Chapter 28: Misfits
Date Point 10y4m2w2d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches.
“Ow, ow ow, OW!”
“There ya go.” Arés released the firm pressure he’d been applying, and Martina sucked in her breath. “You okay?” He asked.
“I was right, this is fucking weird!” Martina declared over her shoulder, before adding “…And painful!” almost as an afterthought.
“Do I gotta remind you again that your job involves measuring dicks?”
“Ugh, you keep bringing that up.” She grumbled. “Yes, that’s weird too! I’ve just gotten used to it, okay?”
“Well, get used to this. Come on, I let you keep your underwear on didn’t I? Believe me, this’d go easier without.”
Martina huffed, and put her head down on her folded arms. There had been a lot of midnight fantasies since she’d first met him that involved Arés. Therapeutic massage was proving to be a painfully effective antidote to all of them, which just wasn’t fair.
She gritted her teeth as he repeated that same press-and-stretch maneuver on another deep knot of tense and damaged gluteal tissue. The deep muscular pain gave way to an intense surface stinging as he stretched the heat-tightened skin as well, working on the patch that was threatening to scar.
“Agh, aagh, aaagh… fuck!”
He cleared his throat. “Sorry… Seriously though, this ain’t all down to your injury. Your fasciae are fucked. Do you even know how to stretch properly when you exercise?”
“Oh God, you’re gonna show me, aren’t you?”
“Fitness and nutrition is my job, remember.” Arés reminded her. He started massaging her obliques. “If I was using the suit wrong, you’d correct me, right?”
“Right, right…” for whatever reason, the pressure and stretching of her obliques was easier to handle. Then again, she probably hadn’t spent most of the last week with them permanently tensed, unlike most of the other muscles in her back. “I’m using my body wrong, huh?”
“Lemme guess. You start off with your jog first and think, like, ’yeah, this’ll warm me up fine’ am I right?”
He was completely right. “…yeah.”
“Wrong. You’ve gotta stretch out.” He shifted to her lats, which drew an immediate involuntary noise of complaint out of her. “Damn, were you just tensed up the whole time?!”
“I was in a lot of pain, okay?!” Martina defended herself. He pushed the breath out of her by applying some unrelentingly firm pressure. When he stopped, she hissed her breath back in through her teeth. “…ow.”
“You’re doin’ great.” He reassured her.
“Gotta… represent for the tech team.”
“Doin’ good so far.” He repeated. “Last time I gave this to one of the Lads, he was fuckin’ crying, the big baby.”
To everyone and in honour of major Powell’s term for them, the SOR Operators were universally known as “The Lads”, even among themselves. It sounded a bit strange in any kind of an American accent, but it was just part of the SOR culture nowadays.
“Forget it. Bro-code says no, and so does medical confidentiality.”
“Dammit.” She sighed, grimacing as he smoothed out another deep imperfection in her musculature. “So is this bro-code written down anywhere, or…?”
“Sure. In a book of steel, twenty feet tall, hidden in a mountain temple. To even read it you gotta pass the twelve trials of manliness.”
Amused, Martina rolled her eyes. “Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and - OW!”
“-and blaming it on you, that kinda thing?”
“I was thinking more like… y’know, punching bears, cutting down trees, stuff like that. Was that a quote?”
Martina found her laugh. With all his technical talk of fasciae and his obvious aptitude and intelligence for sports medicine, it was sometimes easy to forget that Arés was in other ways quite uneducated. “Rudyard Kipling. You really don’t know it?”
“My dad said it’s–” She had to stop, as he did something agonizing to her shoulder. “…aaaaargh! FUCK!! What was that?!”
“Your intraspinatus muscle. What’d your dad say?”
“Right, uh… ow…he said, uh, he said Kipling’s popular among combat arms. I figured you’d know it.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“It’s more of an Army thing, I guess. Daddy was a Ranger.” She sighed and rode the next discomfort with little more than squeezing her eyes shut for a second. “I don’t know HOW he’s gonna react when I write him and say ’Guess what daddy? I got my butt scorched in space!’…”
“And your back.”
“Dude, the - oof! - the booty’s more important.”
“No argument here…”
She laughed, and he pushed through his final ministrations to her left shoulder.
“Okay,” he declared “That’s it for this session. Next one should be easier.”
He handed her a bathrobe and turned around as she stood up. She shimmied on the spot, feeling oddly limber and loose, and noted that her healing burn hurt noticeably less from the motion, too. It wasn’t perfect - she was still feeling sore and bruised from the firm therapy, and frankly exhausted to go with it, as if she’d just gone a round in the boxing ring - but she felt hugely improved.
Arés beamed his patented goofy smile and bounced slightly in place. She’d always liked that about him, that despite everything that had happened to him and despite his sheer physicality and all the testosterone that must come with it, he was the guy on the team who smiled the most often and who came with the most inexhaustible store of puppyish energy.
“Okay, so what’s next, Doctor Arés?”
“Warm bath, plenty of fluids, and protein.” He replied promptly. “And you limber up properly last thing before going to bed and first thing in the morning.”
“Will do. Are we doing this again tomorrow? Only, I have to go stand in front of the old man tomorrow.”
“Aww, man, really? You don’t deserve that.”
She laughed. “Relax. I gave Davison my Crue knowing I was gonna get in trouble for it. I’ll take my lumps, whatever they are.”
“I hope he goes easy on you…”
“Arés, Major Powell’s the best commander I ever had. Whatever he decides I deserve, that’s what I deserve. Don’t worry so much.”
Date Point 10y4m2w2d AV
War Platform Lifebringer, Perfection System, The Core Worlds
Grand Fleetmaster Tk’vrrtnnk A’Khvnrrtk
The first thing that struck Tk’v about the human fleet’s deployment was its precision and expertise. Their fleetmaster clearly had an outstanding grasp of operations and tactics, was well-versed in three-dimensional thinking, and had a cadre of shipmasters reporting to him each of whom seemed to have similar insight and competence.
Considering how small the human fleet was, it was doing an admirable job of providing near-perfect orbital coverage, especially over the major population centers. Knowing what he did of human space combat doctrine, thanks to the records from Capitol Station, Garden and the recent skirmish in this very system, he was prepared to call it masterful.
Which was why he was determined that this was going to be a cordial and nonviolent encounter. The presumably-late former fleetmaster Xkk’ of Perfection’s system defence fleet had found himself pushed into a prestigious career dead end precisely because of his fatal tendency to focus on the problem directly in front of him and, frankly, because of his bigotry.
Tk’v prided himself on having avoided those pitfalls.
“Slow the fleet to one-quarter lightspeed and hail the humans.” he ordered. The fleet responded like the well-oiled, battle-hardened machine it was. Years of sporadic clashes along the Celzi borders had kept them tough and lean, and full of only the best officers and crew. None of the bickering political dolts who got sidelined into system defence, this was a Dominion wargroup, the very best. His orders were obeyed smoothly and precisely.
“Channel open, fleetmaster.”
Tk’v nodded to the comms officer, and spoke aloud. “This is Grand Fleetmaster Tk’vrrtnnk A’Khvnrrtk aboard the war platform Lifebringer. Our fleet wishes to approach peacefully.”
The reply was a handful of Ri’ in coming. When it did, and he laid eyes on his human opposite number, he was struck by the impression both of age and weariness that the deathworlder was giving off. Tk’v had educated himself extensively on their species, and was quite sure that the human was either unwell, or exhausted.
Most likely the latter, if this was the same ’Caruthers’ who had so badly confounded Xkk’. And he could hardly blame the deathworlder for physical and emotional fatigue. The man must be feeling a weight of responsibility for what the Hunters had done to Perfection.
“Fleetmaster William Caruthers aboard the destroyer Violent.” he replied, confirming Tk’v’s suspicions. A few of the *Lifebringer*’s officers exchanged nervous looks, and Tk’v could hardly blame them. ‘Destroyer’? ‘Violent’? Neither the classification nor name were calculated to inspire confidence in the peacefulness of deathworlders.
“Bellicose names, fleetmaster.” Tk’v observed. “I hope they are not a statement of intent.”
”Only toward our enemies, fleetmaster.” Caruthers replied. “I very much hope we don’t count you among them…?”
“You do not.” Tk’v assured him. “As Grand Fleetmaster of the Dominion Fifth Grand Fleet, I thank you for your defence of this our planet in its time of need, and my fleet stands ready to relieve yours of your vigil. Will you withdraw?”
”We shall.” Caruthers replied. Though he did not know the words and etiquette, his politeness and formality were obvious. He turned to somebody out of his camera’s field of view and nodded. The humans must already have planned for this eventuality, because their fleet smoothly climbed to high orbit and warped as one to the orbit of Perfection’s smallest moon. Tk’v wondered whether his own veteran commanders could have executed the maneuver so professionally.
Considering how short a time humans had been a spacefaring species, their competence was faintly disquieting. He could see why Xkk’ had panicked.
“Transports to enter low orbit and begin the aid drops.” he ordered. “Military vessels to take higher orbit and provide coverage.”
He admitted an expression of satisfaction to himself as his ships matched the humans for precision and finesse. He was determined to be peaceful and constructive, but there was no reason to show the Dominion at anything less than its best. Indeed, the Dominion’s best was exactly what these deathworlders needed to see right now.
He transferred the channel to his desk at the back of the command deck, so as to continue the conversation with a little more privacy and discretion.
“As one fleetmaster to another,” he said, once settled, “I would appreciate hearing your version of events, rather than relying purely on the sensor data. I’m given to understand that the system defence fleet was neutralized by you.”
Contextual information on the screen attempted to analyze Caruthers’ expressions and body language as he composed his reply. They settled on a decision that the human was emoting awkwardness and no small degree of remorse. “…I won’t deny as a matter of historical fact that their sensors were disabled at my order.” he ventured.
“Was that necessary?” Tk’v asked.
”I deemed it so at the time.”
Caruthers glanced outside his camera’s FOV again. Tk’v could only guess what he was looking at. After a few long Ri’, the human spoke again, choosing his words with care.
”I… feel a great sadness and sympathy that this attack has happened, fleetmaster,” he said at last. “But I can’t and won’t accept responsibility for it. In the circumstances I think our decisions and actions were warranted, proportionate and reasonable.”
Tk’v examined the preliminary estimates flowing in from the aid and rescue ships. “The early estimates suggest that the Hunters may have killed more than a million people, fleetmaster.” he pointed out. “And abducted who-knows-how-many.”
”I’m aware.” Caruthers replied. On Tk’v’s screen, the contextual information tentatively hazarded a cocktail of sorrow and determination, though the probabilities were low. Humans had such expressive faces that the software’s second best guess was a blend of anger and remorse. The differences, it seemed, were measured in millimeter variations in the precise tension of dozens of different muscles.
“They were able to do so because, on your orders, the system defence fleet was crippled and defenceless.” Tk’v continued.
“To protect a single ship.”
“And you believe that this was ‘warranted, proportionate and reasonable’, fleetmaster?”
Caruthers sat back in his seat. The translator gave up on trying to read his expression. “In the circumstances,” he stressed, ”with the knowledge available to me at the time I made the decision - yes.”
“This event is going to harm your species, you know.” Tk’v pointed out.
”Thank you for the warning, Fleetmaster,” Caruthers replied. “But - from one commander to another, as equals who should be allies against our mutual enemies - I must ask what you would do if your species was threatened with extinction. What price would you be willing to pay?”
Tk’v did not reply. Instead, he ran a hand thoughtfully down the length of his nose, and nodded. “…If you are willing to lend your help a while longer,” he suggested, “we could use an out-system patrol. Your ships have the speed and stealth to perform admirably in that role.”
”Communicate your orders, and I will see them done to the best of our ability.” Caruthers promised.
Tk’v outlined in brief what role the humans would be performing - to loiter silently in the system’s outer icy object halo and serve as a front line of warning should the Hunters return, and to alert the fleet of incoming merchant vessels.
Caruthers listened earnestly and alertly, only speaking to first clarify, and then confirm what he was being asked to do. “We’ll see to it,” he declared once briefed.
“Thank you.” Tk’v sketched a gesture of respect and gratitude. “And… I extend an open invitation for you to inspect my ship, once the situation is controlled.”
Caruthers betrayed only a moment of calculation. “Thank you. I gratefully accept.”
“Carry out your orders.”
“Aye aye, fleetmaster.”
The human ships were already aligned and maneuvering. Tk’v had barely closed the line to Violent before they went to warp, displaying an alarming acceleration profile. Tk’v’s fastest scout ships could only barely have matched them, and he very much doubted that Caruthers had shown their full capability.
He turned his attention away from them for now, and toward the surface of Perfection. There was a lot to do.
Date Point 10y4m2w3d AV
**HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Major Owen Powell
“Send her in.”
Considering she was probably still enduring some lingering tenderness from both her injuries and Warhorse’s thorough rehabilitative ministrations, Kovač wasn’t showing an iota of it. She entered Powell’s office with parade-ground perfection, not a hair out of place, not a ribbon misaligned. Her left-face, attention and salute were all razor-sharp.
“Sir, Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač reports as ordered.”
Dressings-down required Powell to look for any imperfection, however tiny. Kovač stood rock-still and expressionless as he circled slowly around her, looking for the slightest blemish and finding none. That was a relief - he knew in his heart that he’d have done the exact same thing in her situation, and would have hated to make this telling-off any more severe than it had to be, especially not over a triviality.
She held the salute as he circled her, and only snapped it back down after he had returned to his seat, returned it, and slowly lowered his own hand.
“Technical sergeant Kovač, do you know the purpose of this meeting?” He asked, lightly.
“Normally, Kovač,” he said, “I expect NCOs to be enforcers of the rules, rather than breakers of them.” She knew better than to respond to what had not been a question, so he didn’t draw the pause out for long. “I would be interested in hearing your explanation.”
“Davison might well have died, sir. I believe that explanation suffices.”
Kovač was experienced and intelligent. Rather than playing it cagey she was appealing to an age-old reality of war, which was that the rules sometimes had to bend, especially in the face of suffering. Truth be told she was right - the explanation did suffice.
Powell nodded. “Certainly from what I gather he was looking at permanent disfigurement and disability.” He said. “In light of which your actions are entirely understandable. I might even say commendable….” He paused, then delivered the inevitable “…However. I must find that they were not acceptable.”
“As NCO in charge of suit systems one of your principal duties is to ensure that all SOR personnel, yourself included, are mission ready at all times. The use of Crue-D is restricted to SOR not only for that reason, but also because our supply of it is so limited. We simply do not have enough to administer to every wounded man and woman in all the allied services who suffers a grievous injury. I know you understand this rationale. Much as I appreciate that it’s difficult to be cold when faced with suffering like that, the restriction exists for a reason. Do you understand?”
He picked up a folded piece of paper. “In light of the circumstances, I have written this Letter of Counseling,” He said, handing it over, “Which shall be maintained in your Regimental records until such time as I see fit to dispose of it. This is not a punishment but it is a stern warning and it is evidence, which you should not compound with further incidents. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir.” Kovač was good at not giving anything away, but Powell was looking for the very subtlest of tells, and decided that she was receiving exactly what she had known was coming and was prepared to accept.
She did so, diligently, and signed it after Powell had outlined the assorted legal necessities.
“Very well.” Powell stood, rounded the desk and leaned against it. “Just a parting comment, and this is more… informal.” He added. Kovač didn’t break posture. “The ideals of the SOR are Humility, Service and Selflessness.” He reminded her, not that he needed to. Everyone in the Regiment knew the ideals. “Calculated gambles with your career for what you think is a good and justified cause, well… If, Heaven forfend, you should ever find yourself needing to make a similar choice in future, I want you to remember that the regiment needs you, Kovač. We have a lot of talented people here, and they need both your expertise… and the example you set.”
Her composure finally showed a minor flaw - she blinked. “…Yes sir.”
Powell made a satisfied ’hmm’ and returned to his chair.
“Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač, you are dismissed.”
Warhorse was loitering a respectful but nearby distance from the major’s office. She’d protested that he needn’t: he’d insisted.
“How’d it go?” he asked, following slightly behind her, given that the base’s narrow hallways and his own bulk prohibited side-by-side perambulations.
“I got exactly what was coming to me.” Martina told him, allowing herself a satisfied smile. Powell’s veiled compliment at the end there had done much to lift her spirits. It was good to know that the old man had disciplined her out of obligation - like everybody else in the unit she was slightly in awe of him, and knowing that he was as much on her side as he could be in the circumstances was a real boost.
“That’s… good?” Adam hazarded.
