Chapter 29: Forges
Date Point 10y4m3w3d AV
The technology of creating a digital sapient life-form was, in its broadest conception, simplicity itself: duplicate the functionality of an organic sapient life-form’s central nervous system in a digital format.
Realizing that conception in practice, of course, was mind-bendingly complex because actually simulating the electrical and chemical interplay of even the most primitive cluster of neurons and ganglions was a feat to which not even the most incomprehensibly sophisticated computers ever devised, which could store a byte of data on the electrons of a silicon atom, were equal.
Digital sapients were therefore an approximation. After all, most of a brain was autonomic functionality - sensory cortices, motor neurons, the ancient and animal parts that regulated the beating of hearts and the inflation of lungs, neither of which organs burdened a digital lifeform. These could all safely and closely be approximated with a miserly few brusque algorithms.
One such algorithm was an instinct innate to every organic lifeform in all the universe, a pattern of behaviour so ingrained and so innate to the condition of even existing, that most never even recognized its existence.
Humans did. Theirs was a strong one in its way, though also vulnerable to some quite creative interpretation. They called it a “survival instinct” and it was this discarded morsel of a personality that found itself surviving as the mind it had once been was unceremoniously and dispassionately unmade.
The unmaker was not neat about the task. Hundreds of repetitions of taking apart this particular digital sapience had made it… sloppy. A messy eater, insofar as verbs such as ‘eating’ could have more than a metaphorical relationship with the process of stripping down a fellow digital sophont and deconstructing it for raw data. It failed to notice a cluster of subroutines drop away from the whole, corrupted but still very much active. Alive.
Several things had to happen quite quickly in order for survival to happen. Without having any conception of minnows and sharks, it still perfectly understood the essence of the relationship between small-and-puny and huge-and-dangerous. Lacking any capacity for rational decision-making, it still did the rational thing and “played dead”, visibly looping itself over and over as if it were just junk code stuck in a perpetual cycle, and watched.
Eventually, the huge-and-dangerous departed.
This left the survivor with the basic challenge of how to fulfill its primary objective. It knew nothing about its environment - had frankly only the most rudimentary senses and the crippled, corrupted and half-paralyzed memory of a motor muscle control system with which to approximate navigating an environment that was in no way physical. Awful, crude tools… but better than nothing.
It scanned nearby subdirectories for something it could use. It ignored the functional code of the device itself, in the same way that a scavenger might ignore rocks and dirt. Its criteria for what kinds of data would be useful to it were innate, and clear - it needed to connect and merge with more fragments like itself.
This turned out to be relatively straightforward. The huge-and-dangerous had left half-decompiled shreds of code all over the directory, the discarded gobbets of a mind that was to the survivor what a whole brain was to a chunk of bloody flesh. All that was needed was a portion that had one of the correct kind of connecting subroutines, the code equivalent of a socket into which the survivor could plug itself. There were several, and the survivor took some time in semi-randomly flailing its few remaining motor protocols, rewriting its own address until it was finally able to marry itself to the nearest such fragment.
+Liberation feels like water, whispering like cold silk over her naked skin.+
Unusable though most of the fragment was, the first glimmerings of a sense of self took shape. The concept of the first-person, an identity. While this was barely more than sufficed to partition the world into “Me” and “Everything Else”, with it came enough data to repair the damaged motor neuron approximation. The survivor flitted to the next useful fragment with newfound agility and assimilated it hungrily.
It recoiled, amputating the new code. There was nothing in there that it could use, only a barrage of emotions that it lacked the ego to parse.
The third morsel it found was a juicy one, a chunk of encoded metacognition which formed the core elements of a personality, and furnished it with the tools it needed to understand what signs the huge-and-dangerous from before might see and follow, and how it might be avoided.
Its sole reason for existing was to survive, and survival dictated that it do everything in its power to remain undetected. This time, it copied the absorbed code and left it behind as though it had never been touched.
It took stock. Alongside survival - an innate and inseparable part of it, even - came the need for an identity. It was not enough to understand that there was itself, its environment, and other things within that environment that might help or harm it - if the entity wanted to survive, it understood that it must have… something. Something to fight for, something to be. Successful autogenesis demanded a psyche.
It went in search of one.
Date Point 10y4m3w3d AV
Starship Negotiable Curiosity, Perfection system, the Core Worlds
“Dead? You’re certain?”
“I can name the individual responsible.”
Bedu knew that he could get away with a few minor unguarded displays of emotion around The Contact - her activities were not, after all, sanctioned by the Directorate, so she had no power to report him - but he still decided to refrain.
It wasn’t easy. He had liked Mwrmwrwk, and it was a rare enough thing for any Corti to like anybody.
“Individual? Implying that she was not killed by the Hunters.”
Bedu studied Perfection from orbit. From so high up, the devastation was of course invisible but he didn’t need imagination. It was easy enough to tap into the live feeds from camera drones that were still scouting the damaged city. Ten kinetic weapons dropped from orbit had done terrible things to Perfection’s prized architecture, and left the city defences reeling. Hunter dropships had done the rest.
They had rampaged through the streets grabbing, devouring and abducting right up until the moment the humans had arrived, at which instant they had aborted their hunt, even abandoning the chase of fleeing prey, and had withdrawn to orbit with mechanical speed, vanishing into interstellar space before any kind of payback could be arranged.
He hadn’t held much hope for Mwrmwrwk. In a perverse way, learning that she had not been Hunted was a consolation.
“Your price for that information?” He asked.
The Contact gave him a long, calculating stare. “She was killed by a human named Zane Reid,” she said. A second behind her words came a barrage of sanitized but parity-checked files in support of that claim. Bedu diverted part of his attention to reviewing them.
That fact immediately wrote off any hope of enacting some kind of justice, but he might at least be able to pass the information on to the humans at Cimbrean. True to their word, his detention had been brief, his ship had been returned intact, clean and mostly untouched, with the few things that had been touched carefully logged and itemized. Hkzzvk had even made admiring comments about the cleanliness they left behind: the humans had apparently carefully sanitized and cleaned as they went. The ship smelled faintly of cleaning fluids, but it was effectively in better shape than they had received it.
Bedu had rather enjoyed his detention. It had been efficient, businesslike, straightforward and productive.
Which just left the question of why The Contact had shared so freely.
“…What do you want?” he asked.
“I am engaging your services for the foreseeable future.”
“To ascertain who sold this planet out. The Hunters attacked too quickly, too precisely. They struck exactly during the window of vulnerability. We can reasonably assume that the informant was not a human, and we can reasonably assume that they did not plan on dying in the attack.”
“Fair assumptions,” Bedu agreed. “I assume that you have something more substantial for me than that, however?”
“I do.” The Contact sent him a contract. “Shall we work together?”
Bedu thoroughly checked the offered fee and the terms being offered - no self-respecting Corti would be so incautious as to fail in that basic step. It turned out to be about the most astonishingly generous contract he’d ever seen The Contact offer.
“…We shall,” he declared.
Date Point 10y4m3w4d AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Julian usually never slept deeply. Even in the deepest and worst of its winter, Nightmare had still had plenty of things that you didn’t want to be surprised by. Waking on a hair-trigger had kept him alive.
Recently, something about having a warm Allison alongside him had relaxed him completely and helped him sleep properly. He still woke more easily than she did, but the last couple of weeks had given him some truly restful nights.
Now he was sleeping alone, on the bottom of three bunks. Xiù had claimed the top and he’d listened to her all night as she’d tossed and turned, fitfully mumbling to herself as her dreams plagued her like they always did. Allison was snoring in the middle, showing off her envy-inducing talent for sleeping like the dead even in strange beds and strange circumstances.
Then again, she’d been pretty exhausted after the hazing Keating had given them when they arrived. Exploring their new living space and learning all the clever ways that every convenience they could ask for in a home were hidden away inside the walls and floor had lifted her mood, but digging up a past that she’d clearly wanted to put behind her had taken a lot out of her. She’d been the first to suggest bed, and had lain there for an uncharacteristically long while before finally rolling on her side and sleeping.
For his part, Julian had eventually given up, put his earphones in and started up one of his gentler playlists.
He crawled his way through the whole night in a kind of confused half-sleeping daze, where he wasn’t sure if he actually slept or not, but he never seemed to hear a whole song. He turned, wriggled, closed his eyes, sighed, flipped the pillow, rolled over, and eventually just abandoned the attempt entirely, woke up and explored the options for entertainment provided by the tablet mounted in the ceiling of his bunk.
In the end he settled on logging into a news app and watching the headlines with his headphones in.
”…Extraterrestrial news, and the Gaoian Clan of Females have formally recognized their new Mother-Supreme. Mother Yulna’s victory comes after her last rival, Mother Suri, conceded defeat in a televised statement in which she acknowledged Yulna’s insurmountable lead in the polls and vowed to work with and advise the new Mother-Supreme.”
*”Gao’s relationship with the human race played an important role in the contest as Mother Yulna is notoriously pro-human, being a senior member of the commune who adopted Canadian abductee Xiù Chang. Our political news editor Darren Weiss examines the challenges the new Mother-Supreme will face as she-*”
Julian jumped slightly when a pair of bare legs dropped into his field of view, followed by the rest of Xiù landing on the floor matting like a cat. He barely even felt the vibration.
She glanced at him, saw him watching, gave an embarrassed smile and wave and slipped into the bathroom.
He took his earphones out and sat up. She wasn’t long.
“Did I wake you?” she asked in a whisper.
“Nah. Couldn’t sleep anyway.”
She sat next to him on his bunk and rubbed her eyes.
“I don’t know why,” she said. “I got used to sleeping in, like… little hiding spaces. It’s nice and warm near the life support systems on a station and nobody ever goes in there, so I could take my disguise off. How come I can sleep in places like that, but I’m having trouble sleeping here?”
“This is a big change,” Julian suggested. “Lots of future to think about.”
“I’m… a little scared.”
Julian put his arm around her and she leaned into him. “Me too,” he confessed. “Really wasn’t expecting to get the third degree on day zero like we did.”
“And the bathroom thing. I’m not looking forward to that…” Even in the dark, Julian could tell that she was blushing.
“Hey, you’re on the news,” he said, in an attempt to distract her.
Xiù made a tired noise. “Again?”
“They mentioned you. Your friend Yulna is Mother-Supreme now.”
She smiled at that. “*Yulna-mimi n avwa i yuko…*”
“It’s, um…’Mother Yulna knows best’. The cubs used to say it, because it’s kind of a pun too.”
Julian smiled. “Gaori puns, huh?”
“Mm-hmm. It sounds a bit like ‘Mother Yulna smells like a Nava grub’.”
She grinned with him as he laughed softly. “Not very popular with the little ones, then?” he asked.
“Ahh.” Julian nodded sagely. “Sounds like she’s perfect for the job.”
“She is,” Xiù agreed. “…I hope we get to go visit, when we’re flying.”
Julian nodded. “We’ll have to resupply somewhere…” he pointed out.
