what I call it.” Powell groused, but raised a placating hand. “Fine. we’ll chalk it up to alien cultural differences. But do we really need that big of a PR boost?”
“…Regaari? Could you give us some privacy please?” Jackson asked. The Gaoian duck-nodded and picked his way forward to try and get back into Warhorse and Baseball’s good graces.
She turned to Powell. “Yes. Yes you do.”
He raised an eyebrow. “We’re doin’ a job out there. A fookin’ important one. You know what’s at stake. I couldn’t care less what some pimply Internet social justice warrior has to say, they know fookin’ nothin’, and they’re better off that way.”
“I don’t think you know what’s at stake.” she replied. “Powell, bad PR has killed units stone dead in the past. Those ’social justice warriors’ are voters, and while you’re folding your arms at them and keeping shtum, they’re gossiping and speculating and hurting your image so bad that young men are gonna shy away from you ‘cause their mommas warned them about genetic engineering, or whatever.”
“That bad?” He asked.
Jackson nodded, sadly. “Hashtag ‘BeefBros’ is about the best thing that could have happened to your unit, Powell. Without it, it was only a matter of time before some congressman started making nasty noises about you, or some firebrand talkshow host did his bit and skewered your reputation.”
He pointed an arm toward the rear of the aircraft. “There’s fookin’ extinction knockin’ on the door out there, and you’re telling me our strategy for fightin’ it exists at the whim o’ the kind of blithering wankers who couldn’t tip water out of a helmet with the instructions written on’t’ top?”
“That’s about right.”
“Jesus fookin’ Christ…” He rubbed a finger despairingly across the top of his nose, between his eyebrows. “If that’s the shape of it then we’re doomed, and rightly bloody so. We can’t build our survival on a foundation that dodgy!”
She reached out and put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “Owen? Trust me on this. That’s not a fight any of us are gonna win. The only option is to play the game and play it well.”
He lowered his hand and glanced guiltily towards the young Protectors. “What happens to the lads if we don’t play it well?” he asked, quietly.
She squeezed his shoulder. “Trust me, and trust Regaari, and you’ll never have to find out.” she promised.
Date Point 10y4m1w2d AV
Byron Group Headquarters, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Rachael was extremely good at her job. She knew exactly which calls to forward to Moses when he was in a meeting, and he knew it. So, when his desk phone rang in the middle of a meeting, he had no problems at all in putting his guests on hold for a few moments.
“Ah, please, excuse me, gentlemen… Go ahead, Rachael.”
“Mister Jenkins on the line, sir.”
“Nice! I’ll take it, thank you.” There was a click and a change in audio quality that said the call was through. “Kevin! Still in Minnesota?”
”On my way back, boss man. Aaaand, EV-eleven is fully crewed. Three stellar explorers, as requested.”
“You even got Chang?”
“She talked herself into it.” Jenkins replied. ”I’ll give you my full impression when I’m back in the office tomorrow. Figured you’d like to know so you can start the ball rolling.”
“You figured right.” Moses agreed. “See you tomorrow.” he stabbed a button on the phone to go back through to Rachael. “Rachael, tell Ericson we’re good to go on Eleven, please.”
”Yes, Mister Byron.”
He clapped his hands and rubbed them happily, then turned back to his guests. “Please, forgive the interruption.” he said. “As you were saying-?”
Date Point 10y4m1w2d AV
Finchley, London, England, Earth
Simon Harvey chose about the worst time to call Ava’s phone - she had a basket of wet laundry held awkwardly on one hip and was trying to hang it up with her spare hand, and the phone was on her basket-holding hip pocket
She just about managed to fumble it out in time to answer, somehow. “Hey, Simon.”
“Ava! Glad one of you’s answering your phone.” Simon had the unmistakable rush of a car in traffic behind him. “Go tell my nephew to stop wanking, I’ll be along to pick you both up in twenty minutes. Have you got that travel bag I told you to pack?”
“Uh, yeah.” She cradled her phone against her chin and began taking the washing off the line to move it indoors instead. “Why, where are we going?”
“Cairo.” he replied. “I’ll explain when we’re en route.”
Not knowing how long they’d be gone, Ava made sure to hang the wet clothes up indoors after rousing Sean from whatever he’d been doing in his room and explaining what they were doing and where they were going.
“Cairo?” He asked, helping her get them laid out. Neither of them wanted to come back to moldy clothes.
“That’s what he said. Please tell me you packed that bag like he told us.”
Sean gave her a mildly offended look. “I did it first thing!” he told her.
Laundry cleared away they did a quick tour of the house, turning off the water, gas and electricity, checking the doors and windows were all locked, taking photos of each room in case they got back to find the place burgled and were outside, locked up and had their bags and equipment in hand when Simon rolled up in one of London’s rentable self-driving cars.
They piled in, buckled up, and he ordered it to Heathrow airport.
“So. Cairo.” Simon began, getting straight to business. “There was some kind of a gun battle down there last night, and LOTS of people reported a sonic boom. All by itself that’s unusual, but the very interesting part…” He opened his tablet and showed them Twitter. “…is that the locals are calling it a UFO.”
Ava and Sean glanced at each other. “Is that… enough to go on?” Sean asked.
Simon shrugged. “If nothing else, we can get a story out of the shootout. Something happened down there, and there’s a story in it, even if it’s not Ava’s Big Conspiracy.” he said. “But the skeptics really are at a loss for what else to call it, and nobody in the Egyptian government has said a word yet.”
Ava took a deep breath. This was a world away from shooting photos of the crowd during a visit by extraterrestrial dignitaries. “Cairo, huh? I always wanted to see the Pyramids…”
“Work first, tourism later.” Simon told her, but he was smiling. “I’m trusting you both on this one. Maybe if this goes smoothly, we’ll be ready to move on with chasing your conspiracy, Ava, but for now I have two inexperienced young journalists in my care. You appreciate how big the favour I’m doing for you is?”
“Yes, Simon.” Ava said. Sean just nodded.
“Right.” Simon swiped to a different app on his tablet. “Here’s what I have so far…”
Date Point 10y4m1w2d AV
Cairo, Egypt, Earth
Master Sergeant Roy Vinther
There was a round of nodding. Hotwash was done with - there really hadn’t been much to report, the op had been aborted too quickly for them all to do more than confirm that the Hierarchy had a ship on Earth and that it was creating biodrones. Beyond that, there were precious few in the way of learning points. As far as Vinther could tell, the whole mission had gone by the numbers, and now they were packing up and moving on.
Sergeant Walsh was the last in zipping his bag. “Yup. Where we going?” he asked
“Back to CONUS, unless something comes up last minute.”
Walsh grimaced at him. “Vinther, you ass, never say shit like that, you should know better! Now we-”
His phone pinged, and everyone in the room watched warily as he dug it out. Walsh’s shoulders dropped as he read the message. “There, you see what you did?” he asked.
“You’re shittin’ me.” Vinther frowned. “What the fuck’s come up now?”
“‘s from the CIA station chief. Gimme a….” Walsh wandered down the room, reading what had been sent to him with his hand on his chin.
“Way to go, Vinther.” Pavlopoulos congratulated him.
“Hangover, you look like you’ve got time to spare. Why don’t you go load the bags in the SUV?” Vinther told him.
“….yes, master sergeant.”
Vinther let him grab a bag in each hand and go. “Walsh?”
The so-called intel weenie looked up. “Persons of interest coming our way.” he said. “They just got on a flight in London.”
“Is this information just for our entertainment, or are we gonna actually do something with it?” Vinther asked.
“Fuck that, we ain’t equipped!” Vinther protested.
Walsh scrolled down through whatever he was reading. “Chief says they’ll equip us.”
“Well that’s a red flag.” Coombes grunted. “Company never shares their toys.”
“Who are these POIs, anyway?” Vinther asked.
Walsh turned the phone around, showing him a photo of a stunning young woman with a heart-shaped face, wavy hair and a slightly haunted, intense gaze. “Ava Magdalena Rìos.” he said. “San Diego survivor, adopted daughter of the chief of Cimbrean Colonial Security, romantically involved with a member of the SOR and, crucially, a journalist. Working for our second POI…” he swiped across onto the next page. “…Mr. Simon Harvey.”
Vinther studied the slender, angular and painfully English features of the passport photo at the top of the page. “Who?”
“He’s a reporter, been poking around in Jeddah, Karachi and Qalqilya.”
“Fuck.” Coombes opined. “We got a leak.”
“No wonder the Company wants us on top of them.” Vinther agreed.
“They’re a step behind if they’re only coming down here now.” Walsh pointed out.
“Guess it’s our job to keep it that way.” Vinther said. “Anything else?”
“Yeah, the chief’s sent a call to Cimbrean, asking for a couple of SOR men. Courtesy, seeing as one of their guys is involved, you know?”
“Great, so we gon’ have a couple’a meat walls stomping around?” Coombes said. “Just great.”
“Eh.” Walsh shrugged. “If it goes FUBAR, I could stand having Superman for backup.”
“What’s gonna go FUBAR? It’s a couple of civilian journalists.” Vinther asked him wryly, acutely aware that all missions got complicated, usually sooner rather than later. “How wrong can it go?”
Coombes smacked a palm to his forehead. “For fuck’s sake Vinther…”
“Take your superstitious ass and go tell Pavlo we need everything back in here.” Vinther retorted, grinning.
Coombes chuckled and kicked his feet out to propel himself upright. “Yes, master sergeant…”
Vinther turned back to Walsh. “Okay.” he said. “Let’s plan this shit.”
Date Point 10y4m1w2d AV
Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada.
“Major. Good timing.”
Powell always quietly gave thanks to whatever power might hear it that his job didn’t require him to get as large as some of his lads, who had to turn sideways to make it comfortably through most doors. Still, stepping into General Tremblay’s office was an easy reminder that although Powell himself was easily the smallest EV-MASS qualified man in the SOR, he was still sitting in territory normally only achieved by dedicated bodybuilders.
Next to him, even Tremblay - a brawny man whom age had only succeeded in hardening - managed to look small.
“Summat important came up I gather, sir.” He replied. Tremblay gestured to the office chair opposite him.
“Two things did.” Tremblay expanded as Powell sat down. He produced two briefings - old habits died hard, and the general preferred paper hardcopy - and slid the first over the desk.
“Last night, an STS element operating in Cairo got into a brief firefight with Hierarchy assets. They’ve confirmed the presence of a Hierarchy spaceship and biodroning operation on Earth.”
Powell scowled at the pages as he skimmed them. Smart-paper “photos” clipped to the document replayed the helmet cam footage of an invisible object shielding retreating men and women from the operator’s fire, and lifting a tarpaulin as it rose into the air.
“That doesn’t make a whole lot o’ sense.” he mused. “If they could get a ship to us, why not call in the Hunters? Or just nuke us flat?”
“Our best guess is that the ship was already here, and has neither a jump beacon nor a nanofactory.” Tremblay explained. “Anyway, that’s for me to worry about. Where the SOR comes in is that somehow an investigative journalist by the name of Simon Harvey got wind of this, and he’s booked a flight to Cairo, with his two assistants: His nephew Sean Harvey, and-”
“Ava Rìos.” Powell finished. Her face was right at the top of the second page. “Is there no escapin’ that fookin’ girl’s orbit?”
“That young woman is a bit of a rising star, Powell.” Tremblay said. “Newspaper front pages, magazine covers, the Byron Group’s whole advertising campaign for Cimbrean development… and of course she’s closely tied to two men who both know DEEP RELIC.”
Powell’s first instinct was to emphatically defend sergeant Arés and his father, but he owed it to the seriousness of the situation to think properly for a few seconds. “…I’d consider it deeply unlikely that either Gabriel Arés or his son have shared top secret information, sir.” he said carefully. “I trust ‘em both. Besides, the girl’s not stupid and she’s been a victim of the Hierarchy’s activities. Could be she put the pieces together herself.”