She smiled and nodded. “LoC.”
“That’s still a punishment…” Arés pointed out.
“You’ve never had one?”
“You will.” Martina predicted. “Everybody gets one sooner or later and, hell, that was nothing. Believe me, it could have been a lot worse…” She stopped and turned to him. “But y’know what? I saved a guy’s face, and maybe his life. Fucking. Worth it.”
“…Feels good, don’t it?” Adam agreed.
“Yup. Just need to heal up and I can call this one a win.”
“Oh, yeah. About that.” he said. “Got a decision for ya.”
“Okay, so we can keep on with the rehab like we have been, or we could go Crue-assisted.” He said. “It’ll go twice as quick, but it’ll hurt more.”
Martina sighed. She was getting kinda sick of pain. Which in fact meant that there was no sense in prolonging it.
“Do you know what body-slamming into red hot metal feels like?” She asked. He shook his head. “I do. I can handle the Crue regime.”
He grinned. “Attagirl.”
Date Point 10y4m2w3d AV
North Clearwater County, Minnesota , USA, Earth.
Allison had a musical laugh - it started deep inside her and bubbled up like water. It was a nice compliment to Julian’s filthy throaty chuckle. Perfect for drawing out of them with campfire stories after sunset.
“Oh my God, really?” You couldn’t smell it or anything?”
Xiù shrugged with a faintly embarrassed laugh. “I didn’t know what alcohol smells like! And uh… Yeah, Talamay is, well…. Actually it’s about as strong as this beer.” she waggled the bottle for emphasis. Beer had come as a surprise, considering that the only other alcoholic drinks she had to compare it to were red wine and Talamay. She hadn’t expected cold, fizzy and bitter to translate to something she enjoyed, but in fact once she got past that and found the wheaten and even fruity flavors lurking underneath she’d converted, much to Allison’s delight.
Julian was poking at the burning wood with a stick, assessing it for when they could put the meat over it. She could see his teeth twinkling in the firelight.
“How much did you have?” Allison asked.
“Uh…” Xiù put her head back and stared at the stars, thinking. It was nice to imagine that one of them was Gaoyn, even though she knew that particular sun was much too far away to be seen by the naked eye. “We got so used to how I drank more water and had a bigger appetite than the Mothers that… well, they were drinking shot glass sized measures, and I was having it in more like a highball glass.”
“And Gaoians really don’t get drunk?” Julian asked.
“No. They just like the taste.”
“How does that work?” Julian wondered. “It’s the same solvent and they’re not that biologically different to us…it’s got to get into their bloodstream, right?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.” Xiù shrugged. “All I know is, they don’t get drunk. They were all kinds of surprised when I started giggling and stumbling around and then fell asleep.”
Allison made a snrrk sound and aborted the swig she’d been about to take of her own beer.
“You’re a lotta fun when you’re drunk, though,” she noted.
“I’m fun when I’m sober too!” Xiù objected.
“And even more fun when you’re drunk!” Allison nodded. Her grin broadcast pure teasing.
Xiù shot her a mock-bitchy pout, which Allison returned and they spent a few seconds pulling increasingly silly faces at each other before Xiù pulled out a trick she hadn’t done since she was a little girl and touched the tip of her nose with her tongue while squinting.
Whatever the subconscious rules of their completely impromptu game were, she considered it a win when Allison’s splutter and laugh ruined her next attempt.
“Penalty! Finish your drink!” Xiù ordered her.
“Awww! …Yes ma’am.”
“Good girl.” Xiù loved that little back-and-forth. Out of solidarity, she finished her bottle along with Allison.
“More?” Julian offered. He reached to his right and knocked on the cooler full of ice water and beer bottles.
Allison shuffled up next to Xiù. “I think he’s trying to ply us with drink,” she observed.
“I think he is!” Xiù agreed. “…I say we let him.”
“Well alright! Ply away, Etsicitty.”
Xiù smiled to herself as he selected two fresh cold bottles from the cooler and accepted the ’good boy’ this earned him with a quiet smile. Apparently happy that they were ready to cook, he also grabbed the tupperware with its garlic and lemon chicken breasts and flipped them onto the metal grill where they hissed and steamed beautifully.
“…I’m going to miss this.” Xiù decided, looking around. Once upon a time, she would have thought that being in the woods after sundown surrounded by trees and animal noises would have been terrifying. Instead, the house and property that Julian had inherited from his grandfather felt cozy, in the little stain of firelight. “I love it here.”
“We’ve got another week before we have to leave, babe.” Allison told her.
“And you get to fly a spaceship.” Julian pointed out. “I love this place too, but come on, tell me you aren’t excited.”
“…A little bit.” Xiù admitted, taking refuge in massive understatement. She’d found time to call home and talk to her parents during the week, and had found it easier with some distance and with Julian and Allison there for support. Hearing the envy in her brother Wei’s voice had been delicious, which was so wrong of her, but still…
“Liar.” Allison accused fondly. “You can’t wait.”
“Okay, okay, sorry!” Xiù laughed. “You’re right.”
“What’s there left to do anyway?” Allison asked.
“Nothing.” Julian replied. “All the jobs are done. We’ve got a week to relax and be free.”
“So that’s why you suddenly decided to celebrate.” Allison snapped her fingers. “Shoulda guessed.”
“So, um… what are we going to do for that week?” Xiù asked. It was dawning on her that her life had been so driven by objectives over the last several years that suddenly having nothing to do was actually a daunting and alarming prospect.
“Uh…” Julian hesitated. “…Actually, I don’t know.”
They looked at Allison, whose expression was suddenly that of a woodland creature staring at the lights of a speeding truck. “Uh… we could…?”
They sat in mutual awkward cluelessness for about ten seconds before Julian finally laughed. “Seriously, do we-? Do none of us know how to just take a load off?”
“I… guess not.” Xiù said.
“Hey, we do!” Allison disagreed. “Movie nights?”
“Every day for a week?” Julian asked. “That much Disney might kill a man!”
“You like Disney!” Allison frowned at him.
“Ever heard of too much of a good thing?”
“Well okay mister,” Xiù challenged him, “Come up with an idea.”
Julian turned the chicken over, thoughtfully. “Actually… I always wanted to see Yosemite.”
“The national park?” Allison asked.
Julian laughed. “No, the cartoon cowboy,” he snarked. Allison rolled her eyes and flipped him the bird with a wry expression, so he leaned over and gave her a kiss. “How about it? Quick road trip, visit some places we’ve always kinda wanted to…?”
He looked at Xiù. “Whaddya think?”
Xiù blinked, desperately trying to think of somewhere she wanted to go. Her parents had always talked about visiting the “old country” despite both of them having been born in Canada, but she sensed that maybe places outside of North America weren’t an option.
She selected the first thing that came to mind. “Um… I don’t know. Vegas?”
“Okay. That’s not too far from Yosemite, either.” Julian nodded. “Al?”
Allison tugged her phone out of her pocket, and for the fiftieth time Xiù reminded herself to inquire just where the hell she found jeans with useful pockets. “Sec’.”
Julian and Xiù traded a confused frown as she Googled something.
“It’s Memorial Day this week, right? Which means…” Allison lowered her phone, grinning hugely. “…The Carnaval San Francisco is this weekend.”
“That sounds pretty easy. Fly to Vegas, day on the strip, rent a car and drive to Yosemite, then to San Fran, return the car there and fly to Omaha.”
“Can we afford that?” Xiù asked.
“Julian and I got paid by the abductee repatriation program for the work we did on Kirk’s ship.” Allison explained. “We can afford it.”
Julian turned the chicken over again. “Hell, if all this legal shit wasn’t threatening the house, we wouldn’t need to take the Byron contract. I mean, I’d still want to-” he added, before Allison could say anything, “but we wouldn’t need to.”
Xiù looked back at the house. “So we fixed it up and now we’re just… going away?”
“We can enjoy the fruits of our labors for a day or two.” Allison assured her. “But I like this road trip idea! We were gone for so long and we’ll be leaving again, I think we should at least try to, uh…”
“Reconnect.” Julian suggested.
“Yeah!” Allison nodded.
Xiù’s own attempts at reconnecting had been disastrous. Her old friends had all shown up with an assortment of hugs, chocolates, cards and a beautiful red leather phone case decorated with a hand-painted golden heron from her best school friend.
She’d promptly not heard from any of them again after that. Xiù Chang, living ghost - remembered fondly, but everyone had already mourned her and moved on. Having her pop up alive again, ten years later and five years too young thanks to the effects of stasis… It had been too awkward for everybody involved.
She decided not to mention her doubts that any of them could really connect any longer. Allison was far too headstrong to be gracefully talked out of something she was enthusiastic for, and in his own quiet way Julian was even more tenacious still.
Besides… Xiù was self-aware enough to know that she was a natural introvert, and she was feeling the familiar inertia of all introverts being pulled on by a more extroverted personality like Allison. It was counterbalanced by the knowledge that Al was entirely correct, and that she would enjoy herself, if only she allowed herself to be led.
“Fine, fine!” She smiled. “Let’s do it.”
Julian turned the chicken over, then clicked his tongue irritably. “Forgot the plates.”
“I’ll get them.” Allison sprang to her feet and headed back indoors.
“It’s ready?” Xiù asked. She crawled forward to get a closer look “That was fast.”
“Not yet.” Julian said. “It’s uh… gonna need a while longer yet…”
“Smells delicious.” Xiù turned toward him and suddenly became aware of just how close they’d unconsciously gotten. “Um…”
There was a long, hopeful moment where every detail became crystal clear - the way his breath was shaky in the inhale and he didn’t exhale at all: the supple play of the muscles in his throat, the way his mouth opened slightly, the way she could see, up close, that he was longingly watching her lips.
Her own expression was probably a perfect mirror image of his.
He turned his head slightly, called “…Al?” and the moment fell apart. Not for the first time, Xiù sat back and tried not to resent Allison for her ’ask first’ policy. Julian sagged, sighed out his caught breath and cleared his throat.
Allison’s voice floated out of the kitchen window. “Yeah?”
Julian sighed and, for something to do, he flipped the meat again. “…Dammit.”
Xiù self-consciously tidied some hair out of her face. “Um….are we…?” she began.
Julian smiled for her. “I’ll talk with her.” he promised. “I just…“ He raised his hand to gesticulate something, but whatever idea he’d been about to express, the words clearly eluded him.
Somehow, though, Xiù knew exactly what he meant. She would have replied, said something, except that Allison chose that moment to push the screen door open with her butt and emerge from the house carrying plates and cutlery in one hand and a bowl of mixed salad in the other.
“So!” she said, without preamble and apparently too eager to start planning their trip to notice Xiù’s and Julian’s awkwardness. “Vegas, huh?”
Xiù looked to Julian, who sniffed a silent laugh, smiled, shook his head and returned to tending the meat.
“…yeah.” She said. “I had this dream one time…”
Date Point 10y4m2w3d AV
Starship Negotiable Curiosity, Cimbrean system, the Far Reaches
What surprised Bedu was how businesslike the humans were despite their considerable discomfort. They were all complaining and groaning now… but the moment the word arrived to stand up and prepare for boarding, they had immediately laid out their equipment neatly in plain sight and had then stood against the wall of the ship’s common area while the ship came to a relative halt and prepared to be boarded.
When the unmistakable sound of the airlock cycling began, they turned, pressed their hands to the wall above their heads, and waited. Bedu was at a loss as to why, but his speculation was soon answered when, once the lock cycled, five more humans in that thick space armor of theirs bustled efficiently onto his ship.
In any other situation he might have used the term ’brandishing’ their weapons, but in fact they were far too clinical and workmanlike for that word to apply. Those guns were being held in the tight, snappy grip of elites who knew exactly how to use them, and who didn’t need to wave them around to draw attention to the possibility of future violence.
There was a short, tense and efficient interlude as each of his captors’ heads was subjected to a scan of some kind. Only once all four had been pronounced ’green, whatever that meant, did they relax. The weapons were put away, the body language changed. Smiles and hugs and alarmingly physical gestures of affection were roundly shared. In that second they went from utterly professional killing machines to the very best of friends, reunited and excited about it.
One of them remained aloof from the cycle of affection. Not that he was standoffish - quite the reverse, he welcomed Rebar, Titan, Snapfire and Starfall with obvious affection, but it was a more… detached affection.
The Corti had no words for ’fatherly’ or ’brotherly’.
Bedu soon found himself under the taciturn care of one of the smaller humans, referred to by the others as ’Highland’. Two others, both of whom were behemothic slabs of muscle laden with an alarming amount of equipment, seemed to be the medical experts, and they rushed to attend to their exhausted comrades. Bedu could understand why - over the course of what they called a “week”, those four men had gone from being imposing forces of physical force, to groaning statues who barely moved except when compelled to by need of nutrition or duty change.
Their predicament was an effective antidote to any notion that humans were invincible. Greatly more durable than anybody else could ever hope to be, yes, but Bedu had spent a week watching them slowly fight a losing battle with their own equipment. They were people to him now. Nice people even: Courteous, clever, conscientious people whom he was forced to watch suffer.
Even for Corti, that was an uncomfortable situation.
The slightly aloof one, whom he took to be the leader, approached him once things had settled down. He was among the smallest of them, but still easily out-massed Bedu several times over.
“Bedu?” he asked.
The leader nodded. “My name’s ’Stainless’. You’ve been detained for questioning as a witness in a matter pertaining to the freedom and security of the peoples of Earth and Cimbrean, and of all humans.” he announced, formally. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”
“As it happens, I’ve rather enjoyed the inconvenience.” Bedu stood. “Besides, this detention is legal so long as you reimburse me for my time…”
“That wouldn’t be my responsibility.” Stainless informed him. “But everything should be above-board and legal, yes.”
“Excellent…. Are your subordinates going to be well? They seem to have suffered rather badly during the flight.”
Stainless glanced over at his men.
“They’ll be fine,” he said. “Thank you for your concern.”
“So what happens now?” Bedu asked.
There was a lurch, and the ship chimed its usual alert sound for accelerating into a re-entry.
Bedu inclined his head. “The planet Cimbrean, I presume?”
“That’s right.” Stainless nodded. He exchanged a few quiet words with Titan that Bedu didn’t catch, and gave the (presumably) younger man a pat on the shoulder as he staggered and groaned his way forward to help with the re-entry.
Bedu excused himself and took inventory of his belongings, making sure they were all put away and that he had memorised their exact position. He doubted that he would come back to find anything missing, but it would at least be nice to know if they had been moved or searched.
The landing wasn’t as smooth as Mwrmwrwk would have managed, but it was by no means a bad one. In fact, humans being the high-gravity species they were, and capable of handling really quite serious jolts, they probably felt it was perfectly smooth.
Through the wall, Bedu heard Hkzzvk bleat in alarm. Snapfire called something comforting along the lines of “it’s okay buddy, we just landed!” and Hkzzvk’s panicked noises immediately ceased.
Rebar, Titan, Snapfire and Starfall disembarked first, though Starfall was leaning heavily on the largest of his comrades, and Snapfire had to be carried, slung across the shoulders of the second-largest, whose careful footfalls still made the deck plating groan and protest. Bedu watched with mingled awe and disbelief - Snapfire had struck him as being so heavy that even medium stevedore drones would have struggled with his mass. While the feat certainly didn’t look effortless for his comrade, neither did it look like it was pushing his limits.
Bedu and Hkzzvk were carefully shepherded down the ramp by Stainless, Highland and one of the large ones, whose moniker Bedu had not learned. They were met at the bottom by a consignment of humans not wearing armored pressure suits, but instead clad in looser and clearly more comfortable working garments. These were still armed - a ludicrous consideration given that either one of them was comfortably strong enough to dismember anybody who wasn’t human - but the weapons were small, and holstered.
“This way please.” one of them said, waving his hand toward a nearby vehicle. Closer still, the four aching SOR men were being aided onto a transport whose rear step was almost brushing the ground.
Bedu looked around. Cimbrean was a pleasant planet, but there was something… strange about it, that he just couldn’t quite identify. Maybe it was the humans themselves - their every movement seemed faintly awkward, as if they weren’t quite walking naturally. Of course, they wouldn’t be, would they? Cimbrean’s gravity was rather higher than Bedu’s native norm, but must be much lower than Earth’s.
Or maybe it was the auditory landscape. Corti ears were large and sensitive, well adapted to the comparatively low atmospheric density of Origin. In Cimbrean’s denser air, every noise was a little louder and a little deeper and they carried distant hints of shouting, construction work, traffic, and alien laughter. Only that last one was an unfamiliar sound of course, but the cadences and sheer business…
Hkzzvk provided the answer. He trudged down the ramp, shying away from the humans and glancing nervously around as if looking for somewhere to run, but as he always did whenever they landed, he paused and took a deep breath.
