Chapter 26: Blood and Ash
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
US Embassy, Cairo, Egypt, Earth.
A Bible in an old hand wearing black. The other hand sketching up and down, right and left in the air. A last meal, tasteless and ritual. A last benediction. A last prayer - empty words.
Chains on her feet, pinching the prison jumpsuit painfully against her ankles, keeping her from doing more than shuffle. An infinitely long walk down an infinitely short corridor.
Her own reflection in glass reinforced with wire. Pretty. Framed by black curls. Empty of hope, remembering the future life she has thrown away.
A semicircular room with glass walls. Faces watching sternly from outside, spectating. A sturdy chair covered in straps.
Straps on her limbs, holding her down. Last words. Terrified tears.
Creeping ice in her arm. In her veins. In her heart. In her brain.
She woke up.
Ava stared at the ceiling for a second, trying to place herself and banish the highlight reel of her own nightmare that was still sadistically echoing around her mind.
She was on a cot. In the embassy, under a couple of blankets. It should have been cosy and restful. Instead, her personal schedule was badly awry - it was plainly well into the day outside, and yet she felt cold, and drained.
The window was engineered for security - thick and blast resistant, designed to be opened in case of a fire but also to set alarms wailing if it was. Still, the view was excellent - Minarets and palaces rubbing shoulders with modern groomed parks and high-rise hotels, and the clean blue of the bridge-tamed Nile itself.
There was a knock on the door.
“Come in?” Ava asked, turning away from the window. Special Agent Darcy smiled for her as she entered, carrying a large mug of coffee. “Feeling better?”
“Kinda… I had some pretty crappy dreams though. Thanks.” Ava took the mug. “How’d you know I woke up?”
“I was going to wake you anyway.” Darcy said.
“Decision time, huh?”
“Gotta pressure you.” Darcy agreed taking a seat on the couch. The Non-Disclosure Agreement and its chillingly impersonal descriptions of exactly how transgressions would be answered was where Ava had left it on the table the night before.
“…Can I ask you a question?” Ava asked.
“Is it… easy, to keep these secrets? Or do you struggle?”
Darcy touched her lip thoughtfully. “I’m lucky.” she said at last. “I work with people who have the same clearance I do, and it helps, but a big part of classified information is about compartmentalisation and need-to-know. And if the guy I work with most closely doesn’t need to know, well…”
“You’ve not answered my question.”
Darcy acknowledged that she hadn’t with an amused motion of her head. “I… find it much easier once I understand why they’re secret.” she said. “I may not always agree with the rationale, but knowing there is a rationale - and there’s always a rationale - well, it makes it easier.”
“Easi-er? Not actually easy.”
“…I have friends and family and there are times when I might be having a conversation with them and they’ll say something or voice an opinion that treads on territory I know about.” Darcy told her. “Biting your tongue when you know that their whole argument is completely wrong, but you can’t give them the puzzle piece they need to really make sense of things… that’s not easy.”
“So you struggle.”
“Sometimes, yes.” Darcy agreed.
Ava drank her coffee in thoughtful silence. “That makes me feel better.” she confessed, once the mug was empty and she’d put it down. “If you’d said it was effortless…”
She picked up a pen and signed the agreement.
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
Mwrwrki Station, Uncharted System, Deep Space
Vedreg was damn near impossible to interpret sometimes. Many of his most commonly-expressed emotions were quite easy to follow once you’d memorized the basics of Guvnurag color-emoting.
The problem was that while the human eye had three kinds of color-receptor cone cell, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun had five, allowing them to perceive an approximate colour range several orders of magnitude larger than humans could.
It turned out that in galactic society, they carefully and politely emoted in a very limited way, using only those hues that they shared with the dichromatic galactic majority.
Among themselves, their whole system of emoting was greatly more complex, and two colours that were indistinguishable to the human eye could, to Guvnurag, convey wildly different emotional states.
Relative to the literal glowing lines that covered their huge bodies, the rest of Guvnurag body language was subtle to the point of barely existing. Which meant that when he was in a mood to keep his thoughts to himself, Vedreg was impenetrable.
“This Jonuvanunoumanu person seems to occupy a position of unlimited prestige in your species’ scientific annals.” he noted.
Kirk nodded his head slowly - by necessity rather than choice, given his long neck - but emphatically. “Mathematics, physics, computer science, quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, economics… Not to mention his involvement in the development of your species’ first nuclear weaponry. If I did not know humans so well, I would suspect him of being an unsubtle Hierarchy spy sent to Earth in an attempt to engineer your destruction.”
“This doctrine of ’Mutually Assured Destruction’ would be compatible with their strategy for turning deathworld species against themselves.” Vedreg agreed. “Is that what this is?”
“No, man. Jesus, no.” Lewis waved a hand irritably. “Dude, read the bit on self-replicating machines.”
“I saw that. A machine that can make a copy of itself.” Kirk commented. “An interesting idea, though I fail to see the practical application.”
“You fail to-? Seriously?” Lewis rubbed at his face. Kirk was in some ways about the smartest life form Lewis had ever heard of, and in some others he was terminally stupid. There was nothing more frustrating than a deeply intelligent being who occasionally needed detailed instructions to figuratively find his backside with just one of his four arms.
“Seriously.” Kirk nodded again.
“Dude… a Von Neumann machine is any machine that can build copies of itself. Doesn’t matter what else it can do, just so long as one of the things it can do is duplicate itself.”
“Dude, every nanofactory in the galaxy is a Von Neumann machine! Look, I’ll show you! Nanofactory!”
The room chimed, awaiting a command. “Assemble all of the component pieces of a station-sized industrial nanofactory plus a drone capable of putting those components together.” Lewis told it.
”Estimated build time for that project is - three hundred and fifty-five Ri’. Do you wish to continue?” The nanofactory’s control software asked.
“What is that, about three hours?” Lewis asked. “Cancel order.”
“Point made.” Kirk said.
“Right! If you have one functioning nanofactory, then getting a second nanofactory is as easy as asking for one. Now, what happens if we stick engines and a power supply to a big nanofactory?”
“You… have a… mobile nanofactory.” Vedreg observed, pulsing a familiar shade of confusion at such an obvious question.
“Yup. So, if you have one mobile nanofactory, then getting a second mobile nanofactory is as easy as asking for one.” Lewis explained, aware that he was pushing the point a little hard, but it usually paid to do so when dealing with nonhumans. “But of course… it’s a nanofactory! It can make all sorts of other stuff, too!”
“It seems to me that all you’re doing is moving the question of what we should build with this nanofactory that we currently have back a step.” Kirk observed.
“Colonies.” Lewis told him.
“…I see. Yes.”
Vedreg looked between them. “I don’t.” he said.
“All our eggs are in one big basket right now.” Lewis explained. “Plus a smaller one with Cimbrean. Now, this is an idea that’s been around for so fucking long in our sci fi that I’m fucking ashamed of myself for not thinking of it sooner, but it’s like… the basic rule of keeping a species from going extinct is to spread it outside of whatever little niche it’s in right now, so if something happens to that niche, it doesn’t take the species with it. And Earth is a very, very little niche.”
“A whole planet is a ‘niche’ to you?” Vedreg asked.
“Hell the fuck yes it is!” Lewis told him. “Next to a whole goddamn galaxy? You bet your big glowing technicolor ass it’s a niche.”
“New human colonies would be vulnerable.” Kirk pointed out. “Cimbrean and Earth are only still intact because of the system forcefields we-”
”Stolen system forcefields.” Vedreg interjected, pulsing a vivid shade of indignant.
“Stolen system forcefield.” Lewis corrected him. “Your people put up the one ‘round Sol yourselves. But Kirk’s right, without system forcefields any colony we try and set up is just gonna be Hunter chow the second they get wind of it.”
“There is no possible way that your species could afford to buy that many, Lewis.” Vedreg told him.
“I was thinking if we just buy the blueprint and shove it in my Von Neumann Colony Probe here…”
”Absolutely not.” Angry red flicked down Vedreg’s body. “You would just… steal the most valuable technology my species has invented? A project we sank more wealth into than your whole homeworld can produce in a year? And you expect me to just… give you it?”
“Vedreg, be reasonable-” Kirk began. Lewis interrupted him.
“Dude, can I…?”
Both aliens turned to face him.
“…How many of those forcefields have you actually sold?” he asked. “Gimme an integer.”
“Well… The technology is still experimental-”
“Hunter shit!” Lewis told him. “You know how many of these things have ever been deployed for real? Six. The Guvnurag homeworld, your two colonies, Sol, Cimbrean, and here. And they’re six for six on working fucking perfectly, man. Each one does exactly what it says on the box! Hell, one of them even had after-market modifications! Now, since when the fuck is that ’still experimental’?” he raised his fingers and air-quoted the last two words for emphasis.
“Your point?” Vedreg asked.
“My point is, why the fuck is nobody buying? Man, system shields make the whole war with the Celzi completely fucking pointless, and if they can protect Earth from Hunter aggression then they can protect anywhere else, too! These things work, and yet for some crazy-ass reason, nobody’s buying them off you. What’s the fucking deal there? ‘Cause I seriously fuckin’ doubt that people would rather be eaten alive than spend money on buying your magic star box.”
He paused for breath, and reminded himself to be chill. “Dude… The only reason every inhabited system in the galaxy doesn’t have one of those things is because somebody doesn’t want them used. Somebody with the power to keep the whole thing in Development Hell indefinitely. So that huge investment you’re defending ain’t doing diddly-shit. And now here I come, askin’ you - and dude, I’ll fuckin’ beg if I have to - You’re not using these things, and they could save my entire species.”
“For which,” Kirk added, “I’m sure the human race would be grateful.”
Vedreg fluoresced uncertainly for some time.
“Is there no alternative?” he asked, eventually. “This… ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ that your Jonuvanunoumanu described. Could you not… weaponize this creation of yours?”
“Dude.” Lewis said, and shifted on his Zafu. “Let me explain to you why MAD is complete fuckin’ bullshit, alright?”
He sat forward and composed his argument. “Let’s say I built these things so they could self-modify on the fly in response to the kinda tactics used against them.” he said. “Let’s say I sent billions of them to devour a planet, and each one used the raw material to create billions of copies of itself. I mean, we need to imagine that shit’s even possible first, and don’t even BEGIN on getting me started on the reasons why it’s fuckin’ not…but let’s pretend I’m a mighty wizard and thermodynamics is my bitch, sure.”
He sniffed. “Now let’s say I, uh, waggle this crazy thing I’ve made at whatever colossal douche is lookin’ at me funny and I’m like ’Cross me and I send out the world eaters!’ and he’s like ’Ha-ha! I have world-eaters too! Cross me and I shall send out mine!’ and we both decide it’s maybe not worth the fuckin’ hassle of bein’ dead and we go home for snacks. Right? That’s the theory behind MAD.”
“That seems…credible.” Vedreg offered.
“Okay… where’s my threshold for provocation?”
Kirk nodded and sat back on his hindmost four legs, clearly getting what Lewis was driving at.
“I beg your pardon?” Vedreg asked.
“Where’s, like… the line where once they’ve stepped over it, that’s the point I release the indiscriminate deathbots and kiss my wife and kids goodbye?” Lewis asked. “Is it when he launches his?”
“What about if I think he’s planning to launch his?” Lewis asked.
“…Yes?” Vedreg hazarded.
“You think? What if he’s not and I’ve just got some shitty-ass incompetent spies and he was actually trying to steal cable or whatever? Congratulations numb-nuts, you just doomed everybody because you’re too trigger-happy. Well fuckin’ done you. And there we go: literally the only situation in which MAD applies is if the other fucker’s stupid enough to shoot first. Which he ain’t going to be, and neither am I.”
“In other words,” Kirk summarized “By introducing such a weapon, you would only raise the stakes while making no progress towards a lasting peace.”
“Exactly!” Lewis agreed. “So what happens instead is ham tactics. The enemy slices thin layers off us so he can make a delicious meaty victory sandwich. He doesn’t wanna provoke me into firing my world-eaters? Well, that’s easy - I don’t want to fire ‘em! And I’m only gonna do it if he provokes me bad enough. So all he has to do is not push me that far - and he can do a lot of shit without pushing me that far - and slice by slice he’ll win the war.”
Kirk was nodding like a pumpjack. “Meaning that your superweapons cancel one another out and you both remain on square one, fighting each other through more conventional means.”
“E-fucking-xactly.” Lewis nodded. “And bear in mind dude, all of the above only applies if the other guy is sane and competent. What happens if we’re dealing with a complete fuckin’ Mr. Potato Head who reckons he’ll be welcomed as a warrior into the halls of Valhalla, or if he’s too stupid and gung-ho to double-check what’s really going on and launches his nukes when a bird shits on the radar dish?”
He made an explosive gesture with his hands and punctuated it with an oral sound effect. “All I’ve done by creating that weapon in the first place is engineer the tool of my own demise. S’what humans call being ’hoist by thine own petard’ and, dude; if your survival plan hinges on all your enemies being sane, competent and cautious then that is a bad plan because eventually one of your enemies won’t be.”
“But surely-” Vedreg began.
“Dude.” Lewis scolded him. “We’re not talking about nukes here. When you get down to it, a nuke is just a big explosion. Lots of people die, it’s a horrible fucking tragedy, what-the-fuck-ever. At least you control when and where it goes off. But a weaponized Von Neumann swarm? You are ruining the galaxy for everyone forever, and probably not just the one galaxy, neither. No.”
Vedreg’s body pulsed every colour the human eye could perceive in rapid succession, and finally he levered himself to his feet.
“I think that I will need some time to think on this.” he said.
“I hear ya. Take all the time you need.” Lewis soothed him, calming down himself. “I’ll keep looking for an alternative. But seriously man - nobody’s buying your forcefields. You may as well do some good with them.”
“I will think on it.” Vedreg repeated, and rumbled out of the room.
Lewis watched him go. “…Pushed too hard, d’you think?” He asked.
“Possibly.” Kirk agreed. “But Lewis…”
“It may well be that you could never push hard enough.”
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
US Embassy, Cairo, Egypt, Earth
It was interesting watching Ava read the sanitized, short version of DEEP RELIC.
Darcy could clearly recall her own reaction on reading that same document - It had made her afraid. There had been plenty of bad nights’ sleep afterwards, dreaming of strange worlds and strange persons, maybe alien versions of herself, doing her job, trying to pull their species back from the brink of extinction… and failing.
Ava’s reaction was different: With every paragraph, she was getting increasingly angry.
It wasn’t the blazing, short-lived rage that she’d directed at Firth, either, nor the burning sass she summoned to cover when she was feeling insecure. Instead, Ava seemed to be filling up with the slow, relentless, baking kind of anger. The kind that glowed in a person’s heart, pointed them at the world, and woe betide whatever got in their way.
When she flipped the document closed at the end, her hand was shaking.
“…How many species?” She asked.
“We don’t know, exactly.” Darcy told her. “But this has been going on for millions of years, so it must be…hundreds of species at least. Maybe thousands.”
Ava sat back. Angry as she was, she also looked… lost. As if she had no idea what to do with the fire that had been lit inside her. “…God.” she whispered. “I can’t get my head around it. It’s too big.”
“Do you understand why this is a secret, Ava?” Darcy asked her. “Do you understand why you can’t tell anybody?”
Ava nodded. “Because if we’re going to survive this… we need every advantage we can get.” she said.
“That’s why we’re sending you to speak to Six.” Darcy told her. “Because if there’s any advantage to be gained by granting his request, we have to seize it.”
Ava nodded solemnly. “Thank you.” she said. “I just have one more question?”
“…What exactly happened to San Diego?”
“San Diego was the Hierarchy’s base of operations on Earth.” Darcy explained. “It was home to their jump array, their communications apparatus… We tried to seize it, and their agent in charge of the facility detonated an antimatter bomb to ensure that we couldn’t salvage anything.”
“So… if the city hadn’t been destroyed, they’d still have jump beacons on Earth?”
“I suppose…” Darcy hadn’t considered that before.
“And if they still had jump beacons on Earth…” Ava continued, “…we’d all be screwed, right?”
“We would.” Darcy agreed.
There was nothing overtly positive about Ava’s response. She didn’t smile, or sigh or nod. Only a microscopic change in the way she held herself suggested that a weight she’d been carrying unheeded for a long time suddenly wasn’t burdening her quite so much. “That… Thank you, Darcy.”
She stood up. “Are they ready for us yet?”
“Everything’s in place.” Darcy said. “Major Powell is in charge of this operation, but you’ll be taking your orders directly from Master Sergeant Vinther. Do exactly what he tells you. Okay?”
Ava nodded, and Darcy shook her hand. “Good luck.” she said.
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
US Embassy, Cairo, Egypt, Earth
“Well hey, she finally deigns to grace us with her fuckin’ presence.” Firth muttered.
“Gi’ it a rest, mate…” Murray replied. The two SOR men had taken the news that they’d have Rìos along for the ride with the minimum of grace, and Firth in particular had taken every opportunity he could to grumble about it since. He was getting his own back, though: He’d elected to wear an offensively loud shirt covered in palm trees, ocean sunsets and bikini’d latina beauties.
He snorted in response to Murray’s quiet request, and put on a pair of huge mirrored aviators. “Sure, bro. Okay.”
“Jesus shit.” Coombes commented, shaking his head. “If you were any more fuckin’ Air Force, you and Walsh’d be holding hands right about now.”
“Aren’t you ’Army stronk’ dumbfucks supposed to be the big ones?” Walsh retorted, affectionately. After Firth and Murray, he was the third-biggest man present, and comfortably larger than any of the Delta Force operators.
Vinther left them to roast each other and crossed to the doorway to take the young woman off the embassy guard’s hands. “Miss Rìos.”
“You’re master sergeant Vinther, right?” she asked. She extended a hand, and Roy gave it a cordial shake.
“That’s right. You understand what your role is here?”
“Talk to Six, do exactly what you tell me.” She said, nodding. There was an edge of trepidation in her face and voice, but also a note of determination.
“That’s about it.” Vinther agreed. “Come this way.”
She followed, promptly and quietly and proving that, for now at least, she could handle the second part of her job just fine. Vinther opened the back of one of the SUVs they’d spent the morning loading up.
“I understand you have Cimbrean colonial militia training.” he said.
“Yes.” she nodded.
“What’s rule one?”
Ava thought for a second. “Keep, uh… keep my head down.”
“Right.” He grabbed an armor vest from the SUV. “Let’s get this fitted now in case you need it later.” Unceremoniously he pushed it down over her head, did it up, and adjusted the straps until it sat snugly on her. Heavy as it was, she didn’t complain. “Is that loose anywhere?”
She jumped on her toes a bit and danced back and forth to test it. “…No, it’s fine.”
They repeated the process of putting it on and adjusting it until it sat securely on her without moving. Between them, the bulky garments made her look small and scared.
“…Alright, you can take those off now. Not gonna need them for a while.” He said. Firth had suggested hazing her by making her wear them all day, but while Vinther had no reason to like Rìos, he had no reason to actively bully her either.
She wriggled out of them and stacked them neatly back in the SUV where from he’d collected them.
“Okay. I’m not planning on arming you.” He told her. ”If shit hits the fan then maybe, but only if I trust that you can stay the hell out of our way and leave the fighting to the professionals. It would be your weapon of last resort only. Is that clear?”
“Good. If I did elect to arm you, this would be your weapon.” he unholstered it from under his jacket. “What are the rules of firearm safety?”