“Either way, we need to know. She’s under covert surveillance, and the station chief requested that the SOR send a man or two. As a courtesy.”
“Firth and Murray.” Powell agreed, promptly.
Tremblay nodded. “Rationale?”
“They can both be as subtle - or not - as any situation might require, they’ve got mission-appropriate skills that Blaczynski and the Defenders lack, and even if they were appropriate for this gig, both my Protectors are in dire need of some PT.”
“Good.” Tremblay slid over the other briefing. “On to situation two.”
Powell picked it up. What he read raised his eyebrows. “Kirk got back in touch?”
“So we hope. Sadly, we have to treat him as Orange for now, but he did feed us some intelligence which should help clean up that question. The name of a spaceship that may be in the Hierarchy’s employ, the ’Negotiable Curiosity’.”
Tremblay smiled grimly. “An exo-intel informant has it berthed on Perfection right now. I want that ship, its crew and every kilobyte in its computers.”
“No JETS assets available?” Powell asked.
“Available, yes. Appropriate, no.” Tremblay said. “I’d prefer to send a JETS-qualified Delta Force team on this if I could, but it turns out that Perfection hugely improved their anti-aircraft defense systems over the last few years in response to a terrorist attack. The only way to make a covert insertion now would be Exo-Atmospheric jump.”
“And only SOR can EA Jump.” Powell nodded. “Right. You only need the four?”
“Four should do nicely.” Tremblay agreed.
“Yes sir. Anything else?”
“I believe Major Jackson’s with you?”
“She is, yeah.”
“Good. Ask her to come see me as soon as the Gaoians are safely off this planet, please. And, if you can spare them from their PT for one more day, the Beef Brothers too.”
Powell hesitated. “General… if I may?”
Tremblay sat back and folded his hands neatly in his lap. “Go ahead.”
“Burgess and Arés are remarkable lads. Hell wi’t, they’re bloody heroes, both of them, and they deserve those silver stars they’re gonna get for NOVA HOUND. And, I know they’ve both seen stuff that grown men haven’t… but they both joined at seventeen and their whole life since then has been the military. If it’s really that important to, er…” he searched for the right word. “…to capitalize on this whole viral Internet thing…”
Tremblay didn’t say anything, but a half-inch hike of his eyebrow told Powell to get to the point.
“…I’m concerned for their well-being and morale, sir. The public eye’s a battlefield I myself fear to set foot on.”
“My hope,” Tremblay said, “was that Major Jackson might mentor and advise them before they find themselves back in front of a camera, assuming they ever do. Colonel Stewart has already agreed that he can spare her, and you, I believe, have better reason than anybody to trust her.”
“Knowing they’d be in her care puts my mind at ease sir, yes.” Powell conceded.
“I sympathize.” Tremblay confessed. “But I think you and I are an old-fashioned breed, Powell. We’re too used to public relations being under control of, rather than controlling us. I’m old enough to remember mobile phones as big as bricks, and somehow I think you didn’t have one growing up.”
Tremblay smiled. “Your Protectors are better-prepared than you think.” he promised. “And I’m just as concerned as you that we don’t ruin two exceptional assets. Fair?”
“Thank you sir.”
“Nothing comes to mind, sir.”
“Carry on, then. And… Powell?”
Powell paused in turning for the door. “Sir?”
“Give my good luck to the men you send to follow Harvey and Rìos. Somehow, I think they’ll need it.”
“Change of plans, lads.”
Baseball and Warhorse straightened as Powell returned from the office complex, pausing in their preparations for the Jump Array.
“General Tremblay wants to have a word. You can probably guess why.”
Both men looked at each other, and at the Gaoians. “I guess once these two are back on Cimbrean, our job’s done…” Burgess conceded. “This a PR thing, sir?”
“Major Jackson’s persuaded me that it’s important.” Powell told him. “I defer to her superior knowledge in these matters, seein’ as she’s been in the public eye a long time now.”
“Get your charges home safe.” Powell said. “Arés. Got some private news for yer.”
The young man nodded and they strolled away from the little pile of equipment to talk in private. “I’m goin’ back wi’ the Gaoians.” Powell told him. “Soon as I get there, I’ve got a couple assignments for the lads, one of which is here on Earth. Your, er… former partner is caught up in some DEEP RELIC business down in Egypt.”
“Christ.” Arés rubbed at his forehead. “How’d she find out?”
“I’ve heard you say it yourself that she’s a smart lass.” Powell pointed out.
“Smarter’n me…” Arés agreed. “Most of the time. So… what, is she under observation?”
“Aye. And they’ve asked us to send some of ours down there. Not you.” Powell added, cutting the younger man off before he could speak. “Firth an’ Murray.”
Arés nodded. “Makes sense… thank you for telling me, sir.”
“You deserve to know.” Powell assured him. “Anyhow, I’ll let you crack on.”
“Yes sir… you’ll let me know if anything happens?”
“‘Course I bloody will.” Powell said. “Sergeant.”
Powell treated him to a rare affectionate clap on the shoulder and jogged back to where Regaari and Ayma were waiting. “I’m afraid this is where you part ways with your Protectors.” he announced. “I hope you’re parting on good terms, Burgess?”
Baseball grinned expansively. “Still kinda annoyed at the little furry bastard, sir.” he said, though his tone was warm.
“If I live to be older than Father Fyu I’ll never understand how insulting me is meant to be affectionate.” Regaari said, though Powell judged the set of his ears to be playful and amused. “But I believe so.”
“Good, because as far as I’m concerned this trip’s been a resounding success.” Powell extended a hand, and shook both their paws in turn. “Though - and please don’t take this the wrong way - for God’s sake please never come back.”
Ayma chittered. “Once was quite sufficient.” she promised.
Powell made an amused harrumph and bid them farewell with a touch of a finger to his forehead.
He found Jackson chatting amiably with the pilot of their transport plane, who was clearly a little star-struck and trying not to show it. She beamed at him, and excused herself to the pilot. If she noticed the way the young man turned and started fanboying out to his colleague, she did a good job of not showing it.
“Guess we’re parting ways again, huh?” she asked, soon as they were out of earshot.
“‘Fraid so. Any idea when you’ll next be in Folctha?”
“I doubt it’ll be long. We’re going to want to move fast on this whole Beef Brothers thing, so I’ll be around before long to give you some more PR advice.” she smiled.
“Funny you should mention it, Tremblay wants a word with you and the lads before they head back.”
“Thought he might.” Rylee nodded, then considered him, thoughtfully.
“You sound like you’re gonna miss me.” she observed.
“Well of course I bloody am.” Powell chuckled. “You don’t think I’ve just been tolerating you this last week, do ya?”
She shook her head, still smiling. “You are such an easy tease.”
“Aye, you got me…“
“All to myself?”
“If you want.”
Rylee considered it. “Y’know… I like the whole friends-with-benefits thing we’ve got going…” she mused. “But I gotta admit, the older I get, the more going steady sounds like it’s got something going for it.”
“We could set a record for the longest-distance relationship. How far is Cimbrean from Earth?” Powell asked.
“Point seven kiloparsecs…”
“That sounds like a lot.”
“Yes and no…” Rylee thought about it some more, then shrugged expansively. “I like you a lot, Owen. And you bet your beautifully muscled ass I’ll be calling on you every chance I get. But being stationed in completely different systems when we’re both so career-focused…? I don’t know. How about we try it, and no hard feelings if it doesn’t work?”
“Sounds good.” Powell managed to keep his outside calm, but he was celebrating wildly on the inside, and judging from the twinkle in her eye Rylee could see right through him and sense the party in his head.
“Alright, it’s a deal you emotional volcano you.” She agreed, and then prodded him playfully in the shoulder “But you need to find yourself a friend for when I’m not around. Get yourself a dog or something.”
“A dog? That’s no substitute, come on!” Powell laughed.
“No? I can be kind of a bitch in the mornings…” Rylee chuckled with him. “But yeah. Get yourself the biggest, goofiest, smartest dog you can find - a dog worthy of the SOR. The lads’ll love him.”
“…We could do with a mascot, I suppose…” Powell mused.
“Good! I look forward to meeting him.” Rylee gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “I’d better go see what the general wants, anyway.”
“Rylee… take care of the Beef Brothers, will you? Seeing ‘em thrust into the spotlight like this… makes me uneasy.”
“I know.” she smiled. “I’ll look after them, promise.”
She turned and walked away with a wave. “They’re lucky to have you, Owen.”
He watched her go. “Aye.” he said, so quietly that it was only for himself to hear. “Same’s true for me.”
Date Point 10y4m1w2d AV
Cairo, Egypt, Earth
Survival skills that Six had spent several years honing proved their value because somehow he managed to avoid stumbling, staring, or even walking a little slower and getting a second glance to be certain of what - whom - he had seen.
Those were all powerful instincts, ones that his stolen human body imposed upon its Igraen squatter at every opportunity. Learning to suppress them had been the hardest task of his existence, but suppress them he did. He didn’t need to double-check, after all - he could replay imagery from his biodrone body’s optic nerve whenever he wanted, and remember anything seen by himself or any Agent whose memories he had accessed.
He ducked out of the flow of human traffic in the airport, and, on the pretense of checking his phone, reviewed what he had seen.
San Diego, the roller derby. Getting up and leaving just before his capture. Folctha, Cimbrean. Standing at the fence and weeping as Eighty-Four botched the Hierarchy’s last ditch attempt at keeping humanity from spreading to a different planet.
The same face. Older now - an adult, rather than the curly-haired teenager he’d first seen all those years ago, and wearing a kind of brittle confidence - but definitely the same person.
He didn’t know who she was, exactly, but for one human female to be present at two such important events - and now to come here, in the immediate aftermath of his successful disruption of the Hierarchy’s plans for Cairo - that was no coincidence. At least, not according to a human aphorism on the subject of happenstance, coincidence and enemy action.
There was no way that she could fail to be under observation, of course. But that was not, in fact, so much of an obstacle.
Taking care to move in as bored and straightforward a manner as he could, he rejoined the flow of humanity around the airport and kept an eye out. Sure enough, the woman and her two friends had barely gone thirty meters before a man - a burly, fit man in jeans and a loose jacket - glanced at the woman, then around at the crowd. His gaze skipped right over Six without even noticing him, and Six congratulated himself. That moment could have gone badly for him.
Loitering was not an option. While he would have loved to get more information, he was surrounded by watchers. Effecting an air of distracted, businesslike haste he weaved through the crowd right past the burly man, and out into the sweltering sunlight, where he grabbed a cab. He threw himself into the back seat, ordered the driver to a hotel, and sat back to make his plans.
“Okay.” Simon twisted to glance out of the cab’s rear windscreen. “I wasn’t expecting them to meet us off the plane…”
Sean looked up from rummaging through his carry-on luggage. “What?”
“You didn’t see the chap in the jeans and jacket tailing us?” Simon asked. When Sean frowned and sat upright, he chuckled. “Nephew mine, we need to teach you some crowd skills.”
“And the guy in the suit?” Ava asked.
It was Simon’s turn to frown at her. “There was a guy in a suit.” she elaborated, unhelpfully.
“I didn’t see him. You’re sure?” Simon asked.
“He was doing a good job of not being noticed, but yeah. He looked right at me, checked his phone and then turned around and followed us. I’m not sure if he’s with Jacket… or if Jacket made him if he’s not.”
“If he did, he didn’t show it.” Simon mused, twisting to look out the back again. “I think you’re onto something, Ava. People waiting for us before we even land? And Jacket Guy was an American if I’m any judge.”
“What does that mean?” Sean asked.
“CIA, Delta Force, SOG, who knows?” Simon sat down. “What did Suit Guy look like?”
“Arabic. Short hair, stubble. Nice suit. Like a businessman.” Ava summarized.
Simon frowned and massaged his chin. “Honestly? That probably scuppers this investigation.” he said. “Even if we’re definitely onto something, there’s no way they’ll let us publish anything top secret.”