He promptly buried his nose in his hands, croaking aggrievedly to himself.
“Hkzzvk?” Bedu asked.
“This planet reeks.” Hkzzvk explained.
Corti had very little to speak of in the way of a sense of smell, so Bedu deferred to his crewman’s superioriority in matters olfactory. “In what way?”
Hkzzvk raised his head and his nostrils flared. “It smells of predators.” he decided. “and … urgh, I don’t know what most of these smells are, but I don’t like them.”
That would be it. Weak as Corti nasal acuity was, the pheromones and scents on the air would still be present on a subconscious level, informing his mood. He nodded, satisfied that the mystery was solved.
“Well,” he said. “All the more reason to be done with this interview and get on our way.”
“What about our employers?” Hkzzvk asked.
Corti didn’t smile often, but when they did it was usually because they had scored some small moment of empowerment. Bedu allowed himself an unabashed expression of triumph, and borrowed a human word of unmatched communicative potential.
“’Fuck’ our employers,” he said.
Date Point 10y4m2w3d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), planet Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Anybody who knew the “Lads” knew they weren’t superhuman. Absolutely pushing back the limits of what ’human’ could mean, yes, but it was difficult to be in awe of somebody when you regularly saw how much pain, inconvenience and indignity they suffered through.
Arés had put his finger on it - Martina was a bio-mechanical expert who had more academic training than most civilian surgeons and a broad role covering absolutely everything about the life-support functionality of every EV-MASS they had, including the ones waiting in reserve for qualified Operators who could wear them. It fell to her to dig through feedback and medical reports diagnosing the most minor of concerns with the suit and liaising with the Lads themselves on their own fitness and suit-readiness. It fell to her to sign off on every life support pack’s fitness for use, and it fell to her to keep the suit techs properly briefed on any concerns that needed addressing.
She loved to boast to her friends and family that she was in charge of a whole team of spacesuit experts, but the unglamorous reality was that many of the suits’ most important systems were below the waist and so, as Arés had pointed out, it fell to her on a monthly basis to intimately measure all of the Lads, and that was only the most minor of the several vital responsibilities she had that all involved the pelvic anatomy.
Put bluntly she had to think a lot about how much the guys pissed and shit, both in terms of frequency and in terms of volume. Those inelegant metrics were thoroughly effective at grounding her estimation of them all. It was a bit like knowing the directory of Spiderman’s porn folder, or which was Wonder Woman’s preferred brand of tampon.
At least her back was almost completely pain-free by now, thanks to some aggressive therapeutic massage and Crue-D treatment. Warhorse had declared that he wasn’t going to be able to stop the burn from leaving some permanent scarring, but when she’d examined it over her shoulder in the mirror, she’d decided that while the white mottling and dimpling down her right flank and buttock wasn’t pretty, it was still much better than she’d feared.
This was good, because today wasn’t a day for limping around. At least, not for her. When Vandenberg, Blaczynski, Sikes and Akiyama were delivered to the suit shop, they were practically stretchered in, and every single one of them was gaunt and pale with fatigue and cramping muscles.
For a change, pumping in the ice-cold water that was vital to persuading their midsuit layers to relax and shrink so that they could be removed produced no complaint. Getting the suits off was much more difficult than usual because the guys couldn’t pull as hard as they normally would, but off they came in the end. In fact in Titan’s case, they only freed him by getting Burgess to help with heaving on him - Arés was too busy lifting Sikes out of his suit and getting an IV into him.
Just in case Martina was still harboring any lingering doubts about how rough the Lads really had it, the stench was unbelievable. Bozo, who had been left sitting obediently in the corner waiting to be introduced to his new friends, promptly sneezed, shook himself and got the hell out of there with his tail between his legs. Martina envied him.
Fortunately, she didn’t have to deal with actually cleaning the suits - that was for the techs - but body biochemistry was absolutely her concern, so she told her nose to shut the fuck up and gathered what she needed from the the suits’ sewage processors, briskly took the needed blood samples, and excused herself to the safe atmosphere of the lab.
From there, while the samples were spun, had lasers shone through them and all the other assorted work that the testing machines did, she was able to liaise with the Protectors and keep them apprised of her results in real-time. Between them they quickly decided that the best thing for their buddies was to get them scrubbed up and bedded down on cots right there in the suit shop, with drips in for hydration and glucose, a maximum dose each of Crue-D, and a license to sleep for as long as they needed under supervision.
She was grateful to find, once all the results were in and she’d evaluated them, that in her absence the suit shop had returned to its more usual nasal background noise which, although it did include a strong note of body odor, at least balanced that note with lubricant, hot rubber, industrial cleaning agents and solder.
Warhorse had taken first shift in supervising his exhausted buddies, who were all fast asleep on cots along the dividing wall between the shop and the locker room. Out of their suits, they were an obvious mess - all four were sporting pinch marks, blood blisters, bruises, rash and the other trademark skin discolorations that came with wearing EV-MASS for any length of time.
They had a form for recording those - a stylized human body from several angles with a simple emblem system - crosses, hashing, plus signs and stars - for recording the location and size of different kinds of marks. He’d saved her a job there and begun filling them in himself, and they took a moment to double-check to her satisfaction that he hadn’t missed anything as best they could without actually moving or waking the sleepers.
“How’re their results?” he asked, once she’d satisfied herself and pocketed them.
“Nothing scary, but God. I wouldn’t want to have metabolite levels that high.” Martina said. “Sikes especially must be in agony.”
‘Horse gave his buddies an unhappy look over and nodded.
Both of them caught movement in the corner of their eye, and stood when it turned out to be major Powell crossing the shop with a serious expression, not that he usually wore any other kind.
“Siddown, siddown.” he called, waving them down. “I’m just checkin’ on them.”
“They’ll be fine sir. Arés and I were just discussing their bloodwork.” Martina told him.
Powell nodded. “Any thoughts on their recovery time?”
Horse looked to Martina. “Two weeks, two and a half?” he asked.
“That’s maybe being optimistic…” Martina suggested. “The rehab diet alone-”
“Right, yeah.” Arés nodded.
“Just a ballpark will do me for now.” Powell said.
“Three weeks, sir,” Martina told him.
Powell’s jaw worked thoughtfully as he assimilated that news. “Cally in drydock, four of the Lads convalescing, I’ve got Jackson wanting to train you and Baseball up for PR work…” he grumbled, gesturing to Arés, “General Tremblay’s gonna have to find somebody else for the embassy job.”
“Never a dull moment.” Martina observed. They all knew the subtle tics and tells that were Powell’s expressions, and she saw a silent laugh pull momentarily at the corner of his mouth.
“Aye, at least I’m not fookin’ bored.” he agreed. “Okay. You two bash together a recovery schedule and I’ll let the Navy worry about getting us a replacement ride while ours is in the shop.”
Powell left them in peace.
Martina started calculating the rehab schedule in her head, and Arés was plainly doing something similar, albeit on his fingers. She tried and failed to stifle her amusement: He was so huge and prodigiously muscled that counting on his fingers made him look adorably cro-magnon, even though she knew that he was furiously calculating some quite sophisticated medical realities.
He didn’t fail to notice, and went slightly red. “What?”
She laughed, and pantomimed counting on her fingers while pulling the dumbest, most neanderthal face she could. He snorted, directed an affectionate middle finger at her, and went back to his mental arithmetic with a smile.
Martina pulled her notebook from her pocket and happily did the same. Apparently the therapy hadn’t killed off their chemistry after all…
Date Point 10y4m2w6d AV
Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, Earth.
“Come on, honey, you’ve got this! First roll!”
Xiù was plainly having the time of her life. A loud woman with a broad Louisiana accent was cheering her on, and she wasn’t the only one - the four other players at the table were all calling words of encouragement. Xiù meanwhile was smiling nervously as she picked up the dice.
Allison laughed as she and Julian watched her imitate what others had done and blow on the dice in her hand, then cast them vigorously down the table. There were cheers, everybody collected some chips and Xiù pumped her fist, danced an excited circle on the spot, and eagerly accepted the dice to throw them again, drinking in the words of praise and encouragement from the eclectic mix of people at the table.
“Do you follow what’s going on?” Julian asked.
“She just rolled an eleven.” Allison explained.
Allison smiled. “Everybody’s ten dollars richer thanks to her.”
“Hah. That’s our girl!”
They watched Xiù share a joke with the lady from Louisiana - it was hard to hear what she said over the sound of people calling for a repeat performance - and bounced the dice off the far wall of the table. This met with a more subdued response, but still a generally positive one, and several chips were added to the table.
It was all clearly a bit arcane for Julian. His attention wandered as the croupier maneuvered her stick around and returned the dice for another throw, which was met with a more muted response.
“So I’ve been thinking.” Allison told him.
“‘Bout you and her.”
Julian turned to face her. “You’re still okay, right?”
“I’m fine! Are you? You’ve not really… y’know, moved things forward.”
“We have our moments…” Julian said. “It’s just tricky.”
“Moments like what?”
“Like… little moments. Where, if I was having the moment with you…” he leaned over suddenly and kissed her. “…like that, you know?”
Touched, Allison smiled. “So what’s tricky about that?”
“Well, you said we have to ask permission first and… I mean, I don’t know how to do that without it kind of… I want things to be natural.” Julian explained. “You know…”
“Yeah. It’s like… if we have to ask permission-”
“I get you.” Allison nodded. She sat back and watched Xiù throw her dice - whatever she rolled, it produced a neutral response from her fellow players. She took a swig of her beer to cover a rush of mixed emotions.
Julian saw right through her. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“I’m…. kinda…” Allison sighed and started over. “I want to just agree that it’s a stupid rule.” she confessed. “I feel like I shouldn’t be so insecure, you know?”
“Hey, it’s okay-” he began, reaching out and taking her hand.
Allison squeezed his fingers. “No it’s not,” she interrupted. “This whole thing with her was my idea after all. A rule like that is just… it sends mixed signals. I’m not putting my money where my mouth is, y’know?”
“It is okay.” Julian insisted. “We’re all in this together. Xiù and me, we don’t want to hurt you, and if you need time to adjust to things then that’s fine!”
There was a cheer from the table. Grinning from ear to ear, Xiù curtseyed for her fellow players. She saw Allison and Julian watching her and gave them a huge beaming smile and a wave.
“Y’know, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Vegas,” Julian confessed, returning the wave. “I’ve been here before and it’s too… it’s just not my thing. But I love how much she’s enjoying herself.”
Allison nodded. For courage, she finished her beer. “Baby… I don’t know if I’m ready to scrap the whole permission thing yet, but the next time you have one of those ’moments’, I want you to promise me you’ll go for it, okay?”
“I mean it, mister. You kiss that girl the first chance you get. That’s an order.”
Julian stared at her for a second, but he knew when she was serious. He didn’t joke about with a ’yes ma’am’ this time: He nodded. “…I promise.”
“Good…” Allison scooted round and cuddled up to his arm. “I love you.”
He kissed her forehead. “I love you too, dummy.”
Xiù’s run of good luck came to an end with a groan and a short round of applause from everyone else at the table. She said her goodbyes, collected her chips and sprang over to Allison and Julian’s table looking thoroughly pleased with herself.
“How’d you do?” Julian asked her. Xiù had gone to the table with a strict budget of ten ten-dollar bets.
“I’m up twenty dollars!” she waggled a stack of twelve chips, thoroughly pleased with herself.
“What about you guys, are you okay?”
“This is the best time I’ve ever had in Vegas.” Julian told her.
Allison laughed. “Same!” she announced, having never been to Vegas before. “It’s fun watching you play.”
Xiù grinned at them. “Okay, so Charlene - that’s the lady in the denim vest - she told me about this stage show she thinks we should go see, and Hank - that’s the guy with the belt buckle - he was telling me about this gourmet burger restaurant on the Boulevard and…”
She took Julian’s hand and pulled him in the direction of the street, babbling excitedly. Grinning to herself, Allison gathered their belongings and followed.
Date Point 10y4m2w6d AV
Planet Perfection, The Core Worlds.
Vakno, “The Contact”.
The early years of Vakno’s career had involved teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Not through any lack of skill, or a run of bad luck, but because she had early on calculated that whatever her odds of success in the infobrokering business might be, the most probable failure case was assassination.
It was, after all, how she had disposed of her own early rivals.
To that end, she had spent nearly all of her profits during those early years on personal protection. From bodyguard drones and the very best personal combat rigs, to the full splendor that was her office. Those spartan walls and that austere desk hid within them a package of assorted defensive technologies both physical and electronic that made Vakno about the most securely protected living thing in the known galaxy.
Nowadays, keeping it at the very bleeding edge required only a fraction of her assets. Her own sensor network had tracked the Hunter swarm long before Perfection’s defence grid. She had already evicted (and kindly warned) her client by the time they were entering orbit. When they had launched dozens of objects onto a high velocity re-entry course, she had been given plenty of warning to activate the very strongest shields she had, and retreat into the most secure sanctum below.
When one of those weapons - a kinetic impactor of some kind, a simple metal pole twenty times her height and bigger around than she could have wrapped her arms - had smashed into the city deck above her, its destructive power had ripped out the surrounding layers, crushing homes, businesses and lives, and gutting the supports of a major corporate skyscraper, which had not remained vertical for long.
Vakno herself had barely felt a tremor throughout the short bombardment. Shortly thereafter, her perimeter defences had sensed Hunters picking through the devastation, but not like any Hunter she had ever seen before. These were larger, even more nauseating in form than their ordinary kin and layered in dense fibrous musculature that reminded her uncomfortably of the few humans she had dealt with in her career.
Three of them had died straying too close to the bunker’s perimeter, and they had apparently decided not to waste their time cracking her shell when there was much softer meat to be had.
They had ravaged the city for nearly a day before Vakno’s sensors finally detected the return of the humans and several high-energy flashes in orbit, characteristic of lithium-deuteride fusion.
Rather than fight the hated deathworlders, the Hunters had departed with their holds full of slaves and their bellies full of meat.
So many slaves. So much meat. Even Vakno, dispassionate as she was, couldn’t help but feel the weight of panic and alarm against the walls of her rational self-control, pressuring her into reconsidering just how valuable humans really were.
When she saw what the Hunters had done to the crippled system defence fleet, however, she had to sit and meditate long and hard before finally recovering the rational control necessary to look at things from the human perspective.
And the question presented itself - How had the Hunters known?
It would be a long time indeed before Perfection recovered to the point where Vakno would be back to business as usual, and like all Corti she had a burning need to be productive. Her sense of self-esteem would not permit her to take a vacation during the inevitable lull in her business.
Not when there was so gnawing a question left unanswered. The raid was too precise in its timing, too flawless in execution and too large in scale to have happened on the spur of the moment.
This wasn’t fortune: Somebody had fed Perfection to the Hunters. Somebody had almost fed Vakno to the Hunters. And Vakno had had people killed for much less than that.
She started digging.
Date Point 10y4m3w1d AV
Yosemite National Park, California, USA, Earth.
All of the tourism pictures showed Yosemite on clear blue-skied days when the waters were still and mirror-polished, flanked by a stentorian, forest-bearded honour guard of mountains.
Julian thought it looked even more beautiful in the rain.
It wasn’t serious rain - really, it was more a kind of acrophobic cloud that processed down from the mountains and dragged a diaphanous silver wedding train of light drizzle behind it, which fogged out the bombastic landscape that so entranced the documentary makers and tourists, and instead forced the eye to notice the smaller, the closer and the more immediate things.
Allison, naturally, was lurking in their tiny tent - built for two and delightfully cozy for three - under the tarp shelter Julian had rigged up for them and she was refusing to stray out into the rain. She seemed happy enough to wrap up warm with an ebook and a thermal flask full of Ovaltine and watch him work, and once he was done she’d insisted that Julian should go commune with nature and not worry about her.
Xiù was a complete contrast. She’d slapped on her outback hat and gone exploring the second Julian had declared their little day-camp complete, apparently oblivious to the chill and the moisture. She’d acknowledge his warning to be careful and not stray too far, and had set out eastwards toward the sound of the river, armed only with the backpack of essentials he’d prepared for them all just in case.