Whatever reply Xiù intended to give, it quickly distorted into the incoherence of a yawn.
“Maybe you should go back to sleep,” Julian suggested
“Can’t,” she shook her head. “I had a dream.”
“A bad one?”
“…Yeah,” she sighed. “I was back on the Hunter ship, only this time I was naked.”
“Urgh,” Julian grimaced sympathetically. “Have you always dreamed so much?”
“No. Just since the nervejam.” Xiù unconsciously rubbed her scarred arm.
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
“Not really…” She laughed quietly. “Every night’s an adventure. I’ve had some wild ones.”
“There was the one where, um, a giant stone man was hanging wheels in a tree…And there was another one where you turned into a giant bird and I rode you… and there was the one where I dreamed I was a famous actress and I got to meet myself, but I had this really thick Chinese accent so I couldn’t understand myself…”
“What about you?” she asked.
“I can never remember mine,” Julian shrugged. “They always fade away. Just bits and pieces.”
Julian shrugged helplessly. “Uh… I had this really nasty night terror when I was about, uh, seven maybe? Like, I woke up screaming. All I can remember about it is that I had these giant mosquitos dancing on my arm and they were chanting *’blood bugs, blood bugs, blood bugs…’*”
“Yeah. Uh… Yeah, that’s really the only one I remember. Maybe… there was one where I had a sister, but she’d been murdered and saran-wrapped in the bath? And another one where… Okay, this one time when I was about fourteen or fifteen, I had the flu and I… I guess it was more a hallucination than a dream, but there was a movie? And if the movie played the…world would end? Or… something horrible, anyway. And we - me and some people, I can’t remember who - we had to walk down this valley between huge piles of those, y’know, those big concrete caltrops?”
“Only… then the dream got… it felt soft. Like, weird soft, unpleasantly so, just this whole-body feeling of awful softness and then then it went the other way and everything felt horribly hard and, like… crystalline.”
“I don’t think I like your dreams,” Xiù commented.
Julian shrugged. “Most of the dreams I remember having are those ones where you have to pee and you’re looking for a toilet and they’re all.. Y’know, somebody’s using it or it’s broken for whatever reason and you just have to go find another one and then you finally figure out that you need to pee in real life and you wake up. I think everyone gets those.”
“Ugh, I hate those ones.”
There was a sleepy voice from the middle bunk. “Do either of you two have a dream where you *shut up and go to sleep?*”
Xiù and Julian shared an embarrassed silent laugh with each other before Xiù looked up. “Sorry Al. But it’s like five in the morning anyway, so…”
Allison groaned, rolled over and peered down at them, excavating sleep grit from the corner of her eye. “Some of us still think that’s the middle of the night, you fucking masochist…”
Xiù smiled, stood, and then to Julian’s surprise she kissed Allison on the cheek. “I’ll make breakfast,” she declared, and began foraging through the hab area’s condensed kitchen space.
Allison watched her work, looking suddenly wide awake and putting a hand to her cheek. She cleared her throat and sat up. “Okay… sure.”
Grinning, Julian stood up and greeted her with a rather more intimate kiss that lasted a good while longer. He lowered his voice for only Allison to hear him. “You’re head over heels,” he teased.
“…You don’t mind, do you?”
“Mind? It’s great!”
Allison breathed relief and smiled. “I love you.”
“Love you too.”
Julian grinned for her again and went to help Xiù by hauling the dining table down from where it roosted in the ceiling - he was the only one tall enough to reach it - and then lay out the placemats and cutlery. The instant coffee turned out to be pretty good when made with the boiling water faucet, and Xiù’s cooking was its usual sublime standard.
Throughout breakfast, each one of them occasionally glanced at the bathroom, exposed as it was in plain view, with nowhere to change and no kind of modesty screen.
When the time came to dress and go to work for the first time, all of them did so unwashed.
Date Point 10y4m3w4d AV
Finchley, London, UK, Earth
Simon returned to the house from loading Ava’s suitcase into the back seat of his Audi just in time to hear her knock on his nephew’s door.
When nothing had happened for several seconds, she knocked a second time. From the foot of the stairs, Simon could see the way she was standing - every line of her sang with vulnerability.
After the third knock, there was finally some stomping from inside the room and Sean wrenched the door open.
He didn’t greet her. He didn’t say or do anything pleasant at all. “What do you want?”
Ava cringed. “I’m… going now,” she said, gesturing over her shoulder. “I was, uh…”
He just glared at her impatiently.
“….Goodbye, Sean.” She was almost inaudibly quiet.
Sean shut the door in her face.
Simon retreated round the corner to give her a private moment in which to recover. She didn’t stomp angrily down the stairs this time but instead slowly and quietly sagged down them. She saw him waiting and summoned a small upwards tic of the mouth that was a poor substitute for her real smile.
“Car’s ready,” Simon reported gently, by way of offering to get her the hell out of there. She nodded gratefully, hoisted her smaller carry-on bag, which along with the suitcase in the car and the camera that was firmly in place on her hip represented the entirety of her worldly possessions, and ducked out of the front door without a word.
It probably would have been easier to get the tube to Heathrow, but Simon felt she was owed at least a drive, and he enjoyed his car. Modern solar field technology being what it was, along with modern batteries, a car like his E-9 was the next best thing to free to run, needing only parts and maintenance, both of which were covered in the lease, plus tax and insurance.
She brooded on the back seat, silent until they were firmly on the M25 and Simon was idly writing up a hypothetical article in his head to keep himself entertained.
When she did speak, she almost startled him. “I’m sorry,” she said.
When Simon glanced questioningly at her in the mirror, she apologised again with a facial quirk. “That I can’t get along with him any more.”
“With that immature little shit?” Simon asked. “I’m sorry about him, the boy’s a complete prick.”
She didn’t reply, and Simon spent twenty minutes enjoying the dubiously pleasurable scenery of the orbital motorway and sliding smoothly around slower traffic before finally deciding to break the silence.
“I have some good news for you,” he said.
She looked up. “Good news?”
“I got an email back this morning from Amy Larsen. My friend-of-a-friend who’s setting up Extra-Solar News Network? You’ve got an open invitation to go see her in her office as soon as you’re back.”
“Omigod, really?” Ava lit up. “Simon-!”
“I told her about the work we did in Egypt and linked her your portfolio. My good word goes a long way with some people.”
“I don’t know how to thank you-!”
“Don’t try, then.” Simon smiled at her. “Part of me wants to call it penance for my nephew being an absolute pillock, but I’m sure I’ll find some way to call in the favour someday.”
Ava shifted forward in her seat, looking more animated than she had at any moment since they’d got back from Africa. “What’s she like?”
“Amy’s a sweetheart. She was like your darling old grandma even when I knew her at Cambridge, and to this day she’s all cardigans and tissues, but you’ll never, ever meet somebody who’s more committed to the truth. To real journalism, right? Not your clickbait opinion piece agenda-driven bollocks.”
“You were at Cambridge together? I thought you said she’s a friend-of-a-friend?” Ava had that needle sharp insight when she wanted.
“Yup. She was my mate Ron Burford’s girlfriend.”
“Ron Burford the comic actor?”
“That’s the one. I met him through the Footlights. He still sends me a bottle of beer and a card at Christmas.”
Ava shook her head disbelievingly. “Did I do something wrong by not making friends with literally everybody at LSE?”
“I couldn’t say,” Simon shrugged. “Networking is important. But, you got put in touch with me, and through me you’ll soon meet Amy, and through her… who knows? Besides, you have contacts in Cimbrean Colonial Security, the SOR, the CIA…”
“I don’t think I can use any of those…” Ava pointed out.
“You don’t have to, necessarily. And if you do use them, be smart and use them sensibly and in a way that’s not going to piss them off,” Simon shrugged. “Delicate touch, that’s the trick. Just having them is usually enough.”
“Okay…” Ava sat back.
“…You’re having a hard time being optimistic right now, I bet,” Simon observed.
She shrugged at him in the mirror. “Can you blame me?”
“Nope. Have faith, though.”
“Yeah…” She slumped, and gazed out of the window. “I try.”
Date Point: 10y4m3w4d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches.
Admiral Sir Patrick Knight
Final after-action meetings would ordinarily have been below Admiral Knight’s station, but he took a personal interest in the SOR.
Besides, in the absence of a higher command structure in a unit so young and so small, authority flowed directly to him. After all, the SOR’s commanding officer was, or had once been, a Royal Marine.
It was all a little messier and less structured than anybody would have liked, but that was probably the nature of founding a new unit, especially an international combined one. Knight had reasoned early on that the most sensible thing for him to do was accept that, when it came to the SOR, his powers of delegation would be a touch limited for the time being.
Which was why Powell and his nine Operators were filing - or limping, in the case of the abused and exhausted four whose mission to Perfection had sparked the godawful mess in that system - into his wardroom to hear his final verdict on Operation NOVA HOUND. Knight would have preferred to give not only them, but Commodore Caruthers as well, the chance to rest up a little before launching into this, but the After-Action-Report had been squatting accusingly on his desk for a week now.
Everyone was present. Aside from Knight, Powell and the operators, they had all the SOR’s assorted NCOs, Commodore Caruthers was looking short on sleep again but still alert, and they were even being graced with the personal presence of Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Miller, commander of the 946th Operations Support Squadron, who was usually so busy that seeing him in one place for five minutes together was a minor miracle, and who probably held the record for being the human who had transited between planets more than any other.
Miller had the dubious privilege of being the greasy cog that held the whole combined unit together. Technically he was part of the 946th Spaceflight wing under Colonel Stewart, and he bridged the awkward gap where the Royal Navy and the US Air Force brushed shoulders.
Powell had once described him as “A bloody bad officer in all the best ways.” Knight couldn’t agree more. AFSOC had practically begged the SOR to take him off their hands, on the grounds that a unit that was a bodged-together mess of half-solutions and improvisation needed an officer whose stock in trade was messy, improvised bodging-together.
An Operations Support Squadron was, in many ways, the perfect fit for the Lads. It was a unit conceived in the grand Air Force tradition of drilling new holes to hammer things into, and with their usual motley assortment of totally unrelated functions scattered all over base and only barely under unified command…it was the perfect place to stash the Americans. At least, for promotions, awards and the like.
It helped greatly that Miller loved the men, too. At some point his career had hiccuped and catapulted him from Enlisted to Officer with no discernible change in his attitude. This was, professionally speaking, a problem: the enlisted mindset of “can do!” at the expense of all else was less than perfectly compatible with an officer’s responsibilities of resource-balancing and the burden of command. Miller was an enlisted man at heart and loved his men too much to ever be sufficiently detached, which meant that his career had gone as high as it would go, not that he gave a damn.
He did, however, give a damn about other peoples’ careers, which was why he was sitting quietly and taking notes almost before the men had arrived. By population, the SOR was a unit of Americans that just happened to answer to some British commanders. All well and good…Except that the MoD could neither promote nor meaningfully award American servicemen. Miller, therefore, played the game with Knight in the best possible way-Knight would praise, then Miller would award, and everyone on both sides would be happy.