Sean zipped up his bag “So, what do we do?”
“We investigate anyway.” Simon said. “There’s always something you can report on, even if it’s not what you’d like to. We’re here, we need to earn our living. So, we do what we came here to do and we report whatever we can report.”
“And maybe afterwards we know more than other people do.” Ava added.
“Where’s the value in knowing it if you can’t share it?” Sean frowned.
Ava shrugged. “I like knowing things.” she said. “And, maybe it’ll help us find other things we can report on.”
“Still.” Simon grumbled. “I’m not happy about the idea that maybe our followers are being followed themselves. Who watches the watchers?
“That’s easy.” Ava folded her arms. “The watched.”
Date Point 10y4m1w2d AV
North Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth.
“Look at her go.”
“I’m trying not to.”
Xiù had called her parents as soon as she’d finished signing the Byron Group paperwork, and what had ensued had been nearly an hour of alternately frantic, tired, pleading, apologetic and angry Mandarin, garnished with English and Gaori. There was something universal about an argument.
When the call had ended, Xiù had stood very still in the middle of the room for a few seconds, and had then vanished into her room. She had emerged less than a minute later having changed into her sportswear, and was now out on the grass in front of the house, punching and kicking the everloving crap out of the evening.
It was a showcase of startling speed. Allison blinked as she watched Xiù deliver three kicks to the sky in the space of a second, land on her heel and surge forward what looked like ten feet to deliver a straight-armed palm strike that Allison knew would have sent her flying with a broken sternum had she been on the receiving end.
She gave Julian a warm sideways glance. “You’re allowed to.” she said.
“Just… jeez, I’m no slouch in a fight, but the most I ever had to fight was exo-critters and ETs.” Julian mused. “She’d kick both our asses.”
“Well, she’d kick your ass.” Allison teased. ”I would have a gun.”
“…Are you two gonna have a dick-measuring contest?” Julian asked.
“Why? You wanna watch?”
“I’ve heard worse ideas.”
That drew a laugh out of Allison. “Fine, Mister Voyeur. Watch away.”
She shoved the screen door open and the harsh noise it made, in addition to setting her teeth on edge - she really needed to take some WD-40 to it - snapped Xiù out of whatever headspace she’d gone to. The fierce engine of focused violence they’d been watching for the last few minutes vanished, and in her place was, well…Xiù, who tucked some errant hair back into place and smiled cautiously.
“Sorry.” she said, completely unnecessarily.
“You are so Canadian.” Allison teased her. “You okay?”
“I am.” Xiù nodded. “I don’t blame Mama. She only just got her daughter back and here I am leaving again…”
“Hey, don’t get all melancholy on me.” Allison gave her an affectionately tomboyish hair-tousle. It didn’t achieve much with Xiù’s hair up, but it did generate the desired blush and, once Xiù had gripped her scalp defensively, a laugh.
“So Julian reckons you could kick both our asses.” Allison added conversationally as Xiù got her hair sorted out again.
“I could kick yours.” Xiù agreed, getting her revenge as Allison produced her best mock-offended jaw drop. “I bet you hit like a girl.”
“I bet you shoot like one.” Allison retorted. “I should teach you sometime.”
“You first.” Xiù told her. She shimmied her spine loose and settled into a solid, grounded stance. “Come on.”
“What, you’re gonna teach me Kung Fu?”
“No, you’re going to learn Gung Fu.”
“What’s the difference?”
Xiù gave her a challenging look. “Shut up and let your Sifu show you.” She said.
Allison glanced back at the house. Julian had leaned against the doorframe with his arms folded and a smile crawling up one side of his face as he watched.
“…Yes ma’am!” she shrugged.
Xiù beamed like she’d just won the lottery. “Good girl.” she said. “Now, this is called a Horse Stance… come on!”
Date Point 10y4m1w3d AV
Cairo, Egypt, Earth
Combat Controllers all knew each other. It was a law of the universe.
The corollary to that law was that any reunion between CCTs who hadn’t seen each other for more than an hour or so was foul-mouthed enough to make the Devil blush.
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ! Walsh! By some fuckin’ miracle you’re actually lookin’ good these days.”
Walsh stood up and shared an enormous hug with his massive SOR counterpart. “Firth you asshole, I wish I could say the same. Have you gained weight?”
“Sure as shit I’m eatin’ enough.” Firth drawled. “You fuck your sister yet? Always said I would if you didn’t get there first.”
“You still toppin’ Blaczynski?”
There was laughter, a complicated handshake and a friendly tussle that ended with Firth heaving Walsh - a man who weighed somewhere north of three hundred pounds - high into the air like a child and giving him a bear-hug that must have been difficult to breathe around.
“You boys need some alone time?” Vinther asked. Still chuckling, the two Air Force men broke it up.
“Technical Sergeant Firth, this here’s Master Sergeant Vinther.” Walsh introduced him. “Exhibit B is Pavlopoulos, and that over there is Coombes.”
“This here’s Murray.” Firth said, standing aside to reveal a man who was only marginally larger than Walsh. “He don’t talk much. Say hi, Murray.”
Murray raised a hand - there was nothing shy in his demeanour, more a sense of composure. “Hi, Murray.”
“Two whole words. Means he likes ya.” Firth grinned.
“Good to have you. How much were you told?” Vinther asked, getting down to business.
“Our buddy’s ex-girlfriend is causing trouble again.” Firth said. “You’re watching her and we’re here to… Y’know, they never actually said.”
“Help.” Murray suggested.
“Well, yeah, help. But as I understand it this here’s a courtesy call, so you use us as you see fit.”
“You don’t exactly blend in.” Pavlopoulos opined.
“Yeah, I’m more of the big dumb object.” Firth agreed. “Ain’t that right Murray?”
Vinther turned to where Murray was, only to discover that it was where Murray had been. The man himself had - apparently innocently - crossed the room without making a whisper of noise or drawing attention to himself, and was studying the map. He looked up and gave Firth an amiable nod.
“Murray might be sorta useful.” Firth added.
“And if you wanty break something.” Murray added, finally stringing together enough words for his Scottish accent to make itself known. “That big bastard’s no’ useless.”
“Why do I get the impression comin’ from you that’s high praise?” Vinther deadpanned. “Alright - callsigns. I’m BARKEEP, Pavlo’s HANGOVER, Coombes is BOUNCER, Walsh is DRINKIN’ BUDDY. I assume you get the scheme?”
“Guess I’ll go with, uh…” Firth began, but Murray interrupted him.
“LIGHTWEIGHT.” he said. Firth’s brotherly middle-finger and a ripple of laughter sealed it.
“Alright, fine.” The newly-christened ’Lightweight’ snorted. “But just for that, and because you’re not Irish, you get to be GUINNESS.”
Murray chuckled, but contrived to indicate with a smile and a motion of his head that he’d tolerate the handle.
Vinther chuckled. “Our POIs are KING - that’s Simon Harvey - QUEEN - Ava Rìos - and PRINCE: Sean Harvey.”
“And where are they now?” Firth asked. Coombes glanced up from the camera he was monitoring and indicated out the window. The room they’d commandeered had an excellent view of the hotel’s lobby and front entrance.
“Pretty sure KING and QUEEN both made me when they got off the plane.” Coombes said. “They check into their rooms last night and that’s about it. Guess they’re planning their first move.”
“No point in havin’ us tail them.” Firth said. “She knows our faces and names.”
“Dude, she was our buddy’s girlfriend. Movie nights, drinkin’ nights, couple’a parties…”
“What happened, exactly?” Walsh asked.
“Uh, if we were to start calling PRINCE “Jody” instead…”
“Say no more.” Walsh scowled.
The phone rang, and Pavlopoulos grabbed it with a perfunctory “Go ahead.” A silent minute of attentive listening and note-scribbling later, he was able to hang up. “KING just made a couple’a interesting phone calls.” he said, handing his handwritten note to Walsh. “He’s got a friend in El Obour City, and another in Zagazig.”
Walsh interrogated his tablet, comparing the information on it to Pavlo’s note. “…Yeah, we know them. Dude in Zagazig’s with Egypt Daily News, and the guy in El Obour’s a, uh, blogger. Fancies himself a freelance reporter. We use him as a source ourselves. Reckon they’re about to move.”
“Coombes, stay here, watch the lobby and the drone.” Vinther ordered. “Everybody gear up.”
The room was a blitz of quick, efficient activity, at the end of which a casual observer would never have guessed that each man was armed. They took the fire escape to the car park in the basement: Vinther and Pavlo took one - a nondescript Chevrolet Opta - and Walsh piled into their much less discreet SUV alongside the two SOR men.
”Comms check.” Vinther ordered. The team sounded off in quick order. “Okay. BOUNCER?”
“Think they’re… yeah, they’re heading out the front door now. Drone’s got a lock.”
Their drone was an MBG “Flycatcher”, a small UAV developed by the Byron Group that used cutting-edge forcefield tech for both the flight surfaces and the optics. Eschewing an aerodynamic fuselage, the drone flew by “flapping” its forcefield wings like a bird, while its physical fuselage was little more than a dull mottled matte silver-grey object about the size and shape of a bulky laptop. Its forcefields and the advanced power storage systems that took up most of its physical volume allowed it to remain aloft day and night, especially in clear, hot weather. They’d launched it on day one arriving in Cairo, and had never had to land it since.
Now, its sophisticated forcefield-optic systems were trained on a perfectly ordinary taxi cab - one of thousands plying the city’s streets - but given that it could reliably track thousands of different targets at once, there was no fear of losing the target.
Guided by the feed Coombes was sending them over their tablets, the teams had no trouble at all in following it, navigating around snarls and traffic jams. “El Obour.” Pavlo noted, as Vinther turned back onto the cab’s tail on the Cairo ring road. Their car was as generic as they came on Egyptian streets but still, thanks to the drone they could turn off its tail every so often so as to throw off the appearance of being followed. Certainly, either the target didn’t notice the tail, or else were unconcerned of it.
”What’s El Obour like?” Firth asked, over comms.
”Depends.” Walsh opined. It’s got some nice bits, but the if the satellite footage is anything to go by, the neighborhood of the number they called is a fuckin’ dump.”
”And they’re taking an unmarried young woman into that?” Murray asked.
“Greater Cairo’s fairly cosmopolitan.” Vinther told him. “It’s not like we’re in fuckin’ Taleb Afghanistan or whatever.”
“Besides, KING’s an experienced reporter.” Walsh added. ”I doubt he’d take two newbies into a risky situation.”
“I never heard of the guy before.” Pavlo said.
”He’s the one who blew the lid on all those accidents at Hephaestus, and that shit with those cults in Bangladesh.” Walsh said. ”Now he’s sniffing around here, in Qalqilya, in Saudi and Pakistan…”
“Hmm.” Vinther had to admit, that was a solid resumé.
“Don’t fuckin’ say it, Vinther.” Pavlo told him, not broadcasting.
“Say what?” Vinther asked him, innocently
“You were thinkin’ this was gonna be the E-word.”
Vinther chuckled. “Easy?”
“Fuck sake.” Pavlo rolled his eyes and checked the drone feed again. “One of these days you’re gonna jinx a mission beyond repair and I just pray I’m not there to suffer for it.”
“And one of these days you’re gonna figure out all these superstitions of yours don’t do shit.” Vinther joked.
”Uh, guys…” Coombes got on the line again. “Company just got in touch. One of their recon satellites picked up an atmospheric disturbance over north Africa. Somebody’s got a bird in the air doing Mach eight.”
“Whereabouts over North Africa?” Vinther asked.
”Take a wild guess, BARKEEP.” Coombes replied. ”Sat already lost track of it, so all we know is, our UFO’s around here somewhere.”
”Lost track of it?”
”It’s only the low-altitude ones that can track this shit, BARKEEP.” Coombes told him. “And they move fast. That spysat’s somewhere over Iceland by now.”
“When do we get coverage back?”