Julian took his time in following her. She wasn’t hard to follow - the fitness regime she’d followed religiously during her years in exile meant, especially thanks to the weighted clothing she’d worn to try and simulate the Earth’s gravity, that Xiù was a little powerhouse, remarkably strong and heavy for her apparent size, and despite her agility and poise she’d never learned the art of stepping softly. To an experienced tracker - and Julian was a master tracker - her footsteps were nearly as clear and obvious in the wet ground as if they’d been painted there in blaze orange.
What she didn’t do was make much noise. Julian was the other way round - he stepped lightly and tried to leave no clear sign of his passing, but he did sing to himself, humming and whistling through the bits where he couldn’t remember the lyrics. It was maybe a little ridiculous, but if there was anything nearby that would prefer to avoid him, he should give it plenty of notice rather than startling it. Besides, he was so used to doing it by now that it would have felt strange to him not to sing as he walked.
♪♫*”Heyyy, darling… I hope you’re good toni-i-ght… hmm hmmm hmm-mm hmm….. Tell me something sweet…”*♪♫
He ambled along in Xiù’s wake, inspecting all of the things she’d paused to look at, and several other interesting things that she’d apparently missed. The sedate pace allowed him to satisfy himself that he’d picked the right spot for them to dally the day away - there was no sign of any potentially dangerous wildlife in the area, which was his biggest concern, but also no sign that the river ever got high enough to threaten them or their stuff.
He lost her trail when he reached the river, and the ground became nothing but stones and rock, but that hardly mattered, because she hadn’t gone any further.
Julian hadn’t ever got onto the subject of spirituality or religion with Xiù. He had no idea what she believed in, but he knew that she meditated every day when she could, usually first thing in the morning before he and Allison were up. The day they’d left Minnesota, she’d woken up extra early and had been seated comfortably on the log by the fire pit, facing the dawn sun when Julian had risen.
Now, she was seated in the lotus position on a rock by the river. She’d taken her hat off and let her hair down, and had her face turned slightly to the sky with a subtle liberated smile playing around her lips, enjoying the play of cool moisture over her face.
She opened her eyes, and gave him a relaxed smile and a wave. “Singing to yourself?” she asked.
“Always a good idea in the woods.” Julian shrugged off his pack and sat down next to her. “I’m pretty sure there aren’t any bears around, but…”
Her face fell. “…Oh. Wow. Bears?”
“Always possible, but I don’t think so. Nothing here they’d want.”
She gulped and looked around. “Maybe I shouldn’t have run off alone. Sorry!”
Julian chuckled. “It’s okay! If I’d thought there was any serious danger I’d have stopped you. Trust me.”
“I do!” Xiù squeezed some water out of her hair, then laughed nervously. “But… Wow. We really do live on a deathworld, don’t we?”
“Oh yeah.” Julian nodded. “Kinda smacks you full in the head sometimes, doesn’t it?”
She nodded. “Still… it’s beautiful.”
“I’ve always wanted to come here.” Julian agreed. “Almost gave up on getting the chance, really.”
“Allison’s missing it though…”
“Don’t worry, she’s perfectly happy.” Julian promised.
Xiù nodded and looked around again at the iconic landscape. The light rain was almost nothing now - enough to moisten the skin and slowly soak into their clothing, but it was doing nothing to impede the view. In fact the shreds of cloud garlanding the peaks only enhanced it.
“Are you warm enough?” Julian asked her.
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “This is nice!”
“We’re both used to chilly temperatures, huh?”
She nodded. “Gao and spaceships… and I guess this is nothing next to a Nightmare winter?”
“Downright warm. And don’t forget Canada”
She waved a hand dismissively. “Vancouver’s not that cold.”
Julian nodded, shut his eyes and let the white noise of nature permeate him. He was used to the wilderness, and had long learned the trick of really turning on his ears. Modern human life meant that people rarely got the chance to understand just how acute their senses truly were. It wasn’t that their ears got numb or anything, just that daily life involved being surrounded by so much noise that filtering out everything except for a narrow band of “important” sounds was an ingrained survival skill.
Un-learning that skill and noticing everything, that was a real trick. The same went for the nose. Given time to adjust, the human nose could pick up the musk of a mouse in nearby bushes, or the avian funk of a nest full of chicks in the trees above. The ear could tell flycatchers from warblers and hear stones knocking along the river bed, if only the listener knew how to listen.
He certainly heard Xiù’s contented sigh and the way she settled herself a little more comfortably and slowed her breathing,
They enjoyed the comfortable silence together, basking in the scent of conifers and petrichor, and Julian only opened his eyes when an unexpected beam of sunlight on his face turned the quiet blackness behind his eyelids red.
He raised his hand to squint against it. The weather was rolling in waves down the valley, and the rain would be back soon enough, but just for a few moments the view was clear, open and unimpeded.
“*Ai ya…*” Xiù breathed.
He put his arm round her waist. He half expected her to stiffen or catch her breath, but she did the opposite - she sighed happily and leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder.
Rather than saying anything, Julian made a kind of wordless, gently interrogative sound. She nodded against his shoulder and replied in kind - not a word, but a kind of of happy chirrup or purr.
He kissed her on the top of the head. With a querying “Mm?” she turned her head slightly, got another kiss - this one on the forehead - and when she raised her face to look at him Julian took his chance and kissed her properly.
Xiù issued a passionate squeak, and purely on instinct she put a hand on the back of his head and straightened up to get a better angle, while her other hand splayed on his chest then gripped his shirt. Julian ran his own hand slowly up her back while his free hand took its place on her waist.
It was Xiù who eventually ended it. When they parted, she gasped and rested her forehead against his, while words quietly bubbled out of her as if she wasn’t entirely in control of them. “Oh my god I needed that I’ve wanted you to do that for-” she stiffened. “Wait. You asked Allison, right?”
Julian smiled, trying to overrule his galloping pulse and project composed happiness. “I did,” he reassured her.
Xiù sighed happily, and this time it was her turn to kiss him.
They stayed wrapped up in each other by the river for a good long while, talking quietly, kissing frequently, giggling together and bonding. It finally had to come to an end though when a fat raindrop slapped disgustingly into Julian’s ear, and he looked at the sky.
“Okay, that’s no drizzle,” he decided, indicating an ash-grey battalion of clouds that were marching down from the peaks with rancorous intent.
Xiù exhaled resignedly and donned her hat, pulling it down snugly around her ears. “Cuddling up in the tent with Allison sounds good as well…” she suggested.
“You read my mind.”
They helped each other put on their backpacks, took a last look at the valley in the knowledge that they’d probably never come there again, and put it behind them hand-in-hand.
Date Point 10y4m3w1d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Planet Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Admiral Sir Patrick Knight
Knight hadn’t been involved personally in the interview of their alien detainees of course - that job had naturally fallen to Intelligence, according to whom Bedu had been an absolutely model interviewee - polite, concise, intelligent enough to recognise that resistance would gain him nothing, and with no particular reason to do so anyway.
The summary of his interview made for interesting reading.
Bedu’s business model it seemed was inconveniently discreet, to the point where even Bedu himself didn’t know who his clients were unless they wanted him to. The client who had set him on the trail of Kirk and the missing starship Sanctuary had done so anonymously, but with considerable existing knowledge of where to start looking.
The search had started at the planet Aru, and this in itself was an education. Knight was something of a history buff, and alien history in particular was a field that had begun to fascinate him. There was so impossibly much of it and the Dominion’s historical archives - which humanity notionally had access to by dint of being an associate Dominion member, even if they were far too large to actually be transmitted to any storage medium on Earth - had much too haphazard a filing system for anything to be known with any real certainty before the Corti had come along and imposed strict data standards on the whole mess.
Aru, however…Aru was previously unknown to him, and was now in admiral Knight’s opinion a fascinating jewel of historical interest that his amateur antiquarian’s instincts would have dearly loved to get in front of the figurative loupe.
Why Kirk had gone to Aru was known, thanks to the statements given by the two survivors of his crew - Etsicitty and Buehler - and the young miss Chang whom they had collected from the planet. Why he had lingered after recovering her had been a little fuzzier, but Bedu had shed some light on that mystery.
The historic decline and fall of every sapient spacefaring power in the galaxy was well documented. Indeed, it was one of the topics of fascinated discussion that entranced amateur xenohistorians on the Internet (not that there were yet such things as professional xenohistorians), in the parlance of whom the phenomenon had been named the “Great Filter”, a term borrowed from one Robin Hanson who had coined it in an attempt to solve the so-called Fermi Paradox.
The Fermi Paradox was a now-extinct problem that had distracted people who were inclined to worry about such things with the question of where all the aliens were and why they weren’t popping in for a cup of tea and a chat. Given that said question’s relevance had faded somewhat in recent years, the Fermi Paradox was now only of interest to historically-minded students of science and enthusiasts of the burgeoning field of xenoarchaeology.
Aru, being the home planet of a species who were already in the late stages of their terminal decline and apparently disinterested in doing anything to stop it, was naturally a decent starting point for anybody who wished to understand the nature of the Great Filter and maybe do something about it.
Kirk had lingered there after collecting his most recent rescue, and then when Bedu had been sent to investigate *Sanctuary*’s disappearance, the Negotiable Curiosity had not needed to search very long and hard to find a debris field thirty light years away.
Bedu’s ship, its owner had proudly explained, was equipped with particle detectors sensitive enough to trace the FTL movement of objects as small as an escape pod up to ten years after the fact, assuming the trail wasn’t confused by the passage of other ships. Space, however, was so… well, spacious, that really that was a problem that only manifested along major spacelanes and near stations.
Sanctuary, while not a large ship, had been built with such a convention-stretching power output that its trail was the easiest Bedu had ever been called on to follow, and it had led him right to the heart of a tumbling cloud of wreckage.
Again, the next part matched with what Etsicitty, Buehler and Chang had reported - something with the power output of a dreadnought had intercepted them, and both ships had been destroyed when *Sanctuary*’s mortally wounded pilot, Amir Bahmani, had rammed the hostile while the rest of the crew abandoned ship.
Bedu had initially followed the escape pod carrying the three humans. Retracing his steps and picking up the trail of the other, faster, lifeboat had eventually led him to a system known only by its stellar coordinates - Knight glossed over the string of numbers involved, which described the star’s type, age, distance as a proportion of the galactic radius from Sagittarius A* and its deviation in radians from the straight line connecting that object to the heart of the Andromeda galaxy.
The star in question was a red giant, well past its main sequence and venerably burning through its helium. No temperate planets, one gas giant nearly twice the size of Jupiter, a handful of barren rocks and an acidic hellpit that made Venus look like no more unpleasant than a kitchen full of recently-chopped onions in comparison.
It would have been a completely unremarkable system if not for the forcefield enclosing it - identical to the ones that even now protected Cimbrean and Earth - and the crashed Kwmbwrw research station lodged in one of that gas giant’s moons, which was in the wrong place to the tune of thirty thousand lightyears and change.
From an intelligence perspective, however, by far the most important thing that Bedu was able to tell them was that at no point in its voyage from *Sanctuary*’s wreckage to this question mark of a system had Kirk’s lifeboat been intercepted.
While Bedu himself was Orange - augmented, possibly a target of interest for Hierarchy use, but not yet actually suspected of having been possessed by a Hierarchy demon - his story was corroborated by the *Negotiable Curiosity*’s sensor records, which in turn showed no signs of tampering.
Taken all together it was good news, and the report concluded with a recommendation that Kirk’s own status be downgraded from Orange to Yellow. He couldn’t be called Green until an implant scanner had pinged the inside of his skull, but Intel were at least happy enough to move him a step in that direction.
All in all, the report put Sir Patrick in a good mood. He wrote a quick mail for the attention of general Tremblay, rubbed his eyes, and then turned his attention to the report in his pile that he knew was going to deflate that good mood slightly.
With a sigh, he started to pore over the most recent analysis of operation NOVA HOUND.
Date Point 10y4m3w2d AV
San Francisco, California, USA, Earth
Xiù had a hard time choosing the right word, in any language. ’Colorful’ and ‘Flamboyant’ came to mind, but so was Chinese New Year, and nothing else that presented itself quite made the grade either.
“It’s very… gay.” She decided. That was the nice thing about English. One word could carry such a huge weight of alternative meanings and context, without going into the simply crazy subtleties of intonation that played such an important role in Mandarin. Both languages were hideously complex when compared to Gaori, which was refreshingly direct. Gaori wasn’t unsubtle by any means, but it lacked the impenetrable nuance that allowed her to pun like that, carefully deploying three different meanings at once in the span of a rather simple monosyllable.
She could only imagine what the actual Gay Pride parade next month would look like. It’d presumably make this look conservative and sedate.
She’d gone quite rusty in both her human languages thanks to several years of not using them, and since getting back to Earth she’d almost exclusively spoken English, much to her mother’s frustration. Still, she was finally getting things straight in her head and didn’t so often find herself slipping automatically back into the alien tongue whenever she wasn’t concentrating.
Together, she and Allison watched a young man dance past wearing a pair of gold lamé briefs, bright orange feathers, lipstick, and the kind of muscles that belonged on ancient Greek pottery.
“Show me what you’re workin’ with, baby!” Allison cat-called. Somehow the dancer heard her over the drumming and trumpets. He aimed a buttock at them and smacked it with a grin before dancing along with the rest of his troupe.
Allison gave a delighted laugh, and beamed at the way Xiù was giggling with her.
“Your turn!” she declared, and hoisted Xiù toward the railing. Xiù tried not to imagine what her mother would think, picked another male dancer and cupped her hands.
Presumably the dancer didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, but he seemed to get the gist of it and posed for her, flexing magnificently. Xiù applauded while Allison blew him a kiss.
They retreated from the railing as a more stately group in ornate - and huge - red ballgowns began to sail regally by, and Allison took Xiù’s hand to lead her through the crowd. She was in her element, Xiù decided, being surrounded by noise and vibrancy and color. Xiù loved to “get loud” as an occasional treat - as she was doing right now - but Julian had shrunk into himself and had taken the first excuse he reasonably could to retreat to the relative quiet and calm of a coffee shop.
Allison seemed to want to sample everything and she tested even Xiù’s reserves as she led the way from street vendor to street performer, to live musician and back to the barricade to watch more of the parade, then on into the crowd.
They got matching henna tattoos, sampled Fajita chicken skewers fresh off the grill, danced together to the pounding mix of a street DJ who was blending Samba and Rastatrash into something new and exciting and generally got drunk on the sheer weirdness of it all before finally finding themselves sitting down at a bus stop and sharing a bottle of cold water, having summoned Julian to come find them. It was coming up on two in the afternoon, and the parade was drumming and gyrating its way toward winding down.
“Man.” Allison commented, watching two dozen women wearing enough pink sequins and feathers to maybe completely cover three of them strut past smiling. “I think I’ve seen more ass today than the rest of my life put together.”
“Oh yeah.” Xiù nodded, widening her eyes for emphasis.
“Fun though, right?”
Xiù looked around. People were drifting away, now that the tail end of the parade had passed them. Back to normalcy, and to lives with decidedly less glitter in them. The afternoon breeze still carried the distant sound of drumming through the dense, old grid of buildings, but already the whole thing was starting to feel like a dream. Hundreds, or perhaps thousands of magical people had danced and swayed and played and sung their way along these roads, and behind them were left the permanent fixtures of dusty concrete and faded paint.
It was an oddly familiar sensation.
“Sorry, I just… Yeah, it was fun.”
Allison knew her too well. “But…?” she asked.
“Well… look.” Xiù waved a hand around.
Allison did so, frowning as if wondering what she was getting at. “Sure got quiet…” she observed, then seemed to get what Xiù was driving at. “Actually, wow. That’s a heck of a contrast.”
“I was just thinking it feels familiar.” Xiù told her.
“Yeah… is it me or is this place kinda ugly without the parade?”
She was right. The asphalt looked like it hadn’t ever been resurfaced, just patched up as needed. Overhead was a tangle of bare black cabling that didn’t seem to have any clear reasoning or logic to it. It wasn’t that Mission district looked neglected, it just looked… preserved. Like a jar of pickled onions, it might still be working and useful but the crispness and life was no longer entirely there.
“Where’s Julian?” Xiù asked.
Allison checked her phone. They were all using a tracking app they’d found that could help them hone in on each other by sharing how far away their contacts were and in what direction. “He’s… that way.” she pointed. “Quarter of a mile.”
“Let’s go meet him.” Xiù stood up. The sheer mundanity was getting to her. “I don’t think I like it here.”
“‘Kay.” Allison tapped on her app to let Julian know they were going to come to him, then took her hand and they set off walking.