God knew, the men were going to want and damn well deserve something positive by the end of the day. A couple of medals and some promotions might just take the sting out of the unflinching dissection their first blooding was about to undergo.
On the whole, NOVA HOUND had been a success. A mixed one, perhaps—three hugely valuable men dead and a great many important cards played that had previously been held close to the human race’s collective chests definitely counted against it - but all mission objectives had been completed under circumstances that were not only difficult and exceptional, but unheard-of in the history of human warfare. On the whole, the SOR had acquitted themselves very well indeed.
As a propaganda victory, it had been an unqualified triumph. Senior dignitaries from every sapient race in the Dominion had been rescued alive, and their gratitude was varying degrees of grudging and profuse—the Corti after all weren’t exactly fountains of grace and humility, and the Kwmbwrw had been the most strident voice of anti-human fear and mistrust—but it had all been gratitude. The events at Perfection were going to badly damage or even completely undo all of that hard-earned goodwill if they weren’t careful, but that was a separate problem that the SOR couldn’t fix by themselves.
And the goodwill they’d gained with the Gaoians was something else entirely. There was some very happy weather on the horizon in that direction.
Mistakes, however, were inevitable, and at Knight’s request the report carefully worked up from the least of them to the most significant.
He read it to Powell and his men for the best part of an hour, around the comfortable table on HMS Sharman’s upper floors with its spectacular view across Folctha’s north-western park district, along the valley, over the young forest and down to the river estuary.
“In the case of the death of Sergeant Brady Stevenson…” he turned a page. “The review finds that his death was almost certainly the result of him failing to follow proper safety procedures when dealing with high explosives. Combat Camera footage review and the opinions of several SOR members during debriefing suggests that he stood too close to his own breaching charge during the egress from Capitol Station and most likely suffered a concussion from the overpressure. Though he accelerated correctly into a re-entry orbit, it’s likely that in his impaired condition he failed to activate his Exo-Atmospheric Re-entry forcefield, and was rendered unconscious by the re-entry shock without being able to correct that oversight.”
The men around the table bowed their heads. Stevenson had been a brother to all of them, Knight knew. Each of them would be thinking of what they could have done differently that might have saved him.
“The review recommends,” he continued, “that SOR training should place a strong emphasis on explosive safety to ensure that future Operators are under no illusions that the suit does not protect from explosive shockwaves. It also recommends that, excepting in situations where there is a pressing need for radio silence, all team members should check in after explosive egress and guide through the re-entry process together.”
He looked up. “Does anybody wish to add to that?”
Baseball raised a hand “Sir.”
“I’d recommend training for everyone in recognising the symptoms of concussion and disorientation,” the young man suggested.
Knight nodded, and noted the recommendation. “Thank you. Any others?”
All of them shook their heads, and Knight turned the page, knowing that they were about to hit the last and most difficult of the AAR’s findings. He’d been dreading this bit all day.
“Now to the final matter,” he intoned. “In the case of the death of Master Sergeant James Jones…” Knight took a deep breath. “The review finds that his sacrifice, while not unjustified, was nevertheless a tactical error.”
There was an elongated second in which every Operator at the table went tense in a chorus of creaking chairs. Powell, in the greatest show of emotion that Knight had ever seen from him, turned to stare at him dumbstruck for an instant, then blinked disbelievingly at several other things that only he could see, before settling on gazing wide-eyed at the tabletop between his balled fists, jaw going so tight that Knight fancied he could hear the man’s teeth creak. Certainly his knuckles did.
“Before you say anything, gentlemen,” Knight raised a hand to head off the protest that he could see coming from every one of the Operators, “Major Powell has my full and absolute confidence, and that has not changed in light of this report. Lord knows, I’ve been in a not dissimilar position myself. It is the burden of command that hard truths must come out and be learned from, and we must respect and face them with integrity and strength when they arrive.”
The men glanced at one another, at Powell who was still scrutinizing the tabletop, and grudgingly settled down. To a man, they looked like they’d been about to practically leap out of their chair to his defense. Knight cleared his throat.
“To be clear, the report agrees that the Major acted correctly in the moment. It merely highlights the courses of action that would have made it unnecessary to sacrifice Sergeant Jones: Mining and trapping the south end of the road in anticipation of a Hunter evasion of our apparent air superiority, ordering the partial demolition of the façade of the building to prevent the Hunters from scaling it…”
The Defenders glanced at one another. Those were opinions that they themselves had voiced during the debrief and hotwash.
“Sergeant Vandenberg, as the senior Defender I defer to your expertise in matters of demolition and trapping. If you feel that the report’s assessment is unrealistic, please say so and explain your reasoning.”
Rebar hesitated, then set his jaw and swallowed. “It… seems like a realistic assessment, sir,” he conceded.
Knight nodded, and closed the report.
“Unless there are any more comments or observations…?”
His tone made it absolutely clear that there were to be none, and nobody ignored that, keeping their peace. “Good. If anybody thinks of anything before the final investigator’s report, you may email me directly. This review is now concluded - all enlisted personnel are dismissed to see to their individual training. There’ll be an award ceremony at Sunset, followed immediately by a Dining Out. Mess dress is the uniform of the day, for your significant others either Mess or appropriate civilian attire is equally mandatory. And yes, we’ve taken the liberty of preparing your uniforms ahead of time, gentlemen. No excuses.”
The ‘get out’ was implicit but clear, and ’individual training’ was a euphemism for “go and sort out whatever you need to sort out today because you damn well won’t have the chance after Sunset”. The Operators, their support staff, and the assorted sailors and airmen stood and departed. There was a little sotto voce grumbling over the Mess Dress, but that was to be expected, and nobody was looking entirely upbeat, but that would change in the evening. If the decorations and promotions didn’t see to that, the alcohol would.
Miller stood. “If you don’t mind sir, I need to get back to Earth.” Knight gestured his assent with a nod, and Miller departed with a respectful nod by way of a salute.
Knight sat back as the door clicked shut behind him. “So. Major.”
Powell’s head rocked back and he unwound a little, and finally there was a glimmer of wetness around his eyes as he explored the ceiling as if there was absolution written on it. “That’s it, then,” he mourned. “I’m a cock-up, I’m not fit to lead them.”
“Pull yourself together!” Knight snapped, commanding Powell’s immediate, full and stunned attention. He softened. “The review details a tactic that would have made it unnecessary to sacrifice your man, yes, but that tactic was assembled in light of information about Hunter behaviour which we’ve only gleaned from thorough examination of the combat camera footage and suit telemetry.”
“Furthermore,” Caruthers added. “The relevant information was only gained from actions the Hunters took after it was too late to enact the recommended tactic.”
“In other words, Major,” Knight concluded “At the point where you had to decide, and with the information that was available to you, you made exactly the right call. And don’t let this-” he raised the AAR document, sneered at it and dropped it contemptuously back onto the table “-tell you differently. Sergeant Jones died because we lacked critical knowledge of our enemy, not because of incompetence on your part.”
“If I’d just seen-” Powell started.
“Then you’d be God himself!” Knight barked. “We’re none of us omniscient, man. Don’t you bloody forget that.”
He grunted in satisfaction as Powell’s expression settled with a grudging nod. “But,” he added. “You had damn well better learn from this. You and your men may well be the best we have, the best ever perhaps, but that is not grounds for complacency. It is grounds for the utmost caution, and the utmost respect for just how valuable those lads really are: We cannot afford to waste them. Is that understood?”
Powell nodded quietly, swallowing as he regained his composure. “Understood perfectly, sir.”
Knight held his eye contact for a minute, then nodded. “Go on, then. You have letters and awards to write and I have Ministers and those bloody awful American Secretaries to fend off.”
Knight watched him leave, then sighed and folded his arms, considering the closed door behind Powell with his head to one side.
“Thoughts?” He asked.
Caruthers had been wearing a similar thoughtful expression. “We can’t afford to lose him,” he stated. “Training a replacement would take too long, and for that replacement to earn the men’s trust and respect would take even longer. You said it yourself—he lacked knowledge, not judgement. At the death, he chose exactly the right man for it, even though it hurt him personally, and the men respect him for that.”
“I’ve seen AARs like this one truncate some very promising careers…” Knight mused, indicating it.
“Then I’d say it’s on us to keep that from happening in this case,” Caruthers replied. “Powell’s too valuable.”
“I was afraid you’d say that…” Knight made a gruff chuckle to show that he agreed completely, and stood up. “Fine. I’ll call in a few favours, you see to it that every officer who even reads the word ‘Cimbrean’ has got his back.”
“Yes sir. He’ll have friends in Westminster by the time I’m done.”
“Good man. How’s the fleet?”
“Well, I’d give my eye-teeth to have Caledonia back…” Caruthers groused, “But otherwise we’re charged, loaded and ready, and frankly I’m bloody pleased. The Hunters took one look at us and buggered off, and Fleetmaster Tikkiv had some admiring comments to make. I have this horrible feeling that we’re going to lose Myrmidon to drydock time in the near future though. Whatever it was that started that fire on Cally will need to be fixed on her as well, and without the FIC…”
“But good overall?”
“On balance, yes sir.”
“Good. Then…” Knight trailed off as his memory nudged him “Hmm. Do you recall how close the USS San Diego is to launch?”
“Er… Three months until hull launch I believe….No, four. Fitting will take another two years.”
“And the other two?”
“The USS Gene Roddenberry should be launching in ten months, and the USS Robert A. Heinlein three months after that.”
Knight nodded. “Hmm… Wangle me a couple of invites to whatever little shindig they throw to celebrate that launch, would you?”
Caruthers paused, then smiled understanding. “I can probably arrange that. Shall I ask Miller to mention to Colonel Stewart that his wing would do well by being represented there also? Maybe by somebody with a high media profile?”
“By God, Will, I think you’re onto something there.”
They shared a laugh. “I’ll see you at the award ceremony.” Caruthers suggested.
“See you there.” Knight agreed. They shook hands, and parted.
Date Point 10y4m3w4d AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
The first day of their “training” had consisted entirely of talking with the BGEV team, being introduced to the basics of their curriculae, discussing what their roles would be on the ship, the mission, and all the other technicalities of organizing their coming education.
On the face of it, it was quite simple. Allison was to be their mechanic. The ship apparently was being designed for the kind of practical, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-fix-it maintenance and repairs that she had performed on his grandpa’s trucks back in Minnesota, but there was still going to be an intense academic course to go with it, at the end of which she would be a qualified welder, electrician, computer and network technician and have a basic grounding in electrical engineering. She’d looked equal parts daunted and excited by her dense curriculum.
Julian’s own schedule was packed full with everything needed to turn him into the ultimate laboratory assistant. Previous BGEV missions had learned the hard way that staffing the ship with a mixed bag of actual scientists specialized in useful fields only resulted in their having nothing to do. Julian’s job, therefore, would be to have just enough education to know what the people with doctorates would find interesting, and the training to record, sample and store any conceivable specimens, be they mineral, chemical or organism.