”Eighty, ninety minutes or so.”
Vinther glanced at Pavlo, who just raised an eyebrow at him. At length, he cleared his throat. “…Don’t say it.”
“Say what?” Pavlo asked, innocently.
“Don’t say ’I told you so’.”
Pavlo produced a grim laugh and checked his tablet again. “Yes, master sergeant.”
Date Point 10y4m1w3d AV
HMS Caledonia, High orbit over Planet Perfection, The Core Worlds
Scott ‘Starfall’ Blaczynski
The problem with the Dominion’s general-purpose shuttle was that it looked, and flew, like a lead brick minus the actual lead brick’s lustre and frisson of danger. It was just a silvery grey cuboid with a window at one end and a ramp at the other.
It was also so large that it filled almost half *Caledonia*’s prep and flight deck. It was, after all, designed to be able to carry a Guvnurag or two. Humans could rattle around inside it like lottery balls.
Sikes in particular loathed it, and every time he laid eyes on it he did the same thing: He sighed and asked “When in the shit are we gonna get something human-built?”
“If it helps, you ain’t gonna have to put up with it for long.” Blaczynski told him. “Or did you forget we’re jumpin’ out of it?”
“You first, Starfall.” Titan told him.
“Lookin’ forward to it!” Blaczynski told him, and extended a gloved fist, which Titan reached out and rapped knuckles against. The EV-MASS was almost comforting nowadays, squeezing him tight and telling him that however hostile the vacuum of space might be, he had nothing to fear from it.
Plus, it added an extra heft and weight that just made him feel strong.
“Hey, Kovač?” He asked.
She looked up from testing the pH balance in his life support pack. “Yeah?”
“When the hell you gonna put on your big girl pants and make a move on ‘Horse anyway?”
“I’ve got my big girl pants on.” she replied. “Not yet.”
“He’s not ready.” She told him.
“Yeah, quit trying to play wingman, B.” Titan agreed. “You suck at it.”
“Just tryin’a help my buddies out.”
Kovač smiled and gave him an affectionate slap on the helmet. “You’re good.” she said. “But stay out of my love life, Blaczynski. Even if it is a fucking desert right now.”
“Yes, tech sergeant.” Blaczynski smiled behind his mask. “I’m good to fly, right?”
“Good to fall.” she corrected him. “And, you get to listen to music this time.”
“Fuckin’ sweet!” The team boxed fists, gave each other ringing clouts on the helmet, performed final equipment checks and piled into the shuttle.
Then it got boring.
The idea was for the shuttle to look to Perfection traffic control like an in-system passenger transport. Absurdly, its sensor signature was an order of magnitude larger than *Caledonia*’s, so all it had to do was leave the bay, pulse-warp to low orbit and it would look just like one of the thousands that came and went through Perfection’s skies every day.
The EV-MASS, meanwhile, had a sensor profile so small that if Perfection’s anti-aircraft defenses detected anything, it’d look like a tiny chunk of space debris doomed to burn up on re-entry.
The bit in the middle where the shuttle pulsed across ten AUs of empty space took hardly any time at all. Even at a paltry one kilolight, the journey was over in only five seconds. It was the sublight approach vector that was the slow bit. That involved sitting around for twenty minutes, joking and fidgeting and waiting.
When the pilot called that they were about to swing through the first drop zone, there was palpable relief. Blaczynski dropped the ramp and stood behind the atmosphere retaining forcefield, bouncing on the balls of his feet with his music up, waiting for the green light.
Titan called from the front “Whatcha listenin’ to, B?”
“Highway to Hell!”
”Twenty seconds.” the pilot called.
The timing wasn’t quite perfect - he’d have preferred to jump just as the guitar solo was starting or something - but who the fuck cared? The light turned green and B paused on the end of the ramp just long enough to turn, flip a salute to his buddies, and topple theatrically back into the void.
He nosed down and applied retro thrust, accelerating down into Perfection’s gravity well.
”EARS field.” Titan called. After what had happened to Thor, they were taking no chances - everyone went through the checklist during an EA Jump.
B checked it. “On.”
That was no understatement. Perfection filled half the sky, but that half was beautifully blue and green, both averaged slightly toward the turquoise compared to Earth, and minus Earth’s omnipresent mottling of cloud. Weather systems moved across Perfection in a leisurely, choreographed parade of predictable rainy cycles that had lasted for geological epochs.
He hit atmo and beamed at the halo of plasma as Perfection’s upper atmosphere compressed against his EARS field and ignited. A wild “YEEEEEEEHAAAAAAAAA!!!!!” carried him across a hundred kilometers in a blaze of fire.
First step after the plasma cleared was to re-establish contact. “Post-burn checkin.” he called.
”I have you, STARFALL.” Titan told him. “Course check?”
“Still on. Entering glide phase.”
The EARS field spread out and became wings, slowing and lifting his descent. The control interface was a little tricky - it was supposed to be like wearing a wingsuit, but in practice they still hadn’t quite managed to work out some latency issues, and the result felt sluggish and imprecise, but it worked. By spreading his arms and feet out, he was easily able to steer himself and fall through the rings his HUD was displaying for him.
This was a HALO jump. The moment his parachute opened, he’d appear on Perfection’s radar, so the idea was to open it as low and as briefly as possible so as to avoid detection.
First, he had to find the right spot. Caledonia’s extreme long range survey, the microsats they’d fired into orbit and the software was all well and good, but the final step was to land on the correct rooftop. He very, very nearly missed it.
Aware that there’d be some remedial training in response to his “woah shit” and the violent corrective maneuver he made at the very end of his long drop, he twisted through the air, corkscrewed past some high-rise apartments - no doubt giving the residents something to talk about - and ripped his ‘chute at the last possible second, tensing his neck muscles to hold his head steady against the sudden snap of deceleration.
He hit hard, rolled, skidded to a halt on the edge of the roof, and then threw himself desperately onto the ‘chute before a stray wind current could pick it up and drag him off into open air.
That done, he just had to lie still for a few seconds and giggle to himself.
“That,” he told the sky, “Is never gonna get old.”
He popped the release on his ‘chute harness,folded it and weighed it down under his equipment pack, and set up on the edge of the roof overlooking the target landing platform. “REBAR, STARFALL. EA Jump complete, I’m in position.”
”Clear copy, STARFALL. Whatcha got for us?”
Blaczynski aimed his scoped rifle down at the ship and compared the alien writing on its nose to the intel on his tablet. “Got a match. November Charlie is still on the pad.”
He ran the scope over the parked ship. “Got… yeah, two Echo-Tangos. One’s a Blue-raff. Fat fucker, dead ringer for the ship’s tech… and, yup, there’s the Corti. Two out of three.”
“Intel said the pilot’s a Kwmbwrw.” Sikes pointed out.
“I don’t see ‘em. Either way, target’s in sight. You’re clear to jump.”
”Thought you’d never ask…” Titan commented.
Blaczynski used the time his buddies were jumping in to set up his spotter computer on its tripod, calibrate his gun’s smartscope and get the beacon going to guide Rebar, Titan and Snapshot onto target.
Some minutes later, the guys called in that they were through the burn phase and into glide. Their icons appeared on his tracker as the flight systems synchronized and began to guide them in.
“Still no sign of that Kwmbwrw.”
“I’ll lay a stasis trap for her when we’re down and the ship’s secured.” Rebar called.
“Gotcha… and I have you in sight.” B replied, tracking three tiny falling shapes in his HUD. “You’re-”
There was a croaking, rattling noise from behind him which, when he frowned and turned towards it, turned out to be a couple of Vzk’tk police officers, aiming guns at him.
”STARFALL, REBAR. I didn’t copy your last.”
“Local law enforcement. You’re good to finish the drop?”
”We’re good. Don’t hurt ‘em, B.”
“Wasn’t planning on it.” Blaczynski sent, and stood up. “Uh… Bar wheep grana wheep ninibong?”
The Vzk’tk rattled its percussive language at him again, and he finally remembered the translator clipped to his MOLLE.
He turned it on. “Howdy fellas.”
The translator gave the cops a note of desperation in their voice. “Don’t move, human! These are Irbzrkian stun guns, they were designed to be effective against your kind.”
B sighed. “Guys. Do everyone here a favor and forget you saw me, please? I’m just doin’ my job.”
“You’re under arrest for trespassing!” The shorter of the two police snapped. “Come quietly… please.”
B took a step closer. “That little zap-gun won’t do shit to me.” he said, matter-of-factly. “Now come on, go grab some donuts or whatever the fuck you guys eat, call me in as a large bird or whatever.”
They shot him. Twin arcs of crackling energy played over his EV-MASS without so much as tickling, and he sighed theatrically. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the Defenders popping their ‘chutes for the final descent onto the platform.
“Okay. Fun’s over guys. Now I have to get mean.” He said. “Sorry.”
Date Point 10y4m1w3d AV
El Obour City, Greater Cairo, Egypt, Earth
“So she’s a cheater.”
“Yup.” A moment of white-hot anger lit Firth’s eyes for a second before he clamped down on it. “Horse is the nicest fuckin’ guy in the world, too, an’ that whore went an’ cheated on him with that skinny fuck Harvey.”
Murray saw Walsh glance at him in the rear-view mirror, and shrugged and nodded.
Firth did not, apparently, think that this was satisfactory. “No, bro, give us your actual thoughts. I want at least ten words.”
Murray’s face wrinkled briefly around a thoughtful sniff and he touched a thumb to his chin. “I love ‘Horse.” he said, finally. “You couldn’y find a better man if you searched the whole Earth tae fuck. But Legsy an’ Price, God rest ‘em both, they fuckin’ called it way before it happened.”
“RIP.” Firth aimed his eyes upward and touched his forehead, navel and shoulders. “But yeah, there you go.”
“What’s the full story, Murray?” Walsh asked.
“…Pricey’s exact words were ’Neither of them are ready for a relationship’.” Murray revealed, and cleared his throat.
“Ah.” Walsh nodded.
It was a subject Murray preferred to avoid, so it came as a relief when Vinther got on the radio. ”Okay, they’ve gone into the apartment block. Murray, set up on the south side. Pavlo, Walsh, northeast. Firth, drive.”
They dismounted and got into position, and the two vehicles merged back into the traffic. It was simple enough to find a quiet spot where he could wait and watch. Okay, Scottish skin and hair weren’t exactly the local flavor, but Murray knew a lot about just existing in a way that completely bypassed all of a person’s perceptual instincts and just made them sort of… treat him as part of the landscape.
Vinther’s decision to keep Firth in the car was a sensible one. Firth was a genuine monster, completely unsuited to going unnoticed, even if he tried to dress down. Instead, he was dressed to play the opposite role and attract attention if need be, and so they’d stopped off at the “American Big and Tall” tourist shop before rendezvousing with the STS element to grab him some noticeable attire, and had succeeded beyond their wildest hopes. There was just something about a six-foot-seven titan wearing an aggressively ugly aloha shirt and board shorts cut for the five-hundred-pound obese market that drew the eye.
Murray’s conservative khaki slacks and navy blue rough cotton shirt went completely unnoticed.
Even in the shade the heat was oppressive, and he took the opportunity to re-apply his sun cream. Crue-D meant that sunburn was a minor irritation at worst, but why put up with it at all?
”Suffering, GUINNESS?” Vinther asked, as his car patrolled past.
Murray snorted - he’d forgotten his temporary new call sign - and waved reassuringly to the car.
Not much happened for a long time, and then the south entrance to the apartment building opened.
”GUINNESS has eyes on KING… PRINCE…and QUEEN. POIs in the street, south side.” he called.
“Copy that GUINNESS. Their rental’s waiting round the corner, west side. BARKEEP is watching it.” Vinther sent.
Murray nodded and watched Ava. She had her camera out and was-
-He saw her blink six feet backwards down the street, facing the wrong direction and with her camera holstered. In one instant she was walking behind the younger Harvey, and in the very next she was looking wildly around in abject bewilderment, as if searching for something that had suddenly vanished. A lone strong gust blew some trash and desert dust down the road in a miniature tornado.