They cut across the corner of the parade route, and another facet to the sudden absence of the big glitzy distraction of the Carnaval made itself known to Xiù - she’d spent the whole day holding hands with Allison.
Most of the time it had been a simple case of not wanting to lose one another in the crowd, but now that they were walking together more slowly, it dawned on her that there was something… different about intertwined fingers and an arm wrapped around her own.
She glanced sideways at Allison, who caught the movement in her peripheral vision, turned her head and caught her eye, smiled bashfully and tidied a strand of blonde hair out of her face while squeezing Xiù’s hand.
That was the thing about Allison. Xiù had originally thought of her as the master of fake-it-’til-you-make-it, but that was unfair. Allison didn’t do fake, she did… determined. Her life doctrine seemed to be keeping her foot down on the accelerator, committing wholly to whatever it was she’d decided to do and aiming an angry middle finger at her own comfort zones if they tried to get in the way.
It should have been intimidating, or obnoxious. In anybody else it probably would have been. In Allison… She may have held her own comfort zones in contempt, but she had never once violated Xiù’s, and Xiù knew she’d be genuinely upset if she found she was making either her or Julian uncomfortable. That made all the difference, and so she was able to lead where Xiù might not ordinarily have followed… like walking down the street in broad daylight, holding hands like girlfriends.
Because they were, she supposed. That was the point, wasn’t it? Allison had made it plain that she didn’t want their relationship to just be that of two good friends who happened to share the same man. And while Xiù might ordinarily have settled for just that…Not even Julian quite got her pulse going like Allison did, and she wasn’t sure why. Possibly it was the lingering shadow of taboo, or maybe it was the way she kept breaking through walls she’d never known she had, only to find clean waters beyond.
Maybe it was the fact that Xiù knew in her bones and from experience that she could literally trust Allison with her life. Whenever she flashed back to that horrible moment on Sanctuary when the hull had ripped apart and the void had tried to drag her away, the memory that always came with it was that it had been Allison who’d reached out and caught her.
It was difficult not to want to follow where somebody who’d literally saved her life was leading.
She squeezed back and leaned a little closer.
“Do you ever feel like an alien?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Allison nodded. “Like I’m not quite human.”
“Or that they’re not quite human.” Xiù waved her free hand surreptitiously, indicating a family who were wending their way home. Two bouncing children high on far too much sugar, a harassed mom and a dad whose huge sarcastic T-shirt was pulled tight over his beer gut.
“That’s it, yeah.” Allison nodded. “That’s exactly it. I just wanna ask them, you know, ’Is this who you wanna be? Are you happy?’ You know?”
“That’s not very nice, Allison.”
“Well I’m not gonna do it!” Allison defended herself. “Just… You know?”
“I know.” Xiù nodded. She was looking at people who had never… never gone hand-to-hand with a sapient worm in a robot suit. Never hidden in a Hunter meat locker. Never come within a whisker of horrible death not once but twice. Never seen their innocent protegé, their sister, dying. They had no idea who Triymin had been, what life was really like. She wondered if they even had dreams any longer, or if those dreams extended beyond a happy family and home.
They didn’t look happy…
Allison squeezed her hand again. “I try not to judge.” she said. “But it’s hard, ain’t it?”
“Why, though?” Xiù asked. “Why is it hard? They’re not doing anything wrong.”
“You’re right. They’re not doing anything.”
“Al… that’s not nice.”
“I know…” Allison sighed.
“Even if I feel the same way, it’s not nice.”
Guilt and uncertainty looked so out of place on Allison that Xiù had no option but to give her hand another reassuring squeeze. “But hey. We’re doing something,” she said.
That raised a smile. “We are, yeah. I just wish more people could.“
“Could get abducted?” Xiù teased.
Allison laughed. “No, dummy,” she exclaimed. “Just… I wish more people could see how much bigger they really are. This-” she waved a hand, indicating the whole preserved city around them “this isn’t who we’re meant to be. I swear, there’s something in the human soul that just longs for adventure.”
“Nearly getting killed?” Xiù suggested.
“Watching other people get killed?”
“Having to wear a disguise for three years in case they try and blow you out the airlock or in case the Hunters come looking for you?”
Xiù gave her an apologetic look. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But adventures aren’t easy or fun, Al. You know that.”
Allison sighed. “…My abductors were called Trevni and Nufr.” She said. Xiù blinked - Allison hadn’t ever told her about her abduction before. “They were actually okay, for… you know, for kidnappers who saw me as a test subject. I might have been strapped naked to a table, but they weren’t cruel, it was all… it was just business. Right? No malice.”
Xiù nodded carefully “Okay…?”
“I killed them. I didn’t mean to. They just… They picked me up because I had a cold, and they wanted to study it and develop a cure. They knew enough about us to know that we’d pay a lot to cure the common cold. But, they weren’t careful enough and…”
She sniffed. “They weren’t nice people, exactly, but they didn’t deserve what it did to them. The last thing Nufr did was he gave me a Frontline and undid my restraints. I’d have died of thirst strapped to that table if he hadn’t. And the people who finally rescued me would have died of… I dunno, acne or candida or something.”
Her fingers twisted painfully between Xiù’s for a moment. “I know, babe. I know what an adventure really is. I know it means people who don’t deserve it dying in horrible ways, and… maybe us too. I know all that. And I still don’t think I could ever go back to the quiet life. I… I wouldn’t know how to cope.”
Xiù was sighing with her when they saw Julian come round the corner. The uncomfortable shuffle in his step evaporated on seeing them, and he picked up his pace with a wave, which they returned.
“Neither would I,” she conceded.
Date Point 10y4m3w2d AV
War Platform Lifebringer, Perfection System, The Core Worlds
Grand Fleetmaster Tk’vrrtnnk A’Khvnrrtk
The ship class designated as “War Platforms” weren’t warships at all, at least not in the sense of a ship that engaged the enemy directly.
Even though it was layered in armor, shields and point defense batteries, Lifebringer was a staging and command vessel. It was the mothership of a whole fleet of transports, shuttles, dropships and heavy cargo lifters. It was a flying barracks, a mobile airfield, a cavernous cargo bay and a nexus of computer systems.
It was, in short, everything that a fleet needed to go somewhere and do something, and it was verging on being as large as a ship could practically get.. At a full gallop, Tk’v would have needed more than [two minutes] to get from one end to the other even if there had been a single straight corridor fit for that purpose..
The humans, he knew, would be impressed. Fleetmaster Caruthers’ transport was an unmodified Dominion standard shuttle, a flying matte-grey brick that made up for in rugged reliability what it pathetically lacked in grace and aesthetics.
Next to the troop lander and the two heavy cargo lifters currently squatting in *Lifebringer*’s number one docking bay, it was tiny, and it was still big enough to comfortably carry three young Guvnurag. When the humans stepped out of it, it made them seem comically small.
The heavy vibrations their feet sent ringing through the deck shattered that smallness.
He recognised Caruthers easily enough - the human fleetmaster was plainly the oldest of the delegation that had come over. The two at the back looked to be bodyguards or marines. Tk’v was hardly an expert on clothing - the most he wore being saddlebags, holsters and a decorative pennant on his neck to signal his rank - but those two’s seemed less decorative than the others’.
Caruthers, for his part, looked both austere in his black uniform, and splendid thanks to its conservative flourishes of gold and white.
The deathworlder entourage paused in front of Tk’v’s own welcoming party, and Caruthers took one extra pace forward. “Permission to come aboard,” he stated. Tk’v’s translator interpreted this as a formal request, possibly a traditional or ceremonial courtesy.
“Permission granted,” he replied, judging this to be the most probable response given how terse the request had been. Borrowing from some research he’d done on humans, he extended the stronger of his two right hands, trusting the human not to grip with the crushing force that Tk’v knew he was capable of.
His trust was rewarded. Caruthers’ handshake was firm, but no more than that. “Thank you for having us,” he said.
“Thank you for coming.” Tk’v replied. He indicated his subordinates. “This is Subfleetmaster Rhou, and junior subfleetmaster Nwmrwnw.
“Captain Manning of HMS Myrmidon, and commander Devonald of HMS Valiant. Caruthers replied, then indicated the marines. “Corporal Brewer and Corporal Banks.”
“Well then. If it pleases you to inspect the ship, I thought we might talk.” Tk’v replied amicably.
V’tk did so, gesturing for the human to walk by his side. “I had *Lifebringer*’s dimensions converted into your units.” he said. “She is slightly more than four hundred meters across her widest axis, and masses approximately sixty million kilograms.”
“That must be pushing the limits of what’s physically possible.” Caruthers observed.
“Certainly in anything which needs to accelerate like a warship.” Tk’v agreed. “There are larger ships, but not many and they are all painfully slow. The biggest ever built, I believe, was a pleasure barge that could not only afford to spend [months] transiting between worlds, but actively wanted to, so that their guests would have as much time to spend their money as possible. That ship was more than twice the size of this one.”
The expressive line of dark fur above Caruthers’ right eye arched upwards. “Was?”
“Indeed. It eventually broke apart under the stresses of its own acceleration.”
“Hmm. We have a similar cautionary anecdote from an ocean-going vessel called the Titanic,” Caruthers told him. “The fastest and largest luxury ship of its day. Too fast, in fact - it struck an iceberg and sank in freezing cold waters more than a hundred years ago.”
“Ice? I was given to understand that yours is a hot planet, fleetmaster.” Tk’v observed. “The stories of Earth I have heard mention that the sun can burn you, and that you can die of the heat.”
“That’s toward the equator. The poles are frozen solid year round.”
“Both, on the same planet?”
“It’s a surprise to us that other worlds are any different.” Caruthers smiled, though he made the courtesy of not showing his teeth. “How were we to know, after all?”
“True. In any case, although Lifebringer can accelerate to meet the minimum demands laid down by Dominion security resolutions for a warship, she is still the slowest in the fleet. Substantially slower than your own ships have demonstrated.”
“Our doctrines seem to be quite different.” Caruthers agreed. “Maybe we should compare notes.”
“Maybe we should.” Tk’v agreed.
The tour wended slowly around the ship, taking in the huge power plant (powered by the newest generation of Directorate-made quantum power stacks), the living quarters (an exercise in awkwardness given the wildly differing proportions and needs of the many species on the crew), the cargo handling bays and their army of drones, and finally he command hub, dominated by a to-scale holographic map of the system labelled in blue, yellow and green.
“How is the situation below?” Caruthers asked, once Tk’v had demonstrated the map’s functionality by zooming in on Perfection itself.
The working crew around them went quite still, and listened. Tk’v knew that many of them were firmly of the opinion that the humans were responsible for all the death and destruction not only on Perfection, but at Capitol Station. Tk’v couldn’t have disagreed more strongly. He had specifically requested this relief effort because, unlike most of his peers, he very much did not view the Hunters as a kind of natural disaster. They were a sapient species, entirely in control of their own actions, and the humans seemed to be the only ones who were squaring off to them.
That made the deathworlders allies, in his book, and Perfection represented an opportunity to make or break that relationship.
“The Hunters launched hundreds of kinetic weapons from orbit,” he said. “Perfection’s defence systems stopped all but thirteen of them.”
“The same kind of kinetic weapons that you dropped on Planet Garden,” Nwmrwnw observed, acidly. Tk’v ground his molars together. He would have given much not to have the junior subfleetmaster present for this.
Caruthers proved equal to the accusation. He looked Nwmrwnw in the eye in that unnervingly level way that humans did, and spoke softly and firmly though with no trace of disrespect. “The Hunters are dangerous,” he agreed. “And sadistic and cunning. They’re deliberately using our tactics and tools because they want to divide and weaken us.”
“Just as you weakened the defense fleet?” Nwmrwnw pressed.
“That will be all, junior subfleetmaster,” Tk’v told him, judging that his Kwmbwrw subordinate had gone too far with that remark. “Return to your duties.”
“…Yes, Grand Fleetmaster.”
The humans cleared their throats and looked awkwardly at one another as Nwmrwnw gestured grudging respect and stalked out of the command hub.
Tk’v raised his voice just enough for the other crew to hear, though he addressed the humans specifically. “I am sorry,” he said. “We have all seen terrible things through this operation, and it is difficult to remain objective.”
Caruthers caught on to what he was doing, and joined in. “I sympathize,” he declared. “And I’d like to thank you personally, Grand Fleetmaster, for setting an example and proving that our relationship doesn’t need to be antagonistic. We certainly don’t want it to be.”
“Nor should we.” Tk’v announced, taking note of which of his officers looked away, and which wore body language and expressions of agreement and resolve. “I have spent my life fighting the Hunters, and for the first time I am seeing signs of weakness from them. As you said, they are trying to divide us, and I do not think they would even care to try unless they were scared of what we could achieve together.”
Caruthers glanced at Manning and Devonald. Inexperienced as Tk’v was in reading human facial expressions, there was something… inspiring in the way they all shared the same intense smile.
“In that case, Grand Fleetmaster…” Caruthers extended his hand, “I look forward to scaring them some more.”
Tk’v shook hands with him for the second time. “Well said.”
Date Point 10y4m3w3d AV
Celzi Alliance Embassy Station, Earth/Luna L3 Point, Sol
“Celzi Diplomatic Station, this is FIREBIRD-ONE escorting diplomatic shuttle, request permission to land.”
Colonel Stewart would be doing the exact same thing over at the Dominion station at Earth/Luna L1. The timing was important - both of the major interstellar powers needed to be carefully removed from Sol, and they needed to be removed in such a way as to not escalate the tensions between them by making it seem like humanity was siding with either one.
The shuttle full of Marines were there in case the Hierarchy had an agent on board who tried something last-ditch like de-orbiting the station or whatever.
”Permission granted FIREBIRD-ONE. Welcome back major Jackson, you and the shuttle are cleared to land together in bay seven.”
She recognized the translated simulation of a voice from her previous visits to the Celzi station. PR being such a big part of Rylee’s job meant regular schmoozing with both sides. That was why she’d been chosen to lead this op: the embassy knew her.
Plus, if the need arose, her WSO Joe Semenza could nuke the station to molten debris. There was something satisfying about having that kind of gratuitous firepower at their fingertips.
They made their entrance with all the style and grace that her professional pride demanded, sliding smoothly into the bay on manual and kissing the deck with nary a bump. Her new sled, a replacement for the one lost on Garden, was called Phoenix and for once Rylee didn’t fully cycle her down - there was a non-zero chance after all that they’d have to make a hasty departure, and Phoenix wouldn’t lose too much of her capacitor’s stored energy from sitting idle on the deck for a few hours.
The Marines, she had to admit, made an even better entrance. The instant their shuttle’s ramp clanged down, two dozen of them in full MOPP marched down it like they were on parade. The two Celzi guards who had entered the hangar to greet her were probably shooting nervous glances at each other, though it was hard to tell with Celzi. They looked like a kind of moss-grey collision between a monkey, a kangaroo and a lizard, and their oddly-shaped skulls with their many eyes gave them fully overlapping three hundred and sixty degree vision. They didn’t need to turn their heads to look at each other.
Rylee left Semenza to look after Phoenix and approached the two aliens, carefully not removing her flight suit, though she did slide up her glare visor so that they could see her face. She probably looked quite an intimidating sight herself, in her astronaut’s “snoopy cap” and in the new flight suit that had been adapted from EV-MASS technology.
“Is… something wrong, major?” one of the aliens asked. She internally kicked herself for not being able to tell Celzi apart on sight. Oh well, time to play it impersonal rather than friendly.
“Call the ambassadors,” she ordered. “Something important has come up that needs their immediate attention.”
She wasn’t left waiting long. Stationwide announcements in a variety of alien languages rang through the decks, and within minutes she was being escorted, along with the marines, to the forum chamber on the station’s topmost deck.
She was met off the elevator by Ambassador Sandeep Verma. Verma’s career had been an interesting one, taking him from his native Gujarat, to the Indian consulate in Canberra, and ultimately into space to be humanity’s ambassador to the Celzi Alliance.
Rylee had worked with him several times. Something about being the FTL test pilot kept her snowed under with invitations to assorted diplomatic parties, hence why one of her AFSCs was Public Affairs. She could definitely sympathize with the ambassador’s crowded and storied career.
That same prestige was what had sent her on this mission. It was important not to snub either side or to show favorites, so while the Dominion got the senior officer in the form of colonel Stewart, the Alliance got the more notorious one in the form of major Jackson. They’d tossed a coin over it.
“Major?” Verma had a smile on, but his body language was wary. Rylee shook his hand. Really she shouldn’t waste time with preamble, but the ambassador didn’t need rushing.