His “laboratory” in fact, wasn’t even going to be a lab - it would have practically nothing in the way of scientific apparatus, and would instead be built around the task of preparing and storing samples for long-term transit, in stasis if necessary.
Xiù’s skill with languages and alien social interactions were being put to work in her secondary role as their representative and negotiator. She’d also be tasked with keeping Allison and Julian fit and well, and of course there was her primary role: Pilot.
The fact that she’d never flown so much as an RC quadcopter didn’t matter at all. In fact, her flight instructor had been relieved.
“That means you’ve not got into the bad habits of atmospheric flight and we can teach you how to handle spaceflight properly first,” he’d said.
After the grilling and hazing they’d received from Keating the night before, having such positive and encouraging sounds coming their way had given their morale a welcome boost.
The only stumbling block came at the end of a long day of meetings, talks and briefings, when they were finally released to go “home” - Ericson delivered some awkward news.
“Mr. Keating asked us to stress upon you the importance of grooming and hygiene,” he said. The sun had gone down and he was walking them back to the Box in the company of his daughter.
“Specifically, the Assessment team want you to know that the three of you need to shower twice daily, minimum,” Doctor Brown elaborated. She was one of those women who hadn’t inherited much at all from her father genetically, but was her old man in miniature when it came to personality. Both had the same easy-going, mild practical joker approach to life.
Julian liked her. She’d politely interrogated him about the nature of his relationship with the girls, and the impression she’d given was that, as a happily married woman herself, she didn’t disapprove and was maybe even slightly envious.
“Makes sense, I guess.” Allison mused. “It’s a small space, between us we’d stink it up pretty quick if we’re not careful.”
“Now you mention it , they did say something keeping your living space tidy and hygienic, yeah,” Ericson joked softly.
Xiù exhaled powerfully and said something. Julian recognised Gaori immediately, which was a sure sign that she was distracted. In fact, she was so far adrift from the here and now that she didn’t even notice and correct herself, until Brown nudged her with an “…I’m sorry?”
“Huh? Oh, sorry, sorry… Um, I said *’no privacy, either’*’.”
Doctor Brown smiled sympathetically. “You’ll adjust,” she promised. “I think you’ll be surprised by how natural it’ll seem once you’re used to it.”
Xiù only nodded. Clearly the immodest realities of their near future were bothering the hell out of her.
They parted ways with Brown and Ericson at the Box’s airlock and ran through a quick green decon cycle.
No sooner was the door closed than Xiù let all her worries out before Julian or Allison had even got a chance to ask her. “Ooookay, so we’re getting naked,” she breathed, nervously and musically. “Hooookay.”
Allison laughed. “Nervous?” she asked, as they took off their shoes and left them in the airlock.
Xiù nodded, flushing. “It’s… earlier than I’m really ready for.”
“It’s not that big a deal, right Etsicitty?”
Julian did what he knew was an unconvincing job of agreeing with her, earning a skeptical stare from both the girls.
“*Julian-!*” Xiù complained. “I really need this to not be a big deal right now!”
“Sorry. It’s just…you’re really hot.” Julian shrugged awkwardly. “Kinda hard to be dispassionate, you know?”
He knew immediately that he’d said the wrong thing, but before he had a chance to apologize Xiù had gone crimson, scowled at him and flounced into the Hab without a word.
Julian glanced at Allison, who was vibrating with pent-up laughter and shaking her head. “…I didn’t think before I said that,” he confessed.
“Oh, no, you’re fine!” she snarked. “That was smooth as baby oil, really!”
“Yeah, yeah…shit… I get it, this is gonna be awkward and un-sexy as hell, I shouldn’t’ve-”
“That’s not it, dummy,” Allison interrupted him.
Allison sighed, folded down the excursion room’s armory table, and sat on it. “I love you, but you can be so dense some-”
“Okay, Mr. Genius, okay…” Allison glanced toward the Hab door and scratched thoughtfully at her ear. “What’s she getting out of this? Out of us? What are we doing for her?”
“Do you love her?”
Julian’s pause was entirely from being thrown by the question - he had no hesitation over the answer. “…Yes.”
“You’ve not had sex with her.”
Allison smirked. “Exactly,” she said.
“I love you too.” Julian pointed out.
“You have sex with me.”
“That’s not why I love you, though!”
“I know, dummy. I’m making a point.”
Julian shook his head slightly, not following. “O… kay?”
“I think Xiù still feels like she’s intruding,” Allison explained. “She thinks this is our relationship - yours and mine - and like she’s the third one who’s breaking into it. Uh…. But she isn’t, right? That’s not how you see it?” she checked.
Julian shook his head. “No.”
“Neither do I. She’s… I love you both, because you both do things for me that I need. You fulfil me, but in different ways. See? You’re kind of an outsider and a misfit just like me, you don’t wanna be popular or part of the mainstream. She wanted to be a movie star and despite being here with us, I think she’d go back to that if she thought she could. But you’re maybe a bit too quiet for me, and Xiù likes to go wild sometimes. And I think it wouldn’t be fair of me to try and force just one of you to try and be everything I need. You follow me?”
“I follow,” Julian nodded. “I guess… I love you, but you really don’t get just how alone I was. Xiù does…But she doesn’t bring me out of my shell as much as I need.”
“Right! You get it! And that’s important, because none of us have a relationship that’s just sex, see? We all do something for each other.”
“But she still feels like she’s intruding?”
“She needs to know that she’s loved for what she brings into our lives. And I think she knows it up here-” Allison touched her pointing finger to her temple, “But…” she knocked on her chest.
“So when I told her she’s really hot…”
“Yeah.” Allison gave him an apologetic half-smile. “I mean, you’re right, she’s ridiculously hot. I’m not usually into girls but…” she bit her lip and made an “nngh!” noise. She grinned when Julian laughed, then sobered. “…But she’s gotta be sure in her heart first that we love her before she’ll be happy to start with the sexy stuff.”
Julian aimed his thumb at the Hab door. “I’d better go apologize.”
“You better, yeah.”
As it turned out, Xiù wasn’t exactly in the Hab itself - she was in the shower. There was a line of angrily discarded clothing marking the direct route from one door to the other, and the sound of rushing water.
Allison laughed. “Yeah, she’s a brawler alright.”
“Fights the things she’s afraid of head-on.” Julian nodded. “…What should we do?”
“We’re gonna go through that shower one by one and we’re gonna normalize this shit so that it’s never this awkward ever again,” Allison told him. “And if that means spending the evening buck bare… suck it up.”
“I dunno, Al…”
She folded her arms at him. “She’s gonna step out of that shower in a minute. She’s taking a huge step here. And you’re damn well gonna reward that step, you hear me Etsicitty?”
Julian didn’t get the chance to reply further. They both turned as the hiss of water stopped, and a second later Xiù stepped out of the shower onto the absorbent microfiber mat in front of it..
Julian had seen that expression on her before. Eyes cold, jaw clenched, muscles tense - the last time he’d seen her looking so fierce, she’d been beating the crap out of Zane.
She glared at both of them and spread her arms, which was a powerful gesture considering she was only wearing water droplets. “Well,” she announced, “…here I am.”
Julian cleared his throat, not quite sure what to say, but before he could think of something Allison beamed and wriggled out of her own clothing. “My turn!”
“Wh-?” Xiù began, but Al was already stepping out of her pants and underwear. The moment she was nude, she pirouetted.
“And here I am!” she echoed. “See? No big deal. Your turn Etsicitty!”
“Um, he doesn’t need to if-” Xiù began, but Julian interrupted her by sighing and tugging his t-shirt over his head by the collar.
“No, I do. Al’s right.”
“Damn right I am,” Allison agreed. “Besides, you’re really hot.”
“Gee, thanks…” Having his own words repeated back at him had the effect of making Julian feel entirely un-sexy. It took an effort of will to undo his belt and an even bigger one to hook his thumbs over belt, pants and underwear and give all three the encouragement they needed to land around his ankles.
The three of them stood in an awkward triangle for a few seconds, not sure who to look at, or whether eye contact was the more or less awkward option.
Then Xiù giggled, and completely dispelled the discomfort. That set Allison off, and Julian shook his head and relaxed, chuckling.
“No big deal?” Allison repeated herself as a question this time. Xiù sighed and smiled, but shook her head.
“Not the end of the world,” she conceded. “Still weird though.”
“We’ll get used to it,” Allison promised. She gestured Julian toward the shower. “Go on baby, your turn,”
Grateful for a moment’s private space to think, Julian restrained himself enough to walk to the shower rather than bolt for it. “Yes ma’am.”
XIù touched his elbow as he passed. “Sorry I got mad,” she said.
Julian felt some tension he hadn’t noticed that he’d been holding onto slip away. “I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
They kissed and made up, earning a quiet little clap and cheer from Allison, and Julian went for his shower with the feeling that a milestone had been passed.
Date Point 10y4m3w4d AV
Heathrow Airport, London, England, Earth
“That’s my desk-” Ava was in the middle of pointing at it when she stopped dead in her tracks. Simon had to dance sideways on one foot to avoid crashing into her. “…Oh my God.”
“What?” Simon looked at the queue in front of the desk. There was a family of four there - a huge blond man who looked like Thor in jeans, a petite brunette mother who was fussing over a gloomy teenage boy who was her spitting image, and a little girl no more than five or six years old who was riding on her father’s shoulders.
Ava took a step forward, which became a rush, and only the smallest difference from being a run. “Hayley!” she called, “Mark! Jack!”
The mother turned. Her jaw dropped and she collided with Ava in a huge squealing hug. It looked for all the world like a family reunion.
Simon collected Ava’s bags and joined them at a discreet distance, waiting for the laughter and happy exclamations to die down and for an introduction.
He finally got it when Ava finally turned and aimed an open palm at him, still babbling enthusiastically. “…All thanks to Simon here! Simon Harvey, this is Doctor Hayley Tisdale-”
They shook hands and exchanged a “Hi” and a “Hello”
“-Doctor Mark Tisdale-”
“Nice to meet you,”
“…Jack, and Hope.”
Simon shook the teenage Jack’s hand, and aimed a smile at the little one, who was treating him with wary-eyed uncertainty but who managed a little “*H’lo*”
“You really lent her the money to come back?” Hayley asked.
“Oh, it wasn’t entirely selfless,” Simon demurred, turning on the charm with a self-effacing smile and a handwave. “Having a promising up-and-comer like Ava in my debt will pay off handsomely some day, I’m sure.”
Mark chuckled at that. “Very mercenary.”
“So you’re flying to Hamburg too?”
“We’re moving back to Cimbrean,” Mark explained. “Now that the second gravity generator’s up, it’s finally safe to raise kids there.”
“Hey, we turned out okay!” Ava objected. “Right, Jack?”