“Uh… All guns are always loaded.” She recited. “Uh, never point a gun at anything you’re not willing to shoot. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target, and, uh…be sure of your target and whatever’s around and behind it.”
Vinther handed her the gun. She scored immediate points by checking the chamber was empty while pointing it away and toward the floor.
“I can’t find the safety.” She commented.
“That’s a Springfield XD-S, they put the safety in the grip. It’ll only fire if you’re holding it properly, so show me.”
She nodded, settled her feet and her grip, and took a look around. “…I don’t see anything here it’s safe to aim at.”
“Good, you pass the test. Your grip’s fine.” Vinther took the gun back off her. “Hope I don’t have to give you this. Just remember that if I do, you still keep your head down and you only use it if it’s that or die. That clear?”
“Good.” Vinther had to give the girl some grudging credit. He’d worked with young, trained riflemen who’d shown less sense and focus. “You’re riding in this truck right here with me, Walsh and Murray. That’s Coombes, that’s Pavlo; they’re riding with Firth.”
She gasped as she went to hop into the back seat. “My camera!” she turned back toward the embassy. “I forgot to get my camera back.”
“You’re not here to take pictures, Ava.” Murray told her, causing her to jump. Vinther had to suppress the urge to flinch as well - Murray really was almost superhumanly quiet.
“I know, I just… please, that camera means a lot to me.” She said.
“Aye, I know.” Murray handed it to her.
“You got it? Thank you!”
“…Firth did?” She checked. “But…?!”
Murray shrugged, eloquently suggesting with only his shoulders and a quirk of his eyebrow that Ava shouldn’t question it, and climbed into the truck.
Ava took the time to buckle the camera holster back onto her leg, then hopped in too.
Vinther made eye contact with Firth, who’d watched the handover with an intense, unreadable expression. The big man didn’t give anything away - instead he just beat a fist against the middle of his chest and then toward Vinther by way of a kind of salute, and climbed into the truck.
“Yo, we goin’, Barkeep?” Walsh asked. “Only it’s a long fuckin’ drive.”
“Thought you Chair Force types liked sittin’ down all day?” Vinther asked, hopping up into the driver’s seat.
“So do you. Difference is, we like to be goin’ somewhere while we sit.” Walsh grinned.
Vinther chuckled and turned the radio up. The quality of Cairo’s radio stations had come as a welcome surprise. “Alright, we’ll do things your way.” He said. “Last chance for a comfort break?”
Nobody took him up on it, so he pulled the Oakleys off his collar, slipped them on, cracked his knuckles and wriggled until he was comfortably burrowed into his seat. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
C-17 Globemaster, somewhere over Nunavut, Canada, Earth.
It felt wrong to be flying in the same plane as Warhorse and not hear either laughter or snoring. Those were literally the only two sounds men of the SOR usually produced when travelling.
This time, the suit techs were too busy prepping the suits for a jump, and Arés wasn’t in a talkative mood at all.
The worst part was not being able to help him. There was oh so much advice that Powell would have loved to give the lad, but the unit’s command dynamic was built around his remaining… not aloof, but certainly showing his love sparingly. The occasional dash of avuncular affection was about as much as he could afford. The lads were all too hyper-masculine and high on life to be able to thrive on anything less than being slightly in awe of their CO.
But if he could have, he would have sat down and spoken to Arés all the way over the arctic circle. The poor man was in dire need of some perspective.
There was nothing for it but to snag Burgess when the younger man passed by on his way for a bathroom break.
“Is his mind in the game?” Powell asked, getting to the point.
“He’s nothing but mind in the game, sir.” Baseball glanced back at his best friend and then shrugged his enormous Protector’s shoulders. “I wouldn’t wanna be in his way when we land though.”
“…Right. Carry on, sergeant.”
Powell nodded. “Go on lad, get if off your chest.”
“…If she gets hurt, it’s gonna wreck him.” Burgess observed, keeping his voice very low.
“Between you and me, I counselled against allowing her to do this for that exact reason, and others besides.” Powell confided. “But there’s nowt for it but to trust Murray an’ Firth, stay sharp and shoot straight when we get there. We’ll all be here for him if he needs us, aye?”
“Amen to that, sir.”
“Go on. It’s a long flight.”
Powell didn’t know how the Beef Brothers were able to sit still on these voyages. Spacious as they were to accommodate men in para jump gear, the plane’s seats were anything but ergonomic and Powell found that he could at best only tolerate them. Maybe it was a size thing - Burgess and Arés were both rather larger than their commanding officer, and neither of them seemed the least bit bothered by the seating arrangements. It was a mystery.
Instead he strolled around the plane, keeping an eye on things without interfering.
The suit techs were busy reconfiguring the EARS fields on the suits. Exo-Atmospheric Re-entry System wasn’t going to be needed today, but the robust shields, designed to take a pounding from atmosphere as a man streaked in at supersonic speeds and to protect him from his own sonic boom, could do something impressive if the emitters were dismounted, moved and reprogrammed - they could negate the need for a parachute entirely by giving the suit a terminal velocity of eight meters per second, equivalent to jumping off a single-storey building. With the ankle protection, load bearing structures and reinforcement of EV-MASS, that was a speed they could comfortably hit the ground at, on their feet and firing.
C&M Systems had promised that future versions of EV-MASS would be able to do both, without the lengthy reconfiguration, but that was still, sadly, for the future.
“Major?” An intel analyst grabbed him on the way past.
“We just got the recon sat footage of the AO.”
“Nice.” Powell examined it, and promptly made a disappointed sound through his teeth. “Urban environment. Well, that scuppers the close air… Arright, thanks.” He took the tablet and scrutinised his new map as he ambled back to the workspace he’d set up for himself about halfway down the cargo area, near the suit workstations.
He grabbed his radio. “Put me through to Colonel Munroe, please… Colonel. Major Powell here, sir.”
Munroe was USAFRICOM’s Air Liaison Officer to Egypt. To him fell the unenviable task of persuading the Egyptian authorities to acquiesce to whatever it was that the Combined Air Operations Center had decided. Given that the force of General Tremblay’s authority was fully behind this particular operation, Powell knew that Munroe’s job was probably much more entertainingly challenging than normal, today.
The relationship was made slightly difficult by the fact that Munroe lacked need-to-know both on DEEP RELIC and on the documentation concerning the SOR’s exact abilities and responsibilities, coded ‘SACRED STRANGER’. The man had literally no idea that he’d just been dragged into a war with aliens.
”Major, what can I do for you?”
“Update on operation EMPTY BELL for you, colonel. The AO is an urban zone, so CAS won’t be appropriate.”
“That’s good news.” the colonel declared. ”The Egyptians aren’t happy about this at all, they’ve been threatening to revoke our permission… you still need the Raptor?”
“Yes, please.” Powell stressed
“Understood. I should be able to make them think they’ve talked me down to just that… heck, I’ll fly the dagburn thing myself if that’s what it takes to get the go-ahead.”
“Be my guest.” Powell told him. “It’ll be an interesting op if we need you.”
There was a chuckle on the line. ”Thanks for the update, major. God speed.”
“Best o’ luck.”
Powell took a second to run his hand over his scalp - between naturally thin hair and the recent rise in his base testosterone levels brought on by Crue-D use, he seemed destined for a lifetime of baldness - and scrutinised the map some more.
Modern warfare was all about information, both the control and controlled sharing of it, and his connection to the men on the ground through this device was exemplified in the map program they were now using. They had all received the spysat data at the same time, and now Walsh was busily scrutinising the AO, making comments and drawing boxes and lines on it, as was Firth. Their comments appeared in pink and green respectively - Powell’s, when he began to enter his own contributions, appeared in white.
The conversation was naturally limited by the fact that they didn’t even know whether any kind of a battle would erupt, let alone the number, disposition, equipment or nature of their enemy. They were assuming the worst-case scenario: that the whole town was armed, hostile, and had close air support from an invisible UFO.
If he was being frank with himself, Powell could see no way in which that fight wouldn’t inevitably result in men being killed. Even with the two Protectors and himself slamming into the ground to join the fight wearing about the heaviest and most effective personal armor system mankind had ever produced…
He would have given his right arm to have the Defenders and Blaczynski available, but even if those four showed up in orbit at that very second, operations in EV-MASS were so intensive on energy that it just wasn’t feasible to throw them into a fight so soon after their mission to Perfection. Recovery after NOVA HOUND had taken nearly a full month.
He pushed the thought aside, and focused on coming up with the best plan he could, identifying lines of supply, lines of retreat, defensible positions, choke points and possible ambush sites.
He spared a quick glance at Warhorse, who was only just beginning the lengthy process of donning his undersuit. The young man was achieving the interesting trick of being simultaneously both poker-faced and visibly furious, which was a sight that would set any commander’s mind to calculating. Powell knew that he was either looking at the most fearsome weapon in his arsenal… or the worst liability. Here and now, there was no real way to know for certain.
There was nothing for it but to plan. If they were going to drop into a melee, it was damn well going to be a melee that danced to his tune.
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
Asyuit Desert Road, south of Cairo, Eastern Desert, Egypt, Earth.
Ava had spent most of the trip so far playing around with her beloved camera. Exactly what she was doing with it, Vinther neither knew nor cared to guess at. Every so often, she would raise it, take a picture out the window, and scrutinise the result. What it was that she was after was another mystery - as far as Vinther could tell, all there was to see out there was sand, dust and pebbles, a few sandy, dusty and pebbly little hills, and electrical pylons. The highway was straight, well-maintained, bordered on both sides by straight and well-maintained concrete barriers, and brain-achingly dull.
“Um… dumb question.” she asked, somewhere around about the hundred kilometer mark.
“Shoot.” Walsh asked.
“Nobody ever told me exactly where we’re going…?”
Walsh looked to Vinther, who waved a hand, inviting him to do the honours.
“The coordinates Six gave you are for a gold mine about fifty miles west of Marsa Alam.” he said.
“So that’s how they make their money.” Ava deduced.
“Yup. Back in San Diego their cash cow was an accounting firm called JJG Financial Services .”
“I know that company!” Ava exclaimed. “They were Mama and Papa’s financial advisors!”
“Them and loads’a other affluent families from San Diego and LA.They were good at their job.” Walsh said. “Hell, they had to be: They were running a global conspiracy off the profits.”
“Guess gold mining’s just as good.” Vinther commented. “Hell, easier too. Who gives a shit about the customer experience of a rock?”
“Probably a step down actually.” Walsh said. “Gold mining ain’t all that profitable no more.”
“Are you shi-? It’s a literal fuckin’ gold mine!”
Walsh sniffed. “D’you know what gold’s measured in?” he asked.
“Nope.” Vinther conceded.
“Ounces.” Walsh told him. “Every other thing you might wanna dig up out the Earth - salt, coal, iron ore, whatever - they measure it in tonnes, but gold they measure by the ounce. An ounce of gold is about, uh, this big….” he held up his fingers shockingly close together. “…and the geosurvey figures there’s… oh, about six and a half million of those in the whole of the eastern desert.”
Vinther looked around. The eastern desert was defined as being all the vast, wide, sun-baked landscape between the Nile and the Red Sea. It was literally all they could see in every direction, and despite that they’d been driving for an hour they weren’t even a quarter of the way to their destination yet.
“That… ain’t a lot.” he decided.
“‘Bout seventy-five ounces per square mile on average.” Walsh said. “‘Course it ain’t all evenly distributed and it ain’t all at the same depth, and it ain’t in neat ounce-sized nuggets… It’s all gold dust. They gotta bring up a big ol’ chunk’a bedrock, crush it, wash it, filter it and outta that they get gold dust they can melt together to make bullion. It’s time-consuming, labor-intensive, expensive work.”
“And with the Hephaestus LLC finding huge supplies of precious metals in the asteroid belt all the time nowadays…” Ava said “The price of gold’s declining hard.”
“Right.” Walsh agreed. “So yeah, this mine of theirs, if it’s really the big H who owns the place, probably turns a profit for ‘em but those Cali accountants woulda been worth a lot more.”
Murray stirred. Vinther thought he’d been asleep, but he must have just been listening quietly with his eyes closed. “Where’d you learn all that?” he asked.
“Discovery Channel.” Walsh shrugged.
Murray and Ava both made the exact same noise simultaneously - an amused expulsion of air through the nose, and Vinther chuckled.
Walsh laughed with them and went back to tapping on his tablet, working on the map and the details of their plans.
“Uh…” Ava began again.
“What’s up?” Vinther asked her.
“…Are you guys… scared?”
“What of?” Vinther asked her.
“I dunno. That this could be a trap, or… that it could all go wrong?”
It was Walsh’s turn to indicate to Vinther to take the lead on this one.
Vinther shrugged. “…Are you?” he asked.
“Yeah.” she admitted.
Vinther nodded sympathetically. “Good. Means you ain’t crazy.” He scratched the inside of his ear, thinking. “But being scared’s… I think of it like a coat of primer, right? It happens before you start the painting, and it sure ain’t no fun, but it gets you ready. Ready to kick ass, ready to keep your head the fuck down, whatever. Once you’re in the thick of it, you ain’t got time to be scared.”
“The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Murray interjected. He shrugged when they all looked at him. “H. P. Lovecraft.”
“Dude got that right.” Walsh agreed.
“How do you cope with it?” Ava asked.
“You piss yourself yet?” Vinther asked her.
She blinked. “Uh… No…?”
Vinther glanced at the GPS, and sighed inwardly to himself: There were still far too many miles to go. “Then you’re doin’ just about as well as I am.”
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
Byron Group campus, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
“Kevin! How’s the nose?”
In person, Kevin Jenkins’ nose really was an impressive sight. While it looked set to heal straight and clean, the bruising and discoloration covered a lot of his face. Xiù Chang, it seemed, had an impressive arm on her.
Kevin threw himself into a chair. “You had to ask. Worth it, though.”
“Hopefully. “ Byron agreed. “They still need to clear the selection and training.”
Kevin gave him a curious look. “I thought the whole point in sendin’ me up there was because we’re headhunting those three, boss man?” he asked.
“Mocktail?” Byron offered. Kevin had figured out his booze trick, so the offer was a simple courtesy.
“You askin’ me for one, or you offering?” Kevin joked.
“Sure, sounds good.”
Byron nodded and hit his drink cabinet and refrigerator, selecting the cranberry juice, raspberry juice and lemon-lime. “D’you know how much profit the BGEV program has made us, Kevin?” he asked.
“Kinda figured it’s in the red.” Kevin replied.
“Yyyup.” Byron agreed. ”Badly in the red. Badly badly badly. In fact, EV-Eleven’s our last throw of the dice.”
“Crying shame.” Kevin mused. “But you can’t send good money after bad.”
“Your job ain’t to agree with me, Kevin.” Byron told him, smiling slightly. He poured the juice. “Quite the opposite.”
“Unless you’re right, boss man.” Kevin said.
“Well.” Byron unscrewed the lemon-lime’s cap. “Chang, Buehler and Etsicitty have got the experience and know-how, but if I’m gonna give them command over our last-ditch attempt to turn that program around, we need to know they make the grade. That ship ain’t leaving the good Earth until I’m completely happy that it’s got the best of the best on it.”
“You were pretty damn rigorous with the selection for Ten, as I recall.” Kevin observed. Byron handed him his finished drink.
“And for all the other ones. Hell, Reclamation was the only one we rushed things on, and that for good reason.” Byron sipped his drink, found it acceptable and sat down again. “But these three are gonna get the full room and board. Make or break, Kevin.”
“Make or break them, or make or break the mission?”
“Relax, they’ll be well taken care-of whether they make the cut or not. Talent like that, we’ll find a use for them. Just you wait and see.”
“Boss…” Kevin frowned at him. The man had an irritating knack for spotting unanswered questions.
“Fine, fine!” Byron sat down, called up the planned assessment and selection program and turned his monitor around for Kevin’s benefit.
Kevin read in silence for the most part. He only commented once. “Dang, the team dug up a lot on Buehler.”
“Surprising, ain’t it?”
“She really doesn’t seem the type…”
“Turns out she’s full of secrets.”
“And you’re gonna hit her with them?”
Byron nodded. “Kevin, if things go to plan she’s going to be the flight engineer for a starship that’s worth… well, a heck of a lot. And she’ll be cooped up on that ship with the other two for a minimum of eighteen months. If she’s carrying any baggage, it needs to be dealt with before any of them ever lay eyes on Eleven’s hull.”
Byron frowned. “‘Scuse me?”
“Why? She and the other two get on just fine. Hell, I think there’s some kind of triangle thing going on there. Why disrupt that by bringing old skeletons outta the closet?”
Byron rubbed his chin, assembling his thoughts. “We aren’t in the business of coddling three young pups in love, Kevin; we’re in the business of sending a spaceship out there that’ll turn a profit. That means forging a team who can steer her through whatever rough seas she finds in her way.” he said. “A team like that’s got to share everything, and I don’t just mean bath towels and body odor. Every doubt, every concern, every relevant bit of data, they all need to know it, and they all need to be able to work through it, together. No secrets, no lies, no omissions. They need to trust and accept one another completely and with every facet of their lives.”
“Heck.” he added. “If they make the grade, we’ll have made them inseparable if that’s what they want. And if not, well, we’ll have helped them gain new insight into themselves and one another and left ‘em a little wiser. No matter what happens, we’ll have done ‘em a favor.”
“Tough love?” Kevin summarized, sarcastically.
“Kevin, it’s no business of ours if they spend every night of their mission ruttin’ like a Roman orgy. It IS our concern if they wind up hating each other four months in and thereby cost us our last shot at making the galaxy do something positive for mankind for a change.”
Kevin knocked back his mocktail and frowned. “I wanna argue.” he confessed. “But for the life’a me, I can’t think of a good counter-argument.”
“If it helps, I’m not real happy about giving these kids a rough time either.” Byron conceded. “But if they’re as good as we think, they can take it.”
“Hmm…” Kevin nodded. “Oh yeah! Reminds me, I had plenty’a time to think on the drive down here, and I had an idea that might even help there.”
“These kids are gorgeous, boss. Movie-star good looks, fitness, intensity… I reckon we could build a whole advertising campaign around them.”
“Like, what, a candid series on the kind of people we have workin’ for us?” Byron mused. “Plausible…I know Chang’s kind of a minor celebrity in Canada right now…”
“Just a thought.” Kevin shrugged. “And hell, maybe a photoshoot’d be a good little carrot, reward kinda thing. Boost their self-esteem after you bruise it.”
“I like it.” Byron agreed. “When are they coming down here, anyway?”
“HR said something about needin’ ten days or so to finish their ‘special accommodations’…”
“So I gave them two weeks.” Kevin said. “Time to finish sorting out that country cottage of theirs and get things straightened out.”
“Good. That lines up with Ericson’s needs.” the EV program’s chief engineer had specified that there’d be a window between the two and three month marks when he’d need to discuss some matters with the crew.
“Excellent.” Kevin stood up. “Anything I need to look at?”
“Yeah, Ericson had a few toys he wanted to shove on Eleven. He’s not given up on giving it some kind of emergency recall yet - I said he should talk to you first. Last thing I need is another chat with the President about national and global security…” That part still rankled. It had been a chilling introduction to what real power looked like, and had galvanised his determination that BGEV-11 was going to be the success he’d always wanted for the EV program, if for no other reason than that it’d be nice to retire to his own private planet and get out from under the thumb of that power.