“What th’-?” he began, having no idea how to report what he’d just seen.
”Something wrong?” Vinther asked.
”Whaddya mean, ‘glitched’?”
Murray frowned as Ava turned a full, confused circle, and the implications of what he’d just witnessed finally clicked into place. “…Ah, fuckin’ shite. Detain, right now!”
Murray set off at a run, weaving through the traffic like it wasn’t there, and was behind Ava and grabbing her before she had a hope to see him coming.
He was relatively gentle with her, but Ava went from turning confusedly on the sidewalk to suddenly being pressed against the wall with her arms behind her back, securely held.
She didn’t take it well. ”What the fuck?!”
“Easy Ava. It’s me: Murray.”
”Murray?!” She squirmed to try and escape. Up ahead, Sean and Simon turned back, saw what was happening and both started back to Ava’s aid before Walsh and Firth appeared out of the metaphorical woodwork and secured them both. “Get off me!”
If Firth was a little rougher with Sean than was strictly necessary, Murray decided not to comment. He didn’t have much sympathy for the lad himself, but then again, holding Sean’s cheek against the wall like that was treading the fine line of professionalism. Firth wasn’t going overboard, but he could have been gentler.
Ava plainly felt differently. “Firth, you hillbilly son of a crack whore, let him go!”
Firth gave her a narrow-eyed glare that spoke of his near-bottomless loathing for her for a shaved instant before his control returned. He pressed an implant scanner to Sean’s head, grunted at the green light, and all but threw the skinny young man over the sidewalk to lean against the car Vinther and Pavlopoulos had just arrived in.
“Oh, big bad man try’na prove it?” She spat. “I bet you cried when your daddy fucked you in the ass, you little bitch!”
Vinther snorted as he got out of the car. “Jeez, she’s got a mouth on her…”
Ava’s feet scuffled in the dirt as she tried to fight back. “Murray, you let me go right now.” She snarled. Murray yanked his scanner of his belt and pressed it to her head. It pinged a happy green and he relaxed.
Firth apparently wasn’t satisfied. “Double check.” he snapped, shoving his own scanner into Murray’s hand.
“…Still green.” Murray confirmed, after repeating the test. Firth snorted and stalked away to bundle Sean into the SUV.
Ava at least cooled a little with him gone. “Happy?” she demanded. “You gonna let me go now?”
“Sorry, Ava.” Murray zipped some plastic handcuffs around her wrists.
“Murray, for fuck’s sake…”
“Come on, lassy, settle down. Please.” Murray requested, calmly. “You stepped in some shite, that’s all.”
“Good!” She snapped, then sighed and finally relaxed. “…Fine.”
“Thanks, Ava. Gonny frisk you for weapons now.”
She grumbled something that sounded inventively vulgar in Spanish as Murray gave her a businesslike and efficient patdown, finding nothing more than her camera, phone, passport and press ID.
“Walsh?” He asked.
“Hey, you’ve got the entertaining one.” Walsh patted Simon Harvey reassuringly on the shoulder. The journalist looked more bored and resigned than upset. “Mine’s good as gold.”
“Right. Inty the van with him, then.” Murray proclaimed. Ava had finally settled into sullen silence and allowed him to steer her firmly into the Chevrolet to sit on the back seat next to Pavlo.
As soon as the door closed, Vinther covered his mouth to hide a huge grin. “God damn! I don’t know who taught that girl to swear, but she could give me lessons.” he commented.
“She’s even worse in Spanish.” Firth grunted as he circled round the SUV to get into it, plainly not amused. “Beats the fuck outta me how ‘Horse used to put up with it.”
Chuckling to himself, Vinther got into the Chevrolet’s driver seat, and Murray settled into the back seat, sandwiching Ava between himself and the mercifully much smaller Pavlopoulos.
“Just what in the shit is going on?” She demanded, as soon as they were moving.
“Canny tell you.” Murray said.
“Come on, Murray, it’s me. You can’t give me anything?”
“Lassy,” Murray warned her as he fastened her seatbelt, “Don’t mistake my civil treatment for liking you.”
Ava stopped squirming against her cuffs and went still. Suddenly looking hurt and sad and small, she slouched in the middle seat, staring at her knees.
They were back on the Cairo Ring Road before she spoke again. “…How is he?”
“Have you no’ seen the news?”
“Yeah, yeah, the whole Beef Brothers thing.” She tried to wave hand dismissively and only succeeded in twitching her shoulder awkwardly. “I mean… how’s he doing? Is he okay?”
She was quiet and well-behaved all the way back.
Date Point 10y4m1w3d AV
Planet Perfection, The Core Worlds
Harry ‘Rebar’ Vandenberg
Akiyama was the first to land, and he did so with characteristic precision, slamming his ‘chute open, swinging on the sudden change of momentum, and ballet-stepping neatly onto the target landing platform, his carbine already raised and aimed.
Sikes was only a second or two behind him, and announced his arrival with a higher-velocity landing that must have left the deck reverberating.
If the Corti target felt any emotions at all at this sudden arrival, it - he - didn’t betray them. Those huge black eyes flicked from one man to the other and, very calmly, it raised its hands in surrender.
The Vz’ktk was rather less phlegmatic about the whole thing. It produced a panic noise somewhere between a hoot and the sound of a man clog-dancing on bubblewrap, and turned to run.
Vz’ktk had a decent turn of speed on them when they needed it - nothing that could outrun a human of course, but still quick enough that the situation needed controlling now before anything regrettable happened. Rebar angled his descent, popped his ‘chute, and then deployed a trick that they’d worked out only SOR could get away with, thanks to the incredible ankle support offered by the EV-MASS - he hit the ‘chute’s release while he was still a good six feet up.
Intimidation tactics really didn’t come any better than slamming into the deck like a human meteor some meters in front of the panicking alien, which was promptly corralled. It spun, looking for an exit, then in response to some kind of barked order from the Corti, it spread its arms in surrender.
The plan was going off almost without a hitch. Titan darted up the ship’s ramp to commandeer its computer systems before the Corti could muck with them via some neural cybernetic controller or whatever, and Sikes began patiently explaining through his translator that the two beings were now detained for questioning.
“REBAR, TITAN.” Akiyama called. “Ship’s empty. No pilot on board. Pulling the memory.”
“Copy that, TITAN. STARFALL, REBAR: You okay up there?”
There was a pause that was a little too long and then - “REBAR, STARFALL. Situation’s under control.”
“You didn’t hurt ‘em?”
”Just introduced ET to duct tape, that’s all. They’re fine.”
“Good. Laying a stasis trap for the pilot.”
Snapshot nodded and bundled the two aliens onto their ship, and Rebar released his pack to grab the stasis trap
The trap was one of Titan’s gizmos and what it lacked in aesthetics - it was little more than a laser tripwire, a small computer card and the stasis field generator taped to a power pack - it made up for in effectiveness. Anything that crossed the beam would instantly be contained within the stasis field, which would collapse when the power pack was dry about two minutes later: more than enough time for the victim to be surrounded ready for capture.
Once it was attached to a wall, crate, or any other vertical surface through the simple medium of the SOR’s best friend - duct tape - all they had to do was sit and wait.
That was the theory, at least. What happened was that Rebar was still in the process of sticking it to some kind of cargo-handling drone when the pilot ambled unconcernedly around the corner.
They stared at each other for a moment, calculating how to react.
“…Well.” Rebar cleared his throat. “This is awkward.”
The pilot turned and ran.
“Fuck!” Rebar surged to his feet and took off in pursuit, but Kwmbwrw had long legs and this one had a large head start. Firth would have had no trouble catching up to it, but Defenders weren’t built for speed - Rebar was only marginally faster than his quarry.
“STARFALL, REBAR! The pilot just showed up, she’s rabbiting!”
”I see her. Sending up the drone.” You could say a lot about Blaczynski - his wild party lifestyle, his egregiously ugly tattoos, his chronic ability to stick his foot in his mouth - but when it came down to the wire, he was an absolutely top quality operator, an ice-cold Combat Controller whose awareness of the operational space bordered on the supernatural. ”Take a right off the end of the platform… hundred yards. You’re gaining.”
Rebar caught a glimpse of curly chocolate fur up ahead, but lost it just as quickly behind a huge supporting beam that was part of the vital superstructure for the skyscraper that towered above him.
”Second left in a hundred yards.” B called. ”…Civilian ETs in your way, check your movement.”
Rebar gritted his teeth and somehow found a higher gear from somewhere, felt the deck ring and shake under him as he put his training and the EV-MASS through their paces. He shot past a bewildered knot of Robalin and angled down the sharp left that Blaczynski had indicated.
”Crowd’s slowing her down, keep it up REBAR.”
Vandenberg could see why. The fleeing pilot was bullying her way through the crowd, knocking spindly Vz’ktk and other fragile life forms out of her way. She could get away with it - for all her size, she wasn’t deathworld-dense, and could shoulder-check people out of her way without committing murder. If Rebar had tried the same trick, he’d have pulped somebody.
He raised his voice and roared. “GET OUT OF MY WAY!!!”
It worked - alarmed beings turned, saw a charging deathworlder in heavy armor and wisely decided not to impede his progress. Their reactions were so slow though, and some of the further ones didn’t even hear him. One large Vgork loitered in the path left by the escaping Kwmbwrw and was slow on the uptake even when Vandenberg yelled at it to move.
Up ahead, his quarry dashed right and vanished from view.
”Visual contact interrupted.” B called. “Trying to reacquire…”
Rebar shouldered gently but firmly through a bewildered huddle of aliens and made it as far as the intersection. His heart sank. The crowd was just as dense, and while there were several Kwmbwrw standing around, not one of them resembled the target.
“Contact lost.” he declared, knowing the pursuit was a failure.
“..Contact lost.” Blaczynski agreed. If he had no idea which way the alien had gone, then Rebar doubted there was any hope of re-acquiring her. ”Better get outta there, Reeb. Cops’ll be coming.”
Aliens scattered away from him as Rebar spat a furious curse into his mask and set off at a jog back the way he’d come.
“We good to get outta here?” he asked.
”Just need Starfall in the driving seat, REBAR.” Titan called. ”Data’s secure.”
”And our two ETs are confined to quarters.” Sikes added.
A vehicle of some kind swooped low overhead, covered in flashing lights and howling. Some things, it seemed, were universal. Fortunately, it apparently failed to notice Rebar. “Credit where it’s due…” he grunted, picking up the pace. “Local police are quick on the uptake.”
“Think me having two of their buddies tied up here might have something to do with that…” Blaczynski commented. ”We need off this planet ASAP.”
Rebar gritted his teeth and stepped up into a full run again. “Get off that rooftop.” he ordered.
”Don’t need to tell me twice…”
As he pounded back along the promenade, Rebar saw B pause on the edge of his rooftop, flip a jaunty salute to his two captives, then grab his zipline and plunge toward the ship.
Rebar scooped up his abandoned gear on the way past, and they met at the bottom of the ship’s ramp and banged fists together. “Get ‘em next time, Reeb.” B told him, slapping his shoulder.
“Would have… preferred…” Rebar panted. Sprinting in EV-MASS was a task to drain even the most conditioned athlete. “ To get ‘em… this time…”
B nodded, turned, caught the drone as it glided down out of the sky, and hugged it to his chest before vanishing up the ramp and hanging a right onto the *Negotiable Curiosity*’s flight deck.
Rebar followed and settled himself into the command chair, sucking on the sippy straw inside his mask in a bid to restore some of the reserves he’d just incinerated during the pursuit. It creaked a little as several hundred pounds of man and armored space suit tested its engineering, but did little more than that.
“How long ‘til we’re in the air?” he asked.
“Just getting clearance from local traffic control.” Blaczynski said. “Wouldn’t wanna get smeared all over downtown by the AA because we didn’t ask nicely… Done. Flight clearance received.”