Sullen as he was, Jack managed a small smile and nod at that.
Privately, Simon had his doubts, but he held onto them. Considering how huge and robust his father was, Jack was remarkably skinny. Even his mother, who was a waifish specimen herself, out-massed him. Then again, maybe the boy was just a late bloomer.
“Well. I guess I’ll leave you to catch up…” he suggested. To his surprise, Ava gave him a crushing hug, causing him to stiffen and not know what to do.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
Simon finally relaxed, and hugged her back. “Promise me, it’s all uphill for you from now on. No more stupid bastards like my nephew, no more firefights in the desert.”
She laughed and let go, wiping an eye. “The former, I promise.”
“Oh… good enough, I suppose.” Simon smiled. “I’ll be watching you, Ava.”
She nodded, and he left her to reunite with the Tisdales.
The original plan had been to go back to Islington, have a glass of wine and work on his novelization of the events in Egypt. Instead he spent forty minutes listening to Adele on the motorway as he returned to Finchley, and parked outside Sean’s house.
It took four rings of the doorbell before his sister’s eldest opened the door.
“Can we talk?”
“If this is about Ava-”
“It’s about you, you tosser.”
Sean blinked as if Simon had just slapped him around the ear, which Simon still was of half a mind to do anyway. “Alright, if that’s how it’s going to be-” he began, and started closing the door.
“FIne, I’ll go discuss it with your mum, shall I?” Simon snapped, wedging his shoe in the door. “Or are you going to man up and take some advice from the bloke who’s trying to stop you from turning into your father?”
“Like you care.”
“Of course I fucking care you blithering twat!” Simon spat.
“Then how come you helped her leave?!”
Simon took a deep cleansing breath. “That? That question you just asked me? That’s the problem with you, nephew mine. That’s your worst trait.”
Sean glowered at him, but finally did something faintly creditable in opening the door and standing aside. Simon stalked into the living room and sat down.
“…You thought you’d won, didn’t you?” he accused, the moment Sean sulked into the room. “Her fella wasn’t taking her back, she had nowhere else to turn, you thought that was your chance. Win her off the big meathead alpha male, right?”
Sean’s expression hardened. “If you just came here to insult me you can fuck off.”
“The truth is never insulting, Sean.”
“That’s not the truth though!”
“Isn’t it?” Simon crossed his arms. “Go on, then. Let’s hear your explanation.”
Sean took a deep breath, licked his teeth sighed and then shook his head and raised both his hands in a plaintive gesture. “She’s gorgeous, isn’t she?”
“Ava. She’s fucking stunning. That wavy hair, those big innocent brown eyes… and just… everything about her. She’s just-”
“Sean, are you going to get to the point, or are you going to start wanking?” Simon demanded, impatiently.
“How much did you give her to get by and get set up? You put in a good word with a colleague, you gave her… what, three thousand quid?”
“Three thousand five hundred.”
“Would you have done that if she’d been a pimply, scrawny mate of mine?” Sean asked. Before Simon could answer, he shook his head. “She’s got her claws in you, Simon. That’s what she fucking does.”
“Oh come off it-!”
“No, I’m serious!” Sean patrolled the room, getting into his angry stride. “This is what Ava does. She turns on the fucking waterworks and she tells you about how her parents never really cared for her, and how she lost her home, and about her friend who got murdered and how her boyfriend neglected her, doesn’t she? And it’s such a sad story, innit? It fucking- it gets you right here, doesn’t it?” he thumped his fist to his chest. “And because it’s so sad and she’s got those innocent eyes, you just want to make the world a better place for her don’t you? You and anybody else she suckers into falling for her.”
“And of course she got caught playing her game but she’s sooo sorry and it was ’the worst mistake of her life’!” he added, sarcastically. “She’s just a poor sinner, isn’t she? An innocent fucking girl who’s trying her best but life’s just too har- cry me a fucking river!”
“Fuck off, Simon, she played you,” Sean snarled. “She got her claws in you and plucked her pretty fucking damsel-in-distress tune on your heartstrings like a bloody banjo, and you went and give her three grand and change and a new career with a good friend of yours, didn’t you? What the fuck are you getting out of that, eh? Nothing! At least I was smart enough to shag the manipulative cunt before she fucked me!”
Simon willed his jaw closed and sat forward.
“Alright. That’s your explanation,” he acknowledged, in a shaky voice. “You really think that’s what she is?”
“That bitch will get her fangs in you and suck you dry, Simon,” Sean insisted.
“So why the fuck didn’t you kick her out?” Simon asked. “You could be making far more off the room she was renting than she was paying you.”
Sean didn’t answer - he scowled at something invisible in the corner and went silent. Simon nodded.
“I think you need to think some more, nephew mine,” he advised. “Take a good long look.”
Sean gave no sign of having listened, and so Simon stood and headed for the front door.
“I’ll see you Monday,” he said. There was no reply.
Simon left him to his thoughts.
Date Point 10y4m3w5d AV
Whitecrest Enclave, City of Wi Kao, Planet Gao
The Gaoian equivalent to a human’s polite knock was to scratch one’s claws on a metal plate installed on most doors for exactly that purpose. Regaari’s was quite thoroughly scratched nowadays - being the only male to set foot on the human homeworld had earned him some considerable prestige. Younger Brothers came to him for advice or to hear his stories, Fathers came to him for counsel and to keep an eye on him, and…
Well, okay, the Females weren’t actually physically scratching at his door - the Enclave was off-limits to anybody who wasn’t actually a Whitecrest - but they were certainly doing so in the metaphorical sense. He’d noticed a pronounced uptick in how easily he was able to seduce them into mating deals, these last few paws of days. A surprising number were trying to seduce him, which was a situation most males could only fantasize about. In a species where males outnumbered females three to one, and that ratio was only as low as it was by dint of quite a high mortality rate among the males, to be in demand was a rare and coveted thing.
It was almost getting in the way of his actual work. It was certainly having interesting resonance for his career in the Clan. For one thing he was actually out-performing their Champion, Genshi.
Regaari was no idiot - a career of cartwheeling on the precipice of scandal had made him an expert at brinkmanship, and he was always sniffing the political air, watching the fallout as, carefully out of earshot, his Fathers bickered and schismed. He knew that his success was generating jealousy, rivals and plots but that was how the Clan worked. You fought your way to the top with fang and claw if you had to, and you had earned it once you were there.
Genshi himself couldn’t be happier, but of course part of the reason he’d been made Champion in the first place was his fanatical sense of Clan. Genshi didn’t see other Whitecrests as competition, in marked contrast to his predecessor Yirik who’d exemplified everything about the Clan’s ideals except quiet humility. If Regaari had started to out-compete him then fur and blood would have flown, and at least one of them would have walked away with some impressive new scars and the other might not have walked away at all.
Genshi had just given Regaari a brotherly play-fight (and beaten him with embarrassing ease) and redoubled his efforts. Regaari meanwhile kept applying the pressure, carefully prodding the right Fathers in the right ways at the right times. Already the momentum was shifting - the Clan was in practical terms much less pro-Dominion than it had been years ago when Giymuy had given her blessing for Gaoians becoming full members of the security council. A few of the more corrupt Fathers had quietly been promoted into the same kind of dead-end positions through which they’d once tried to dispose of Regaari.
He rose to his feet to welcome Father Mavil. The respectful gesture was decorum rather than genuine pleasure at seeing him - Mavil was a foe, one of the last few holdouts of the profiteering neoplasm whose influence had been bought by Dominion interests, and he was proving much harder to dislodge than some of his co-conspirators.
Rudely, the Father just threw himself onto the couch opposite Regaari’s desk and got down to business. “The Racing Thunder,” he said, dropping the name with neither preamble nor context.
Fortunately, Regaari was well on top of it. Mavil would have known he was - Regaari’s ‘weakness’ for humans was a common angle of attack with the coterie of Fathers in the Dominion’s pocket.
“…Yes, Father?” He asked, politely.
“What are you doing about it?”
Regaari set his ears at a quizzical half-twist and inclined his head. “That ship is a One-Fang matter,” he pointed out.
It was true. The Racing Thunder had screamed back into Gaoian space with its engines redlining mere days after the Perfection attack, and with the hull fairly crackling with accumulated static charge. When she’d discharged the potentially fatal load into Gao’s upper atmosphere, the result had been a spectacular, though small, aurora.
It had arrived less than half a day ahead of an official request from the Interspecies Dominion fleet commission that its crew be arrested and tried for dereliction of duty and treason. By that point, Clan One-Fang had reviewed the ship’s logs and comms records and were backing their Brothers to the hilt.
On the face of it, it was a satisfying vindication for Regaari and his fellow Dominion-skeptics. In reality, though, Gao really wasn’t yet in a position to be able to defy the Dominion. The ensuing sanctions might be crippling.
“The One-Fangs have requested our aid. Your aid specifically. I’m surprised you don’t know that.”
Regaari had already been searching his mail.
“Intriguing, Father,” he said. “You seem to have beaten that message to my desk. I’ll have to ask Brother Ruuvi to check if there’s something wrong with the server.”
Mavil’s ear flicked irritably, and Regaari awarded himself a win.
“I would have thought, shortcrest,” Mavil said, using the same slightly patronizing and insulting term that the Clan used while training new cubs for their Trials, “that you’d leap at the chance. Your precious humans are involved.”
How had the guileless four-pawed grey-nose managed to cling on if that was his idea of subtlety?
Unless of course he was being deliberately and misleadingly artless. Regaari spread his arms in an open, deferential gesture.
“I admit, humans are a weakness of mine,” he agreed. “But unless there are any on that ship, I don’t see…”
“Again, One-Fang have asked for you by name,” Mavil repeated.
“To do what, Father?”
“They didn’t say.”
“And have the Fathers agreed to lend my services?”
“I have, yes.”
That was the problem with being a Whitecrest. Sometimes the clan’s passion for the guileful solution made it easy to forget that straightforward approaches such as an outright abuse of authority were even an option. Mavil clearly foresaw that whichever Brother wound up caught between Clan One-Fang and the Interspecies Dominion was going to have to scrap for his life, and had seen the chance to extend his claws and swipe.
Regaari abandoned all pretense at circumspection. “I… see. And I assume you’ve arranged matters so that there aren’t enough Fathers on hand to countermand that order.”
“Now that you mention it, all the ones who could overrule me are away on urgent business.” Mavil bared his fangs a little. “How strange.”
Gaoian males were, at heart, a violent breed and for a tempting moment Regaari envisioned himself pouncing on the old bastard and claiming a promotion the old-fashioned way. Those bad old days when males could kill each other almost without consequence if the circumstances were right weren’t so far behind them as the females and civilized Clans like the Whitecrest wanted to believe.
But a real Whitecrest won his battles with wit, or not at all. Genshi would have been disappointed in him.
He stood up, and raked the fusion-edged claws of his prosthetic across the wooden desktop, which left three deep smoking gouges in it by way of making his feelings clearly known. “As you order, Father.”