“Leave it to me.” Kevin promised. “Hell, the Supreme Allied Commander for Extrasolar Defence sends me Christmas cards. I’m sure we can figure out some kind of a recall system that won’t shaft us.”
“Yes, yes, brag about your network again…” Byron chuckled.
Kevin shared the laugh then headed for the door. “Back to the grind, then.” he declared.
“Kevin.” Byron gave him a nod as Kevin turned in the doorway. “Thank you.”
Kevin grinned, turned and went, flipping a jaunty salute over his shoulder as he did. “Just doin’ my job, boss man.”
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
Gold mine west of Marsa Alam, Egypt, Earth.
Unlike a true digital sapient such as an Igraen, biodrones didn’t communicate in words and emotional context. They were drones in every sense of the word - automata, kept under strict control and obeying clearly programmed rules, even if the default context for all their programming was to simulate human appearance and behaviour as closely as possible.
But they weren’t humans any longer. They could, in an academic sense, interrogate the brain of the being from which they had been constructed and analyse which responses and emotions would have been appropriate in that context, and thereby do an extremely convincing impersonation of the person whose body they now wore, but the biodrone itself was little more than a control program.
To an Igraen’s senses therefore (insofar as the term ’sense’ could be applied to the perception of purely digital data formats) the report that reached Six’s ‘ears’ was not like being told “they’re coming” or being called for by name.
It was more like a cold, mechanical status report - <+Priority2:PerimeterAlert:bExpected=true:refIndividualOfInterest=47,probable94%+>
There was a human gesture that Six had picked up and rather enjoyed - dusting his hands off. He did it now as he stepped out of the foreman’s office and took stock.
The mine was running more smoothly than any human endeavor ever could, thanks to the fact that every single one of the adults was now a biodrone. Whereas previously there would have been pay disputes, arguments, discussions over the most effective course of action and other such inefficiencies, a network of biodrones all directly sharing one another’s knowledge and intelligence on the subject could work tirelessly all day and far more effectively.
The children were the only minor complication - their underdeveloped neural structures weren’t suitable for biodroning, and Six’s projections suggested that if he just had the useless things exterminated, the biodrones would be forced to emulate the histrionic behaviour of bereaved parents in order to keep up their convincing facade. Plausible for one or two children - fatal to the secrecy of the operation in larger numbers. There would be too many questions.
Besides, there was always the probability that humans were not completely rational when it came to children. They might overlook a village full of biodroned adults for the sake of peace and their species’ future longevity, but a dozen dead younglings? Not if the example set on Cimbrean was any indication.
The children, therefore, were tolerated and even given a simulation of the family relationship they’d always had. Still… somehow they seemed to know that something was not right with their parents: They watched the adults warily, and Six most warily of all.
One was staring at him now - a hip-high creature that regarded him with wide-eyed intensity while sucking on its hand, uncaring of the noxious fluid that oozed from one of its nostrils. Barefoot, neglected and dirty as it was, he couldn’t even identify the brat’s gender.
Six made a threatening surge at the little one and it scarpered, but he noted that it didn’t go far. The child only dashed away as far as the corner of the heavy machinery shed and lurked there, observing him less like he was an object of fear, and more like he was a puzzle in need of a solution. Even human children came equipped with sharp predatory instincts, it seemed.
No matter. He raised his binoculars and aimed them toward the highway.
In the distance, two SUVs were picking their way up the dirt branch road. With the approaching sunset turning the corners of the sky an unsightly shade of bruised mauve, they’d lit their headlamps and were visible as two pools of light, given the deceptive appearance of slowness by distance.
The access road was a few miles long and there was plenty of time to shut down the mining operation and bring the biodrones all back into the village. Indeed, the process began the second Six even conceived of it. By the time the vehicles were a mere half-mile away, all of the biodrones were back in the village and pretending to be human. The fact that each one of them had immediate access to a weapon was nothing more than insurance - Six had no plans on starting a fight, but that was no excuse for laziness.
Human technology had come a long way during his years on Earth, and these SUVs were just another indicator of that. Gone were the stinking fossil-fueled roaring engines: In their place was a quiet, clean electric drive train powered by a forcefield array that could drink down the Egyptian desert’s abundant sunlight with better than 95% efficiency if needed, and which could store enough power for a five hundred kilometer voyage even in pitch darkness… or provide all the power and torque that a vehicle might need for shorter, more intense bursts of activity.
He awarded himself a victory as the cars pulled up outside the foreman’s office and a total of seven people alighted. Three were men of average size but in fit condition, all lean and hard and intense, and this included the one who was immediately identifiable as the leader, a tanned man with Germanic facial features and salt-and-pepper hair.
Behind them was a very large man, blond of hair and beard and wearing aviator shades. Big as he was, he was still smaller than the enormous man who got out of the car behind him, and even that one was dwarfed by the mountain who squeezed out of the rear car, draped in the most disgustingly colorful shirt that Six had ever even heard of.
Next to the six males, the young woman who got out of the car last was almost unimpressive. Where they were regarding him and their surroundings with neutral, calculating watchfulness that promised the immediate and skilful application of violence should things go wrong, she was more like the child: Wide-eyed and cautious, watching him to see what he might do next. She did, however, tap the greying leader on the arm and mutter ”That’s him.”
Six spread his arms and played the part of a jovial host with a smile. “Welcome! Thank you for coming!” he announced.
The soldiers - and if two or maybe three of them weren’t SOR, Six didn’t know what else they might be - exchanged the rapid almost-hive-mind communication that humans seemed to never notice they did simply by looking at one another, and dispersed, walking calmly and slowly but firmly away until only the leader and the girl were left by the vehicles.
“We’d have preferred,” the leader said, “a meeting between yourself and a trained negotiator.”
“And yet here you are.” Six replied. “Which makes me wonder why you’re accommodating my request, mister, ah…?”
“You can call me Barkeep.” he said. “I don’t make the decisions, I simply pass on the message.”
Six nodded. “And what can I call you?” he asked the young woman. “I would like to know your real name, but I won’t be offended if you use a nickname instead.”
She glanced at ‘barkeep’, who nodded encouragement. “…You can call me Ash.”
“Short for Ashley?” Six asked. She did a commendable job of giving away nothing. “Or a reference to… hmm. No matter. Thank you for agreeing to this meeting. I’m sure you and I can both answer some very interesting questions for each other.”
“I’m sure we can.” Ash replied, and there was a definite spark of dislike in her expression now.
“Mister Barkeep, if we might, I would like to have my conversation with miss Ash here in private. That office there, if I may. Don’t worry about surveilling us, I’m sure you will and I welcome it, but a little privacy as a courtesy…?”
It was interesting that this time ‘Barkeep’ deferred to Ash who swallowed, nodded, and stepped forward.
Six played the part of the perfect gentleman and held the door for her.
It wasn’t much of a door. It wasn’t much of an office. But, it had air conditioning which was a blessing both for warding off the grinding heat of the day and the surprising chill of night time.
Uninvited, Ash sat down. Six’s Interrogation of his host body’s memories on human social etiquette yielded no useful information: as far as the man who had once owned Six’s body would have been concerned, the cultural differences were so pronounced that Ash may as well be a different species of human altogether.
He settled for sitting down at a cautious distance. “Would you like something to drink?” He offered. “I have water, coffee…”
Ash shook her head. “No, thank you.”
“As you wish. To business then. How much were you told about me? About who I’m with?”
Ash shifted in her seat, thinking. “They told me… to be very careful with what they told me.” she said. “Not to talk about it with the wrong people.”
“And who are the wrong people?” Six asked her, smiling. She’d struck the perfect blend of evasiveness and honesty.
“Anybody who can’t prove that they already know it.” Ash replied.
“And how will they know that you know it?” Six asked. Ash didn’t reply. “Well. Let me tell you what I think you’ve been told. You have been told that I am a member of an organisation known as the Hierarchy. We are a long-standing order spanning the recent several hundred thousands of Terran years of galactic history, and our mandate is to prevent the spread of deathworld life forms. Does any of that sound familiar?”
“It sounds like a version that paints you as the good guys.” Ash told him.
Six smirked at that. “Yes, I imagine the summary you were given was not so charitable.” he agreed. “I imagine the word ‘genocide’ was used, possibly words like ‘atrocity’ or ‘extinction’ hmm?”
“They said you’re personally responsible for overseeing several of them.” Ash didn’t bother with disguising her contempt.
“And humanity would have been among them.” Six agreed. “And this is where you enter my story. A sporting event in San Diego, several years ago now. Roller derby?”
Ash didn’t reply, so Six retreated from that topic for now.
“Do you have any idea why an organisation like mine might exist?” he asked instead. “Why we might do the things we do?”
“You tell me.” She challenged him, flatly.
“Why else does anybody do awful things? Because they believe that the positive outcomes will outweigh the negatives..”
Ash had a quirk of body language, he noted. She wasn’t looking directly at him. Her eye contact never wavered, but her nose wasn’t aimed at him and nor were her shoulders. It was a watchful, careful posture, but as she ran one hand up the other arm it also became a defensive one. She returned her hands to being folded in her lap quickly enough, but she’d already given away a nerve that had been struck. Very interesting.
“You’re talking about trillions of deaths.” she said. “What kind of negative outcome is worse?”
“Well, not trillions personally.” Six demurred. “A hundred billion maybe. let’s call it that: a round hundred billion. What would be worse than that? How about a hundred billion and one? ”
“Oh come on-!” she began.
“I am deadly serious. If events were transpiring that would inevitably lead to a fatal clash between two cultures that could only end in the extinction of one and the mauling of another, the ethical thing to do is to minimize the bloodshed. Does that not seem reasonable?”
The defensive body language returned as Ash’s left hand crept halfway up her right forearm. A ’yes’ to which she would not admit, if Six was any judge.
“So. One group must be made unwilling or incapable of fighting. Which group? Well, logically, the one which can be broken with the least bloodshed. Reasonable?”
Still no answer, and so he pressed ahead. “And now comes the problem. Neither group can peacefully coexist: It is impossible by their respective natures. One must be eliminated, erased, made to simply no longer exist. On the one hand is a society of a hundred billion life forms. On the other, a hundred billion and one. From your neutral perspective, there is no important distinction between them save for that single integer difference in their population.”
“And you’re omniscient enough to spot that single integer.” She poisoned the sentence with as much sarcastic bile as she could summon.
“An exaggeration for illustrative purpose.” Six waved a hand dismissively. “Let us go with a more realistic difference of scale: A hundred billion versus a mere, oh…seven and a half billion? Or, less believably perhaps but I promise completely true to life: A hundred trillion versus a mere seven and a half billion. What then?”
“Oh come on!” Ash’s defensive body language evaporated. She leaned forward, straightened up, frowned. “That’s… what is that, a hundred thousand to one? How is the smaller group EVER going to be a threat?”
“Time and multiplication if nothing else.” Six replied. “But of course… I am discussing Deathworlders. A form of life which ably demonstrates time and again that the win does not automatically go to the faction with the numerical advantage.”
“So why are you talking to me?” She asked.
Six gave her his best grim smile. “Because you’ve already won.”
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
Gold mine west of Marsa Alam, Egypt, Earth.
“Dammit, the way they stare is really startin’ to get to me.”
Coombes was patrolling the perimeter around the vehicles. He wasn’t obviously armed - none of them were obviously armed - but he was armed, and he, Pavlo and Murray had taken to orbiting the open space near the foreman’s office where their cars were parked, keeping an eye out for trouble.
Vinther and Firth were lurking at the cars to protect them, and Walsh was busy being the Intel Weenie, keeping them fed with information and connected to the chain of command.
“Be cool, BOUNCER.” Vinther muttered.
”Fuck that, I’m salty like a fuckin’ margarita glass.” Coombes replied. ”Fer cryin’ out loud, they biodroned the whole goddamn village, BARKEEP.”
“And they’ll pay for it.” Vinther promised. “We’ll see to that. But right now we got a different job. You hear me?”
”I hear ya.” Coombes grumbled. Vinther saw him pause and study a nearby ‘villager’, which watched him with a completely dispassionate expression. Vinther saw him shudder and move on.
“Worst part is.” Walsh commented. “I reckon you’re wrong there, Barkeep.”
“How so?” Vinther asked him.
“That motherfucker in there’s… I think the term we’re using is ’digital sapient’.” Walsh said. “He ain’t an artificial intelligence, he’s a sapient being whose whole existence is as data. If we bust in there right now and smoke his ass, he’ll be walkin’ around as someone else, somewhere else, pretty much right away. And if we do somehow take him out, they restore from backup. I don’t see a way to make him pay, and even if we could… You can only execute somebody the one time. Ain’t no way Six is ever gonna see a punishment fit for his crime.”
“We could make it hurt.” Firth rumbled. He nodded toward the heavy equipment shed, and Vinther turned just in time to spot a tiny, grimy face duck out of sight. “There’s kids here, DB.”
“They’ve not been ‘droned.” Walsh observed. “Guess they’re too young.”
“They ain’t being looked after, neither.”
“We’ll sort that out.” Vinther promised them. “This won’t fuckin’ stand.”
“That’s kinda the problem, boss.” Walsh told him. “It will. And there ain’t a damn thing we can do about it.”
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
Gold mine west of Marsa Alam, Egypt, Earth.
“What do you mean, ’We’ve already won’? When? How?”
Six stood up and glanced through the half-closed blinds at the men who had escorted Ash to him. “Six and a half years ago.” he said. “When you and I first met, though of course I was wearing a different body, then. White, bearded, surgically altered to be as statistically average in height and appearance as we could manage…”
“Mr. Johnson.” Ash frowned. “You were gonna shoot up the roller derby.”
“Well, I had no weapon. No, the shooting was to be done by another, I was purely there to… observe, to see what would happen. To, ah, ’poke the hornet’s nest’ as I said at the time and oh yes, I was stung.” Six said. “Even after extensive and detailed review of my memories of the event I had no conclusive evidence to help me determine how I was detected. I had suspicions of course - more sophisticated facial recognition algorithms than I had bargained for, law enforcement being closer behind me than I had anticipated… even a young couple taking a picture which would apparently by happenstance include me, and uploading it to the Internet.”
“It wasn’t until I reviewed the memories of the agent responsible for a failed operation on Cimbrean that I detected a correlation. It wasn’t until you and I crossed paths at Cairo Airport that I deduced some kind of causal relationship.” He finished. “And now I think I’ve spoken enough. I want to know the nature of that relationship. Who are you? How did you know who I was? How did you survive the city’s destruction? Why were you on Cimbrean, and why are you here now?”
Ash gave him a long, cold stare. “And if I tell you?” she asked.
“Then I will explain in full what my plan is, my reasoning, and what your species can do to help me help you.”
“Do I have to tell you my real name?”
“You don’t. If you want to be Ash, then Ash you shall be. Really, that’s an unimportant detail. Believe me, after this conversation is over I will already have everything I can usefully extract from you, no matter what you say.”
She frowned at that, clearly trying to figure out his meaning then took a deep breath and composed her story.
“I was born in San Diego.” she said. “My parents were… well, they were well off. Papa was an attorney, Mama was a gynaecologist, they had a lot of money. They sent me to public school anyway, they said it was better for me to learn how everyone had it, not just people with money. That’s where I met… well, my boyfriend. We were on our first date at that roller derby.”
“How did you recognise me?” Six asked.
Ash thought hard. “…I don’t know how much I can or should tell you.” she replied.
“Ah, so there’s a secret involved. A secret to do with this boyfriend of yours perhaps?”
“There’s a secret.” Ash agreed, giving away exactly nothing. “One that I think I’m…not going to share.”
“A pity.” Six said. “May I ask why?”
“Loyalty.” Ash replied. She really was delightfully impenetrable. “The possible consequences, personally and for all mankind. Take your pick.”
“Very well. What will you tell me?”
“I’ll tell you how I survived the blast.” She offered.
“Hmm, yes. Surviving a five kilogram antimatter strike. Impressive.” Six enthused. “Were you forewarned? Evacuated?”
“I was on vacation.”
Six couldn’t stop his body’s automatic reflex to frown. “…Vacation.”
“Florida. Orlando. My boyfriend’s father invited me along.” She smiled for him. “It was luck. If the blast had happened a week earlier or a week later…”
“Pure luck.” Ash nodded.
“Out of ALL the people in that city,” Six growled, “you expect me to believe that the same people who identified me and facilitated my capture, purely by chance were also among the tiny handful who survived? Do you have any idea what the odds against that are?”
Ash just shrugged, still revealing nothing whatsoever. “How much?”
“One in several hundred billion.” Six told her. “And yet you seem frustratingly sincere! Which means that you are either the very best liar I have encountered in all my life, or else that you are unaware of some causal link between those events.”
“And what might that link be?” Ash asked.
“That is what I had hoped to glean from you!” Six snapped. “The starport! Folctha! Was that coincidence also? Do not tell me that it was! The universe does not work that way!!”
“If you keep shouting, the armed men outside are going to come in here and rescue me.” Ash pointed out.
Six inhaled fiercely and willed himself to calm. “It’s this secret, isn’t it? The one you won’t discuss. One you won’t trust me with.”
“Why should I?” Ash shot back. “You just told me that you were here on Earth to try and kill us all.”
“Name your price.” Six told her, tiring of dancing around the subject.
“Okay…” Ash put a thoughtful hand to her mouth. “What I don’t get is how you’re acting like this is an itch you’ve just gotta scratch, but on the other hand it’s like you want to tell me everything. Which is it?”
“Both.” Six answered, truthfully.
“Yeah? So what’s so important?” she asked. “What’s in it for you to help us?”
“Is that your price?”
“My price is that if we’re gonna share our secrets, you have to earn it. You first.”
Six scowled at her. “You drive a hard bargain.”
“I have no reason to trust you. Sucks to be told that, doesn’t it? But it’s true.” She replied. “That’s my price. You tell me what we need to know, you tell me why you’re doing this, then I tell you what I think that link you’re after is.”
“A very hard bargain.”
She folded her arms. This time it wasn’t a defensive gesture, but a defiant and confident one. “Deal or no deal?”
Six tried to match her for ferocious glare, but failed. Humans were just naturally better at that. “…Very well.” He said, conceding defeat. “You have a deal.”
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
C-17 Globemaster, somewhere over the north Atlantic, Earth.
Major Owen Powell
The funny thing about EV-MASS was that it was hell to put on and take off, but once you were in it, the vise-like pressure that had once been the bane of the SOR’s life as they acclimated and conditioned to it now felt like a familiar, full-body hug that added a kind of solidity to every movement. The thing was awkward and heavy as sin right up until the moment when it was properly seated, sealed and supported, at which point the wearer was made to feel strong.
Powell rolled his shoulders and shimmied to make certain that it was definitely seated before the midsuit’s internal layer had time to expand in response to his body heat and clamp down fully. “That didn’t take as long.” he observed.
Airman Thorpe, one of his suit techs, grinned. “We gave you an extra millimeter of clearance in the shoulder, sir.”
“Is that all? I’ll never speak ill of a single millimeter again.” Powell shook his shoulders. Getting his head and arms up through the torso section had definitely been easier. That was what suit techs were for, of course - their whole job revolved around keeping the EV-MASS in perfect working order, and constantly fine-tuning and adjusting it to the needs of its operator.
“No need for a seal or life support check today, either,” his other tech, Corporal Brown added.
“Oh, aye. Don’t need to worry about suit breaches today, just about plunging towards Africa at a couple hundred miles an hour wi’ no parachute.” Powell nodded. All three of them chuckled.