“Can we talk privately?” she asked as she handed him the sealed letter marked ‘EYES ONLY’ for his attention. It was an uninteresting grey and bore the emblem of the Global Representative Assembly - a circle, two short arc sections sharing the same center, a longer one, and finally a short one again.
Verma nodded and pulled a device from his pocket. A privacy forcefield fuzzed and opaqued the air around them. He ripped the seal on the letter and read it.
“Short version: Big Hotel is gone,” Rylee informed him. The Ambassadors by necessity were both briefed on DEEP RELIC. “Earth’s secure and the GRA wants the embassies relocated to Cimbrean-five just to be absolutely certain.”
Verma grimaced slightly, but nodded as he read the letter. It was much longer than Rylee’s summary, but probably contained about the same amount of useful information.
“They are not going to like that,” he observed.
“The ID are being kicked out as well,” Rylee explained. “So neither side gets to claim we’re siding with the other.”
“They still will not like it…”
“They can dislike it all they want, one way or the other this station ain’t gonna be here much longer,” Rylee said, dismissively. “They’re being relocated. They can go amicably and relocate to Cimbrean, or they can be expelled…with extreme prejudice.”
Verma met her eye, then nodded and turned the page, read the name and signature that occupied the top two inches of an otherwise empty sheet (a classic and typical waste of paper, in Rylee’s opinion), then handed the letter back to her.
“I shall do my job, then,” he promised.
“Good,” Rylee smiled for him, radiating absolute faith in his abilities. “Let us know if we need to get you off the station. These guys aren’t just pretending to be marines.”
“Not necessary,” Verma smiled. “I hope. Thank you anyway.”
He turned off the privacy field and gestured invitingly for Rylee and the marines to follow him. He swept into the forum with an impressive impromptu air of gravitas, looking thoroughly out of place and vulnerable next to a woman in a lightly-armored spacesuit and a dozen men in MOPP.
Rylee lowered her visor again. The odd thing was that she probably cut the most threatening and alien figure among them. MOPP - Mission Oriented Protective Posture - made the marines faceless and scary, but the technology hadn’t changed much in twenty years meaning that the men wearing it looked huge and encumbered, but also embarrassingly low-tech. It was a good show of strength… but Rylee knew from experience that while aliens were often impressed by seeing humans carry heavy loads, there was something they found even more intimidating about the human body itself - the shape of it, the way they moved. For whatever reason, aliens saw the same thing in a walking human that humans saw in a stalking tiger.
MOPP hid that. Rylee’s flight suit didn’t. It was built by C&M Spacesuit Systems using the technology they’d developed for EV-MASS, making it snug, sleek and technical. A far cry from the bulky thing she’d worn eight years ago in *Pandora*’s early flights, with its duct tape modifications and velcro patch inside the helmet for scratching her nose.
Rylee secretly geeked out about it all the time. It looked like it had been created by the better class of digital artist, the ones who managed to balance a high-tech aesthetic with actual military function and practicality.
In the circumstances, it was not only a good way to show off that scary deathworlder physiology, but also a statement: ‘Look how far we’ve come, and how quickly.’
It worked. She became the immediate focus of attention when they stepped into the forum itself. Never mind the geodesic dome overhead with its angel’s-eye view of the Earth, never mind the charcoal concrete floor with the polished bronze forked spiral - a stylized representation of the galaxy - embossed in the middle. Never mind the warm lighting and the panelling on the wall made from several kinds of wood imported from the homeworlds of the Celzi, Qinis, Jeghiren and Lathk, nor the imposing and venerable ambassadors from those species sitting at their desks. It was a beautiful chamber - as if the Qinis would settle for an ugly one - and they’d invaded it looking decidedly ugly.
She ran her best fearsome eye over the lot of them, relying on the faceless mirror-black of her flight helmet to do all the communicating she needed. Only the Celzi ambassador failed to emote discomfort, but then again Celzi were notorious for not backing down easily. The whole Alliance was named after them for a reason.
“Ambassador Verma,” the Jeghiren ambassador stood. “You alarm us, with your sudden summons and your…troops.” They - Jeghiren were monogendered, and insisted on impersonal pronouns - waved an arm languidly at the marines. “We request an explanation.”
“The Global Representative Assembly has instructed me to inform you of a new development.” Verma replied, having apparently decided not to bother with circumspection. “You may not be aware of some security threats on Earth that we’ve been fighting, but that situation has now reached the point where we must ask both this embassy and that of the Dominion to relocate to the Cimbrean system.”
The Lathk ambassador was the first to speak. Lathk defied easy description, being a bipedal biological eccentricity whose tiny beady black eyes gave them almost no vision to speak of, and who had neither a sense of smell nor much apparently in the way of a sense of taste. Their primary sense by a country mile was hearing, and in place of a head they had two gargantuan ears mounted high and forward on their shoulders.
Those ears and their spindly birdlike limbs always gave Rylee the impression that they would go tumbling away in a strong breeze, and she had to chew down the racist impulse to think they looked absurd. They were actually an important partner in the Alliance, providing for most of the agriculture and a steady supply of warm bodies. Even if the war had been in a low ebb for the last ten years (thanks in no small part to human intervention) the Alliance were still rattling every saber they had, and that meant signing up young beings - among them plenty of Lathk - to serve on whatever new front line might open up if a lasting peace wasn’t eventually worked out.
“You are picking a side?” she asked.
Ambassador Verma’s job over the last four years had included exerting whatever gentle pressure humanity could muster to keep the war from boiling over again. The Celzi leadership might have been reckoned as master strategists, but Rylee was pretty sure that any second lieutenant with Sun Tzu and Robert A. Heinlein on their bookshelf already had a more comprehensive strategic education than the most seasoned Celzi general officer. The war so far had been catastrophically bloody and industrial.
But of course the Dominion was too proud to let the “rebels” win by granting them whatever territory they’d already carved out, and the Alliance was too proud to settle for what they had.
“No.” Verma’s assertion was instant and firm. “We remain committed to the neutrality and independence of our species.”
“Then what are these troops for?” The Celzi ambassador asked.
“And why are they wearing protective gear?” The Qinis ambassador added, taking the bait.
That was Rylee’s cue. “Our equipment is a precautionary measure. We hope it proves unnecessary…” she hinted, smoothly. ETs were notoriously gullible when on the back foot, and while outright lies were present in the diplomatic toolbox, in the years since Rylee herself had summoned these two space stations into orbit around Earth, the most effective tool by far that humanity’s diplomats had fallen back on time and again was crypticism. Deathworld reputation did the rest.
The ambassadors all glanced at one another (again, insofar as she could tell. She wasn’t even sure Celzi could turn their head) and after a few seconds the Jeghiren spoke again. “What is the exact nature of this security concern?” they asked.
“We’re not at liberty to disclose that information for now,” Verma replied. “Please. There will be plenty of time later to discuss exactly why this is being done but for now it’s safest for the embassies to relocate to Cimbrean.”
“We shall need to discuss-” the Celzi began, and Verma cut him off.
“Ambassadors, please do not mistake this for a request,” he said, firmly. “This relocation is a condition of continuing to have a relationship with the human race.”
Rylee consciously didn’t fidget during the long moment of deliberation that followed. There was a low, but non-zero chance that if there was a Hierarchy demon among the ambassadors, and if they had any last-ditch contingencies to try, this would be the moment. WERBS was lurking in the wings, ready to obliterate the station the moment it lit a jump beacon.
Knowing that by far the most destructive thing that humanity had ever built was aimed at the soles of Rylee’s feet was a test of composure to almost rival the infamous rubber chicken. Another benefit to the inscrutable visor - the ETs couldn’t see her sweat.
“…Very well,” the Celzi grunted at last. He leaned over and spoke softly into a microphone on his desk. Rylee breathed a sigh of relief and touched the push-to-talk button on the side of her helmet.
“ILIUM, this is HELEN. PARIS has agreed to relocate.” she announced, softly.
”Copy that, HELEN. AGAMEMNON is also relocating.”
“Awesome.” Rylee breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ll prepare a slaved jump.”
”Understood. We’ll send a runnner to Cimbrean for codes. ILIUM out.”
She turned to Verma. “Okay, the jump’s all set up. I need to get back to Phoenix to play cab driver.”
“Go ahead,” Verma invited. “Thank you, major. I think your presence helped tremendously.”
“Don’t thank me until we’re safely around Cimbrean Five,” Rylee replied. She certainly wouldn’t be happy until the station was outside of the Cimbrean system field where no possible Hierarchy action could threaten humanity through it, and where it no longer needed to have an FTL superweapon aimed at it.
She turned and marched out, with two of the marines in tow, and put in the call to Semenza to fire the sled up. She leaned against the elevator wall as they headed back down to the hangar deck, and reflected that going from interspecies celebrity to messenger girl to threatening muscle to glorified truck driver in one afternoon was a pretty good summary of her career.
She stretched and sighed. “You boys been in space before?”
One of the marines chuckled under his hood. “No ma’am.”
“Not exactly glamorous, is it?”
“I dunno,” the other one piped up. “Maybe it’s just wore off for you, ma’am. I was nerding out the whole time we were in there talking to them ETs.”
Rylee had to laugh and nod agreement to that, smiling inside her helmet. “Maybe,” she agreed. “Maybe it has.”
Date Point 10y4m3w3d AV
Eppley Airfield, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
“But you’re an exec! Aren’t you a bit senior to be standing at the airport with a sign?”
Kevin shrugged, a pointless gesture in a phone call, but still a natural and unthinking one. “These kids are important,” he replied smoothly. “And no offense Walter, but I’m the only other Abductee in the whole Byron Group. They’re gonna need to hear what I’ve got to say.”
Walter Billings scoffed. That was why Kevin liked the man - he didn’t guard his manners among The Team.
The Team was a loose idea, and it consisted of everybody involved behind the scenes in bringing Byron Group Exploration Vessel 11 from conception to space. Walter and his lifelong colleague and best friend Jennifer McAllister, Clara Brown née Ericson and her father Michael. The implacable Mr. Williams (whose given name of Raymond was one of Kevin’s most cherished secrets - the man himself hated it), Moses Byron, and of course Kevin himself.
”Didn’t Xiù Chang break your nose? Williams wasn’t happy to hear that. He’s still grousing about ‘loose cannon behaviour’, you know.”
“She’ll be great. She was just having a hard time adjusting to Terran life again and I pressed the wrong buttons,” Kevin replied. “Trust me, Walter. I know these kids, I know what they’ve been through, and I wanna put a human face on what’s going to happen to them. And if I can maybe give them some advice that’ll help them get through what Keating and those other stone-faced assholes have planned…”
”Protecting the bet you put on them, eh?”
“You bet on them too, Walter.”
”…You’re right. Advise away. Just tell me you’re going to be back in the office sometime today, because I urgently need to discuss the waste processor design with you.”
Kevin chuckled. “Well shit, how can I refuse an offer like that?” he asked. “I’ll be right in after I drop them off at the Box.”
”I’ll see you then. Bring popcorn.”
It was Kevin’s turn to scoff, and Billings ended the call laughing.
Kevin adjusted his collar - there wasn’t a force on the planet Earth or any other world besides that would persuade him to wear a tie - and leaned on the railing again, well aware that alongside the other people loitering against it with cards in their hands, he probably stood out in being by far the most well-dressed. There was just something about a properly tailored expensive suit that left the slightly faded chauffeurs’ uniforms and short-sleeve shirts or polos to either side of him looking like they belonged in the background.
As it happened, Chang, Buehler and Etsicitty had apparently listened to the Group’s request to not bring more than a few small personal effects, and hadn’t burdened themselves with anything more than their carry-on luggage. They were the first ones to come out of Arrivals, each one carrying a smallish bag and the clothes on their backs, and all dressed comfortably for travel. Kevin got their attention with a wave, pointed with a movement of his head, and met them at the end of the rank with a round of handshakes.
“Figured I’d collect you in person,” he said. “All sorted out up in Minnesota?”
“We packed it all up and fixed everything. The place should be okay without us for a couple years.” Julian replied.
“Good. Heck of a commitment you’re making.”
“It’s what we want,” Xiù told him. When Kevin looked questioningly at her, she shrugged. “You were right.”
“Didn’t you two already apologize to each other?” Allison asked. She jerked her head towards the airport’s doors. “Come on, if we’re making a big commitment, let’s commit.”
Julian and Xiù both chuckled, hoisted their bags and followed her, chorusing “Yes ma’am” like it was a private in-joke of theirs, which it probably was.
Kevin jogged a few steps to catch up with her. “Ain’t gonna be easy,” he warned. “You’re not the only team on the list. You’re the favorites, but you’ve got competition.”
“Have the others been out there before?” Allison asked.
“That’s why you’re the favorites, they haven’t. But they’re no slouches. Veterans, doctors, top qualifications… they all have the right stuff.”
“What’s your point, Jenkins?”
Kevin stepped in front of her and stopped them all by raising his hands. “My point is that the only person in the whole Byron Group who actually cares about you guys getting this gig is me. No false manipulative bullshit this time, okay, I know what it’s like. It took me fuckin’ years to finally find a place for myself.”
Allison just gave him a get-to-the-point stare while behind her, Xiù and Julian exchanged a glance.
“Look-” he continued “The other would-be crews competing against you? They’re fine. If they don’t get the job, it’ll be like whatever to them, right? They’re not Abductees, they don’t fuckin’…they’ll still fit. Right? Now have any of you given serious thought to what’s gonna happen or how you’re gonna do if you don’t earn this?”
They hadn’t. He could read it in all three of their faces, but he waited for them all to look at each other, come to the same conclusion, and return their attention to him. “Then for the love of Elvis please, please listen to me, and listen good ‘cause I’ve only got the one chance to tell you this stuff.”
They relaxed, nodded, and listened.
Date Point 10y4m3w3d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Gabriel loved his job, but it came with a price of having precious little in the way of spare time. Cimbrean Colonial Security was a tight ship, full of some of the most dedicated, highly-trained and passionate police officers he’d ever had the pleasure of working with, who were policing what was largely an educated, professional and successful population.
On the policing front, usually the worst he had to deal with were Gaoians. Gaoian males fought constantly. In their culture, for two males to clash and walk away with permanent disfiguring scars was not only commonplace, it was practically necessary. It was a rare male who could catch the eyes of Folctha’s small population of Sisters without some impressive duelling scars.
By human standards, of course, the fights were aggravated assault shading to outright attempted murder in some of the nastier cases. Nobody knew better than CCS that Gaoians were emphatically not cute and fluffy space-raccoons. They were an alien species with alien morality, and sometimes that alien morality got blood on the walls.
Then there was liaising with the military. Cimbrean was in many ways arguably better-protected than Earth thanks to its status as the permanent home of the SOR and of the allied space fleet. Sure, that space fleet was exclusively British for the time being, but with the USS San Diego and its sisters in the works that was due to change, and Gabriel knew from discussions with Admiral Knight that they were trying hard to get their hands on a Dominion-built orbital shipyard to give the ships a permanent anchorage.
Then there was the SOR. Gabriel really didn’t know how he felt about the SOR. Having a cadre of unnervingly big and strong almost-supersoldiers stomping around the town putting every gym rat on both Cimbrean and Earth to shame and between them accounting for an impressive percentage of Folctha’s family-planning spending…
Well. That was almost as disconcerting as the fact that his only son was one of them.
The Air Force had been one thing. Watching Adam spend his sixteenth year growing from wiry teen to a fit youth had been proud. Watching that fit youth become a dense, powerful airman had lifted Gabriel’s soul. Watching that dense and powerful airman gain in endurance and strength as he went through Pararescue training had impressed on him just how strong the boy really was.
Or so he’d thought. The SOR had redefined those limits, converting a merely exceptionally fit and strong young man into a titan, something straight out of Greek legend, or perhaps the more comic-book kind of barbarian hero.
That hadn’t lifted Gabriel’s soul at all. Quite the opposite - it had impressed on him just how broken the boy really was.
Not that he could blame him.
It was with a sense of trepidation, therefore, that he’d agreed to a movie night with Adam and John at Adam’s penthouse apartment on Demeter Road. If there was one thing he’d definitely say for the USAF, it was financially generous to the men who sacrificed for it - every man in the SOR had come to Cimbrean with a pocket full of homesteading money and, thanks to the regimented and tightly controlled nature of their lifestyles which necessitated that the Regiment pay for almost everything, precious little in the way of living expenses.
Even with Folctha’s relatively steep taxes, Gabriel suspected that Adam had tens of thousands in spending money and savings that he didn’t know what to do with. And a little thing like inviting his old man to visit on the rare occasion when their days off overlapped wouldn’t be setting him back by much either.