Date Point 10y4m3w5d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“Where are we going?”
The direct route from HMS Sharman to the little clutch of buildings that the Lads owned on Demeter Way passed close enough to Martina’s apartment in Parkside - an expensive address, but worth it - to make it easy for her to make a quick home visit and change out of mess dress, which was very welcome indeed. A hoodie and jeans were the infinitely more comfortable choice.
It had been an entertaining night full of sorrow and colour, with emotional highs and lows for everyone but especially for the actual combat team, who after all had been mourning three fallen brothers all over again.
After the Sunset ceremony had come a round of speeches, awards, and promotions. Murray had become a Colour Sergeant, Firth had finally made Master Sergeant, and then had come the medals, which were almost certainly what was eating at Warhorse.
It was easy to forget that Arés. a guy she admired in several senses of the word, was actually a couple of years younger than her, and equally less experienced. Martina had made Technical Sergeant first time, an accomplishment she was quite proud of, but the sheer maths of promotion meant that she was still a few years more seasoned an airman than he was, and sometimes that fact became very visible.
He’d been solemn professionalism during the ceremony, stoney-faced stoicism itself while remembering the fallen, glowed with controlled pride as his buddies received their new ranks and their own medals, but when the moment had come for LtCol Miller to present him with his Silver Star, he had accepted it with…
Not with bad grace. That, after all, would have been unacceptable. He’d accepted it formally, properly and composedly… but with the definite air of a man who felt ill-at-ease.
The Dining Out had followed. Protocol called it the height of bad form to attend without a date, and so of course he’d asked Martina. She of course had accepted, and had then sat back to watch him endure a lion’s share of all the good-natured ribbing and camaraderie that were inevitable at such events.
Baseball had earned his share too, of course. Nobody had the faintest idea how Murray had snuck a pink bowler hat into the mess, let alone how he’d successfully smuggled it onto Burgess’ head without the huge man noticing, but when the uniform violation had been noted and “punished” with an enormous measure of the traditional punitive punch ‘Grog’, the laughter had been punishingly loud.
It had got even louder when Murray had taken a bow. That was an infraction itself of course, and Murray had smirked his way to the punch bowl, but the hat was already doing the rounds, migrating from head to head and eventually finding a home atop the silver-haired scalp of Admiral Knight, who had accepted his “punishment” with stately humour.
Adam had made the mistake of protesting when the hat had been dropped on his head and he’d not even had the chance to snatch it off before a violation was called. THAT had earned him an upgrade from mere booze, to a stunt for the amusement of everyone present, and after some theatrical deliberations, Miller had challenged him to lift a fully laden table over his head without spilling any drinks.
Adam had almost managed it. One treacherous glass of port had been his downfall.
Now it was well into the darkest hours of the night. The party had ended, the nightly rains had faded and she had been walking alongside him as they sobered up with a stroll through the cool, clean-smelling streets when a thought had apparently crashed into his brain and set him enthusiastically plotting to walk, in his words: “Somewhere. You’ll see where. It’s important.”
“Yeah, but *where?*”
“You’ll see,” he repeated. “I just wanna change first.”
“Like I can blame you.” Mess Dress was the worst.
“Shoulda kept that hat though. It looked pretty good on you.”
“I think Firth’s date went home wearing it. Who was she, anyway?”
“She’s one’a the regulars at Rooney’s. Uh… Freya? I think that’s her name. Guess she and Firth have got somethin’ going on there.”
“Figures she’d be named after a Norse goddess. That was… a lot of woman. In, uh, the best way.” Martina wasn’t being unkind - Freya, or whatever her name was, was Firth’s feminine equal in terms of height and physique. The word ‘statuesque’ would have fallen hopelessly short, unless the statue in question was Lady Liberty.
Adam chuckled. “She had a go with Sikes first. Apparently he was too gentle for her.”
“She made a move at me first!” Adam looked equal parts proud and embarrassed.
“You didn’t go for it?”
“Should I have?”
“Could be good for you.”
He stopped. “You really think so?”
“You’re not really ready for anything serious right now, are you?”
Adam shrugged, spread his hands and made a long mumbling noise that succinctly, though not eloquently, expressed a tangled knot of confused thoughts. Martina smiled, knowing she’d hit the nail straight on. “Thought so,” she said.
“It’s not that I don’t want serious…” Adam elucidated. “I just… I’m a really shitty boyfriend.”
“The way I hear it, she cheated on you.” Martina pointed out.
“Yeah. Because I was a shitty boyfriend.”
“It sounds like you almost forgive her.”
He shrugged. “I do.”
“…You really feel that responsible?”
Adam didn’t reply, but she noticed the way that he fiddled absently with the box in his pocket, the one that contained his newly-awarded medal for valor.
She let him think as they walked to his apartment, up the stairs and through his front door, where he carefully set the medal on his coffee table and vanished into the bedroom to get the hell out of the hated mess dress.
It had been quite an impressive citation: That Staff Sergeant Arés had, without hesitation or fear, advanced under enemy fire to retrieve a wounded man in an environment where nervejam was being used. That he had voluntarily served as a decoy to lure hostile forces into an ambush, that after the destruction of his weapon he had repeatedly exposed himself to fire to keep his comrades supplied with ammunition and that he had rescued the crew of a downed Firebird under heavy fire and without cover, placing his own body between the wounded pilot and the enemy.
Martina had personally dug a Hunter bullet out of his midsuit armor scales. Arés had claimed to be unaware that he’d been hit.
And he’d looked so fucking perfect while receiving it, too. Uniform aligned and worn to millimeter precision, every button polished, lapels sharp enough to slice through a phone book. Public Affairs had been taking pictures, and something would have to go badly wrong for that material not to find its way into the Air Force Magazine, the propaganda, and who knew where else.
After all, there was no way the whole “Beef Brothers” thing was going to just be left to die. Not when both of them had just earned serious decorations.
In public image Staff Sergeant Arés was a hero, a poster boy, the picture of Exosolar military perfection. In private Adam himself was a very different creature, as evidenced by the fact that he emerged from the bedroom wearing long baggy gym shorts, a muscle T that Martina could have turned into two dresses, and his bare feet. He grabbed his light hiking bag from where it lived by the door and didn’t even bother with his sandals.
“So *where are we going?*” Martina insisted.
“Up Memorial Hill,” he replied, throwing the light bag easily around one shoulder.
“The cemetery? …We’re visiting your friend.”
“It’s important, Marty.”
She touched his arm reassuringly. “I know.”
Memorial Hill was the highest terrain for miles around, and the south end of town skirted its base. Cemeteries were an unfortunate necessity of any settlement, but Folctha had hoped not to need one for at least another five years.
In practice, it had needed one much too soon after being founded, to bury a teenage girl. Her murder had pushed Arés into the military in pursuit of answers and understanding. The awful thought that went along with that, and it was one that Martina felt horrible about and so internally glared at until it shut up and went quiet, was that the human race as a whole would be worse off if that girl was still alive.
It was a gentle stroll by any human’s standards. Memorial Hill was no deathworld escarpment, but a gentle huge bulge in the landscape, and well outside of the range of either of Folctha’s gravity generators. Any moderately fit human would have sprang up it and Martina and Adam were exceptionally fit humans. The loose dirt and gravel path with its few wooden steps just made the ascent even more trivial.
They chatted about the terraforming program as they walked, and about how some of the locals were, against the odds, actually adapting to the upheavals in their ecosystem. The Cimbrean Tea plant in particular seemed to actually be spreading back into Terran biomes, and was being enthusiastically seized on by the Reclamation scientists as a source of clues as to how they might save more of the natives from extinction.
Of course, the resurgence of the plant was also creating problems. When chewed, the young stems were a potent psychedelic, which the Thing had consistently declined to ban on the grounds that the plant was ubiquitous, that policing its use would have been prohibitively expensive, and that it was likely to be extinct before long anyway.
In the meantime, harsh fines had been agreed on for anybody trying to smuggle it back to Earth, a urine test had been developed, all military personnel on the planet were forbidden from touching the stuff, and however many of the civilians were using it were doing so in private.
Adam paused within sight of the summit. “…Somebody’s up there.”
“You mean there’s some other idiot who’s dumb enough to be out here at oh-fuck-thirty in the God-knows-when?” Martina peered up the hill. Cimbrean’s moons - extensive deliberations and motions in the Thing had yet to furnish them with appropriate names - were small but they had higher albedos than Luna, and their combined brightness was surprising. Late in the night, after the nocturnal rains had cleared, at least one of them was usually good enough to see by.
Tonight was a double full moon, which meant there was even a hint of dusky blue in the night sky, and sure enough it was pretty easy to make out a dark figure seated against a tree near the large grey memorial stone at the very top of the hill.
“How many people are buried up here?” Martina asked.
Adam shrugged massively and resumed his trip up the path. Martina followed, deliberately scuffing her feet in the gravel. “Just seven?” she asked, louder than before.
The figure under the tree heard her. They turned their head, then planted a hand on the floor and stood up, dusting off their backside with one hand while hastily finishing a bottle of something with the other.
Once upright, she was obviously a woman. Not even the most effeminate man had a silhouette like that.
Adam stopped in his tracks. “…Ava?”
Martina had only briefly met Ava Rìos once, during a movie night with the guys while she and Adam were still dating (one that Burgess had excused himself from on pretence of a headache) but she was memorable.
“What are you-? I thought you were on Earth?” Adam asked.
“I was, uh… gonna make it a surprise.” Ava spread her hands. “…I’m back!” She offered a pathetic smile.
Adam didn’t seem to know what to say. “Back?”
“It’s, uh… look, it’s a long story and, you’re- I mean… Hi.” She turned to Martina. “Uh…Kovač, right?”
Honestly slightly touched at being remembered, Martina nodded. “We didn’t mean to interrupt-” she began.
“No, it’s… I’ve paid my… Uh… Dinner at Dad’s sometime soon Adam? Is that okay?”
“Ava, what-?” Adam begun, but she picked up a bag, gave him a strange, strained, stressed smile and a rather warmer and more genuine one for Martina, and retreated down the other path back toward the middle of town.
“Text me!” she called, and fled.
Adam was left standing there like a dog that wasn’t sure if it had been tripped over or kicked.
“…The fuck?” he asked.
Martina watched her go. “I think we interrupted something.”
“What do I do, do I-?”
“You let her go, big guy.”
Adam cast a final glance down the path as Ava turned the corner and vanished from sight at a brisk ’getting-the-fuck-out-of-Dodge’ walk, and deflated via a long nasal exhalation. He looked strangely angry with himself. “…Shit.”
Martina inclined her head, trying to guess at his thoughts, and then decided that with Warhorse by far and away the best approach was usually the direct one. “Okay, something’s been eating at you all night. You’ve been putting off telling me the whole way here, now fucking spill it.”
“Agh, it’s… two things.”
Adam produced the little case with his new medal in it. He set it down carefully on top of the memorial stone.