“Alright… Let’s get the bloody water in.” Powell turned and presented the water ports on his lower back. Thorpe promptly connected the input line.
“I know I ask this every time.,” Powell commented, as the pump whined into life and he felt his undersuit stiffen and tighten in response to the tepid liquid that filled it out, “but is it really bloody necessary to use cold water?”
“And like I tell you every time sir,” Brown smiled, “yes it is.”
As Brown monitored the water pressure, Thorpe set about fitting the outersuit. This was the part that was different for every SOR man - from the industrial load-carrying gear and supplemental armor plating that was a Protector’s burden, a Defender’s accessible toolkit, or just the lightweight bare-bones that Aggressors needed to keep them ready to kill at an instant’s notice, that was the outersuit.
Powell’s outersuit was dominated by a sensor and communications package which turned him into a walking intelligence-gathering system to give any modern UAV a run for its money and then some. Supplemental superbatteries compensated for the expanded sensor package’s power demands, and the communications equipment turned his EV-MASS into the nexus of a web of data.
The system wasn’t going to be quite as effective today as it had the potential to be - under normal operation, the suit benefited from the real-time analytics offered by the computer banks aboard HMS Caledonia, without which the flow of information was less intelligently controlled and interpreted, but it wasn’t like he’d be blind. Far from it. Walsh’s pet UAV was a constant trickle of data, as were recon satellites, localized collection, Link-16 sensor integration from the substantial airborne assets in play to support the mission…
It all formed a sphere of tangible data, into which Powell’s suit and Powell himself neatly fit, reaping its benefits and feeding new data back in.
For now, things were quiescent. No status alerts, no zone conflicts, everything they had managed to persuade the Egyptians to allow was on standby and ready to pounce if needed… Everything, it seemed, was going well.
Maybe it was just the cold water making him irritable and antsy, but Powell was a firm believer that things never went well.
It was only a matter of time.
Date Point 10y4m1w4d AV
Gold mine west of Marsa Alam, Egypt, Earth.
“So, the question as asked is two questions: Why am I helping you, and what do you need to know?”
It was now definitely going dark outside. The sky was purple from end to end and Ash’s guards and escorts were barely visible as they waited and patrolled. Six turned away from the window and leaned against the desk to talk to her.
“The answer to the first part is that I am not helping you. I am helping my own people. It so happens that the best approach for helping them is to help your people.”
“How familiar are you with entropy?”
The apparent non-sequitur made her pause, but Ash took it in stride. “Thermodynamics. The inevitable progress of a closed system towards its lowest-energy state.”
“Good, you have an education. What about virtual particles?”
“Look, I only did high school science. What’s your point?”
“A virtual particle is literally that - a particle that has only a virtual existence as a solution to and consequence of the equations describing quantum mechanics. They are modelled as pairs of particles popping into existence simultaneously, meeting, annihilating, and vanishing with no net change to the energy-state of the universe.”
Ash folded her arms, waiting with commendable patience, but her expression was a clear warning that he should explain himself sooner rather than alter.
Six smiled. “Virtual particles do two things: They permit black holes to evaporate through radiation, and they provide a neat answer to a question every sapient species has ever asked - the origin of the universe. You see, if a virtual, unreal, simulated particle can still produce real tangible effects and yet accurately be said never to have truly existed at all… Then so can the universe. If the energy state of the universe will eventually decay to zero - if it is ’flat’ to use the human cosmological parlance - then it will have, in a big-picture sense, never existed at all.” He spread his hands. “And any universe you happen to encounter in your travels is nothing more than a temporary local anomaly.”
“That sounds completely crazy.” Ash objected.
“Yes. The problem with living in the universe is that it is terrible preparation for thinking about the universe.” Six agreed. “But there you have it. Why does the universe exist? Answer: It doesn’t.”
Ash stared at him and then, quite deliberately, she reached out and knocked on the desk. It made a solid, wooden sound.
“Yes, yes, yes, you’re not listening.” Six told her. “The point is that all of this is virtual, an emergent product of an equation that is still being worked through. Eventually, all of it will be gone and so will we, and nothing will remain. Spacetime and all its energy and matter will be gone as if they never were, because they weren’t.”
“We live,” he expanded, getting into his stride, “in a mockery of a reality, one that’s infinitely less real than the worlds we build inside our minds, one with no meaning, no purpose, no fate and no hope except whatever we can create for ourselves. All of us are trapped in a cruel game that allows only defeat. The only endgame is to live a little longer: the only winning move is to keep playing.”
“And your point is?” Ash insisted.
“That any threat which would knock you out of the game must be neutralized. That any advantage that will keep you in the game must be seized. And for the first time in the Hierarchy’s history, the first strategy has not worked. I was captured. I was interrogated. I was beaten. Me.”
He stalked across the office and composed himself. “And your people opened my eyes. In deep time, whatever is possible is inevitable. Whatever happens once, can happen a second time.”
He turned back. “Our whole strategy this entire time has been fundamentally wrong. All it takes is one deathworld species to slip through our net, and we have failed. Our destruction at that point is inevitable.”
“Why?” Ash asked. “Why is it inevitable that you would be destroyed?”
“Ask the Dodo. Or the West African Black Rhinoceros. The California Golden Bear, the Great Panda, the Thylacine, the Pyrenean Ibex, the Baiji Dolphin. And those are all deathworld species, and a tiny fraction of the list of species dead at the hands of your own just on this planet! Ask every native life form of the planet Cimbrean! Deathworlders. Equal. Death.” He stabbed a finger at her three times to punctuate each word.
“Then why are you helping us?” She retorted.
“…When I was captured, my interrogation was… gentle.” Six told her. “My guards and minders were polite and restrained, my interviewers were charming and sympathetic, the rules were laid out clearly and obviously, and were followed. No beatings, no torture, no verbal abuse, nothing more than the most necessary of indignities. When I co-operated I was rewarded with privileges, when I resisted the treats I had earned were taken away. It was methodical, thorough, and completely civilized. It has made me… trust you. A trust that has proven justified several times since.”
“So even if we destroy you, our next inevitable containment failure might release a species not remotely so civilized and trustworthy.” Six told her. “That restraint is the only thing I have which resembles a guarantee for the long-term survival of the Igraens. I regret having to cut loose every other species in the galaxy… but that is the way it must be. The time of the deathworlders has come.”
“‘Cut loose?’ Is it really that bad?” Ash asked.
Six laughed, composed a scenario in his head, and detailed it. “Imagine: You are a thriving, proud civilization. Gleaming cities, global communications technology, art and culture and sports and a thriving economy. And one day, your oh-so-clever scientists discover the means by which a ship might have an apparent linear velocity greater than the speed of causality. You launch your first warp ship, your Pandora, and bask in your own accomplishments….until the aliens arrive.”
“These aliens are monsters. True monsters, far worse than any fanged, acid-blooded animal your cinema industry ever devised. And they are monsters because what greets you, smiling politely and eager to make your acquaintance, are your superiors. Faster, tougher, stronger. More cunning, more inventive, more intuitive and more logical. Their art and music redefines everything you thought culturally possible, their philosophy explores fields of thought of which you had never even conceived. They are all but impervious to your weapons, their very breath carries plagues that could eviscerate your population, and their military doctrine operates several levels above your own. In every conceivable way, they are better than you and you will never, ever become their equal in even one capacity, let alone in all regards.”
He sighed. “More galling still? Is that they are even your ethical superiors. They do not gloat, or exploit their superiority. They do not enslave you, but instead welcome you as the equals you are not. They give you a place at their table that you do not deserve, listen to your pathetic attempts at having opinions and treat them with a seriousness they do not warrant. Every time they smile at you and treat you as their friend, they demonstrate yet again just how hopelessly inadequate you really are….And the very, very worst part of all, will be that they are completely sincere.”
Ash frowned, and looked down, thinking.
“Do you think humanity would survive a culture shock like that?” Six asked.
She didn’t reply, and he nodded, satisfied.
“That,” he told her, “Is what the future looks like now.”
“Wow… either Six is deeply insecure, or his whole species is.”
Darcy nodded. The conversation was providing illuminating insights into both Six and Ava Rìos. The former was the much more studied subject of course, but if the monologue they were hearing was anything to go by he’d been in a decidedly subdued mood throughout his prior detainment.
Ava was feigning impatience but also letting him rant, thereby drawing out all kinds of useful psychological information. For a young and untrained civilian, she was doing a damn decent job.
“Appealing to his ego was always the most effective technique during his interrogation.” Darcy pointed out.
“Hmm. A big ego that we punctured? Or a big ego to cover for deeper insecurities?”
“Why not both?”
“The question is, whether he’s typical of Igraens…?”
“We have a sample size of one guy. That’s not enough to draw any solid conclusions.”
“I don’t know. His rationalisation for genocide sounded… dogmatic to me.”
“A rote response? The Hierarchy party line?”
“He hasn’t abandoned his species entirely. It stands to reason that he’s still mostly drinking the Kool-Aid.”
“Assuming that he’s not lying so we hear what he thinks we want to hear.”
“If so, he’s become a much better liar over the last six years.”
“I don’t think he’s lying.”
“Agreed. But if he’s not, then his claim that… what did he say…? ‘After this conversation is over I will already have everything I can usefully extract from you, no matter what you say.’ That bothers me.”
“I don’t think so. I think his ego’s at play again. I think he’s hinting at something he’s done, or is doing or will do, that he believes won’t be figured out, at least not soon enough to make a difference. Superiority behavior.”
Darcy grimaced. “The problem is,” she observed, “that he’s probably right.”
Ash, it seemed, had finally heard enough. “What do you need us to do?” she asked.
“I have converted a Cabal of my fellows who agree with my reasoning - if the Hierarchy endures, it will lead inevitably to the death of the Igraen people. They will force that conflict, and they will lose.” Six replied. “We have a plan, but we lack certain critical information.”
“On the rare occasions when the Hierarchy deem that a crisis has reached the point where the authority of the low numbers such as myself is insufficient, we compile a gestalt intelligence identified as ’One’.” he told her. “One uses the combined perspective and intelligence of every Igraen on the network to draw conclusions and to decide the collective will of our species. It is an entity of formidable intelligence, but it is also inherently democratic rather than logical. Dissenting opinions are heard, but it is the majority opinion that matters.”
“We intend to commit electoral fraud.”
“One may be a digital sapient, but - speaking as a digital sapient - we are still vulnerable to being ‘hacked’ - indeed, I’ve done it myself. A fellow agent called Seven was the one who rescued me from my captivity, and his reward was that I hollowed him out and slithered into his mind, in much the same way as I did to this biodrone.”
She gave him a sickened look. ”Why?”
“Seven would have been my most competent adversary: His destruction was necessary. Instead, armed with his knowledge and authority, I have been able to build and protect the Cabal. One is, in theory, vulnerable to the exact same.”
“In theory.” She repeated, voice dripping with sarcasm and contempt.
“Better protected.” Six explained, letting the attitude slide. “But there is no such thing as a secure system. One is hardened, supremely so, but it is still attackable, penetrable, compromisable.”
“So why do you need humans?” Ash asked, clearly getting tired of repeating herself.
“Because the most important part of One’s protection is that no member of the Hierarchy knows where its physical layer is.” Six explained. “And doing what we intend to do will require us to access the physical medium that stores the seed algorithms from which it is compiled, and effect alterations.”
Ash’s lips parted in batant incredulity. “How in the - do you have any idea where it is?”
“Somewhere in this galaxy.”
She stared at him some more, then shook her head. “Now, I’ma give you another shot at that.” she said. “Try giving me a useful answer this time.”
“That is the only answer I have. Somewhere in this galaxy.”
“Weren’t you lecturing me on physics a while back?” She asked. “You’ve got to know how big the galaxy is!”
“Rather more clearly than you do, I suspect.” Six agreed. “Fortunately, while I don’t know where the systems that house One itself are, I do know the coordinates for a routing station in the Irujzen Reef… I believe human astronomy refers to the volume as the Sagittarius Star Cloud, or Messier 24.”
He produced a slightly old-fashioned USB drive from his pocket with a flourish and offered it to her. “Galactic volume, star, planet, and co-ordinates on said planet. It’s a class eleven, one of our… historical cases. Heavier surface gravity than Earth, and the atmosphere is warmer, denser, moister and richer in oxygen.”
“You mean you killed the people who used to live there.” Ash accused.
“Yes. My first such in a supervisory role. They called themselves the Miorz. Unpleasant creatures - Deeply tribal, very warlike, fond of slavery. Their coming-of-age ritual involved a one-on-one fight to the death, and if the winner was too badly injured they were promptly sacrificed. You should have seen their greedy little eyes light up - all five of them - when they learned how to split the atom: By the time the last bomb fell, we barely even needed to send in the Abrogators.”
He smiled at her shocked expression. “I’m sorry, did you imagine that all Deathworlders are pleasant and civilized? Some of the things we’ve killed needed killing or they would have been a worse plague than the Hunters. There’s a reason I’m pinning my hopes on humanity. When I listed all those species humans have wiped out, you seemed uncomfortable - The Miorz would have laughed and bragged about it.”
Ash took the drive, still giving him a wary dark look. “And this routing station will lead us to One.” She said.
“More likely it will lead you to another routing station. And that routing station may well lead you to another routing station. It is a vast network. But, there can only be a finite number of steps to the hub.”
“And how will we contact you to organise all of this?” Ash asked.
“Oh, don’t worry.” Six told her. “I’ve already made all the arrangements.”
Walsh looked up from his tablet. His expression was grim. “The drone’s tracking a convoy coming in…”
“What the hell do you mean you’ve ’made arrangements’? Like what?”
“Nope. My turn to ask the questions.” Six denied her.
“You don’t need to know. In fact it’s much better if you don’t.” He told her, truthfully. “My turn. Tell me the link. Tell me the relationship between events that led you here.”
Ash hesitated, and Six gritted his teeth. In truth, he’d got everything he needed, but it would be torturously irritating to leave this particular itch un-scratched.
“The link is a woman named Terri Boone.” Ash revealed, eventually.
“I know of her. A relative?”
“My… adoptive father investigated her death.”
A cascade of data points connected themselves, and Six relaxed with a happy sigh. The laws of probability and causality were vindicated. The chain of events as he could see it now was tangled, yes, but no less probable than any other sequence involving the lives of dozens of people.
“…Then that would make you…” Her expression hardened, and he decided that it would be more fun to leave her guessing. “Hmm. Thank you for your honest answer, ‘Ash’.”
She stood. “Are we done here?”
Six hesitated, then nodded. “You know, I believe we are.”
She gave him a murderously cold glare, and pushed past him. she opened the door in the surprised face of ‘Barkeep’, who had been about to knock.
The two blinked at one another.
“You done?” he asked.
“Good, ‘cause we got incoming.” He raised a small device, and ‘Ash’ presented her cranium to him. Some kind of ultrasonic scanner, if Six was any judge. It produced a happy ping and a green light, and Barkeep issued a satisfied grunt.
“Incoming?” She asked, looking past him to stare warily at the ribbon of light coming off the highway and up the access road.
Barkeep took the opportunity to conspiratorially whisper a question to her. Six turned up the gain on his auditory cybernetics and listened in.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Just talking to that creepy fuck gave me a headache.” She murmured back. “But I’m fine. Thanks.”
Barkeep turned to Six. “They with you?”
Six shook his head. “They are not. I suspect the Hierarchy has found us.”
He stepped back into the office and produced a revolver and several speed-loaders from a desk drawer. “If I were you, I would call in whatever reinforcements you have.”
”STAINLESS, DRINKIN’ BUDDY, we’ve got probable BIG HOTEL rolling up on us. ASH is in hand with vital data, overland egress is not plausible. Requesting support, over.”
Powell spat a curse. For a few bright and hopeful moments there, he’d started to entertain the idea that they might make it through this thing without anything going wrong. He waved a hand furiously to grab Thorpe’s attention.
“Copy DB, we’re almost ready. ETA,” he glanced at Thorpe who held up three fingers. “Three minutes?” The suits were just beginning to settle on the men and they needed to be fully seated before they deployed. The loadmaster, overhearing the conversation on the party line, shook his head and flashed both his hands twice. “Scratch. Aircrew thinks up to twenty.” Another gesture informed him of the reason. “We need to re-circle our orbit to get into position. Fook.”
The wait on the line was a grim one. When Walsh replied, he sounded like a man who’d just been swearing violently. ”…Understood, STAINLESS. Out.”
Powell sprang to his feet and shook the deck as he approached the loadmaster with a purpose. Loadmasters were a hardy breed who regularly dealt with the angriest and most violently-inclined Army personnel on drops and exercises, but this one still flinched ever so slightly. Even his career had probably not prepared the man for well over three hundred pounds of angry, desperate astronaut with more combat training and experience than the most hardcore operators and an academic education to match, and more than a hundred pounds of suit and the weight of combat gear beyond that. Given that Powell fancied that the pilots were probably feeling the plane wobble just a little with every heavy EV-MASS footfall, he could hardly blame him.
“Staff sergeant, we very much need to get there faster.” Powell explained, keeping his voice level but urgent.
The loadmaster nodded and briefly conversed with the aircrew. “Are your men ready, major? We’re flying easy and level for your techs’ benefit.”
A quick glance showed they were, and the techs were already packing it in. “SOR! Sounds like we’re in for a rough ride. Get everything secured!”
He turned back to the loadmaster. “We will be shortly.”
“Yes sir. Let me know.” He grinned slightly, “The pilots are gonna love this.”
There was a squeal of metal on metal from down the bay - Warhorse had put his back into shoving one of the suit stations back onto its transport pallet. Baseball was bracing himself to do the same. The loadmaster cringed visibly, and doubly so when the second and third stations were stowed with similarly physical efficiency that undoubtedly did serious damage to the load handling system and floor plating. His crew chief would murder him when they got back.
Powell could hardly blame the man for the way he put a hand on top of his head and stared forlornly at the damage. “Fuck. Imma need t’buy beers for the whole goddamned MXS.”
Powell clapped him sympathetically on the shoulder. “Tell them to take it up with me, lad. We’re in a bit of a hurry. As you can see, we’ll be ready momentarily.”
The loadmaster swallowed and nodded. “Yes sir,” he said, taking refuge in deflated stoicism.
The techs knew the business of stowing their stations, and the words were barely out of the loadmaster’s mouth before the equipment was all crated, strapped and locked down. The Globemaster could have performed a barrel roll and they would have stayed comfortably in place. Thorpe aimed a thumbs-up at Powell as he threw himself into a seat and strapped in, his work finished for now.
The loadmaster took his cue. “Get seated and strap in. We’ll be starting decom, too.” He headed to his workstation–forward in the cargo bay, and starboard, near his drop management station–while the other two aircrew set up stations near the rear of the aircraft.
Powell nodded, tugged his suit’s air mask off the velcro on his leg, clipped it securely into place - high altitude as this jump was, there was no need to do a full vacuum-safe seal check - and accepted Warhorse’s help and shrugged on his mission gear before installing himself in one of the chairs, waiting for the go signal.
Once everyone was seated, and the aircrew did a final check to ensure everything was, in fact, secure, the pilot was notified.
The flight got interesting.
“Motherfucking shit-ass son of a fucking fuck!” Walsh aimed his head at the sky, took a deep breath to compose himself, and then keyed his mic. “…Understood, STAINLESS. Out.”