He waved a hand through the volumetric controls and grunted happily as the ship hoisted itself off the pad and pulled in its ramp and landing gear.
“They’re letting us fly in a zone with a security alert?” Vandenberg asked.
“Don’t question it, bro.” Blaczynski advised him, and finished laying in their flight plan and speed.
Rebar fidgeted awkwardly nonetheless, fully expecting interceptors or a ground AA station to abruptly latch onto them and make awkward demands like ordering them to land. It was a profound relief when they hit the minimum warp altitude and Starfall pulsed the drive.
The Negotiable Curiosity was much faster than the shuttle. What had been a five second trip in the shuttle was over before Blaczynski had even removed his hand from the control to activate the FTL.
“Okay…HMS Caledonia, this is SOR one-oh-seven flying November Charlie, we’re at RP Alpha.” Blaczynski called.
Rebar studied the holographic sphere that was the ship’s sensor display. “Where are they?”
“If they’re running cold we shouldn’t see them anyway, but… hmm…” Blaczynski turned in his seat. “Yo, Titaaan?!
Akiyama clanked up the deck and stuck his head through the door. “‘Sup?”
“Did you fuck with the navcomp?”
“Something wrong?” Rebar asked.
B nodded, and hit the comms again. “HMS Caledonia I say again: Sierra Oscar Romeo One Zero Seven STARFALL flying November Charlie, operational objectives achieved, we are at the rendezvous point. Come back, over.”
They strained to listen. A few trillion photons, some portion of which had been traversing the endless night since the cooling of the early universe, reached their journey’s end in *Negotiable Curiosity*’s communications sensor array as an unregarded quiet hiss.
“…What’s our contingency for Caledonia being a no-show?” Akiyama asked, quietly.
“Loiter at RP Bravo in low emissions mode for no longer than eight hours.” Blaczynski said, enacting exactly that plan. The ship turned, lurched briefly through superluminal space, and then went dark as soon as it was safely back below lightspeed. “Then make best speed for Cimbrean. Treat Caledonia and all its crew as orange until definitively established otherwise. Do not dock with Caledonia nor share confidential information over comms with any of her crew unless and until they have been proven green.”
“Why the loiter?” Vandenberg asked.
“‘Cause it could be technical problems or something innocent and they might need the escort.” B replied. “And… hell, if something compromised Cally then humanity’s fucked anyway, ‘cause they’ve got the jump codes for Earth and Cimbrean.”
“Unless they managed to scrub the computer before they were taken over.” Titan pointed out.
“Yeah, well…Whatever’s going on, eight hours gives them time to fix the problem and get in touch, or broadcast an SOS to the RP. ”
Rebar took a look out the window as if that might achieve anything. Even if it was right next to them, *Caledonia*’s matte-black hull would have been invisible anyway. “Okay, well… Grab an MRE and settle in, guys.” He advised. “Guess it’s time to hurry up and wait.”
Date Point 10y4m1w3d AV
US Embassy, Cairo, Egypt, Earth
The good news was that they’d taken the plastic zip tie off her, and her hands were no longer bound behind her back.
The bad news was that they’d put some metal handcuffs on her, and her hands were now bound in front of her. While this was admittedly an improvement, it didn’t exactly feel like Everest had been climbed.
Still. The air conditioning was on. That was nice.
The big dude in the suit who’d taken over from Murray in looking after her managed the impressive feat of being even more impenetrably taciturn than Murray himself, who was friendly and engaging even if he preferred to deploy his words like an old lady counting out pennies.
This guy was a human wall in a badly-tailored black suit.
There was nothing to do for what felt like hours, and not in the sense of a boring twenty minutes or so, but in the literal sense that the day had probably been and gone and the sun had probably set. Ava was bored out of her mind, growing increasingly tired and sleepy and there was nothing to do except fidget, sit and think, try and get comfortable. The only way to try and keep track of the time was counting the number of times that Man-wall was periodically replaced by a slightly different Man-wall.
Eventually she folded her arms on the table and tried to grab a nap. She wasn’t sure if it worked - maybe it wasn’t long after that point that the door opened, or maybe she successfully dozed for a while - but either way she sat up and blinked when somebody new entered the room.
The new arrival was a woman in her… early forties, if Ava was any judge, with hair that plainly hadn’t had more than a quick lunchtime meeting with a brush today, and her arms full of too many things - a laptop, her phone, several paper folders, some pens, a coffee mug…
Unlike literally everybody she’d dealt with in the last few hours, the newcomer immediately won some points by not looking either totally composed and emotionless, or pissed off. Mostly, she looked like she was a plate-spinner with lots to stay on top of, but she gave the impression that Ava, while being another plate, wasn’t actually an unwelcome one.
She managed to get the ungainly armful of stuff she was carrying safely onto the table, offered a warm smile and shook Ava’s cuffed hand. “Hello Miss Rìos. My name’s Darcy.”
“Hi, Darcy.” Ava managed, sitting up a little straighter.
Darcy sat down. “Do you, uh, do you mind if I call you Ava?” she asked.
“Please do…” Ava calculated for a few seconds as Darcy got settled, and decided to go with completely open honesty. Somehow, it seemed like the only card that stood a chance of working. “Darcy, please, what the hell is going on?”
“…At the risk of sounding like I’m dodging the question,” Darcy replied, adjusting her seat, failing, and trying to adjust it again. Ava found herself warming to the woman’s dorky, busy energy. “What do you think is going on?”
“Can’t you just tell me?”
“Believe me, I would if I could.” Darcy offered an apologetic smile.
”Why can’t you?” Ava asked her. “What’s so goddamn important?!”
Darcy smiled and shrugged. “I can’t even tell you why I can’t tell you. Stupid, isn’t it?”
Ava sat back as far as being handcuffed to the table would let her. “You got that right.” she agreed.
“So… what do you think is going on?” Darcy repeated.
“What do I think?” Ava asked. “I think we’ve got a deadly enemy out there.” She tried to gesture through the wall and winced as the cuffs stopped her hands with a painful jolt. “An alien enemy.” she elaborated instead. “I think they blew up my my home, killed my family, murdered my friend… I think they have a spaceship here on Earth, I think they can control people through implants in their brains, and I think they stole a bunch of Pakistani nukes to try and start World War Three in the middle east. It’s either that or I’m hopelessly paranoid.”
She awarded herself some brownie points as Darcy cleared her throat and examined her laptop. That, Ava judged, was evidence of a solid hit.
“That’s… an extraordinary claim.” Darcy said, carefully.
“Yeah.” Ava agreed. “Usually I’d keep it to myself, but… I mean, I’m chained to a desk and I’m talking to an MIB.” She shrugged. “I figure I’m onto something at least.”
“I could probably do something about the chained to the desk part.” Darcy offered.
“That’d be nice…?” Ava asked, hopefully.
Darcy nodded to the human wall, who nodded and took Ava’s cuffs off entirely. The opportunity to rub at the sore spots on her wrists and shake her shoulders loose was a kind of minor ecstasy.
“Why do you want to know?” Darcy asked.
“Why-?” Ava gesticulated as if the answer was obvious. “Because I want to do something!”
”Anything!” Ava told her. “Something! I don’t know what, but…”
Darcy gave a sympathetic nod, and typed a quick note on her laptop. “I can definitely appreciate that sentiment.” she said. “Do you need a minute to think about what exactly you mean? ’Anything’ can mean… well, a lot.”
“I don’t think another minute would help.” Ava shrugged. “I’ve tried… I guess you know about me and Ada- uh, Staff Sergeant Arés, right?”
Darcy just nodded.
“…I tried being there for him. Being, like, his anchor or his foundation or whatever. I fucked that up bad. I just… I know I’m not suited for the military life. What does that leave me with? I thought maybe if I could dig up the truth, I’d be able to think of something…”
“And what would you have done with the truth, whatever it was?” Darcy asked. “What would you have done if, say, everything you suspect turned out to be completely accurate?”
“I don’t know.” Ava confessed. “…I don’t know.”
Darcy smiled sympathetically, closed her laptop, and handed her a paper handkerchief.
“You can do something, you know.” she said.
Ava wiped her eyes dry and sat forward. “Do what?”
“Tell me what exactly happened to you on that street corner, just before Sergeant Murray detained you.”
Ava nodded, and composed her thoughts.
“I was following Simon and Sean.” she said. “We’d just spoken to this blogger guy, he’d been poking around that gunfight and some reports of UFOs. He said that there was a woman we should try and find, she’d been kidnapped and her mother murdered. Gave us a name and some addresses we might try…”
Darcy picked up her coffee. She didn’t drink it, just held it warmly in both hands.
“…We were on our way back to the car when… it was like time stopped for everything except me. The cars stopped moving, Simon and Sean stopped moving… hell, the air stopped moving. It felt solid, I couldn’t… I was stuck in this little circle and couldn’t get out. And then Suit Guy was there.”
“Suit Guy?” Darcy asked.
“He was at the airport when we got off the plane. Did a pretty good job of acting like an ordinary member of the public, but I saw him watching us. He looked like a… a businessman, or something. He had a nice suit on, an expensive watch, he had short hair, a mustache, no beard… you know. I figured he was with you guys, maybe.”
“What did he do?”
“Nothing, really. He said ‘hello’, told me not to be alarmed. He said that he wanted to speak with me - me personally - and that he had questions for me, and answers too.”
“Did he give you anything, or take anything from you?”
“He gave me some numbers.” Ava nodded. “ I entered them on my phone. I think they’re coordinates, or maybe like a ZIP code or whatever the Egyptian version is? I don’t know. They’re a way to find him.”
“He specifically said he wanted to speak to you?” Darcy confirmed.
“And then what happened?”
“He… vanished.” Ava snapped her fingers for emphasis. “And everything started moving again. And, I was so busy looking for where he’d gone that I didn’t even see Murray until I was up against the wall.”
“Did Suit Guy tell you his name?”
Ava shook her head. “Sort of. He told me to call him by a number.” she said. “Six.”
Darcy gnawed thoughtfully on the end of her pen. “And… did he say why he wanted to speak with you?” she asked.
“I asked him that. He just said something really cryptic and vanished.” Ava told her. “He said, uh… He said… something about… basketball?”
Darcy quite wisely stayed silent and let her think hard as she tried to recall the particular words Six had used.
“He said…” She exhaled in frustration, and it finally came to her. “He said… ‘Because only humans would play basketball with their prisoners’.”
“I see.” Darcy nodded. “And, did anything else stand out to you?”
“He said ’humans’. As if he’s not human himself…” Ava thought long and hard. “I’m sorry. It was just sudden and confusing and I guess maybe I was freaking out a bit. I can’t think of much else.”
“Can I ask you some questions now?”
Darcy put her coffee down. “Yes….” She said. “But I might not be able to answer.”
“I understand.” Ava promised.
She ran her fingers through her hair to try and sort out what her most pressing need was.
“…Is there anything I can do?” she asked.
“You’ve already done a lot.” Darcy said.
“What, by coming to Egypt and getting caught up in stuff I only suspect I understand?”
“By answering honestly and openly. You’ve said a lot, and it will help. It’ll especially help the SOR.”
Ava nodded and looked away. “Too bad they hate me.”
Darcy gave her a long, slow, calculating look, and then she put down her pen. “Do you mind if I go a bit beyond the relationship between interviewer and detainee for a second, and give you some life advice?” she asked.
Ava blinked at her, then indicated for her to go ahead.
“My job - a big part of my job - involves figuring people out and giving them what they want to see, and telling them what they want to hear, so that they’ll open up to me. It’s… rarer that I’m ethically able to tell people what they need to hear so that I can help them.” She said.
Ava nodded, listening.
“We’ve only just met, but I’ve learned to trust my instincts about people. And I think you have good intentions.”
Ava gave a defeated shake of her head. “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.“
“So is the road to Heaven: The difference is judgement.” Darcy replied. “And good judgement can come with experience, perspective and education.”