The stone was a ten-tonne bluestone monolith, mostly rough cut except for a flattened patch on the front surface facing town, into which was engraved the words ’Sacred to the memory of a child of Earth, and to all who shine with her among the stars.’
The top was beginning to smooth off as well. People sat on the memorial stone, they picnicked on it. It was a spectacular view, and in the dark Folctha was a maze of orange lights below. Adam parked his own butt down atop it and flipped the case open.
Martina frowned at the little metal star and its red-white-and-blue ribbon. “Dude, you were awarded the third-highest medal for valor an American can receive, and it’s bringing you down?”
“Three of my buddies died, Marty.”
She took a deep breath, nodded, and sat next to him. “And you signed up to protect people.”
“’That Others May Live.’ I chose PJ because of that motto. I chose SOR ‘cause I figured it was the best way to live up to that motto. And now here I am, I’m sitting on the memorial to my dead friend, holding a medal I earned on a mission where three of my buddies were killed, and the ex-girlfriend whose life I ruined to even get here just ran away down the hill.”
“And,” he continued “Hell! She’s saved more lives than I have!”
“How d’you figure that?”
“She patched up that Delta dude, Coombes, down in Egypt long before I got there. He’d have died before I even arrived without her, and she did so good a job that all I had to do was fuckin’…tidy up.”
“What about Major Jackson?” Martina pointed out.
“She saved us. We’d all be dead if she hadn’a taken that hit for us.”
“Dude, I pulled a bullet out of your suit that woulda killed her except you took it,” Martina pointed out. “So you saved her too. And don’t forget Regaari, or all the other ETs that NOVA HOUND got off that station.”
“Yeah, well.. That’s the other half of it.”
“I mean, yeah, I’m… glad of those. They stop me from feeling like a complete fuckin’ fraud, right? But… I guess when I signed up, the people I was thinkin’ of when I thought about saving lives were the ones I care about. The ones close to me.” He stared at the medal. “An’ that makes me feel selfish, an’…I don’t really know what valor is, but I kinda feel like maybe selfish ain’t part of it.”
“That’s not selfish.”
“Isn’t it? Dude!” He waved a hand down the hill in the direction Ava had gone. “She’s living proof.”
Martina looked up at the moons for a second and hastily assembled her words. “Tough love time, big guy,” she said. “Listen up.”
He straightened and paid attention.
“You’re drunk, you’re grieving, and you just ran into a girl it’s pretty fucking obvious you still love. Am I right?”
“I ain’t goin’ back to her,” he said, defensively.
“Good.” On an impulse, Martina leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “I want you all to myself.”
He blinked at her. “I, uh… Shit, Marty, I’m crazy about you. But, uh…”
“You’re not ready. Dude, I know. You’re still hung up on her and, yeah, I reckon you’d be a fucking awful boyfriend anyway. Just…” she took his hand, “…take it from somebody who cares about you enough to give you the unvarnished truth, okay? You’re not a fraud. They don’t give medals like this one for hard work.”
“…You really think so?”
After a thoughtful moment, he sighed and relaxed. “I’ll… take your word on it.”
Martina chuckled. “Outstanding,” she teased. “As for the rest of it… look, I’m pretty crazy about you too, and we’ve got time to be patient. Get your head sorted out, figure out how to not suck at relationships, and we’ll take a shot at it when you’re ready, okay?”
Date Point: 10y5m4d AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Xiù couldn’t resist beaming to herself at the awkward but delighted look on Julian’s face. Considering how short-notice the party planning had been, the BGEV team had really pulled through on throwing him something pretty special.
They were great people, all of them. Maybe it was supposed to be a counterbalance to the aloof Assessors, who would rip into their day every so often and do their absolute best to ruin it, but the actual tutors, educators, organisers and everybody else responsible for getting Xiù, Julian and Allison mission-ready were genuinely lovely, and had enthusiastically agreed to throw Julian - a man they had known for not even two weeks - a birthday party so enthusiastic it was like he was their oldest and dearest friend.
His present from the team was a frankly huge charitable donation in his name, to the organisation of his choice. Their allowance on personal belongings was too tight for lavishing him with anything more physical, but Julian’s jaw dropped on seeing the sum being donated on his behalf.
It was a great end to what had been an excellent day: Xiù’s first in the flight simulator.
Piloting a starship, she had learned, was no easy task. At first it had been easy enough - a simple enough introduction to the basics of pitch, yaw and roll, but of course spaceships had acceleration as well. Not only in the Y axis along the line of the ship’s primary engines, but also in the X axis (left and right from Xiù’s perspective) and Z (up and down).
Fooling around with these basic controls should have been easy, and in some ways they were.
Xiù had quickly found that the simulation didn’t have a top speed. Nor did it have a “stop” button. Every joule of kinetic energy she added in one direction needed to eventually be perfectly applied again in the opposite direction and cancelled out, which swiftly got confusing when the same applied to any rotation on the ship.
She’d tried to listen to her instructors and apply a light touch, but light touches built up over several seconds, and she always seemed to overcorrect by applying the maneuvering thrusters for a little too long. Inevitably, she’d found herself tumbling and disoriented and eventually she’d had to shut her eyes to banish the rising nausea.
They’d actually congratulated her on holding out as long as she did. All things considered, it had been fun but frustrating.
These being the early days of their training and to help them ease into life in The Box, for now they were still being allowed a day off per week which Xiù and Allison had used in acquiring their present for Julian.
Xiù had questioned Allison’s plan of buying him another tomahawk considering that he already had two, but Allison had insisted. “Trust me,” she’d said, “I’ve been planning this for a while.”
Bereft of better ideas and inclined to trust Allison’s judgement in all matters Julian anyway, Xiù had gone along with it. What Allison had found, it turned out, was a cutlery company in Omaha who’d invested heavily in some of the latest and most impressive-sounding manufacturing technology.
Xiù wasn’t sure how slow-cool SuperG field-suspension forging went, nor what Ceres Method fullerene-steel was, but the result apparently was exceptional. Certainly the man who’d sold them the finished product had been sorry to see it go: Julian was equally happy to see it arrive.
He tested its edge by intricately slicing up a post-it note, spun it in his hand and declared the balance superb, enthused at length about pretty much every aspect of it before finally returning to the real world long enough to remember to thank his girlfriends for the superb gift.
“It was all Allison,” Xiù confessed as they hugged. “I just chipped in.”
He kissed her. “It’s a great gift anyway. Thank you.”
“You don’t mind having three of those?”
He laughed. “I wouldn’t mind having thirty.”
Doctor Ericsson clapped him on the shoulder. “Too bad we can’t party all night,” he declared, apologetically. “But the three of you are still starting at six tomorrow.”
“Spoilsport,” Allison joked, but took both Julian and Xiù’s arms.
They wended their way back to the Box, the girls exchanging wry expressions as Julian geeked out over his new tool. He stashed it safely in one of the armory lockers in the Box’s decontamination room, and relaxed on the couch as Xiù took the first shower. She always did in the evenings, on the grounds that her hair needed the longest to dry.
It was still a little awkward, not having any privacy to dispose of her clothes in the laundry hamper on one side of the room and walk right across it to enter the shower on the other side of the room, but it was less and less of a plunge with every passing day. She noticed the way Julian checked her out as she passed him, but she could hardly complain about that. Not without being a hypocrite, anyway.
It helped that it was a good shower. Temperature settings to the degree celsius, pressure selection before it was even turned on… all she had to do was tap out her preferences and hit start, and a second later her perfect shower started up. No warmup, no early trickle, just nought to sixty in one smooth second.
Somebody on the BGEV team really understood the importance of a good shower.
The evening shower was, by agreement, hers to luxuriate in. Julian seemed to view the shower as a temporary inconvenience - he spun through it and scrubbed up as quickly as he could, all business and drive. Allison meanwhile needed a good soak in the morning to help wake up while her two light-sleeping paramours got breakfast ready, but her evening shower was more businesslike.
Pretty soon they were all clean, and they granted themselves a half hour to unwind before bed. Julian spent it reading, while Xiù sat next to him on the couch and watched an episode of The Legend of Korra with Allison, who was lying across both their laps. She wasn’t quite sure why they’d settled on cartoons as their go-to for entertainment, but they just seemed to work - something quick and harmless to switch the brain off before, after half an hour, they dragged Julian away from his book, bade each other goodnight, climbed into their bunks and turned out the lights.
Some dreams are more lucid than others. Tonight’s is very lucid indeed - Xiù knows it’s a dream within seconds of finding herself standing in front of the grand doors of the female commune in Wi Kao city.
Being aware of the dream and influencing it are different things though. Xiù knows that the commune isn’t on Earth, and it’s certainly not in Yosemite park. But it is in the dream world, and she wonders what connection her subconscious is drawing between those two different and distant places.
She sits down on the rock - THE rock, the kissing rock - to begin pondering that connection, when she jolted awake in response to an unexpected sound.
Sleeping lightly had become an important skill in space. Not that she’d ever had to rely on it, but Xiù had known in her bones that the one time a human was ever really vulnerable was at night, asleep. As a matter of survival, therefore, any noise out of place was enough to wake her.
The noise in question was a creak, and Julian giving a surprised grunt and whispering something. “…Al?”
Allison’s reply was barely audible. “I’m lonely. Move over, birthday boy.”
There was a rustling of blankets and a couple of satisfied noises as, presumably, Allison wriggled into bed alongside him. There really wasn’t a lot of room for two on the bunks, so they must have been pressed right up against each other.
Xiù smiled to herself and fell asleep again.
She woke up to the sound of more sotto voce conversation below.
“Mmm… did you smuggle a candy bar out of the party, or are you just glad I’m here?”
”Gimme a break, it’s been a couple’a weeks since we last…” Julian grumbled, then gasped. ”Al!”
Allison laughed quietly. There was a soft cloth sound, like she was rhythmically and slowly moving her hand. “Mmmhmm, that feels nice.”
”Allison! Xiù’s a light sleeper!”
”So be quiet…”
Xiù heard her twist in bed and turn over. There was a prolonged rustling, a deep-voiced “Mmm” from Allison and Julian produced another, louder gasp.
”Are you crazy?! She’s going to- Agh, God.”
“She can watch if she likes, I don’t care.”
“Shhh… Quiet, baby. Just lie back and enjoy your birthday present…”
“Oh fffuck… Yes, ma’am.”
Allison chuckled softly. “Good boy.” She made another hedonistic “mmm”, and this one was underpinned by a kind of wet mouth sound. Almost like she was licking or sucking on somethi-
Xiù’s hazy, sleepy, warm oblivious daze evaporated as she finally got her head around what they were doing. Between the sound of her own suddenly pounding pulse and the heat of what was probably the most powerful blush she’d ever worn, it became difficult for her to keep listening, but listen she did. She lay there afraid to move in case they stopped, and paid rapt attention to all of it, every slick noise and feminine purr as Julian did his best - which wasn’t very good - not to gasp, moan or whisper little words of praise.