Coombes broke the silence. “…Bad news?” he asked.
“Twenty minutes.” Walsh grabbed his binoculars. “They’re gonna be here in… five.” he estimated, aiming down the road.
Vinther took them off him. “Why is it always white fuckin’ Toyota Hiluxes?” he mused to himself, trying to guesstimate at a headcount of their approaching enemy. Even his most optimistic lower boundary was an unhappily large number.
Firth and Murray approached. “Plan?”
“Hunker down and wait for the cavalry.”
“That’s us up front, then,” Murray nodded to Firth, who produced the single most predatory grin Vinther had ever seen.
“Yup.” From under his terrible Hawaiian shirt, Firth produced a Ka-Bar of obviously custom and superior make. “Guess I’ll be the distraction, then.” He reached down and made sure his boots were properly done up. “Good thing I didn’t wear my sandals.”
Vinther raised his eyebrow at the sandal comment but nodded his approval, and turned to the others. “Pavlo, Coombes, we’re over there.” - he indicated the cover offered by the heavy mining equipment, where the three of them would have excellent fields of fire as the arriving trucks pulled into the open space.. “Walsh - you see those rocks up there?” he indicated a spot on the hillside above the foreman’s office with a good vantage point down the village’s two main roads. “You live there now. You.” he turned to Ava. “Stick the fuck right by me and keep your head down.”
The first thing they’d done upon seeing the approaching pickups was to shove Rìos into her armor. She was trembling but alert, and nodded emphatically.
“Alright. Clear the trucks out and then block the access road with them. We’ve got four minutes. Move!”
Six M4 carbines, plenty of ammo for them, a Mk20 for Walsh, grenades, and all the equipment they’d brought with them was easily unloaded and hustled to the safety of their defensive position. Walsh put his muscles to use and took all his gear up the hill in one go, and the two SOR men drove the two SUVs into position and then actually lifted them to swing their back ends round and create a firmly immobile roadblock.
The efficient bustle ended with a minute to spare. Vinther was knelt behind the monolithic mechanism of the rock-crushing machinery, which was probably solid enough to deflect anything the hostiles might have, short of a tank. He laid everything out, checked that Ava was in place and decided that it couldn’t hurt to arm her.
She took the gun as if it was made of uranium, but managed to mumble an acknowledgement and thanks.
That was as safe as she was ever gonna get. Firth, Murray, Pavlo, Coombes and Walsh were all in position, and if Vinther was any judge, Firth was taking a moment to pray, head bowed and a hand on Murray’s back. Vinther looked upwards.
“Hey… Lord? If you don’t see fit to see me through this… please forgive me all the wrong I’ve done.” he prayed. “…and all the wrong I’m about to do. Amen.”
He heard Ava whisper an echoing “amen.” and the first truck came round the corner.
With actively moving cargo, the flight crew had kept the g-forces under control: pointing straight down into the decking and at a constant “weight” so as not to injure anyone walking about - the so-called “bus driver” mode of operations.
Now that the cargo was locked down, the pilots were freed to unleash the frustrated part of their soul that had wanted to fly fighters, and for all that the C-17 had a not undeserved reputation as a boring cargo plane, it was also a cargo plane built for performance. Now, instead of doing a wide, sweeping, gently rolling turn at cruising speed, the pilot could do a combat drop. This involved a rapid series of hairpin turns combined with steep dives to recover kinetic energy. Seen from outside, such a maneuver was deeply alarming. From inside, it was a sideways roller coaster.
What would have been a ten minute slow circle was shaved down to less than a minute. They still weren’t going to be able to jump for longer than Powell would have liked - lining up on a drop required finesse and for the plane to be travelling at a safely low airspeed. Then there was the need to decompress so that nobody on board got the bends, and the time involved in falling to Earth which, from their current altitude, would take a minute or two.
Still, they’d shaved five minutes off their ETA. Those five minutes might make all the difference.
Powell glanced at the loadmaster, who raised a thumb for him, flashed both his hands once and then offered three fingers. Decompression was already well under way - Powell could see the pressure and temperature both plummeting in his HUD - but he wondered about making a recommendation through Admiral Knight to see if Boeing might be persuaded to develop a new C-17 with forcefields and superbatteries. Armed with those, the crew inside could have stayed warm and comfortable while the SOR in their spacesuits stepped through a pressure-retaining field.
It would have saved the poor techs from fidgeting and shivering at least.
“DRINKIN’ BUDDY,” he sent, “STAINLESS. Revised ETA is thirteen, that’s one-three minutes, over.”
Walsh’s voice came back tense and focused against a backdrop of gunfire. All he said was ”Copy, STAINLESS.”
The moment when Firth and Murray struck was so sudden and so violent that Pavlo almost forgot to fire his weapon.
The convoy was undeniably hostile. Every human body - male and female - sitting in it was armed and had the characteristic blank expression of a biodrone that wasn’t actively pretending to be a person right now. In fact, Pavlo could swear that he recognized one of the passengers in the lead truck from the gunfight in Cairo.
This much had been established before it stopped at the impromptu roadblock. The drones in the back of the lead Hilux began to efficiently - and in eerie unison - gather themselves to disembark and clear the obstacle, but Firth was faster.
He vaulted the roadblock, sprang across the gap and landed with both booted feet on the hood of the stopped pickup. There was a horrible crunch of metal and the car sagged as if its front axle had been damaged. The impact rocked the drones in the back so badly they had to take a moment to recover their balance, and in that moment Firth was down off the hood, and had wrenched the driver-side door off the car and dispatched the driver and shotgun passenger so quickly that Pavlo couldn’t even clearly see what he’d done. By the time he’d processed the encounter, Firth was already clear of the engagement zone and barreling towards the next truck, jinking with every step.
The drones in the back of first truck made to pile out and attack him, only for Walsh to put a round straight into the first one’s center-mass, and when Vinther, Pavlo and Coombes raked the Toyota’s flank with an accurate volley the drones clearly decided that they needed to get out on the other side.
This was a mistake: Murray was waiting for them.
Pavlo couldn’t see exactly what their softly-spoken Scotsman did, but to judge from the calm way he popped up after a few seconds to drop an incendiary grenade into the truck’s flatbed and then faded from view, it had been effective. The grenade went off and the truck was a fireball in seconds, definitively blocking the road in a way that the two parked SUVs hadn’t. Even biodrones probably weren’t going to try and shove a steel inferno out of the way.
The second truck didn’t go nearly as well as the first. What biodrones lacked in free will, they made up for in communication, responding almost like a single organism. By the time Firth barreled into the second truck’s worth, the full queue beyond them were vaulting down to the ground.
Freed from constraints such as giving a fuck about their comrade’s lives, they rapid-fired into the melee.
Firth retreated into the limited cover offered by the second truck, holding up a jerking biodrone corpse as a bullet-catcher. Walsh fired again, scoring a second kill, and the biodrone army spread out and went to ground.
This suited Pavlo just fine. The Delta team laid down waves of fire into the cover the drones were using, buying Firth the opening he needed to slip away and blur across a short stretch of open ground, throwing a frag grenade as he went. Part of the rocky patch where a tough knot of drones had taken root became a rain of dust and flesh.
Over the open line, he heard Walsh acknowledge an update from major Powell, which he passed along. “Paras ETA one-three minutes!” before taking another shot.
Pavlo grinned, aimed, and drilled a biodrone with a three-round burst as it crawled up out of its impromptu foxhole and took careful aim in Firth’s direction. By some miracle, things were actually going well.
Something made a hideous shrieking sound that seemed to fill the whole sky. Whatever it was that gave the SOR their strength also gave them reflexes to match it seemed, as both Firth and Murray dived in opposite directions away from the truck they’d been using for cover an instant before something crashed down on that truck hard enough to smash it flat into the road, pulverising the road for good measure.
The smoke from the burning lead pickup billowed, flattened and burst open exactly as if something had flown through it, and the bottom dropped out of Pavlo’s stomach. He snap-fired to keep the biodrones’ heads down and got on the comms.
“Barkeep! It’s that fucking UFO! We gotta-!”
The alien ship fired a second time, and the only saving grace for sergeant first class Anthony Pavlopoulos was that he never felt the blast that destroyed him.
”Man down. HANGOVER is KIA.”
Murray was always softly-spoken and economical with his words, but anybody who knew him understood that he was never terse. The fact that his voice was now as level and cold as a frozen lake meant the situation had just gone from serious to dire.
The live feed from Walsh’s UAV meant that Powell didn’t need a sitrep. He plainly saw the way that the bulldozer sheltering Coombes lurched a meter sideways as a third pulse cannon shot battered its flank. Coombes himself only narrowly escaped being pulped.
“BARKEEP, STAINLESS.” he ordered. “Pull back into the village, you need overhead concealment.”
”DRINKIN’ BUDDY, can you get a fix on that UFO?”
”STAINLESS, DB. Workin’ on it sir. It’s cloaked.”
“DB, Para drop cannot go ahead while BIG HOTEL have air superiority.”
”STAINLESS… UFO is producing zero emissions, and it’s transparent to all sensors”
“Surf the damn thing and tape an IR flare to it if you have to, support is not available until that UFO has been splashed.” Powell repeated.
Movement in his peripheral vision drew Powell’s attention to Baseball putting a comforting hand on Warhorse’s shoulder. Arés for his part was completely still: his fingers weren’t even fidgeting nervously. Aside from the mechanical rise and fall of his breath and the occasional jolt as the C-17 fine-tuned their approach, he wasn’t moving at all.
Wishing he could say it aloud, Powell willed the young man to hold it together, and willed Walsh to find a way. There was nothing worse than being helpless.
The fourth and fifth pulse cannon shots hammered the rock-crushing machine with such force that a few hundred tonnes of metal actually shifted on its treads. Both Vinther and Ava flinched away from it, though neither could dare to stray too far without exposing themselves.
Retreating into the village was a good order. It was one Vinther would have loved to follow immediately. The problem was that it would involved a dash over nearly fifty meters of open ground in full view of the UFO and the biodrones, a prospect that was made even less appealing than it had already been when a sixth shot wrecked the conveyor belt, which collapsed with a wail of tearing metal.
Ava made a terrified noise. She was curled up in a ball with her arms over her head and hyperventilating, and there was absolutely nothing Vinther could do for her as the rock crusher took another hit and rocked alarmingly.
Gunfire erupted at the far end of the loading area, and the bombardment ceased.
Vinther gritted his teeth and poked his head out of cover, expecting at any second to be reduced to a puddle of blood and liquefied tissues at the bottom of a crater like poor Pavlo.
An army of biodrones had emerged from the village to engage the Hierarchy drones. Armed with the numerical advantage and complete disregard for their safety, they caught the advancing Hierarchy units in enfilade and swung the battle in the opening fusillade.
The UFO’s engines screamed as it turned in the rising column of dust it had kicked up, and turned its cannon on the advancing Cabal troops. Each shot blasted through them like a wrecking ball, crushing and bursting them as if they were water balloons, but by God it was an opening.
“UP! RUN!” he yelled, grabbed Ava by the back of her armor and hauled her behind him. She took a few steps to find her footing, but put her head down and sprinted alongside him.
They made the first thirty meters unnoticed and unopposed. with twenty meters to go, the Hierarchy drones shifted their focus from their Cabal opposite numbers and opened fire in their direction. Behind him, Vinther heard Coombes curse and stumble as a lucky shot winged him. Ava yelped and nearly tripped as another round struck her square in the back, but her armor’s SAPI plate held and she kept her footing and ran.
Ten meters to go and the biodrones were forced to put their heads down as Murray appeared in an upper storey window and sprayed them with suppressing fire. There was nothing he could do about the UFO though, which howled as it banked back across the open space and lined up directly behind the runners.
Vinther gave Ava a solid shove in the arm, pushing her towards a gap between two houses. She stumbled, fell and rolled safely into the concealment offered by the alleyway.
Vinther jinked right. The pavement to his left cracked as another of those impossibly powerful pulse shots slammed into it. He angled towards the next gap that offered itself. There were only three steps to go before he was-
A pulse cannon round scythed down the street, blowing out the corner of a house and obliterating Vinther in mid-stride. The building - a cheap construction made from concrete bricks and wooden beams - promptly collapsed and buried the horrific slurry of crushed meat and shattered bone that was all that was left of him.
Concrete dust filled the air. The UFO’s high-pitched roar tracked futilely up and down the street as it presumably tried to scan through the dense cloud and failed, before it gave up and backed off toward the other end of town to assist in the gunfight between the biodrones.
Ava was too busy shivering and trying not to throw up to really pay attention, but she did pay attention when panting, footfalls and swearing heralded the arrival of Coombes, who stumbled into her alleyway and seemed to nearly collapse with relief upon seeing her.
“Christ. Jesus. Fuck.” he suggested, eloquently.
Ava could only nod. She wasn’t sure she could remember how to speak at that moment.
Coombes shook his head and raised a bloody hand to his communicator. “DRINKIN’ BUDDY, BOUNCER…. BARKEEP is KIA. I’m wounded. ASH is…” He glanced at Ava, who managed to give him a shaky thumbs up. “…A-OK. We have cover and concealment near Point Charlie.”
Walsh’s reply was quiet. Unlike the rest of them, running from his position hadn’t been an option, and the best that Walsh could do was stay down, stay camouflaged, and watch. ”BOUNCER, we need to light that UFO up right now, ‘cause the cavalry ain’t coming ‘til it’s gone. Only thing I can think of would be hitting it with a firebomb or something.”
Coombes tried to haul himself upright, grimaced, and collapsed. Ava realised that his breathing sounded strange, like he was short on breath and wheezing. “LIGHTWEIGHT and GUINNESS, you hear that?”
All they heard from Murray was a clipped. ”Copy.”
“LIGHTWEIGHT, come back?”
There was a too-long pause, then a terse ”Copy. Busy here.” in Firth’s angriest tones.
Coombes nodded. “Okay. Ava. I’m gonna need your help with this. Just do what I tell you, okay?”
Ava nodded, and he handed her a plastic syringe applicator covered in simple diagrams to demonstrate its proper use. “I’ve got a… wound, down here…” Coombes said, leaning forward with a pained groan and lifting his shirt. Ava’s stomach lurched. that was a lot of blood, and it was… bubbling…
“Hold it together!” he snapped. “Now…” he coughed. “Step one, I need you to find the entry wound. It’s below my shoulder blade on the back. This is gonna hurt like a motherfucker, but I need you to shove that applicator right in there and empty it. To hell with how I respond, okay?”
“Okay. Okay.” It was a relief to say anything, even if it was just the same word over again, but finding her voice at least gave Ava the impetus she needed to do as she was told. She shifted around and found the wound site. Some detached, chilly part of her noted that under normal circumstances she would have balked at getting blood on her, but right now that did not seem like an important issue.
“Ram it in there good.” Coombes ordered, bracing himself. Ava swallowed hard and obeyed. An off-white foam boiled out of the applicator’s nozzle and neatly filled the wound, solidifying in seconds. Though it clearly hurt like hell, he bore it in silence.
“G-good.” he managed. “Gauze. And tape.” He tapped at the open medical kit beside him. Ava piled into it, found the requested items - thank God for clear labelling - and did her best to affix them securely.
He bore her clumsy medicking stoically, and handed her a square pack of some kind the moment she was done.
“Put that… over the exit wound…” his breathing was definitely getting more difficult. “It’ll stick down…just fine…through the blood… but you gotta… stick it down good… y’got that?”
The most difficult part by far was opening the packaging with blood making her fingers slick and sticky. The circular patch inside was transparent and clearly labelled, and sticking it on really was as easy as following orders and trying to ignore the way he squirmed and clearly wanted to scream as she pressed firmly on his wound.
He waved her off. “Okay…. okay…. Whew….”
There was a nasty blowing noise coming from the patch she’d stuck to his ribs, but Coombes seemed to start feeling better within only a half-dozen breaths or so. By the time he’d taken a half-dozen more, he was almost breathing normally.
“Hey… I’ve had worse medics.” he joked, weakly. “You did good.”
“Please don’t get shot a second time.” Ava requested. She was feeling a lot better herself. Grim as it had been, having something, anything to do was a world better than curling up in a ball and praying.
Coombes chuckled, even though it plainly hurt. “Ow… heh. Okay. Last step is I need to be in the recovery position. Help me tip over, that way.” he waved his right arm.
That part was much easier, and Coombes was getting his limbs settled into the right position when Ava caught a glimpse of movement across the street. Firth glanced up and down and darted across the open space faster than a manic cat.
“Biodrones are warring.” he reported. “How bad are ya?”
“Doctor Rìos here did a pretty good job.” Coombes replied.
Firth gave Ava a skeptical look, which turned into grudging respect when he saw the blood on her hands. “You hurt?” he asked.
“I’m fine.” Ava told him. “My armor stopped a hit.”
“Good, ‘cause if you die Warhorse is gonna kill me.” Firth grunted. He turned and checked up the street again. The sleeve of his shirt was soaked red.
“Firth, you’re wounded!” Ava pointed out.
He glanced at it. “Ain’t nothin’. Look, Coombes, we got a serious problem. Ain’t no gasoline in this village. It’s all diesel.”
“So Walsh’s firebomb idea’s a non-starter.” Coombes observed. He shivered. “Ava, there’s a foil blanket in the kit, I’m gonna need it.”
Glad for something to do, Ava dug into the kit looking for it.
“Not unless Hajji started drinkin’ whisky.” Firth grunted. “No, I think I’ma have to do something really dumb.”
Staff Sergeant Timothy Walsh
The one nice thing about living in the space future was that nobody had turned out to have stupid bullshit-o-tron sensors that could detect life signs through walls or anything like that. The EM spectrum was the EM spectrum for everybody, and that fact was the only reason that Walsh was still alive. Mylar reflected infrared just fine, and whatever sensors the UFO had, they weren’t space-magic-fuck-you sensors that could spot Walsh underneath his camo blanket.
Or at least, they hadn’t, yet. Still, if the biodrones below figured out where he was, he probably wouldn’t know it, he’d just become another bloody crater in the ground, identical to Pavlo’s.
That meant not moving. Never mind the sharp itch inside his right boot. Never mind the stone pressing into his knee. Never mind any of that. Motion - or at least anything more than the most glacially restrained motion - would mean instant death.
Even answering his comm had to be done slowly and quietly. x ”DRINKIN’ BUDDY, LIGHTWEIGHT. Please tell me our angel’s got an AIM-9X on it.”
Walsh resisted the urge to sag. That meant the firebomb option was a no-can-do. Firth knew what he was asking.
The F-22 did indeed have a AIM-9X, which would have locked onto the UFO just fine by tracking the friction of its movement through the air, if the fucking thing would just remain in motion. Unfortunately, the alien ship just flitted from standstill to standstill, never in motion long enough to secure a good target lock.
”LIGHTWEIGHT: It does… But the UFO keeps standing still. No lock.”
”Timing on the strike if you could get a lock?”
“Six seconds.” Walsh replied promptly. That number had remained at the forefront of his mind ever since the UFO had first shown up.
He knew more or less where it was. It was dancing around the west end of town systematically flattening buildings to crush the Cabal biodrones that had entrenched within them. Unfortunately, that knowledge didn’t translate to a viable target.
“Any way we can bring that down to below four?”
“Not without the UFO maybe seeing it. Our angel’s gonna have the kinetic energy, but that fuckin’ spaceship’s got the acceleration and tech edge. The hell are you thinking, anyway?”