“So your advice is…?”
“You have… fixations. Your home, your late friend, your ex-boyfriend… your Big Secret that you came here to uncover. I admire that, really: you’re tenacious. Stubborn. Driven. And it all comes from a very good place, but you’re burning yourself up because you’re trying to do it all yourself and you won’t let other people be strong for you when you’ve run out of strength for yourself. You need to learn how to let go and be weak when you need to.”
“Everybody’s allowed to be weak sometimes.” Darcy said. “There’s no sense in trying to run on a broken leg.”
Ava shook her head. “I don’t… I want to be a good person. I don’t want to burden people with my problems. Is that wrong?”
Darcy smiled and began to gather her stuff. “For what it’s worth?” she said, standing up. “I think you are a good person. I think you’ll achieve good things, if you give yourself the time you need to heal first. And the people who really care about you want to be burdened with your problems: Let them help you, and things will turn around. That’s my advice.”
She left, and Ava found herself sitting alone except for the man-wall.
Determined not to cry in front of a stranger - or at all, if she could help it - she settled for getting up and taking a tentative stroll around the room to work some of the stiffness out. Man-wall didn’t respond.
“Anyone ever tell you you look kinda like Dwayne Johnson?” she asked him. This elicited no response. “So… What happens now?” she pressed. “Am I being released, or…?”
The door clicked open and one of the other man-walls stepped in. “This way please, Miss Rìos.” he requested.
Ava edged around the table, cautiously. “…No handcuffs?”
“Okay…” She cleared her throat and followed Man-wall number two into the hallway outside.
They weren’t in a large building, and all he really did was show her from one door to another on the same floor. This new one was more comfortably arranged, with a couple of couches, a coffee machine and a television on the wall, plus a few synthetic plants and some framed landscape photographs on the walls. Comfortable, but impersonal. Simon and Sean stood up as she was gently ushered inside.
“You okay?” Sean asked.
Ava nodded. “Never thought I’d get life advice from an MIB.” she said.
“Life advice?” Simon asked.
“Just… some words of wisdom to think on.” Ava yawned. “Jeez, how long was I in there?”
“It’s four in the morning, local time.” Simon revealed. “By your personal clock, you’ve been up all night.”
“…what happens now?”
“Now? You get some sleep.” Simon ordered, pointing to the longer couch. “I think we’ll be here a bit longer.”
“You mean ‘a bit’ in the British sense, right?”
“Sleep while you can.” Simon repeated.
“What about you guys?”
”Sleep.” Sean stressed. He grabbed a blanket from the back of the short couch and handed it to her. “We’ve been napping, we’re fine, but you look like death warmed up.”
Stubborn as she was, Ava seriously thought about folding her arms and staying awake, but instead she rolled her eyes, took the blanket and gave up.
“Fine, fine, you charming ass.” She threw it round her shoulders, kicked her shoes off and sank onto the couch, which damn near swallowed her. Her fatigue caught up and hit her like snow falling off a roof. She yawned, and shook her head to try and clear it. “Jeez… Okay…”
“Go on, duck. We’ll wake you up if anything happens.” Sean told her.
“Quit nagging…” Ava grumbled, but lay down and turned on her side until she was comfortable. “You’re worse than an old woman…”
He didn’t reply, and she put her head down and tried to sleep.
Date Point 10y4m1w3d AV
Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada, Earth.
“You’ve got to be fookin’ joking!”
If Special Agent Darcy didn’t take Powell’s disbelief well, she did a good job of not showing it. Even writ large on the wall TV in General Tremblay’s office via a camera in Cairo, her face didn’t betray any emotion save earnest seriousness. ”No, major. I’m absolutely certain that she was telling the truth about Six saying he wanted to speak to her specifically, and I’m satisfied that allowing that meeting to take place is the correct course of action.”
“You’re asking me to let you send two of my men into what could well be a trap on the say-so of a civilian with a known history of infidelity.” Powell returned. “And you’re proposing that we allow this woman, who’s aptly bloody demonstrated that she fundamentally can’t be trusted, to learn top secret information.”
“I disagree.” Darcy countered. “I’d stake my professional reputation on it that you’re badly misjudging her, major.”
“You bloody will be if this goes ahead!” Powell retorted.
General Tremblay waved Powell down and threw in his opinion. “Powell’s got good reason to be reluctant, agent Darcy. There are significant trust issues involved.”
“The major and his men may not think she can be trusted, general: I do. And with all due respect to the major, it’s my job to assess who can and cannot be trusted.”
“And the rationale for allowing this meeting to take place, rather than simply detaining him?” Tremblay asked.
”This isn’t like the roller derby attack. Six has been on Earth for some time now and has evaded detection throughout. If we try and detain him, he’ll just slip away - migrate to another host body or effect an escape somehow.” Darcy explained. ”And this is too good an opportunity to miss, general. We could gain real insight into Hierarchy operations on Earth by doing this, maybe even take a step towards securing the planet.”
“And that can only be achieved if we let him talk to Rìos?” Tremblay asked. “He wouldn’t be open to meeting, say, you?”
”Our psych profile on Six suggests that what he’s doing is testing us, general. We think he wants an ally that he can work with, one who’ll scratch his back so he can scratch theirs. Ours.”
“All for nowt if that treacherous girl leaks DEEP RELIC to the world.” Powell said.
“If the Hierarchy had the ability to panic and inflict real harm on us, they would have by now.” Darcy shook her head.
“They have four nukes.” Tremblay observed.
”Which is nothing next to what they could do to us if they managed to get even one wormhole beacon on this side of the barrier.” Darcy said. ”We think their play this whole time has been to try and find a buyer for those bombs who can pay them with a beacon: Several… violent parties have been fishing around in search of wormhole beacons since the Zulfiqar was hit.”
Tremblay rubbed his chin, and turned his chair. Admiral Sir Patrick Knight had been summoned from Cimbrean for this meeting, and was standing by the window running his index finger thoughtfully across his lips. “You’ve been quiet so far, admiral.” he commented.
Knight shot a sympathetic glance at Powell, but nodded to the screen. “Agent Darcy makes a compelling argument.” he said.
“Sirs, I really must object in the strongest-” Powell began.
“Powell old chap, I know you must.” Knight interrupted, reassuringly. “I have misgivings about the girl myself. But we must rationally weigh the pros and cons.”
Tremblay cleared his throat. “Powell, this is too good an opportunity to pass up. Much too good. If you’re concerned about the situation and security, then I’ll give you the command and you can see it done right, with whatever resources you deem necessary.”
“Which of course puts you in a position to stress to miss Rìos the seriousness of the consequences should she betray trust again.” Knight added. “I’m sure you can be more than adequately persuasive.”
Powell snorted. “Put the fear of God into her, you mean.”
“I rather think the fear of Powell will suffice.” Knight observed.
“…I’ll want the beef brothers in EV-MASS, my own EV-MASS, a plane for us to jump out of, a jet with a HARM on it in case that UFO shows up, and close air support.” Powell listed.
“You’ll have them.” Tremblay told him. “Agent Darcy?”
“Just so long as the big guns only come in if the shit hits the fan.” Darcy said. “We don’t want Six to spook.”
“Aye.” Powell agreed. “As you wish.”
Darcy visibly relaxed a little. “Thank you major. I appreciate it.”
“I hope you’re right about her” Powell said. “Believe you me, I’ll be very happy if you are.”
Darcy nodded. “I’ll see you in the field.” she said. ”General, admiral. Thank you.”
Tremblay and Knight nodded for her, and she ended the call.
Powell worked his jaw thoughtfully at the blank screen for a second and then turned to the general. “I’d better see it done then.”
“Thank you for your forbearance, major.” Tremblay said, rising to shake his hand. “Good luck.”
“Thank you sir.” Powell returned the shake. “Here’s hoping I don’t bloody need it.”
Date Point 10y4m1w3d AV
US Embassy, Cairo, Egypt, Earth
The fact that he’d just been spoken to finally percolated into Sean’s consciousness. He blinked and looked up.
“I said, staring at her like that won’t get you back together, Sean.” Simon told him.
Sean shook his head and rubbed his face. “I was a million miles away.” he said.
“In whose bed?” Simon asked, light-heartedly. He was patrolling slowly around the room, apparently quite composed and happy.
“Mate, don’t play innocent with me. I’ve known you since you were born and I know when you’re pathetically in love.”
Sean snorted and turned to sit sideways across the couch. “That’s in the past.” he said.
“Not by choice, hmm?” Simon observed. “Still, it explains that Firth chap’s rough treatment of you.”
Simon shook his head, and ruffled his nephew’s hair. “You bloody idiot.” he said, fondly.
Sean ducked out from under his hand. “Why are we still here, anyway? She should be asleep in a hotel room, not on a sofa. We should be sleeping in beds too for that matter.”
“Because they’ve not asked us to leave yet.” Simon told him.
“Don’t we have rights?” Sean asked.
“Yes, and by and large you can rely on the Yanks to honour them.” Simon told him. “Besides, nothing makes you look more suspicious than kicking up a stink when you don’t need to. Good advice for when you’re arrested, that.”
“What, go limp and visit your happy place? Fan-fucking-tastic advice, Simon.”
“Don’t be a twat. I’m telling you, the trick in these situations is to be calm, be honest, and let things happen. These people can make your life profoundly awkward, nephew mine, but it’s usually more hassle than they can be bothered with.” Simon about-faced and started patrolling the room anticlockwise instead. “Which means it’s a good idea not to give them a reason to bother. Be polite and cooperative, be nice and friendly if you can manage it, and they’ll give you a shove out the door sooner rather than later.”
“Right now, I’d settle for a fucking sandwich.” Sean grumbled.
Simon shrugged and knocked on the door. Immediately, one of the sapient security slabs opened it. “Can I help you?”
“Sorry to bother you…” Simon smiled at the man, noticeably exaggerating his accent a little. “But we’ve been here rather a long time and we’re getting a bit peckish. I don’t suppose there’s any way…?”
“I’ll have some food brought up.” the guard replied. “You got everything you need in there?”
“If you could spare us another blanket, it’d be much appreciated…?”
“Sure, I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks ever so much.” Simon aimed a smug look at Sean the second the door closed again.
“Oh yes, thank you awfully, wot?” Sean parodied.
“Rather.” Simon chuckled, and resumed his stately lap of the room. “Now how do you think that would have gone if I’d been all ’I have rights! I demand you bring me a filet mignon this instant and I want to speak to the King bwah bwah bwah…’?” he imitated a kind of pompous clucking.
“Point made…” Sean waved a hand irritably. He sat back and tried to entertain himself by multiplying the ceiling tiles and searching for patterns in the carpet.
He was painstakingly weighing up whether a particular pattern of shade under the coffee table more closely resembled a man wearing a bowler hat or a man wearing a trilby when there was a knock on the door and a couple of embassy staff members delivered two folded blankets and some trays with three sandwiches, three mugs, an insulated flask of hot water and an assortment of coffee, tea, sugar and a small jug of milk, some chocolate bars and a tube of Pringles.
They woke Ava, who, after some yawning and stretching, caused one of the sandwiches to vanish, inhaled slightly more than her share of the Pringles, polished off two Snickers and self-medicated with a drink that was less a coffee and more a triple-strength coffee flavored syrup.
“Considering you only got two hour’s sleep, you look refreshed.” Sean told her.
“I feel refreshed.” She replied. “No news? Are they letting us go?”
“We’ll see.” Simon replied, amicably. “I get the impression we really did barge into something huge here, and if there’s one thing governments don’t like, it’s reporters all over their biggest secrets.”
“What are they afraid of?” Sean asked.
“That depends on the secret.” Ava told him.
“Well what good do secrets do?” He insisted. “They come out eventually, and then you’re the one who was lying to everyone. We’ve lived that, you and me. Haven’t we? You and I both know that dishonesty for the greater good doesn’t work.”