If only the gigantic brat had bothered to remember that Gabriel was nursing a years-old femoral nerve injury that made steps a literal pain in the ass. There was no elevator in the building that Adam co-owned with Wilson Akiyama, just eight flights of stairs and it took Gabe twenty minutes to climb them. He leaned heavily on his cane at the top to recover, reflecting that despite his best efforts at fitness and rehabilitation, his mobility was never coming back.
Finally, he knocked on the door. Adam opened it in seconds, and smothered Gabe in an enormous muscular hug. “Hey! ¿Estás bien? Llegas tarde…”
”“Subía estas escaleras de mierda,” Gabe replied pointedly, nodding back at the obstacle that had held him up.
Adam looked at them, then at his stick, and the penny made a solid wooden thunk as it finally dropped.
Gabe chuckled and reached up to affectionately ruffle what little hair Adam had kept. “¿Es un caballo de guerra, o un burro de guerra?” he joked.
Adam chuckled and welcomed him inside.
The apartment was definitely a well-off bachelor’s party pad. It was furnished with style and elegance, and was comfortable enough, but didn’t look like it was regularly lived in. Despite the best efforts of the hired cleaners, the place had a permanent after-party olfactory background of booze, BO and sex. No cannabis though: even though it was just as legal as alcohol in Folctha, the SOR were forbidden from touching the stuff..
The Spanish had to come to an end when John leaned round the dividing wall between the lounge and the kitchen. “Hey Mr. Arés!”
“Hello, John. What’s cooking?”
“Jerky! Gonna need another hour, but this is my grampa’s recipe. Best you’ll ever taste, trust me.”
Gabe glanced at Adam, who nodded with a grin. “It is,” he confirmed.
“Bueno! What are we watching?”
“Good question,” Adam said. “Base?”
John had gone still. Slowly, he turned and gave them an embarrassed brittle smile. “A… movie that I, uh, forgot to bring with me!”
“Top marks. Well done, dumbass.” Adam applauded sarcastically.
John cleared his throat and aimed his thumb at the door. “I’ll go get it. It’s on base.”
“That’s three miles away.” Gabriel pointed out.
“Yuh. Be back in half an hour. Peace.” John took off down the stairs, springing down them two at a time.
“He’s going to run the whole way there and back in half an hour?” Gabriel asked.
“No big deal.” Adam shrugged. “So hey! Just you and me for half an hour. Beer?”
Gabe sank gratefully onto the couch, a maneuver that really demonstrated just how much he needed his cane, and sat back, happy to finally have the weight off his bad leg.
It was no ordinary couch. When Adam slammed down into it a few seconds later with a couple of open beers, it barely seemed to register him despite his incredible mass. He kicked his feet up onto the coffee table and gestured at the TV to turn it on, an innovation that had slowly started to replace the old-fashioned remote control.
”-relocation of the embassies has already met with vocal criticism from the Dominion, and while the Royal Navy continues to lend support in the humanitarian crisis on Perfection, Dominion officials are now blaming the attack on human military action in that system, claiming that there was some kind of battle. While the Ministry of Defence, the Pentagon and Scotch Creek all declined to comment, sources at Hephaestus LLC have confirmed that HMS Caledonia is now in drydock at the Ceres shipyard undergoing emergency repairs and in Manchester, England, the family of Petty Officer Thomas Kendrick, who served aboard Caledonia, have released a statement asking for privacy-”
“Not that they’re gonna fuckin’ get it,” Adam grumbled.
“That’s not the media’s job,” Gabe agreed. “You know what happened?”
“Marty told me. The ship caught fire.”
“Shit, haven’t I told you about Marty?” Adam turned on the couch, shedding grimness and disgust with the media like a light summer coat.
“Oh, man, Marty’s just the fuckin’ best! Makes me look dumb as a bag’a rocks, funny, sexy as all hell-”
Gabriel threw up his hands to interrupt the boy, feeling completely knocked off-balance. “Woah, woah, amigo! …Seriously?”
“Yeah! I’ve even thought up a great venue for a first date, and-”
“Wow.” Gabriel blinked at his only son and assembled his thoughts. “…Okay. That’s some big news.”
Adam blinked at him. “What?”
“Man, I just… I mean, I never would have guessed. I mean, I love you anyway amigo, but you really could have broken the news more gently-!”
“…Martina, Dad! Her name’s Martina!”
“OHHH!” Gabe relaxed and laughed at the ceiling, wiping his forehead. He was too relieved to feel embarrassed. “*Gracias a Dios!*”
Adam’s enormous shoulders rocked as he wheezed out his best Muttley laugh, and he gave Gabe a huge, crushing hug. “Nah, nah, nah… You’ve got nothing to worry about there, I promise.”
“Good, because I had a vision of a world without grandkids and I didn’t like it!” Gabe chuckled.
“Well I mean, we’re not even dating yet…” Adam cleared his throat. “So, you’re gonna have to wait a bit, yeah?”
“Hmmm… Are you sure you’re ready to date her? It’s kind of early, Amigo. What’s it been, three months? Less than?”
Adam turned the TV down as the news turned its attention to the sport. “She’s not like Ava. She’s SOR, she knows the deal.”
“That’s the opposite of encouraging.”
“You think so?”
Gabe nodded to himself, at once glad and slightly disappointed to learn that the side of beef sat next to him was definitely still the same Adam.
“Adam… maybe this Martina would understand the why of it a bit better, sure…but apart from that bit at the end there where she ran out of hope and did something stupid, Ava was as patient with you as any girl could be. Marty might be more understanding, but that’s not a license for you to just do your thing and treat her as something you do in your spare time.”
“You already did.” Gabe pointed out. “And you just called off a long-term relationship less than three months ago. You sure you’re not just thinking with that big warhorse verga of yours?”
“What? I know how you got your nickname, man. Hell, you’ve been saluting the dawn since you were twelve. Good for you, you take after your old man!”
“I really didn’t need to know that…!”
Gabe chuckled. “Hey, it’s just my right leg that doesn’t work properly,” he winked. Judging that the boy was suitably embarrassed, he relented. “But it’s not for thinking with, Amigo. Are you really after another committed relationship right now, or do you just wanna smash?”
Adam looked away. “I… shit, Dad, now you’ve got me second-guessing,” he complained.
“Good! You should second-guess. I second-guess all the time.” Gabriel patted him on his huge and startlingly hard shoulder. “It’s a good way to avoid hurting the people you really care for.”
Adam nodded and said nothing for a minute or so. “I guess… I do want an actual relationship,” he said, “but I dunno. Am I ready for one? You’re right, I fucked up the last one pretty bad. Marty’s special, Dad, I don’t wanna hurt her like I did Ava.”
Gabe nodded sympathetically. “Then my advice is don’t go for it until you’ve got more experience,” he suggested. “Have fun with some other girls you don’t care about so much first. Break a few hearts so you learn how not to break hers. After all, nobody climbed Everest for their first mountain, did they?”
“I guess but… are you sure?”
“If she’s that special to you, you need to know how to do it right. And right now you don’t,” Gabe told him. “No, I’m not sure, and I don’t think it’d be the right advice for everyone…But I think it’s the right advice for you, here and now.”
“I’ll think ‘bout it.” Adam rumbled, awkwardly.
“Good. I don’t want you to just blindly follow advice just because I gave it. You’ve got a damn good brain, Amigo, I wanna see you using it, okay?”
Adam hugged him. “…Love you, Dad.”
“Love you too,” Gabe promised, feeling his upper back creak and pop. “Maybe show your love by getting this crippled old man another beer?”
“Yeah, yeah…” Adam laughed, and launched himself easily to his feet before picking his way toward the fridge in that curiously agile and quiet way of his that belied how heavy he was. “Don’t overplay that disability card though.”
Gabriel chuckled and settled into the couch, looking forward to a long and comfortable evening. “I’m sure my soul will survive a small abuse of power,” he said.
Date Point 10y4m3w3d AV
Finchley, London, UK, Earth
Simon had always, in a faintly racist and absent-mindedly English way, thought of Spanish as a beautiful and romantic language, evoking imagery of holiday sun, bulls, tomatoes and siestas.
Ava Rìos, however, could spit it like dragon breath: a potent blend of fire and venom that sneered at the need for translation. You didn’t need to know what the words meant to know what they meant. Though, frankly, her skill at English profanity was no less impressive, and Sean could match her blow-for-verbal-blow.
A door slammed. A rumbling, angry pause later, she stomped down the stairs in her boots and a thundercloud of quiet vulgarities. She didn’t see Simon at all as she stormed into the kitchen and yanked the fridge open, angrily rattling several blameless bottles and upsetting the broccoli.
She stared wildly into it for a few seconds, then shut the door, leaned against it heavily and was suddenly crying instead.
He couldn’t blame her for being mad. When Sean and he had returned from Egypt, they’d still damn near been leaking sand on the doormat when Sean had launched into interrogating her about what, exactly, had happened since they’d parted ways at the embassy in Cairo.
This had irritated and upset her, but she’d kept her cool and patiently explained that she was bound by the kind of Non-Disclosure Agreement that no sane or self-interested person would be inclined to break.
Sean had pushed, and Simon had carefully retreated into the kitchen so as to remove himself from the vicinity of the escalating row. Ava had testily informed Sean that unless he was volunteering to take her place on Death Row, he could forget it. Sean had dismissed the possibility that either of them would end up there, and had gone so far as to hint that she was just trying to get back in the SOR’s good books.
Ava had, rather irately, informed him that that ship was long sailed and that she probably couldn’t get back in those gentlemen’s good books if she had a hundred years to work on it. The first minor swear word had lurked unnoticed in the middle of her explanation.
Simon had made himself a cup of tea. Sean’s kettle was quite a loud one, which had mercifully obscured the conversation, but its sense of dramatic timing was impeccable, because it had clicked off perfectly in time for him to hear:
“Fine! Keep lying! It’s what you’re best at!”
Simon had hung his head and groaned as the dragon fire started flying. He could hardly blame her either - in fact while the argument had swirled around the whole house he had drunk his tea and quietly resolved to give his idiot nephew a ringing clout upside the head when he got the chance.
He cleared his throat.
She flinched, turned around and wiped her face, fighting back some control. “Shit, Simon, I’m sorry, I forgot you were there…”
“Are you okay?”
Ava sighed, shook her head, then changed her mind, shrugged and nodded. “I’ve had worse fights…”
Simon nodded by way of accepting the answer. “If you don’t mind my asking…?”
“No, sure.” She opened the fridge again and got out the filter jug full of cold water.
“Sean’s always been a bit of a fucking wanker sometimes, but I’ve never known him be that… well, that nasty before. What happened with you two?”
Ava sat down. “I used him to cheat on my boyfriend,” she said, stating it so bluntly and mercilessly that Simon was put in mind of a flagellant scourging their own back.
“Oh, Ava…you bloody idiot.” Simon groaned, not unkindly.
“Yeah. Biggest mistake of my life.” She poured herself a drink and sipped it.
“…If I can-”
“And you’re living with him? Despite that?”
Ava glanced toward the door, as if Sean might have magically stealthed down the stairs without either of them detecting even the faintest whisper.
“…Simon, I make, like, just enough money to pay my rent and my half of the bills here. And that’s only because he’s renting the room to me for way, way less than it’s worth. I’ve got no savings, no spare money to save up… If I could afford it, I’d get the fuck out of here right now, but I can’t.”
“Couldn’t you move back to Cimbrean? I hear the living is cheap there?”
“Not cheap enough.”
“Can’t your family help? Your dad’s the head of Cimbrean Colonial Security, isn’t he?”
“I’m not going to beg off Dad! I’m set up here, I’m getting by. I won’t burden them with more of my shit-”
He interrupted her. “How much would you need?”
“Wh-? Simon, are you offering me money?”
“How much?” he repeated.
“I can’t take your money!”
“Just answer the question, Ava.”
She exhaled irritably and thought about it. “It… Depends. Uh, if I rent out there… I guess a couple of thousand to tide me over and get set up?”
Simon nodded, and fished his phone out of his pocket.
“Ava, listen to me.” Simon set his phone down. “I have a house in Islington. Not a flat, a house. You know what the property prices are like in this city, so you know I can afford to loan you a couple of thousand.”
“But you barely-”
“It’s my money and I’ll do whatever the hell I like with it, thank you very much.”
“Because I’ve got two very talented young journalists on my hands who won’t be able to work together.” He raised a hand to intercept her interruption. “Don’t bullshit me. Your professional relationship with Sean is built on drama and fuck all else, and arguments like that… If I don’t separate you two, something’s going to happen that ruins both your reputations, and by extension your careers. This is the best fix.”
“You don’t deserve to suffer for him being a complete tit, and he doesn’t deserve to suffer for you not having your shit sorted out.” Simon put it bluntly. She showed no sign of taking offense.
He picked up the phone again. “I’ll put in a call to a mate of mine, he said something about somebody starting up a news channel in Folctha. A pretty local girl like you could be making big money in front of the camera rather than behind it, so you’ll be able to pay me back soon enough. Throw in ten percent if you feel you have to, feed me leads, however you want to repay me, however your conscience tells you to. But for God’s sake don’t be stupid enough to try and tough it out with Sean.”
He wasn’t quite sure why, but that last warning seemed to score a hit. Ava looked down and away, chewed on her lip and frowned.
“….Simon….thank you. Really. But I don’t think-”
She stopped babbling her protests, blinked at him, then licked her lips and tried again, rather more calmly. “I want to earn my way, Simon.” she said. “I don’t want charity.”
“This isn’t charity,” Simon said, “it’s an investment and it’s career advice from the old guard to the new kid. And I believe it’s a damned safe investment too: if I put in a good word for you, it will carry weight, and that’s not charity either - you earned that good word.”
She swallowed, and looked at his phone with her resolve obviously wavering, so Simon gave her one last push.
“Go home,” he said.
Date Point 10y4m3w3d AV
Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
“This is it?”
Kevin cranked the parking brake and nodded. “This is the Box.” he confirmed.
“Good name,” Xiù remarked while giving the ’Box’ a wide-eyed, cautious look. Allison evaluated it herself with a slightly more guarded expression. When the Group had talked about ‘accommodations throughout the training period’, she had imagined a decent-sized house. Nothing elaborate, just a couple of bedrooms, a bathroom…
Not a box. That really was all it was, a featureless half-cube squatting smack in the middle of a fenced and tree-lined Byron Group compound like a particularly obtuse art installation and surrounded by three wings of a more building-like building that was all huge glass windows and warm brown wood. Jenkins’ ID had seen them past the security at the gate without issue, and he parked up a short distance from the welcome party who emerged from the larger building.
“So yeah, the Box is a mockup of the interior of the ship you’ll be flying. Idea is you guys are gonna have to get used to it, so you may as well do that here on Earth so you can back out if you have to. Don’t want y’all going stir-crazy three months into a two year mission.”
“Looks… snug,” Julian suggested, taking refuge in understatement.
“Trust me, it’s even smaller on the inside.” Jenkins glanced apologetically at him in the rear-view mirror. “Anyway, the rest of this is the training facility and mission support. All the people workin’ in this building are here to do one of two things - teach you the skills you need to do this, or make sure you’ve got the chops for it. Odds are you won’t ever even meet half’a them, but they’ll know you better than you know yourselves, and fast too.”
“So this is it, then.” Xiù fidgeted with her bag. “This is where you leave us?”
“Yup. Remember, like I said - these guys are gonna try and fail you. You can’t bullshit them, so don’t even try. They ask you a question, best thing is to answer it honestly and directly. They can’t order you around, but it’d be a damn good idea to follow their instructions anyway. Don’t suck up to them, they ain’t after brown-nosers, but just… be honest, and be yourselves.”
“Thanks.” Julian reached forward, and Kevin twisted in his seat to shake hands over his shoulder.
Allison and finally Xiù followed suit and then, there being no reason to delay the future any more, they got out of the car. Jenkins drove away as soon as the doors were all closed.
There was an awkward moment of wary sizing-up, and then an aging man in a blue polo shirt stepped forward.
“It’s nice to finally meet you guys,” he said. “Doctor Michael Ericson, I’m the team leader for BGEV Eleven.”
They made their introductions. Ericson scored points by making sure he got the pronunciation of Xiù’s name down properly before introducing them to the rest of his team, including his daughter and several other colleagues. The list of names was bewildering.