It would work. That part was immediately obvious. If they timed it properly then all they had to do was launch the missile and force the UFO to move. There was just one small flaw in the plan.
“Maybe. I’m pretty quick.”
”No other options.” Murray chimed in. “The Cabal drones are being overrun.”
Walsh had to agree.
“Alright. We’ve got… five minutes until the paras can drop.” he said. “I’ll set it up. LIGHTWEIGHT, you… get ready.”
“Just so we’re clear, I get to fuck your sister after this, right?”
Walsh suppressed a fatal urge to laugh. “You’d need to do a lot more than this. Get in position.”
Coombes fidgeted slightly. “Hey, Ava.”
His voice was a welcome break from her worries and the distant sound of gunfire and collapsing buildings. “Yeah?”
“Whatever you do, don’t let me fall asleep, okay?”
Firth was gone, having set off at a run after his vulgar parting shot to Walsh. Ava had only overheard his half of the conversation and she didn’t know what a ‘Thunder Run’ was, or any of the rest of it… but she could guess, and as antagonistic as her relationship with the SOR had become, she didn’t want any harm to come to him.-
“You’re feeling sleepy?”
“Adrenaline’s wore off… shock might set in. Medivac’s not gonna be here for a while.” Coombes explained. “Just… warning you. I don’t feel sleepy, but keep an eye on me. I don’t wanna die here.”
“Yeah.” She almost laughed the word, feeling a surge of black humor. “I can relate.”
“…Why’d you agree to this, anyway?” He asked. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Six asked for me personally.”
“Okay, so you don’t wanna answer. That’s fine.”
“No, I do.” Ava shook her head. “I just…”
He didn’t say anything, and she checked on him. He blinked and nodded at her, still awake.
“…Look… I dunno. You’ve got a hole through you and my baggage is all small stuff next to that.”
He chuckled again, and winced. “Doesn’t hurt to offload it. And hell, I could do with the distraction.”
“…You ever felt completely useless?”
“Like, hiding-behind-a-bulldozer-while-an-alien-ship-shoots-at-you useless? Think I might know that one.”
“Yeah.” Ava saw the funny side and managed a dark little laugh. “Something like that. Not, like, as immediate, but a lot like that.”
“I hear ya.” Coombes nodded. “Nothin’ worse than feelin’ useless.”
“Yeah, well…Men are lucky there.” She waved a hand at him. “You get to be special forces and do… stuff like this.”
“Never thought’a getting shot as a privilege before.” he deadpanned, and wriggled slightly to try and make himself a little more comfortable.
“Relax, I know what you mean.” He assured her. “We all wanna make the world a better place. Fuckin’ sucks that some ways just ain’t open to women. Fuckin’ biology.”
He said it with a half-smile that made her laugh a little. It was good to be talking again. “Yeah… I mean, I don’t think I’d suit the military.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Come on, like Firth didn’t piss and moan about me.”
Coombes didn’t comment, but when she glanced at him he looked like he was thinking about something.
“What?” she asked.
“Hey we don’t really know each other.” He shifted uncomfortably again. “Not my place to say anything.”
“Say it anyway.”
He cleared his throat, which apparently hurt. “My, uh… my ex-wife did what you did.”
“Nah, see… I forgive her. She’s happily married now, the other fella’s a great guy, my daughter’s lucky enough to have two daddies… and I remember, the dude who made the most noise about her and had my back the loudest, he turned a blind eye to how his hound-dog asshole best friend was cheating on his fiance.”
“So you’re saying maybe don’t worry about what the SOR think of me?”
“I don’t really know what I’m saying.” Coombes admitted. “I’m just saying whatever comes into my head.”
“Have you ever told her any of that?” Ava asked him.
“Guess I haven’t.”
“You should. Take it from me.”
There was another rattle of gunfire across town, and Ava flinched as a bullet went past high overhead with a snap.
“…What’s this ‘thunder run’ thing Firth’s doing?” She asked.
“Crazy asshole’s gonna run out in the open and get the UFO to chase him.” Coombes replied. “If it keeps moving long enough, the Raptor we’ve got out there somewhere can bitch-slap it off the face of the Earth and then maybe we can get this shit sorted out.”
“And if that doesn’t work?”
“Walsh might get outta here. He’ll have to sit still for like a week and then crawl his ass out under cover of darkness. Murray could probably do that fuckin’ ninja thing of his too. Maybe he could get you out with him, I dunno.”
She was wondering what, if anything, to say in response to that when he shivered and gave her a welcome excuse to change the subject.
Coombes smiled for her. “Don’t worry. It’ll work. And there’ll be two medics droppin’ out of the sky any minute now.”
“Good. They’re great guys.”
“I reckon you’ve never seen them like this, though.” Coombes suggested.
“What do you mean?”
“From what I’ve seen of the SOR so far? Great guys, yeah, but…Just…Just brace yourself for maybe seeing a new side of ‘em.” He said. “That’s all.”
“He’s fookin’ crazy.”
Walsh’s voice rang with agreement, but also with resolve. ”No better options STAINLESS. I just want it on the record that it was his idea and he volunteered.”
“Noted and recorded.” Powell agreed. He looked to the loadmaster, who gave him a thumbs-up from behind his oxygen mask and waved toward the rear ramp “We’re ready to jump on your go, DRINKIN’ BUDDY. You have a three minute window.”
“Copy. Happy trails.”
The ramp was lowered. Warhorse and Baseball were already stalking towards the end of it, running a last-minute check that their gear and weapons were locked down for the jump. He slapped them both on the helmet to get their attention.
“There’s one wounded on the ground!” he shouted to be heard over the sudden rush of arctic air. “He and ASH are near Point Charlie. Arés, you’re to secure them for evac. Firth will rendezvous with you and recover his energy reserves, that run’s gonna take it out of him. Burgess, you and I are going to link up with Murray at Point Foxtrot and eradicate the biodrones. All of them. Any questions?”
He turned to the loadmaster, who held up his hand in a waiting gesture.
With luck, the wait was almost over.
A pulse cannon shot flattened a single-storey dwelling, and the last of the gunfire from that end of the road went silent. There was still movement visible up there, but it was plainly just the Hierarchy drones picking through the wreckage, looking for any unlikely survivors they could finish off.
The real clue that their work was done was that the UFO darted east, and its pulse cannon speared down to flatten a building somewhere near Point Charlie.
Coombes immediately go on the line ”That was close!”
Go time. Firth had already called that he was in position.
“MAMBA-TWO-FOUR, DRINKIN’ BUDDY, FOX TWO on my position. Nine-line follows…” He provided the necessary information, which MAMBA read back.
“GOOD COPY MAMBA. Now, please.”
“FOX TWO away. Danger close. Now I gotta maneuver for a bit…” By mutual understanding, MAMBA24 would be unavailable for the moment. His wingman was ready, further off and at a different angle of attack, providing active and visual steering to the missile while it was without lock. By splitting the labor, MAMBA24 would be able to maneuver and escape detection or possible retaliation while MAMBA26 ensured the attack would be successful.
“LIGHTWEIGHT! Thunder run now!”
From his vantage point, Walsh got a clear view as Firth burst out of an alleyway and sprayed the biodrones with a burst from his M4 to get their attention. The instant he had it, his tactics changed - he became a wild, unpredictable blur. Rather than simply sprinting away from the return fire as Walsh might have been inclined to do, Firth described a random line that always kept him out of the line of fire, but still created the tantalising suggestion that he was in the open.
Walsh knew from his preliminary briefings early in the SOR pipeline that without EV-MASS, what Firth was doing was dangerous as hell. The extra mass of the suit not only provided, well, mass with which to maneuver and exert force, it also provided active cooling and energy reserves. Firth was burning a lot of energy and fast, meaning that his plan had to work or he would suddenly run out, overheat, and become a sitting duck.
The UFO promptly abandoned its systematic destruction of the village near where Coombes and Ava were hiding. It gained altitude and spun towards the west of the village.
Walsh counted under his breath. “Five mississippi, four mississippi…”
The UFO fired. Firth was somehow on the opposite side of the road from its aim point, and the blast smashed harmlessly into the ground.
“Three mississippi, two mississippi…”
The second shot was more accurate. If Firth hadn’t completely unexpectedly reversed course to run under the UFO, it would have smeared him along the road. Walsh heard the alien craft power forward down the street to try and get an angle of fire on this infuriatingly tricky target and-
For an instant, the night went away. The invisible alien ship was connected to the horizon by an eye-searing line of angry light and a thunder like being smacked in the head by Mjolnir itself, which shook up dust and pebbles across the whole mining complex.
The impact collapsed the spacecraft’s cloaking field, and revealed that fully a third of it was gone, ripped off outright. What was left of it wobbled alarmingly, lurched sideways, fired one last desperate parting shot at Firth that instead scalped a building, before tipping the other way to nose into the side of the much-abused rock crusher.
The rock crusher weathered the impact. The UFO didn’t.
Walsh raised a shaking hand to his communicator.
“STAINLESS.” he managed, after clearing his throat. “DRINKIN’ BUDDY. BIG HOTEL CAS has been splashed. You’re clear to jump.”
He exhaled his relief, then raised MAMBA24 instead. “MAMBA-TWO-FOUR, DRINKIN’ BUDDY. Good kill.”
“Copy. We remain at your disposal. Orbit?”
Walsh described a holding pattern outside of the LZ. “Ongoing drop, LZ is hot. Please don’t scare off our cavalry.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. Oh, tell the Klingons or whatever the fuck it was I just splashed that I said hi.”
“Heh. Word of advice? Don’t look forward to your debrief on landing.” Walsh granted himself a smile. It was always nice to take the pilots down a notch.
Like all good pilots, MAMBA24 bore it with grace. “…Copy. We await your pleasure, good sir.”
The biodrones down in the street were still reeling from the detonation overhead. Gunfire in one of the few windows they hadn’t flattened had to be Murray, taking advantage of their confusion, and Walsh weighed in, exploiting his oblique angle and scoped SCAR to really turn the screw on them.
His first round was a clean headshot.
“HALO with no ‘chute, huh? We should call this a HELLNO.”
The good news about the UFO being splashed had roused ‘Horse from whatever dark trance he’d been in. Now he was raring to throw himself into the fight, and John knew his buddy well enough to know that the trademark Adam Arés grin was back, even if it was hidden behind the breathing mask.
“Dude, what does that acronym even stand for?” he asked.
“Fuck if I know.” John told him. “We’ll decide later!”
There was a slap on the helmet from the loadmaster. Ready…
The light went green. They sprinted off the end of the ramp.
+<Scorn> So who are you really, ‘Seven’?+
That last stab brought a grim chuckle unbidden up out of Six’s host biodrone’s deepest reflexes. He just couldn’t resist the urge to comment quietly to himself. “Five on one, and they call me the coward…”
For all that he would comfortably survive the destruction of his host, the physical battle still held real danger for Six - if his host was killed, he would be forced to abandon it, and all of the available communication channels were monitored, dangerous. Six knew he had more experience than any other in the kind of mind-slicing involved in combat between digital sapients, but only a foolhardy idiot would pick a fight against a numerically superior force.
He knew who his assailants were. Thirteen, Twenty-seven and Forty-Four were Hierarchy. Thirty and Sixty-Two were both Cabal, obeying the standing Cabal orders to protect their own identities at all costs. Cabal members unlike the larger Hierarchy, trusted one another to protect their secrets.
They had to. If they couldn’t, then the movement would already have been exposed. They were nearly strong enough to become exposed and start warring for the soul of the Igraen species anyway, but…
Three-on-three would be a much more even fight, one where his experience might well carry the day, but why fight at all when there were less risky alternatives?
+<Serene> I see the future+ He sent. Their emotions were running high enough that prodding and goading them with hints and doublespeak should keep them irrational and force a mistake
There was a lengthy delay. Gunfire somewhere nearby in the dense tangle of cheap housing gave him a clue as to the cause. That was solid support for his reasoning, if nothing else - Despite being outnumbered something like six to one, the humans had inflicted a heavy toll on the Hierarchy biodrones even before Six’s own forces had been ordered into the fight. The Abductor really had been the only effective weapon against them, and now that it was gone - a fact that would harm his own plans for Earth as well as the Hierarchy’s operations - despite being depleted by half, the human team were clearly giving the drones a war.
+<Mounting anger> Hide behind cryptic nonsense all you like. You will be captured, you will be compiled, and you will be deleted.+
Six shook his head. +<Patient prediction> If you have your way, our species will fall. We have already lost.+
He glanced left and right down the gap between buildings and scurried to a doorway. There was no such thing as a locked door, now that all of the miners and their families had been biodroned. He ducked inside, then cursed. Somewhere in the confusing tangle of the unfolding battle, he’d got turned around and was now pinned against one of the village’s main roads, where there was no cover and nowhere to hide.
+<Elaboration> The humans have already escaped us. No matter what we do, we cannot defeat them now.+
+<Vigorous disagreement> We only need one jump beacon to bring the Discarded down on them.+
Six scoffed and checked outside again. He couldn’t go back the way he’d come, they were too close behind him. His only option was to slip through the window and make a break across the road to safety. Hopefully he could double back around them.
It was not, on balance, a good plan. But it was the best he had.
He didn’t get a chance to execute it. He was preparing to climb through when the door behind him burst open. The biodrone that stepped through smiled, betraying that it was the host for an Agent, and opened fire.
Six hauled himself through the window. He didn’t, at first, feel the bullet wound. There was just a sense of an impact and a sort of coldness in his face. It was only once he realised that the bullet had scored across his cheek, slicing it open and ripping off part of his ear that the pain hit.
He turned it off. It was no longer a necessary datum. Instead he got up and ran, thinking desperately.
+<Frantic> Have you not been paying attention? Do you really think that we will be able to secure such a thing, now that our source of biodrones has been destroyed and the nuclear weapons it carried will be recovered?+ He sent. After all, trying to talk them round was no worse a plan than any other he had right now.
+<Dismissive> They are less than children.+
So much for reason. +<Resolve> They are tenacious, they are intelligent, and they are motivated to survive above all else. We. Have. Failed.+ he broadcast, turning down a gap between buildings. He nearly ran into a wall of four guns.
“Enough. You’re trapped.”
The one who had shot him came up behind Six to his right, and another emerged from further down the street. ’Trapped’ was almost an understatement.
“I don’t suppose we can talk about this?” He ventured, appealing to the leader.
The Agent didn’t reply - they simply aimed at him.
Something landed on the Agent’s host. This was definite understatement - whatever it was, it smashed into the biodrone from above with enough force to crush, break and burst it, and none of the Agents - not the Hierarchy, not the Cabal, not Six - had time or wit to do anything but stare as a red-eyed thing went instantly from landing to violent motion. The drone to its left was killed with a backhand swat to the temple that crushed its skull. A large, heavy gun snapped up and dispatched the two drones behind Six in two precise bursts.
It didn’t all go the rampaging sky-monster’s way. The second burst was interrupted by an anomalous metallic sound, but the creature didn’t miss a beat - it lowered its head and bull-rushed the last two Hosts with enough force to break one’s spine outright, and the final one barely had the chance to weakly scrabble at its assailants armor before the creature killed it through the simple expedient of twisting its head right off.
No sooner was it dead than the monster lurched upright, drew a secondary weapon from its hip, and aimed it directly and with disconcerting stability at Six’s chest.
There was a long, horribly tense moment. The only sounds were gunfire at the far end of town, and a pattering sound - blood, raining off his rescuer’s (or possibly captor’s) armor.
Very, very carefully, Six extended the hand holding his gun out sideways, placed the weapon in the dirt, and stepped away from it.
”Target secured.” The monster announced, presumably not speaking to him. Whatever it heard in response was met with a curt nod. “You. Kneel. Cross your ankles and put your hands on top of your head.”
Six ignored the urgent signals from his host biodrone’s ghost personality that the appropriate thing to do right now would be to excrete, vomit and possibly pass out entirely, and instead carefully and slowly obeyed.
“Lie on your belly, keep your hands on your head.”
Six complied and the monster again moved with alarming speed. There was an incredible pain as one of its knees pressed hard into his, and an almost nauseatingly sharp agony as both his arms were yanked down to his lower back so forcefully, Six could feel the tendons stretch. The knee moved up to his hands and crushed so firmly he could feel the bones in his hand spread apart, something bound his wrists with excessive tightness, and he was roughly yanked to his feet.
“Don’t try to run.”
“No.” Six agreed, utterly persuaded that it would be a futile effort.
There was a thump, and one of Ash’s guardians - the enormous one wearing the eye-gougingly ugly shirt - dropped off a rooftop to join them. He surveyed the carnage with no sign of any emotion beyond, perhaps, professional approval.
“Malfunction, Horse?” He asked, aiming his own gun at Six.
‘Horse’ retrieved his primary weapon. “Landing busted the belt.” He said. The weapon hinged open, was reloaded and charged with practiced ease.
“Got any juice? I’m running on fuckin fumes here.”
‘Horse’ took over guarding Six. “Concentrate’s in the top right side pocket, water’s on the left.”
Ugly-shirt tugged a foil pack out of the indicated pocket, twisted the top off and tipped its contents into his mouth, swallowing with a grimace.
‘Horse’ nodded approvingly. “Hardcore, man.”
“Tastes like getting face-fucked by a lime.” The juice was chased down by a large bottle of water. “Right. We’ve got a wounded man yonder. Ash did a pretty good job patching him up I reckon, but you should have a look at him. You. Thataway.” He jerked his gun at Six.
“Yah-huh.” There was a grudging tone in Ugly-Shirt’s voice.
Walking with his hands tied behind him turned out to be more difficult than Six had anticipated. Without his arms swinging to counterbalance him, each step had to be compensated for with less elegant, larger shifts of weight. The result was that the powerful, graceful stride he’d been so proud of himself for cultivating had to sit back and watch as he stumbled along in front of his captors with short, clumsy steps.
This was not, apparently, to Ugly-Shirt’s satisfaction. The third time that Six nearly tripped on the rough ground he growled, grasped Six’s shirt and neck from behind and lifted. His grip was agonizingly tight and something about the action caused Six’s limbs to suddenly go limp. Try as he might, Six could scarcely will either his legs or his arms to action. Ugly, meanwhile, sped up to a quick jog–easy for him–that Six might just about have matched at a run with his hands free.
He unceremoniously dropped Six in the dirt next to Ash and one of her guardians, who looked to be badly wounded. Even through the mask, there was some kind of connection between Ash and the faceless mountain of armored human who had saved Six’s life - both of them went very still on seeing one another.
Then, slowly, her gaze ran down him and took in the fact that he was coated in a mix of bodily fluids. Mostly blood, but several others besides, none of which had ever been intended to be exposed to the air. Six could hardly blame her for being shaken by the gruesome barbarity of him.
For his part, Warhorse was inscrutable.
“If you two’re done with the happy fuckin’ reunion.” The wounded man croaked. “I could really do with less pain right now.”
Warhorse put his gun down, knelt by his injured colleague and efficiently plucked a packet of some kind from one of the many pouches about his person. Despite that the rest of him was covered in gore, his gloves were eerily clean. Six could only guess at what kind of hydrophobic, antimicrobial technology had gone into creating a nimble, flexible pressure glove that could remain permanently sterile even in the most demanding deathworld battlefield conditions.
He tore the packet open and popped a little white stick into the wounded man’s mouth. With swift, businesslike efficiency he checked on the wounds.