“He’s right, Ava.” Simon agreed. “Secrets and lies only hurt people.”
Ava folded her arms uncertainly, then frowned thoughtfully before shaking her head. “Look, I’ve been… I got some advice today that made a few things fall into place, and I think you’re wrong. I mean-” She gestured at Simon. “You protect your sources, don’t you?”
“That’s not the same thing.”
“Like hell it’s not!” she exclaimed. “A secret is a secret, no matter if it’s a big one or a little one. If you take your promise to protect your sources seriously, then do you really believe that secrets are always harmful?”
“I protect my sources!” Simon stressed. “I keep them from suffering the repercussions of talking to me!”
“So a secret can protect people, then?” Ava asked. Simon scowled and scratched his head, and she pressed her point. “Simon, do you think you’re the only man in the world who can tell which secrets should and shouldn’t be kept? Do you trust yourself that much?”
Neither man had a reply. Ava, on the other hand, was hitting her stride.
“And then there’s the effort, right? D’you think they’d go to all the effort of keeping their secrets if they didn’t think they have to?” she asked, unknowingly echoing Simon’s advice about hassling the security guards. “Governments aren’t this… this shady machine that just hangs over us like a kid with a magnifying glass. They’re made of people, people just like us, who’re trying to do the best they can with good intentions.”
“So you’re perfectly fine with an opaque government.” Simon commented.
“When it needs to be, I… guess? Yeah! I am.” Ava told him. “You think secrets hurt people? Well what about all the… I dunno, the thousands of secrets you never heard of because nobody was ever hurt by them because they stayed secret?”
“What about all the ways the world could be a better place if we just knew what was going on and what needed to be fixed?” Sean asked.
Ava shook her head. “I’ve seen what happens to people who try and help when they don’t know how.” she said. “We’ve got to start trusting other people to know what they’re doing, guys. We’re all in this together.”
“Even guys like that knuckle-dragging cro-magnon wanker Firth?” Sean asked, skeptically.
Ava sighed and sat down. “ Look, Firth honestly scares me and I don’t like him much - and I know the feeling’s mutual - but he’s still a person. Christian Firth from Kentucky, listens to country rock and heavy metal, plays Warhammer, secretly loves RomComs…I’ve hung out with him and all the SOR guys, and they’re just guys. They all banded together and got me a birthday present a few years back - you know, my USM telephoto lens? The expensive one?”
“What did you say to him earlier? Something about his daddy fucking him in the arse?” Simon asked.
“‘Cause I was upset and he’s an alpha male jackass who was having way too much fun putting Sean in his place.” Ava said. “But even if he fucking hates my guts, he’s still one of the good guys and I’d trust him with my life. You don’t have to like somebody to trust them. Besides-”
She paused in response to a knock on the door, which turned out to be Darcy, who greeted the room with a smile and a “Hi.”
“So… gentlemen, whenever you’re ready there’s a car waiting to take you back to your hotel. The driver has your belongings. You’ll be under observation for the rest of your stay in Egypt of course, but it’s up to you what you do with your time. Ava, there’s a few more things I would like to discuss with you if-”
“Is she under arrest?” Simon interrupted..
“No.” Darcy said, instantly. “If she chooses to, she can leave with you… but if you’re willing,” she addressed Ava directly, “I’d like to make a request.”
Simon made a grudgingly satisfied noise with his arms folded, and looked to Ava, who stood. “I’ll see you guys whenever… this… is done with.” she said.
The two women left the room. In the silence that followed, Simon sighed. “Damn it.”
“What?” Sean asked.
“I have this horrible feeling that we just lost a huge story… and maybe a talented young photojournalist into the bargain.” Simon grumbled.
Sean shrugged and stood up. “Let’s get some actual sleep.” he suggested.
“That’s all you’ve got to say on the matter?” Simon asked.
“I’m fucking tired, I’m fucking bored, I’ve had fucking enough of this room and whatever Ava decides to do is her fucking business.” Sean scratched at his stubble. “Let’s just go.”
“Right. Maybe in the morning we can go looking for a story to justify this trip…”
Date Point 10y4m1w3d AV
Starship ’Negotiable Curiosity’, Perfection System, The Core Worlds.
Wilson ‘Titan’ Akiyama
“You gonna decide, or you gonna prove how shitty your poker face is some more?”
“Shut up and let me think! …Okay… …Do you have any Jacks?”
Sikes groaned “Motherfucker!” he handed over three cards, which Titan combined with the one in his hand and laid on the deck in front of him with a grin. “Fine, fine, wiseass, you got any sixes?”
“Your behaviour confuses me.” Bedu commented. The cabin doors only locked from the inside, so somebody had to stay on guard outside them the whole time to keep the two ETs confined. Bedu had got around the enjoinder to stay in his quarters by standing just inside the threshold, watching the game. “You board our ship and abduct us, and now you are aggressively playing this… trivially simple game with one another rather than flying anywhere.”
“A little healthy competition makes it more interesting.” Akiyama told him.
Bedu nodded sagely. “Well, anything which succeeds in making you more interesting is to be cherished.” he said.
Titan gave a drop-jawed grin. “I think we just got burned!” he told Sikes.
Sikes gave the Corti a grudgingly admiring raise of his eyebrow. “I think you’re right.”
“Guys.” They looked up as Rebar came back down the ship. His expression was grim. “Time’s up.”
“…Shit.” Sikes swore, and put his cards down. “How long?”
“B reckons a week or so.”
Titan gritted his teeth. Wearing EV-MASS was a form of exercise all in itself, and while they had spent the occasional conditioning week wearing the unforgiving suit 24⁄7, it wasn’t an exercise to be looked forward to. Unfortunately, without their techs, taking the suits off was an irreversible procedure, and the rule was quite clear - the suit was not to be removed unless it could be put back on or there was a pressing medical need.
“You’d better have a full stock of ration balls on board.” he told Bedu.
“We do.” Bedu replied. “I take it something has gone wrong?”
“Something always does.” Rebar observed.
“Preach it.” Sikes agreed.
“Hmm.” Bedu mused, and then knocked on the wall beside him. “Hkzzvk, come out of there!”
The translator gave the voice that floated through the door a panicked edge. “No! I heard Humans can kill you with their breath!”
“Not so far, but then again your nose is more sensitive than mine.” Bedu replied.
Answer came there none, but he blinked as the humans all chuckled. Sikes gestured for Akiyama’s attention. “We’d better get a shift rotation set up.” he said. “Somebody’s gotta watch the ETs at all times. You wanna go sleep?”
“Reeb? You burned the most energy.” Titan turned to the sergeant first class.
“Nah, get your head down. I’m good for now.”
“He’s too busy giving us a screwy bumblebee flight path to throw off any pursuit.”
“Arright. Wake me in six.” Titan stood, knocked fists with his brothers, and found a secluded part of the engineering section where he could get his head down on his ruck.
Sleep was a skill. You could sleep anytime, anywhere if you knew how. All it took was a bit of mental focus.
The problem was, focus was hard to come by. A two hundred meter warship equipped for stealth and evasion didn’t just fail to make a rendezvous, and while they were all staying jocular and as upbeat as they could, Titan knew his brothers well enough to know that they were all thinking the same thing: Something had gone badly wrong. That was not a thought calculated to help a man go to bed. Nor was the prospect of a whole week in the suit. That endeavour was going to tax their nutrition and Crue-D reserves hard, let alone their health and stamina.
He took a deep breath, forced those worries out of his mind. He’d only make them worse by being an exhausted wreck. Instead, he shut his eyes, focused on his breathing and, by degrees, fell asleep.
Date Point 10y4m1w3d AV
US Embassy, Cairo, Egypt, Earth.
“So what’s this request of yours?”
Ava was showing the clear signs of fatigue now, but she’d found reserves of alertness from her power nap and snack, and was indulging in a coffee that Darcy thought looked more like a mug of liquid diabetes.
“Six asked to speak with you specifically and, if you’re willing, we’d like for that meeting to go ahead.”
Ava swallowed her coffee thoughtfully. “Jeez. Are you sure? If this is as big as I think it is…”
“There, I can’t comment. Yet.” Darcy said. “Not unless you sign some paperwork.”
“What kind of paperwork?”
“In short…” Darcy slid it across the desk. “It’s a binding legal agreement that you understand just how serious this all is, that you’ve been informed what the consequences would be to you personally if you were to break trust, and that you accept those consequences. Agree to be bound by, and so on. You should read it in full.”
“I’ve had like two hours sleep. I’m not sure I should be signing anything right now.” Ava objected.
“I’ll answer any questions you have.” Darcy assured her. “The decision is up to you. If you’d prefer, I can have a cot brought up and you can get a solid sleep in first, but the sooner you reach a decision, the sooner we can act.”
“And if my decision’s a no?”
“We’ll just have to figure something out.” Darcy said. “We can’t and wouldn’t force you into this.”
Ava stared at the NDA long and hard, then downed her coffee as if slamming back a vodka for courage, and set about reading it.
She only asked one question, several pages in. “…Jesus, the death penalty?”
“As laid out in eighteen U.S Code section seven-nine-four.” Darcy recalled, grimly. “Yes.”
Shaken, Ava ran a hand through her hair and cursed quietly to herself in Spanish. ”Me cago en la leche…”
She caught Darcy’s eye, steeled herself and read on.
“You guys are… really serious about this, huh?” she observed, flipping over the final page.
“I’ve discussed this with some very powerful people over the last couple of hours, Ava.” Darcy told her. “Many of them are not convinced about you, and I’ve fought hard on your behalf on the evidence of just one interview. Quite aside from the penalties laid out in that document, I’d be… grateful if you didn’t completely sink my career and professional reputation. As a personal favor. If you have any doubts that you’ll be able to keep everything you see and are told in the coming few days and take it all to your grave, then I beg you: please don’t sign it.”
Ava stood up and walked around the room a half-circuit, thinking.
Eventually she turned and put her hands on the back of the chair. “Can I sleep on it?” she asked.
Darcy breathed an inward sigh of relief and vindication. “Yes.” she said. “You can sleep on it.”
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
Mrwrki Station, Uncharted System, Deep Space
Lewis wasn’t in his chair. The latest result of his experiments in nanoforging pizza was untouched and congealing beside it, with a cleaning drone hovering nearby, waiting patiently for the minimum time threshold to pass before it could swoop in, pluck it away, and incinerate it.
Instead, Lewis was in his meditation room, cross-legged on his Zafu. That in itself was nothing unusual, but this time he was smiling. It was an encouraging sight.
“You look rested.”
“Figuring out the solution’ll do that for a guy.” Lewis didn’t open his eyes, but his smile got just a little wider.
“You have? That’s wonderful news! What is it?”
Lewis opened one eye, like a lazy dog, and grinned at him. “I let go of attachment to material things.”
Kirk chose his words very carefully. “…I beg your pardon?”
“Earth. My whole strategy so far has revolved around saving the Earth. That’s why I kept running into obstacles I couldn’t get over. It’s a waste of time trying to save the Earth, because the Hierarchy are already ON Earth. They might not have a beacon down there yet, but it’s only a matter of time, and when they do…”
“I hope you’re wrong.”
“Dude.” Lewis shrugged. “Nobody’ll be happier than me if I turn out to be wrong there. But let’s assume that I’m not. We need a backup.”
He kicked his legs out and swayed upright. “Yo, room, project file CTC-eight-oh-five. One quarter scale.”
Kirk took a step back as volumetrically projected light engulfed his head. Then he backed up some more to get a good look at it. It was little more than a rounded oblong with thrusters, and even at one-quarter scale it was clearly huge, filling as it did the whole room, which wasn’t small. “A missile of some kind?”
“Kind of the opposite.” Lewis mused. “Missiles fly somewhere and destroy shit. This flies somewhere and…”
He paused, then turned and gave Kirk the delighted smile of the slightly unhinged. “Have you ever heard of John von Neumann?”