“Don’t worry,” Ericson said reassuringly, once the last introductions were made. “We’ll be working together for the next six months, you’ll have plenty of time to get to know us.”
Allison looked at Julian and Xiù. They were standing close to each other and gave her an identical, slightly wide-eyed look that said ’lead on’, so she mustered more determination than she really felt now that they were really here, really doing this, and nodded firmly.
“I guess we should dive in then,” she said.
“Excellent!” Ericson beamed. He stepped aside and a man who hadn’t yet been introduced to them stepped forward. Allison tried not to take an immediate disliking to the newcomer - he had the stern expression of somebody who was evaluating her and rating her only slightly above something he’d stepped in. “Mr. Keating here will introduce you to your living space and carry out your first assessment.”
There was a round of handshakes and promises of ‘looking forward to working with-’ and ‘see you on-’ and the BGEV-11 team drifted away, leaving Allison, Julian and Xiù alone with Keating.
He didn’t ingratiate himself at all with his brusque attitude. “Here’s how it is,” he began without preamble. “The three of you have signed up for spending several months in training together followed by two years in the ship together, and the ship is small. Your notions of privacy and personal space are going to have to change drastically, and quickly. You are literally going to be living on top of each other with precious few opportunities to escape and that’s going to mean you’ll either be the very best of companions, or you’re going to end up hating each other… in which case, you won’t make the grade and won’t be flying on that ship. You are making a commitment to long-term physical and emotional intimacy. I- Oh.”
Allison looked down. Xiù had taken her hand, and Julian’s too, and was giving Keating a level ’please-get-on-with-it’ expression. There was a three-way round of eye contact among them, and Keating visibly cut out part of his script.
“Good,” he said. “But save the decision for after you’ve seen what you’ll be living in.”
He led them round to what was unmistakably an airlock. “The Box is supposed to be a close copy of what the final interior of BGEV-Eleven will look like. This is a quadruple-seal lock, plenty of redundancy. Nevertheless, good entry and exit practice will be a necessary part of your drill. Every time you leave or enter the Box, you’ll go through the procedure I’m about to show you. Failing to do so will be a black mark against you. Do you understand?”
They nodded, and Keating entered a code. “Tomorrow you’ll each be setting your own code,” he said, “and we’ll be explaining the safety rationale behind that in your first mission briefing. For now, all you need to know is that it’s vital not to share your codes. They help us track your comings and goings, and also serve an important security function.”
“Now,” he continued, stepping through the outer lock doors as they opened. “The first step is sealing and decontamination. Come on!”
They squeezed into the lock alongside him. It was actually surprisingly spacious - Allison could have wheeled a couple of motorcycles through it side by side. “Don’t stand in the yellow spaces.” Keating instructed. “The doors behind you will close…” they did so “…and you should select your decontamination cycle. The doors in front won’t open until you’ve decontaminated unless you throw the emergency override, which is only to be used if you’re abandoning ship or if you’re returning to the ship with a life-threatening injury.”
He gestured to a touch-screen with green, yellow and red icons on it. “Green is basic. Just a filter field. Coupled with your Frontline implants it should suffice in almost every case. Yellow is for when you’ve been exposed to radioactive or chemical contaminants. If you select that one you’ll need to remove and discard your clothing into this chute.”
Xiù wanted to ask a question, Allison knew, but held her peace. Keating either didn’t notice, or didn’t care. “Red,” he finished, “is the works, and is for use in cases where you think you’ve been contaminated with some kind of deadly agent that could spell doom for the whole species if it got back to Earth. In this case, you’ll need to strip and shower, shave off all your hair, you’ll be powdered and bio-fielded, and kept in quarantine for a minimum of forty-eight hours. When in doubt, use the highest setting. Hair grows back, but death is forever.”
Allison felt Xiù huddle in a little closer to her. She knew Xiù was a bit vain about her hair, which meant that the prospect of having to shave it all off…!
She surreptitiously put a reassuring arm around Xiù’s waist as Keating selected the green option and the familiar yellow shimmer of a biofilter forcefield swept across them, completely with that uncomfortable too-clean feeling that left Allison itching and having to resist the urge to run her tongue over teeth that suddenly felt unnaturally smooth and sterile.
“This is all simulated, right?” Julian asked.
Keating seemed to be determined to intimidate and scare them. He introduced them to the “Excursion Room” that lay beyond the airlock - basically a glorified equipment closet with an armory bench and lockers taking up every square inch of wall, floor and ceiling. To their left as they entered was a door marked “Pilot” and opposite the airlock was another door marked “lab”.
Keating said nothing more about them than that they’d have the chance to become familiar with their workstations in due course. He indicated to the right, pointing out the door at the end that led into “Engineering”, assorted access hatches marked “waste processing” and “atmosphere”, and the two doors marked “Pantry” and “Habitation”.
Everything he indicated was a safety or failsafe, everything he told them about procedure was a dire warning. It was obviously calculated to rattle them, and Allison treated the attempt with the contempt it deserved. They weren’t children, all three of them had literally almost died of vacuum exposure. Being lectured unnecessarily on safety by a pigshit little man who probably had never got further than thirty thousand feet from Earth’s surface was just…
She reined in her mounting indignation. Kevin’s advice on that score had been solid and worth listening to. ’Everything they do will be a test’ he’d said. ’If they’re irritating the fuck out of you, for fuck’s sake keep a lid on it because they’re testing your composure.’
So she took a cleansing breath when she judged that Keating wasn’t looking, and caught Julian’s eye. Composed and laid-back as he was, Julian looked like he was struggling to maintain his calm as well, but he was sharper than his hatchet when it came to picking up on Allison’s mood nowadays, and they reaffirmed one another’s coolness. Xiù was less readable - she’d gone pale and quiet, but also attentive. Of the three of them, she seemed the least irritated, and the most nervous.
Keating ignored their exchange, if he detected it. Instead, he finally opened the door marked ’Habitation’
“-And this is your living space.” he announced.
Allison bit down hard on the urge to vent sarcastically. The room was barely as big as a boxing ring at most, and four people standing in the middle did a fine job of making it feel crowded.
She had to admire the effort that had gone into using such a tiny volume effectively, though. As she looked around she realized that everything was recessed into, or folded away to become part of, the walls and ceiling. So long as it was kept tidy and uncluttered, it would definitely provide every need they could have, including some shelf space for luxuries and personal items.
“Forward wall, kitchen and storage.” Keating indicated it. “You’ve got a range, a microwave, the faucet can give you boiling water, and if you need more counter space…” he hauled on part of the countertop, which unfolded, tripling the amount of work surface.
“Aft wall is fitness and leisure. There’s a treadmill, weights… everything you need to keep yourselves in shape, plus the couch, TV, bookshelf… Port wall-” he slapped the one beside the door they’d just come through “- is your wardrobe, laundry, more storage… Finally the starboard wall.”
He indicated it. There were three bunks recessed into it, along with a door of some kind and a towel rack.
“In the actual ship, those bunks will double as emergency pressurized environments and, if need be, as escape pods. They’ll pull twenty kilolights. Not fast, but quicker than the Dominion standard. That door to the right is your bathroom. Toilet, sink and shower, all in one. Take a look.”
Julian glanced at the girls, then did so, sliding the door aside. “Uh… I’ve had cellphones bigger than this thing.” he commented.
“Are you complaining?” Keating asked.
“No, not really. I mean it makes sense…” Julian closed the door again. “It’s just kinda settling in how big of a change we’re in for.”
Xiù raised a hand. “Um…?”
Keating gave her an expectant look. “Yes, miss Chang?”
“If the wardrobe’s over there… and that whole thing is the shower… I mean… where do we get changed?”
“I did say that the three of you will need to become very used to physical proximity and a lack of privacy,” Keating told her. Allison couldn’t resist an irritated tic of the eyebrow at his perfunctory tone. “How you sort it out is your problem. My advice is to just suck it up and get naked. Privacy and modesty are first-world luxuries that people went without for millennia, and you’ll do just fine once you’ve adjusted to their absence. If you can’t, you have no business being here.”
Blushing furiously, Xiù went quiet.
“Are there any more questions?” Keating asked.
There were several rhetorical ones that Allison judged it would be unwise to ask, and Julian was too busy sharing his own version of Xiù’s blush.
Keating relaxed a little. “The engineering team are still building the ship,” he said. “If you really need or want them, they can try and build in some reasonable extras and customisations. The Box, however, is not being modified, and the reason for that is that the three of you really will need to be the tightest team. This is deliberately difficult, for your own good, and you wouldn’t be here if we thought you couldn’t handle it.”
“We understand that.” Allison told him.
“Good. Then I have just one quick round of assessment to make before I leave you to settle in.”
Keating turned to Xiù and handed her a piece of paper. “Miss Chang, could you please read this aloud?”
Xiù took it, blinked at it, then cleared her throat, blush fading as she was given something else to focus on. “Um…‘The Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed about four thousand six hundred years ago by king Khufu of the fourth dynasty. It includes tomb chambers for the king and for his wife.’ …um, that’s all.”
“Thank you.” Keating said. “Could you say that in Gaori?”
Xiù rubbed at her neck. “Not…easily.” she confessed.
“Well…for ‘great’ I could use Shé’ meaning “very large” or Yué meaning “very good”…I don’t know the Gaori word for pyramid…in Gaori you’d say “four thousand six hundred” like “Forty hundred and six hundred” and the word for ‘hundred’ has that awkward yipping sound in it that I can’t pronounce properly, and…I don’t know if Gaori has words for Dynasty and Tomb, and I know it doesn’t have words for King or Wife.”
“Give me your best approximation.” Keating pressed.
“Umm….Shé’ Giza-nes yì Pyramid-nes sha yì ao-k…kip! - sorry, that’s that yipping sound I can’t do - ao-kip!-yimi kip!-simi ma yì sa Khufu-nes yì yimi-dynasty-nes. Sh… no, that’s not right. Choo yuo mäiwa-tomb-nes yì… um…Yì bei-sao o beiyo…beiyo…” She gave up. “Sorry, ‘his wife’ just doesn’t translate at all.”
“Not even ‘his mate for life’ or something like that?” Keating suggested. Xiù shook her head. “Why not?”
“Gaoians wouldn’t say ‘his mate’, they would say, um…” Xiù scowled in concentration. “It’s more like ’the mate he was with’. Their language just doesn’t let you possess a person. It’d be like if I said ‘I had some not very for breakfast’. See?”
“That’s okay.” Keating made a note. “Yimi? Simi?”
“Im, Imi, Yim, Yimi, Sim, Simi, Jim, Jimi, Uo, Ao-Im.” Xiù recited, counting on her fingers. “Then Ao-Im Im, Ao-Im Imi…You get the idea.”
Keating nodded and turned to Julian.
“Mr. Etsicitty, how reliable is your prosthetic?”
“It’s…temperamental.” Julian conceded. When Keating waited patiently, he elaborated. “The first metatarsal isn’t as strong as the real thing, and of course it doesn’t heal, so once it breaks I just have to glue it.”
“Could you replace it with something stronger?”
“Sure, but the weight would be off.” Julian said. “This feels exactly like a natural foot, you see. If the foot was heavier, I’d have to learn how to walk properly on it again.”
“If we could rehabilitate you onto a slightly heavier foot, would you be willing to?”
Julian shrugged. “The only reason I didn’t in the first place was because I needed to be up and at ‘em right away.” He said.
“Good.” Keating made a note. “Miss Buehler…when you filled in the paperwork, your education history was somewhat…bare.”
“That’s right.” Allison nodded.
“No high school?”
“I never graduated high school.”
“Why not?” Keating pried. Allison shook her head.
“That’s ancient history, and it’s nobody’s business but mine.” she declared.
“Bullshit. I’m here to assess you.” Keating retorted. “That means if I ask you a question, it is my business and if you won’t answer then your contract is null and void. The three of you can go back to Minnesota and take your chances without the Group’s lawyers.”
All three of them stared at him like he’d personally reached out and slapped her in the face. He just poised his pen and waited.
“You can’t be serious?” Allison asked.
“I’m completely serious.” Keating’s expression was stony. “You are asking the Group to entrust you with a multi-billion-dollar spaceship. Now, I’ll ask you again for the last time: Why didn’t you finish high school?”
A large part of Allison wanted to believe he was playing chicken with her, or maybe some other kind of stupid dominance mindgame thing. Keating seemed to be the kind of guy who liked putting people ’in their place’, and despite Kevin’s excellent advice, just for a second she was tempted to show him her middle finger and her back, in that order.
Then she glanced at Julian and Xiù, wavered, and gave up.
”…I got pregnant,” she said, and couldn’t stop herself from deflating completely. “…I had a baby.”
“In high school?” Keating asked. The worst part wasn’t his interrogation - the worst part was the stunned expressions that Xiù and Julian were wearing.
“Yes.” Allison nodded. Suddenly ashamed, she rubbed her face, stared at her feet and tried to find her composure. “Too young.”
“And the father?”
“He was too young too.”
“His name.” Keating clarified.
“Taylor. Um…Taylor….Tylor Hamlin.”
“And where is the child now?”
”…I don’t know.” Allison swallowed. “My parents…they weren’t nice about it. So, I had my son, I put him up for adoption, and then as soon as I was old enough I got the hell out of Salt Lake City. I’ve never tried to find him.”
Julian, God bless him, put his arm around her and aimed an arctic stare at Keating that instructed the man to drop it immediately. Meanwhile if looks could have killed, the glare Xiù was producing should have blasted Keating’s scorched flesh from his bones.
Keating gave no sign of caring.
“Thank you.” he said. “I’ll let you get settled in.”
He was halfway to the door when Allison angrily wrenched her dignity and confidence back into place. “Hey, asshole!”
Keating paused. “Yes?”
“You gonna count that against me?”
“No, Miss Buehler I am not.” Keating turned back to face her. “I am however going to count your lack of self-control in calling me an asshole against you.” Allison opened her mouth to protest, and Keating cut her off. “Listen.” he said, sounding more bored and terse than angry. “We are looking for any excuse we can find to ditch the three of you: Do not give us one. Do you understand?”
Julian squeezed her hand, and Allison fought back the urge to tear a strip off the man’s hide. Instead, she swallowed her bruised pride and nodded. “…I understand.”
Keating nodded. “Goodbye.” he said. “We won’t meet again.”
The door made a solidly mechanical noise behind him.
“Jeeeesus.” Julian breathed. Then, with a note of concern - “…Al?”
Allison realised that she was shaking. “I, uh…”
“Need to sit down?” Xiù suggested. “I think…yeah, here.” She gripped something in the wall and pulled: out swung a couch. Allison sank onto it gratefully and took a few cleansing breaths.
It helped. She only needed a few seconds to find her balance again. “…you guys okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine.” Julian promised, squatting in front of her. “Xiù?”
Xiù nodded, and sat next to Allison, giving her something that was halfway between a comforting backrub and a Gaoian’s concerned pawing. Allison sighed and gave her a hug. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.” she said.
“Al, we’re fine.” Julian promised. “It doesn’t change anything.”
“You’re sure? You don’t mind I kept it secret?”
“It explains a few things.” Julian observed. “But yeah. You never lied, you just told me you didn’t want to talk about it. That’s fine by me. Am I right?” He asked Xiù.
“Absolutely!” Xiù agreed.
Allison sighed and relaxed. “Thank you.” she told them both.
Xiù smiled for her. “You’re definitely a Sister.” she said.
”…Thanks?” Allison asked.
“I mean, you’re…um. I mean this as a compliment, but I really can’t see you raising a child.” Xiù explained, a touch clumsily. “At least, not yet. Um…sorry.”
Julian chuckled. “True. Wouldn’t have it any other way, either.”
Allison managed a weak smile, which faltered when she looked down at her hands and found they were threatening to become inextricably knotted together. “I don’t regret giving him away.” she said. “I couldn’t take care of him, I’d have been a shitty mom. But…they didn’t even let me hold him. Said it wasn’t good for us to bond. Sometimes… Sometimes I think it woulda been nice, though…Just for a few minutes…”
“You’ve never…?” Xiù asked.
“I’m not his mommy.” Allison shook her head, and scrubbed away the wetness around her eyes. “If he comes looking for me someday…maybe. But I really hope he grows up so happy he never wants to.”
Julian gave her an enormous squeeze. “Al. He’d be so excited and proud of you, I just know it.”
She returned the squeeze, but shook her head. “Not yet he wouldn’t,” she disagreed. “All I did was get abducted…”
She sniffed, and straightened. “But we’re here now, doing this. So let’s knock it outta the park.”
++End Chapter 28++