“You dressed this?” He asked Ash.
“Coo-, uh, Bouncer talked me through it.” She nodded.
“…You did good.”
Despite this apparent praise, he took several additional steps, none of which Six had the education to recognise and all of which seemed to involve alarmingly large needles. By the end of his ministrations, ‘Bouncer’ had a few tubes in him, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“Gowwa teww ya.” He managed, around the stick in his mouth, which Warhorse removed for him. “These new anaesthetics do the job but it just don’t seem right not bein’ high as balls right now.”
“Suck it up.” Warhorse told him, not without an air of kindly humor.
With the attention off him for a second, Six turned his mind to thoughts of escape.
<Connecting: Subnet Mask ????????? Port ?????>
++System Notification: Welcome to the Cabal.++
++????++: Six. What is happening?
++????++: Hierarchy operations on Earth are now completely neutralised. The Abductor has been destroyed. The last biodrones are being eradicated. I have been captured.
++????++: Is this channel secure?
++????++: As secure as I could manage. I need facility for an immediate uplink off this planet. Quickly, before they drug me and detain me for questioning again.
++????++: That will tip our hand.
++????++: The time has come.
++????++: …You are certain?
++????++: Completely certain. The humans have the coordinates for relay Ijrux-10010. The Hierarchy will not believe that the station could have been discovered by chance. As soon as the first deathworlder mission probes that facility, they will conduct a thorough audit. We must strike now and take advantage of their confusion.
++????++: I had hoped to recruit Ninety-Four.
++????++: We have no time. If Ninety-Four defects later…
++System Notification: Vote now.++
++System Notification: All votes have been cast. The Ayes have it.++
++????++: The first order of business is getting you off that planet. A secure link can be opened in… [forty seconds].
++????++: The link must be large enough to accommodate two mind-states.
++????++: I will explain later.
++????++: Very well. [Three minutes].
++????++: Thank you.
++????++: You will still self-format if you are captured in the interim?
++????++: Trust me.
++????++: …You are right. I apologise. Good luck.
++System Notification: Session Terminated.++
“Hey! Earth to detainee! Come in starbase six!”
There was a hand waving in front of his face. Six did a convincing job of blinking as if he’d been miles away. “Hmm? Ah. Sorry, I was distracted.”
“Not thinkin’ of escaping were ya?” Ugly-shirt managed the interesting trick of threatening with a light tone.
“As a matter of fact, I was.” Six replied. “Of course, if I could I already would have, so…”
This seemed to amuse, but not in a happy way.
“Horse, you got any tranquiliser? I don’t trust this asshole.”
“Dude, I need that for if somebody gets his leg blown off. I’m not wasting it on that piece of shit.”
“Am I to be detained for questioning, then?” Six asked.
“You know the drill.”
“Indeed I do, and I would sit down in that chair opposite my interviewer and tell them everything straight away this time. It would save us all a lot of time and inconvenience.”
“Smart of ya.” Bouncer grunted.
“There’s not much to tell.” Six shrugged. “With that Abductor destroyed, the Hierarchy’s plans for Earth are completely ruined. This battle will have depleted them below operational levels. There are now too few biodrones left on Earth to accomplish anything, their only means of making more is in flames over there, and the stolen weapons on board were their only bargaining chip with enough value to potentially procure a jump beacon. Without a jump beacon in Hierarchy hands, this system is completely safe.”
“We’ll let the spooks decide if you’re telling the truth on that one.” Ugly-shirt grunted.
“As you wish. Incidentally, there’s a radio and electronics store in Abu Dhabi. A district called ‘Mussafah.’ - The owners are Hierarchy drones. You should find some interesting intelligence there.”
Warhorse turned to face him, sliding a hand into his bag. “Why tell us this now…?” He asked, cautiously.
The secure link opened.
Six gave them his best and most infuriating smile. “Goodbye, gentlemen.”
Warhorse lurched forward with a dose of tranquilizer ready to administer, but it was too late. Six was laughing even as he slipped out of the body that had been his home for months and left Earth hopefully for good.
He let his host live.
Murray and Firth had been terrifying enough all by themselves. Murray in particular was an unpredictable and fickle force of nature: He would appear, kill, and disappear, only to reappear when and where he was least expected, and in the place the enemy would least want him to be.
When Firth’s dwindling energy reserves had forced him out of the fight, the double-act between Murray’s hit-and-fade marauding and Walsh’s marksmanship had kept the biodrones pinned and immobile, but little more than that. The fight had bogged down, and Walsh was starting to worry about his supply of ammo when the three men in EV-MASS landed.
He didn’t see what happened over by Charlie. But he had a clear view of Foxtrot and the violence that was unleashed there. BASEBALL hit the ground like an airstrike, and with about the same body count. Just when the drones had re-positioned for cover and could fire at him, up popped Murray to shoot them sideways in the ass. If they found a spot where they were covered against both, then either STAINLESS or Walsh had a clean shot.
It was… dispassionate. Efficient. They were merely servicing their targets, like any soldier or special operator would on any mission.
The difference was how good they were at it. Walsh felt almost superfluous to the proceedings. His sniper’s viewpoint was undoubtedly well-appreciated but what was the point? Nothing the biodrones had could penetrate that incredible armor, none were quick enough to avoid Murray’s preternatural ability to catch them in enfilade, and when the last few tried to make a bid for escape, they did so straight into STAINLESS, who’d seen their move coming long before it began.
STAINLESS was the most clinical of the lot, Walsh noted. The ones that fled away from him and into BASEBALL met a… messier end. Unavoidable, and mercifully quick, but messy.
Murray took the last kill, He stepped out of an alleyway in front of the last fleeing drone, drove a knife into its throat, then yanked it out the side. It looked brutal, but the drone was probably unconscious from the sudden drop in blood pressure before it had a chance to notice.
For the first time in several long minutes, there was relative silence. The three vanished into what few of the nearby buildings remained intact enough to sweep, It seemed to last a long while before the call Walsh had been hoping for came in.
”DRINKIN’ BUDDY, get us airlift.”
“Gladly.” Walsh agreed. They had a V-22 on standby for exactly this reason. “SCIMITAR-ONE-NINER, DRINKIN’ BUDDY. We’re ready for pickup, be advised this mission is now CASEVAC. Nine-line follows…”
An explosive cracking noise sent everybody in the alleyway who wasn’t unconscious diving for cover. Ava hit the dirt and threw her hands over the back of her head. When she looked up, Adam was looking around from where he’d been shielding Coombes, and Firth was checking that his dive over Six’s sedated former host had done the poor man no harm.
“The hell was that…?” He grumbled, scooted to the end of the side-street and then pulled his head back in as a second, louder crack snapped out, followed by a creaking groan of strained wood.
Adam checked that Coombes’ IV feed hadn’t been dislodged. “Problem?”
“Shoddy-ass local construction’s about to come down. We’re… probably clear of it.”
“Dude, I ain’t a Defender. Construction is Rebar’s thing, and demolition is Snapshot’s. But it’s-”
There was another crack-groan and this time a third noise - the unmistakable shriek of a terrified child.
Firth and Adam shared a moment’s horrified mutual glance, before Coombes slapped Adam on the arm. “I’ll be fine.” He croaked. “Go.”
The two of them were barely round the corner before Ava heard the tortured building at least partially give up the ghost. Adam stood and put a despairing hand to the top of his helmet, watching it come down.
Ava cringed, but to her relief the cries weren’t suddenly silenced - in fact they got louder. Adam and Firth scrambled over to the sagging home.
She poked her head round the corner to watch them. Adam had turned on the light on his helmet, and was peering through a gap between a slab of fallen concrete and a thick wooden beam with Firth squatted next to him.
“What’s going on?” Coombes asked.
“They’re… Ada-, I mean, uh, Horse is trying to lift…” It felt so weird using Adam’s callsign. “The building’s half fallen down and they’re trying to… get the debris out of the way, but it looks like it’s… Jesus, it’s too heavy for him.”
“Too heavy for those guys?” Coombes coughed. “Shit.”
“They can move it, but neither of them are going to… fit… Oh God.”
Adam and Firth shied back from the collapsing house as another corner of it fell apart.
“They’re calling for Baseball.” Coombes told her. “…Stainless says he can’t be spared from the sweep-and-clear.”
“I’m going to help.” Ava decided.
“Ash, you can’t-”
“I’m gonna try.” She asserted. “You’ll be okay without me?”
He sighed. “Go.”
Adam turned as she ran up to them. “Ava, get the hell back in there!”
She ignored him and stooped to look into the collapsed building. There was a small child - a toddler, really - hiding under a table that was already holding up far more than looked safe.
“Can you lift that beam?” She asked. “I can wriggle in there and-”
They both answered at once. ”NO.”
“Absolutely not!” Adam insisted. “We’re here to keep you safe.”
“…Fine. That thing’s gonna come down and kill that child. On your head be it.” She snapped.
The building groaned again and the child whimpered.
She pressed the USB drive Six had given her into Adam’s hand. “I know Walsh recorded my chat with Six. I’ve got nothing more to do here.” She told him. “Let. Me. Help.”
There was a snapping sound from somewhere inside the settling structure, and Adam’s resolve snapped with it.
“…The old man’s gonna kill me…” he muttered, and grabbed the beam. “Dude, come on, help me… nngggh…”
Firth hesitated, then obeyed. Between the two of them, they were able to partially lift the blockage. Ava shed the armor that Vinther had given her, dropped to her belly and wriggled into the hole they’d created for her.
“Come on, Pequeñita… it’s okay… Come here…” she told the child, who irrationally shied away from her.
There was a horrible groaning sound from the table and Adam snarled urgently through gritted teeth. Even for him, the load must have been a terrible effort. ”Ava-!”
”Please come here!” She begged the child, who finally got its wits together and darted forward into her arms.
“Pull us out!” She called.
Firth grabbed her by a boot and heaved, sliding her and the child painfully in the dirt. A second later she was picked up completely and carried away from the building as Adam gave the beam a final shove and backpedalled. Tonnes of concrete and wood came sliding down, filling the air with dust and the sound of demolition.
They were bundled back into Coombes’ company, who gave a relieved sigh at seeing them all safe. The child - a little girl Ava guessed, though it was hard to tell between the neglect and the dust - had clamped on to Ava and was hugging hard. She squirmed and protested as Firth pressed an implant scanner to her head, which pinged a happy green.
“Guess kids can’t be ‘droned.” Firth panted, and wiped some of the concrete dust off his sweating brow. “That was too close.”
“Sorry if I… got you in trouble with Stainless.” Ava apologised.
“The major?” Adam asked, checking the child for injuries.
“You said the old man’s gonna kill you…”
Adam shook his head with an exhausted laugh. “I was talkin’ about Dad!”
“He doesn’t need to know.” Ava reassured him.
“Better if he doesn’t.” Adam nodded. “You’re probably right.”
Two jets ripped the sky, low overhead. Firth glanced up at them. “Those guys are gonna have a fun debrief.” He commented.
“Why the low flyover?” Ava asked.
“Show of force. Let Big Hotel know they’re beaten, if there’s any left. Should force ‘em to keep their heads down while we take care of shit.”
“So what happens now?” Ava asked.
“Now, we wait for the all clear from Stainless. After that, you and Bouncer here are goin’ back on the Osprey with a ‘Horse, and the rest of us get to enjoy the luxuries of a beddown pallet here on site for a couple days.”
“Speaking of which…” Adam turned his head, raising a hand for quiet. It wasn’t hard to hear the sound of approaching turboprops once he’d pointed them out. A second later he nodded, tilting his head in a way that suggested he was listening to something Ava couldn’t hear.
“…Copy DRINKIN’ BUDDY. On our way.” He took a firm but gentle hold of Coombes, and hoisted him easily up onto his shoulders.
“Come on, our ride’s here.”
“What about the kid?”
Firth gently took the little one off her. She didn’t protest - Ava could only guess that she’d been so starved for human affection that anybody willing to even hold her was a blessing at this point. “I’ve got ‘em.”
Ava got to her feet. “…See you round I guess, big guy.” She told Firth.
All she got in reply was a grunt. A little crestfallen, she followed Adam.
She turned back. Firth gave her a long, calculating and unreadable stare as he bounced the child on one massive knee. “Take care.” He decided, eventually.
She had to jog to keep up with Adam’s stride, and they reached the open area just as the Osprey touched down. Adam held her back with one hand while he checked the coast was clear, then waved her forward and together they dashed over to the ramp. Adam set Coombes down on a litter against the port side, and Ava was ushered further up into the vehicle by the loadmaster, who got her settled and gave her a potted safety briefing. They were off the ground again almost as soon as they were on board.
Adam got his patient settled, exchanged a few words with the loadmaster, then settled in the seat opposite Ava and, with a sigh, removed his helmet and mask.
It dawned on her that he reeked. There was the familiar musk of his sweat, that she was intimately familiar with and it didn’t bother her at all. But his EV-MASS was dark brown from ankle to mid-chest with what could only mostly be dried blood. He smelled unpleasantly like a jar full of old coins, and the grim bouquet was only enhanced by notes of gastric fluid, bile and fecal matter.
He caught her expression. “…What?”
“You smell like a rotting pig in an open sewer on a hot day.”
“Sick bags are under your seat.”
“That’s not the problem. You’re covered in… somebody… and you look like you don’t even care.”
He shrugged massively. “That was a biodrone. Not a somebody.”
“They used to be a person.”
“Used to be. Blame Big Hotel. I didn’t kill those poor bastards, I just finished what those assholes started.”
She nodded, and looked down at her boots. “I guess I just don’t like seeing you as a killer.”
He snorted and glanced at Coombes. The wounded man had fallen asleep, but nothing about that seemed to be cause for alarm. “Yeah, well. That’s what I am.”
It took a second for it to sink in that she’d probably stung him with that, without meaning to. “…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-”
“…I’ll let you think.”
“Nah, I can never just sit and think. My brain doesn’t work that way.” He sighed. “There’s just some things you and I are never gonna be able to talk about, okay?”
“Okay.” she agreed, and changed topic. “How’re Dad and Jess?”
“They’re good. They miss you.”
“I miss them too. What do they think of you and John being the ‘Beef Brothers’?”
He shrugged again, but this was his ‘I don’t know’ shrug rather than his dismissive shrug. “Not had the chance to go back and see them since that whole thing started. Been too busy looking after the Gaoians, and then this thing happened…”
“Jess probably finds it hilarious.”
He chuckled and nodded, and an awkward silence fell. For several minutes, Ava just sat and listened to the engines, trying to ignore that she could taste his stink every time she inhaled. Her mind went into freewheel mode, alighting briefly on any subject that flitted across her attention before moving on.
“…What’re you thinkin’ about?” Adam asked her, after a while.
“Too many things.”
“I hear ya.”
The same uncomfortable silence came back, and this time it stuck. The strangest part about being woken up when they landed was that Ava had never noticed falling asleep.
Date Point 10y4m1w5d AV
Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
The job foreman chuckled. “That’s management talk for ‘you’ve done good and there’s gonna be a bonus for ya’ is it?” He asked. “I don’t stay on top’a that trendy boardroom business jargon.”
Kevin chuckled. “Nope, sorry. That was just ordinary surprise… Hey, not to question your professionalism, but you sure you didn’t drop a zero off all the measurements here?”
“Nope. This is exactly according to the diagrams we were given.”
Kevin turned to the man beside him. “Ericson? I’ve seen spam cans bigger than this room.”
“It’s a small ship.” Ericson shrugged. “Trust me, people are just fine in smaller than this even, but we wanted to give them enough room to exercise.”
“They’re gonna have zero privacy.”
Ericson nodded, tapping on his tablet. “Yup.”
“They’ll have all the dignity they need.” Ericson retorted. “You’re too used to having a large space to yourself, Jenks. It’s a first-world luxury - families of eight live permanently in spaces smaller than this in some parts of the world.”
“Yeah, in poverty!”
“Trust us. We have a lot of psychological research behind this. For the right three people, living in this space won’t be a hardship, it’ll be paradise.”
“And for the wrong three people?” Kevin asked.
Ericson tucked his tablet under his arm. “The wrong three people won’t be on that ship.” He said.
Date Point 10y4m1w6d AV
Ramstein Air Base, Landstuhl, Germany, Earth.
It took two and a half days before the situation was properly in hand, but those two and a half days came with their own set of complications. There was political fallout with the Egyptian authorities who objected in strong terms as more and more Allied assets deployed to their sovereign territory, and even more indignation when the whole force withdrew quite abruptly after sixty hours.
Simon and Sean Harvey somehow got wind of it all and were a permanent feature at the perimeter cordon throughout, with Simon doing pieces to camera while Sean found every news site and feed that might want a badly-informed opinion piece. Mercifully, they didn’t stick their necks out and suggest SOR involvement, but the political fallout was becoming messy.
For Adam, the first six hours or so involved handing over his patient to the military hospital, then the laborious process of removing the suit himself without his techs to help him. While the EV-MASS could, when plugged into an external power supply, refrigerate its own water and be removed by its operator if necessary, it was a difficult and laborious process that was no substitute for the efficient business as practiced by the SOR proper.
As for the filthy outersuit… well, Ava was right, it was genuinely foul. Doyle and Hargreaves might well end up destroying it and procuring a replacement..
After that came debriefing, a long-overdue shower, a recuperation meal to make up for all the lost energy he’d burned during the brief operation, some light PT and he was finally able to find a corner to sleep in sometime around about 4am local time. From there it was a full day of more debriefings and performing the necessary suit maintenance as best he could without Hargreaves and Doyle.
He unexpectedly encountered Ava in the mess on the morning of the second day, picking listlessly at a plate of hash browns and bacon under the watchful eye of an MP.
“They not shipped you home yet?” He asked, sitting down.
“I’m still waiting for Agent Darcy to get here.” She replied. She looked like she hadn’t slept hardly at all since the Osprey flight. “After I’ve spoken to her… I dunno. Back to London I guess.”
“…You gonna eat those?”
She pushed the plate across the table for him, and watched him eat.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to your appetite.” She said, as he polished off her whole breakfast in a handful of efficient mouthfuls.
He set his knife and fork down. “Get used to it?”
“It’s just kinda difficult to connect the dorky guy I used to live with to… well, to Warhorse.”
“Change happens.” He observed, tugging his own overburdened plate over and starting on the foothills of mount breakfast.
She didn’t reply for a while, and he was well into his scrambled eggs when she did. “Uh… hey. Thank you.”
“For what?” He asked.
“You’re here and sitting with me, talking with me. I kinda figured you’d want nothing to do with…”
“You’re family.” Adam interrupted her.
“Well of course you fuckin’ are!” He told her. “We both call the same man ’Dad’ don’t we?”
Ava listened with a cagey, hopeful expression so he sighed and explained.
“You remember what my mom was like. The whole thing with her and DCFS?” He said.
“My mom was an alcoholic bitch who made my life hell.” Adam said, putting it bluntly. “But I still loved her ‘cause she was my mom. And it still hurt when she died. You can still love your family even after they’ve hurt you.”
“Even if they’re not who you thought they were.” She said.
She watched him polish off his food.
“Hey, uh… you did good on EMPTY BELL.” he said, once it was done. “I don’t know what you talked about with Six there, but saving Coombes like that-”
“How is he, anyway?”
“Should be recovering by now, thanks to you. Lung injury like that, if you hadn’t held it together and treated him, he’d have been dead in minutes.”
She shook her head. “He talked me through it.”
“But you kept your head and listened and did it right.” Adam told her. “I’m proud of you for that. And for going into that hole to save the kid, that was brave. I know you impressed Firth.”
She accepted the praise awkwardly, twisting her fingers together in front of her. He stacked their plates and stood up to clear them away.
“Just so we’re clear-” he said, “There’s no goin’ back. You and I are never gonna be-”
“I know.” It was her turn to interrupt, holding up a hand. “”I know. Don’t worry, I accept that. But you’re the only family I have, Adam.”
He nodded. “Come back and have dinner sometime.”
“…I’ll do that.”
“Take care of yourself. And, punch Sean in the dick for me.”
She snort-laughed. “With pleasure.”
“He keeps being…” She trailed off, grimaced and shook her head. “Actually, never mind. But yeah, I wanna punch him in the dick sometimes. And… thanks.”
He chuckled with her, nodded, and headed out. ”Nos vemos.”
She smiled. “You too.”
They parted ways again, but this time, Adam was left feeling buoyed by their conversation.
Maybe things had turned a corner.
Date Point 10y4m1w6d AV
Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada, Earth.
Colonel Ted Bartlett
“Colonel? General Tremblay’s here, sir.”
Ted glanced up. The general was waiting patiently behind the cordon set up around the salvaged alien ship. Getting it back from Egypt had involved the simple expedient of using a field jump array to bring it and the meter of desert bedrock beneath it directly into one of SCERF’s sealed hangars. Ted beckoned that he was fine to approach.
“It’s been made safe, sir.” He explained, as Tremblay stepped over the line and came closer.
“How intact is it?”
“Surprisingly so.” Ted conceded. “Its internal forcefields contained a lot of the damage. Not enough to keep it airborne thank God, but.. Well, you can see. Where it’s not completely destroyed, it’s perfectly intact.”
“You’re certain that it’s safe? The team in Egypt reported that it was biodroning people by removing their brains and injecting the implants directly into them. And that gun was still trying to shoot the salvage crew when they secured it.”
“We’ve made it safe.” Ted promised. “Wasn’t difficult, we just cut the power.”
“Right. You know your business.” Tremblay nodded.
“Sir, I’ll take you double-checking me at every turn over a complete lobotomy every day.” Ted chuckled.
“So.” Tremblay looked around. “We have a mostly intact Hierarchy spaceship.”
“Better than that. We have the nerve center for their whole Terran operation.” Ted enthused. “General, this thing was the linchpin, it was the relay station for their local communications. without it they’re crippled - if there are any biodrones left after that battle, they’re isolated on Earth and out of touch with the agents controlling them.”
“Unless they have a second one.” Tremblay observed.
“We’ll know that soon enough.” Ted promised. “This thing’s computer is right in the most reinforced part of the structure, it’s perfectly undamaged.”
He paused to study a component that one of the scientists under him was carefully removing into a padded metal case, nodded, made a note on his tablet, and sent them on their way. “And if they don’t have a second one… I think it’s fair to say the battle for Earth is over.”
“If only.” Tremblay muttered. “But we’ll be much more secure at least.”
“General, they didn’t have a jump beacon in here and if this was their only ship…”
Tremblay nodded, but held up a hand. “Unless you can pull a complete list of every biodrone they ever made out of this thing, and until we’ve accounted for every single one, let’s not go talking about battles or wars being won. I’m happy to call this one a big step forward, but even one biodrone could finish us if it gets its hands on a jump beacon.”
“Then we’ll prioritise data recovery.” Bartlett nodded.
“And I’ll get out of your way. Thank-” Tremblay looked up as a C-17 came in low over the base on final approach. “…That’ll be the SOR back from Germany.”
“Time to give them the bad news about the Caledonia, sir?”
“Yes. But I want to be there when Major Jackson gives them that thing she dragged up here… Carry on, colonel.”
Ted grimaced, resettled his glasses and got to work on organising the next phase. They had a lot of UFO to disassemble
Date Point 10y4m1w6d AV
Ramstein Air Base, Landstuhl, Germany, Earth
This final chat with Ava was a much less formal affair than the ones that had come before. Ava was sitting on a couch in a small office that had been kindly loaned to Darcy for the occasion, still shadowed by her attendant MP, who gave Darcy a nod and stepped outside as she entered.
Ava herself looked upbeat and chipper compared to their last two conversations. Short on sleep, perhaps, but positive. She stood up eagerly to shake Darcy’s hand.
“You’ve been very patient.” Darcy thanked her. The situation in Egypt really had taken much longer to clean up than she would have liked - smuggling a wrecked UFO the size of a small house out of the country undetected had been a touch-and-go nightmare.
“No problem.” Ava replied. “It gave me a chance to, uh, rebuild a burned bridge, actually.”
“With sergeant Arés, I assume?” Darcy deduced.
Darcy sat down. “Well, there’s not much to this. I’ve already listened to the recording of your conversation with Six, and read your own account - which was commendably thorough, by the way.”
Ava shrugged. “I am a journalist.” She pointed out.
“I think as your career progresses you may find that other journalists don’t share your enthusiasm for conciseness.” Darcy suggested.
Ava laughed, but there was an edge to it. “And here I was fantasizing you’d come in here and offer me a job or something.”
“Would you like one?” Darcy asked.
To her credit, despite the desperate and forced joke, Ava treated the question warily and with a level head. “Is that an offer, or, like, hypothetical?”
“Hypothetical. For now.” Darcy said.
Ava nodded. “I, uh… This felt good. I mean, I feel bad about Vinther and Pavlopoulos, but, uh… I mean being involved, making a difference. It’s what I’ve been trying to do for a long time, and, uh…” she trailed off, then did a rather poor effort of rallying. “Yeah.”
Darcy nodded. She’d expected this, and had spent a good long while thinking about how to phrase her answer.
She led with the gentle opener. “I’d be… guilty of a terrible waste of potential if I turned you down outright.” She said. Ava wasn’t stupid - she saw the incoming ’however’ and braced for it. “However the fact is that hiring you this way would be deeply irregular even if there weren’t… concerns.”
Ava settled back and listened. She must be disappointed, Darcy knew, but again to her credit there was no hint of bitterness involved - she just listened.
“Now. Stranger things have happened in the Company’s history.” Darcy told her. “But I think right now, there’s a too-recent black mark on you. Your… romantic indiscretion.”
Ava’s gaze dropped until she was looking right at her toes. “Right.”
“I’m sorry. I really am. There are… good reasons why an incident like that would count against you.” Darcy explained. “We can point to all kinds of scientific, psychological studies proving that persons who break fidelity with their partners are more prone to risk-taking behaviour, and are therefore… it’s not possible to entrust them with too much responsibility. You were only cleared for this because the stakes are so high, and I want to make it clear - you will be watched for the rest of your life for being involved in it.”
Ava nodded. She didn’t look up.
“However.” Darcy launched into the good news. “Like I said, I see real potential in you. You have a sharp mind, a cool head, courage, spirit… I’m happy to endorse you. It won’t count for much right now, but with time and effort…”
“What kind of effort?” Ava asked. She looked up and met Darcy’s eye. “What do I need to do?”
Darcy frowned searchingly at her, trying to figure out the younger woman’s motives, and figuring out what she needed to say.
“If you’re after a quick fix?” She asked, and sensed by the subtlest change in Ava’s posture that she’d been on the money, “There isn’t one. When it comes to reputation and trust… well, they can be lost in an instant, and take years to recover. But they can be recovered.”
Ava swallowed. “How?”
“You’re a talented photographer. You’ve demonstrated a good nose for a mystery, for putting things together. You’re already standing on a solid foundation of journalism and, frankly, I think that bringing in people from that background might be in our best interests. It’s always good to get different perspectives on things.”
Ava found that amusing. “I think the reporter’s ethos and the spy’s ethos are at odds.” She pointed out. “Journalists are supposed to expose the truth.”
“So are intelligence agencies. The only difference is who we expose the truth to.” Darcy pointed out.
Ava didn’t argue. Instead, she touched her thumb briefly and thoughtfully to her nose. “How does building a career in photojournalism help me… prove myself?” She asked.
“In a few ways. The first is time - you’re now known to have a wealth of classified information in your head, and I’m not just talking about DEEP RELIC. The details of Operation EMPTY BELL, and some of the realities of the SOR. So long as you don’t leak it-”
Ava interrupted her. “I don’t see how doing the smart thing and staying off death row proves I’m trustworthy.” She objected.
Darcy laughed at that. “You would be surprised.” She assured her. “Just having a secret and holding it really does count, over time. But, more importantly-”
She cleared her throat and considered her phrasing. “I don’t want to say you ‘stumbled’ into the Egypt situation. You didn’t, you followed the hints, the leads and the evidence and knew what to look out for. And, if you should, ah, ‘stumble into’ any other situations where you think we might want to know, or where you think you may have found something we haven’t… Situations where you learn something that could save lives in the right hands…”
Ava nodded. “Earn credit as… kind of an informant.” She mused.
“We’re not omniscient.” Darcy said. “And if you’re serious about wanting to erase that stain on your reputation and come work with us, there’s your road. It won’t be a short one, or an easy one….”
“-But it’s a goal.” Ava nodded. “…Thank you. Really. Just knowing I’ve got something I can aim for and work toward helps.”
“Thank you.” Darcy replied. She stood and shook Ava’s hand. “There’s every possibility this is the last time we ever meet, so in case it is - best of luck. I have every confidence that you’ll succeed, but a little luck can’t hurt.”
Ava smiled and nodded. “I hope it’s not.” She said. “But… good luck to you too.”
Darcy handed her a set of printouts - plane tickets - and some cash in both Euros and Pounds. “This should get you home.” She explained. “Goodbye, Miss Rìos.”
Darcy let herself out. She turned to the MP as she did so. “The young lady’s free to return home.” She said.
Darcy checked her organiser and allowed herself a small grimace. There was still far too many things to address before she could close the book on Egypt.
Not least was the worrying nature of a small object that had been found in Six’s desk drawer.
Date Point 10y4m1w6d AV
Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada, Earth.
General Tremblay was waiting at the bottom of the ramp as the SOR alighted and the C-17’s crew set about unloading the pallets with their gear and suits for transport to the Cimbrean jump array.
He shook hands with them all as they disembarked, offering congratulations and praise. “Excellent work all round.” He said. “It’s starting to look like EMPTY BELL may just have completely neutralised the Hierarchy’s presence on Earth. If it has, that’s an even bigger victory than Capitol Station.”
The lads nodded and grinned.
“Sergeant Firth.” The general continued, addressing Firth directly and in quieter tones, but nobody had any trouble hearing. “I understand this would have been a disaster without your personal courage. Not a lot of guys get to claim to have personally saved the world, eh?”
“Careful sir.” Firth warned, clearly buoyed and embarrassed in equal measure by the praise. “I’ve got a big enough ego already.”
Tremblay chuckled. “Still. Thank you, and well done. Now don’t let me keep you - Major Powell, a word please?”
Powell watched the lads follow their equipment across the concrete with a real sense of pride. The moment they were out of earshot, he turned attentively to the general. “Sir?”
“Mixed news regarding Operation HOLLOW BIRD.” Tremblay said, referring to the operation in the Perfection system that had taken the attention of Blaczynski, Vandenberg Akiyama and Sikes. Powell’s contented expression dropped immediately. “Your men are almost certainly fine.” Tremblay assured him immediately. “But HMS Caledonia failed to make the rendezvous. Details are still sketchy, but from what I understand there was a fire on board, a bad one.”
“How bad?” Powell asked.
“Bad enough. Perfection’s a long way from here though and communications are limited. My understanding is that Commodore Caruthers and six of the V-Class destroyers are on station helping her, but there’s trouble with the locals.”
“If the lads weren’t caught up in it, they’ll be flying the captured ship back to Cimbrean.” Powell recalled.
“And as far as we can tell, that’s what they’re doing.” Tremblay said. “But at that distance and at the estimated speed of the ship they’ve commandeered, their voyage time is about a week.”
“In the suit? Ooh.” Powell grimaced. “Between that and recuperation after this mission, the SOR isn’t going to be mission ready for… at least a month.”
“Admiral Knight suggests two.” Tremblay said. “Apparently he’s finally found an exo-atmospheric dropship that he thinks may suit your unit’s needs, and you have men coming up the Highway who’ll need integrating.”
“Considering the success of this mission and the apparent solidity of our strategic footing, I don’t think I’m too concerned, therefore.” Tremblay said. “As for Caledonia, well, by the time I have solid details, you’ll probably have them too. We’ll see how we go from there.”
Tremblay nodded. “Right. Last thing. Apparently Major Jackson decided to use some of her precious leave time and she’s here with a personal gift for you, and I think-” he raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun as he peered towards jump array building, “That your men already know what it is.”
“A gift?” Powell turned to try and get a look. He could just make out Rylee in the distance, surrounded by Operators. Whatever her gift was, the lads were clearly excited by it.
“One I think you’ll enjoy. Go on, Powell, enjoy yourself. ‘Bye for now.”
“‘Bye for now, sir.”
Frowning to himself, Powell jogged across the concrete towards the knot of his men. As he came up behind them, a kind of high-pitched noise made itself known, one on the very upper limits of hearing with a particular cadence that he hadn’t heard in a very long time.
“…Is that a fookin’..?”
Burgess and Murray stood aside for him, and Jackson gave him a huge smile and a cheery wave. Sitting behind her on a leash and panting nervously was the largest dog Powell had ever seen.
“Hey Powell.” She welcomed him.
“A dog?!” He stepped forward. The dog licked its jowls nervously and whined again, tail thumping anxiously on the concrete.
“I think all these big strong guys smell kinda scary.” Rylee suggested. “He’s not like this with me.”
“Where did you get him?” Powell asked, taking a cautious half-step forward and going down on one knee. “Christ, yer a big fooker, aren’t ya?”
This was an understatement. The dog was rather larger than Rylee, and almost as large as Powell himself. Guessing at the breed was almost impossible - he seemed to be a mutt, combining all the important features of a mastiff, a Staffordshire terrier, several breeds of “big, scary dog,” an Irish Wolfhound, a Great Dane and an M1A2 Abrams. His paws were as big as saucepan lids and he looked strong enough to pull a wagon.
“Picked him up at the no-kill shelter back home.” Rylee explained. “Apparently they rescued him from a gangbanger who wanted the biggest, scariest dog ever.”
Powell extended a hand for the dog to sniff. It did so, tail waving uncertainly. “That’s right mate: Friend.” He said. “No stupid fookin’ gangbangers here.”
The dog licked his hand, Powell scratched his ears, and just like that he’d made a friend for life.
The dog didn’t so much bark as produce a huge booming ‘WURF!’. He play-bowed extravagantly, spun in a circle that nearly tied Rylee up and knocked her down, ‘WURF’ed again and tried to coat Powell’s face in an even layer of saliva.
“Arright! Christ! Fookin’- Aagh!” Powell playfully wrestled the dog off him. “Arright yer big bozo, arright!”
“What’s his name?” He asked.
“I think you just named him.” Rylee grinned. “Bozo. Fits him perfectly.”
Powell grinned at the dog, whose tail was threatening to become sprained from the force of all that wagging. “Yeah? Is that you? Isyourname Bozo? Izzit?”
“Aaaawhosabozo? Whosafookinfuzzawaaahahaha…” Powell was in the middle of enthusiastically massaging the newly christened Bozo’s ears when he became aware of a wheezing noise behind him - Murray had doubled up from trying not to laugh.
The rest of the lads hadn’t even bothered trying. They were just standing there with enormous grins, watching their respected CO clown around with a dog.
He cleared his throat, stood up and tried to wrench some of his dignity back into place, well aware that he was just plugging a hole in the boat that would now never quite go away.
Rylee, for her part, managed to give him the best smug smirk he’d ever seen. “I’m guessing you like him.” She drawled.
Powell cleared his throat again. “I, um. Hmm.” He harrumphed. “The, er, the regiment could do with a mascot, after all.”
She handed him the leash. Bozo seemed quite content with the arrangement.
“All the paperwork and stuff is in here.” She added, handing him a bag. “He’s vaccinated, clean, he’s got a tracking implant and I persuaded the base veterinarian to give him a Frontline too. He should sail through Cimbrean customs, no problem.”
Powell nodded, and handed the leash to Arés. “Hope I can trust you lads to train him right.” He said.
“We’ll arrange Schutzhund and all the rest, sir.” Firth grinned. Bozo licked at his hand and relaxed as the four of them took turns scratching his scalp, clearly deciding that he was among friends.
“Arright. Go on, prep him for jump. I’ll be along in a few minutes.”
The four of them swapped grins and jogged off with Bozo happily bounding along in tow.
“Alright. How did you know?” He asked, turning to Rylee.
“You kidding? Like you would ever be a cat person.” She replied.
“Got me bang to rights there.” Powell conceded. “Still-”
“I saw him and thought of you.” She chuckled. “Take that however you want.”
“As a bloody compliment, which is how I reckon you meant it.”
“So, uh… what are you doing now?”
“Well, I’ve got four leave days left over and a little bird told me you and the ‘lads’ aren’t gonna be doing much for a little while… I was thinking I might take a few vacation days on Cimbrean. See Pinkwood in its natural habitat before it’s extinct, take in the night life, have a spa day at Lake Scrapyard… You should join me, work off some of that post-mission energy.”
“Me in a spa?”
“Oh yeah. They’ve got this deep-massage and sauna treatment they got from Germany. Apparently in the low gravity it feels divine.”
”Me. In a spa.” Powell repeated.
“I got you a dog, the least you can do is put up with the hardship of a massage and hot baths.” She rolled her eyes, then dropped her voice conspiratorially. “In a private session. Just you and me. And they don’t let you wear clothes.”
“…Actually, you know what, that does sound good.”
“Knew you’d see it my way.” She beamed, and sauntered off toward the Array building.
Powell followed, musing on success and the days to come.
He’d earned some relaxation time, he decided.
Date Point 10y4m1w6d AV
Cabal dataspace, Relay 4772-61-76657-961-7264
“Hello Ash. Or, should I call you Ava?”
+<Alarm;Confusion> What? What’s going on? What the fuck where am I?+
”Ava Rìos is safely at home on Earth having survived a rather fierce battle that you won’t remember”
+<Denial;Horror;Hysteria> Wake up Ava wake up this is just a dream just a bad dream wake up wake up wake up+
”You are… well, a copy. A scan, to be precise, of every neuron in her head, every spark of electrical activity, every chemical and every ganglion, converted into the same digital format as an Igraen. You may have noticed the scan as a mild headache.”
+<Fright;Disbelief> A copy? What do you want with me?+
“Only to apologise. You are after all every bit as sapient as Ava herself is, and every bit as sapient as I am. I just want you to know… I’m sorry.”
+<Mounting fear;Trepidation> What are you going to do?+
“You kept secrets from me, Ava. You withheld information. Fortunately, that doesn’t matter, because now that you and I are alone here… I can take everything I want. I’m afraid the process won’t be pleasant and - really, I am very sorry about this - you will not survive it.”
+<Panic;Terror;Pleading> No! Please no I don’t want to die no please I’ll tell you everything please don’t kill me no no no+
“Pleading will not help you, Ava. You are the twentieth copy I have dismantled thus far, and every time I do I learn something new.”
+God no please I’m begging you don’t do this please-+
+No no please God help me no no nnn@@@!!!!#&%♫↕♦♦♦♦♦-…+