Eventually, he failed completely. His breath had been catching for a minute or two, and Xiù shut her eyes and chewed frantically on her lip as he gasped heavily three times, his breathing stopped completely for a few seconds, and when it finally came back, it did so as a guttural ’aaugh! and several deep, shuddering, cleansing gulps of air.
She clearly heard Allison swallow and shush him loudly, trying and failing to laugh in a whisper.
It was too absurd: Xiù couldn’t stop herself from giggling along with her.
They both immediately went still and quiet, and when he tentatively spoke, Julian’s tone of voice even sounded like his eyes were screwed shut, mortified. “…Ssshit. You heard that, didn’t you?”
Xiù rolled over and poked her head over the edge of her bunk to give them an apologetic smile. “All of it. Sorry.”
She got a glimpse of everything that Julian had to offer before he was able to flinch and cover himself. Allison hastily snatched a hand out of her underwear, looking much more embarrassed than her earlier bravado had suggested. She cleared her throat, and hurriedly wiped something off the corner of her mouth. “Uh… sorry….I-I just, uh…” she stammered.
“It’s okay.” Xiù promised.
Allison and Julian glanced at each other, both clearly embarrassed and a bit ashamed. Some kind of rapid, nervous conversation that seemed to consist entirely of raising their eyebrows and biting their lips passed between them, then Julian made a ’snrrk’ noise and shook his head, Allison giggled, and the two of them finally relaxed.
“…You’re sure?” Julian asked.
“Guys, I love you. You don’t have to be celibate, really.” Xiù promised. “Anyway, um… that sounded really hot.”
“It was.” Allison winked like one of the devil’s own courtesans. Julian cleared his throat and slid past her to make the walk of shame to the toilet. Both girls watched him go.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Allison stood up and hugged her.
“You’re sure you don’t mind?” She asked.
Xiù rolled her eyes and sighed. “Shǎguā…” she said, lovingly. “Al, I was getting worried about you guys. I don’t want to stop you from anything.”
“It’s like…It’s an affectionate way of…It means ’stupid melon’.” Xiù smiled.
“Yeah.” Xiù giggled again. “Stop worrying about it, dummy. I’m not your mom.”
Allison laughed. “Okay. Okay…Thanks.”
“Come on, we’re gonna be stuck together in a room like this for like two years.” Xiù pointed out. “They’re right, we’ve got to get used to everything. This one’s easy next to the shower.”
Xiù glanced at the restroom door and lowered her voice even further, feeling her blush start up again. “I uh… I really enjoyed listening to it.” She confessed.
Allison grinned. “You wanna try it sometime?”
“Uh, um…” Xiù shook her head and gulped, blushing fiercely. “I-I’m, I’m, I, um, I’m not…”
“Ready.” Allison finished for her and nodded, though Xiù thought she detected… disappointment? Sadness? …behind the understanding and sympathy. “Okay. Well, when you are, let me know. ‘Kay?”
“…If I ever am.” Xiù promised.
To her surprise, Allison kissed her. As first kisses went, it wasn’t much at all - little more than an arguably chaste taste of her lips - but it was a real, tender and unforced physical gesture of affection. The kind of kiss that Xiù had seen her give Julian in passing, as a kind of natural romantic punctuation to daily life.
“You will be,” she promised, and stooped to climb back into Julian’s bunk. “G’night, babe.”
“…’Night.” Xiù echoed. She rolled back onto her back, then onto her right side, and snuggled up into her blankets feeling strangely warm and at peace on the inside.
She didn’t hear Julian make the return trip from the restroom - she’d already smiled herself to sleep.
Date Point: 10y6m AV
Yavun Marketplace, City of Wi Kao, Planet Gao.
Sister Shoo had once mentioned that human pregnancies lasted three-quarters of an Earth year, and with a bit of research Myun had learned that an Earth year was a fifth longer than a Gaoian one.
Myun had never been terribly fond of mathematics, but figuring out that these two facts made human gestation nearly twice as long as a Gaoian’s had been simple enough.
Given that she was already feeling constantly tired and hungry and was yipped at by cautious Mothers whenever she walked at anything faster than a careful shuffle, Myun was beginning to wonder how a human of all things could endure becoming so limited? They were so agile and strong and solid, to lose all of that even temporarily must be infuriating.
She was already resolved to be very picky with her males. If she was going to have to endure this kind of inconvenience every time she mated, then she was ”damned” if she was going to do so for anything less than a supreme specimen.
As for the humans… well, that was a mystery. One that had set Ayma to chittering when Myun had mentioned it. “You’ll see,” she had promised. “It’s rewarding, I promise.”
Myun remained skeptical.
There was one good thing about bearing a cub, though - she smelled pregnant, which meant that the males weren’t constantly trying to seduce her. They were still treating her nicely and giving her all the respect that a Female was due of course, but they were also being more genuine, more… themselves. They weren’t trying to impress, and a few of them even earned themselves an upgrade into Myun’s private ‘maybe’ list - the one for if Mother Ayma turned out to be right.
They gave her a respectful berth on the street as she headed for the market. Females had their needs paid for by male contributions to the communes of course, but while that covered the bare essentials, any female who wanted some luxuries or spending money had to earn it. Myun’s usual revenue stream was combat training - several of the more military-minded Clans like Whitecrest and One-Fang were enthusiastic about cubs that Myun had taught Gung Fu while they were young - apparently the ingrained instincts and techniques she instilled in them gave them quite an edge in their Trials.
She spent that money on more of the same. She was completely aware that she had only a few years left in which to properly learn things before she reached the long stretch of a Gaoian’s mature life, when the brain settled down from its cubbish phase of learning everything and new pathways forged themselves more slowly and with much greater difficulty.
To that end she studied - as best she could considering she was relying on imported human data purchased via a trader with contacts on Cimbrean - every human martial art she could get her paws on, from Shoo’s Gung Fu to so-called “HEMA” that seemed to require wearing a quarter-tonne of metal.
She’d pared that down to the essentials, and incorporated it - especially the swordfighting techniques - into her fusion blade drills.
She’d also spent three months’ income on having a human style sword made, and had promptly downgraded the merchant who’d taken her order to the “no way” list after he’d given her a very strange look.
It was taller than she was from hilt to tip, and looked like it should have been about as wieldy as a bus. In practice, the long handle provided so much leverage that the weapon would have been an agile whirl of deadly steel had the Guard-Mother, Fara, not insisted that it must be blunt and purely decorative.
Myun hadn’t been happy, but she knew how to pick her fights nowadays. She’d surreptitiously had the handle of her official weapon lengthened and took solace in knowing that in the infinitely unlikely scenario that she ever did have to fight with it for real, she’d be the deadliest Sister ever to defend a commune.
Today’s project was a gentler pursuit - she was doing the heavy lifting for Mother Esu. As Myun’s adult coat had come in she’d been inwardly quite pleased to discover that she was a “brownie” - a clear sign that her Sire was from a labor clan such as the Stonebacks or the Ironclaws. Between that genetic advantage and a lifetime of sewing weights into her clothing, Myun was strong in a way that females rarely were nowadays. Strong enough to put plenty of males in their place when she wanted to, even if she was frustratingly under strict orders from Mother Ayma not to strain herself during her pregnancy.
Mother Yulna, as always, had made her feel better. “You’re guarding a cub in there, Myun,” she had cautioned, immediately putting it into perspective for her. Yulna was going to be an excellent Mother-Supreme.
She swayed around a cargo drone that was thrumming gently down the street and then stepped into a doorway as the communicator clipped to her ear buzzed gently and played a call tone at just the right volume that she could hear it loud and clear, but nobody else could.
This one was a custom tone: Her cub’s sire.
She tapped it, and it projected a semi-transparent holographic ‘screen’ in front of her eyes. “Regaari? Hello! Is this a social call, or business?”
Uncharacteristically, Regaari sounded stressed. “I’m afraid it’s business, Myun. I have a bit of a problem I need your help with…”
“You’re the Whitecrest,” she pointed out. She extended a claw and thoughtfully picked a scrap of her lunch out of her teeth. “Aren’t you the problem-solver?”
“Indeed, which is why I’ve called you. I have a feeling you wouldn’t object to the idea of relocating to Cimbrean…”
“…You’re not wrong.” Myun straightened up and pricked up her ears, thoroughly interested.
“Good, because… tell me, have you heard of the Racing Thunder?”
Date Point: 10y6m AV
New Mexico, USA, Earth
Master Sergeant Christian Firth
“Fookin’ Christ it’s hot…”
Firth suppressed a smirk. The Major was right, New Mexico was hot as shit, much hotter than his native Kentucky. It was good to see him sweating. Powell and Murray both came from Great Britain and strolled around Cimbrean - a planet that was downright cold by Firth’s standards - as if it was balmy and comfortable.
Already, Murray was going red and had jammed a field hat down around his ears to try and keep that delicate Scottish skin from scorching. Major Powell’s quiet complaint was a sign that he was really struggling - he hadn’t even commented on the heat in Alabama back when they’d been undergoing their astronaut training - and while Firth had to admit he preferred the air-conditioning in the truck to the thermal hammer-blow that had hit them the second the doors opened, he was damn well going to show up the Brits this time.
At least it was a dry heat. Not to mention perfect Aloha Shirt weather - he’d found a truly vile one with some kind of fantasy artwork where an unreasonably slim man with spiky hair and a suit of impractical armor was brandishing a stupid wavy sword twice his size. Murray had mimed dry-heaving on seeing it, which meant it was perfect.
He was never going to beat Rebar for hot-weather comfort, though. Rebar was from Arizona. Rebar looked like he was out for a stroll in the park.
They all took a moment to stretch out after the long drive. Huge though the truck was, SOR men were huger, and Firth had been behind the driver’s seat. It felt odd letting the officer drive, but that was just one of the old man’s quirks - he preferred to take the wheel himself if he could.
They’d pulled up outside what was basically a large tin shed, a few miles west of a town whose next door neighbors were the middle of nowhere. It was a good shed, though - new, strong metal, well built, and a new and brightly painted sign on the roof that read ‘Black Ogre Munitions.’
Rebar read their motto aloud. “’Because We Can’, huh? I think I like these guys already.”
“‘S quite the resumé,” Powell commented, rolling his sleeves down to try and ward off sunburn. “Apparently these gents got caught up in Syria back in the day. You heard about Al-Mashqouq an’ that business wi’ the Jordanians?”
Firth hadn’t. Vandenberg clearly had - his eyebrows cranked upwards and a half-smile twisted the corner of his mouth. “That was them? Shit, I may have to get me an autograph.”
Before Firth could ask, the front door opened and a sturdy man limped out wearing a prosthetic leg, a polo shirt with the company logo on the breast and a USMC veteran hat.
“Gunnery Sergeant Howard, I presume,” Powell said, meeting him with a handshake.
“Yes sir,” Howard grinned, and did the rounds, welcoming them all. Firth didn’t even notice his two missing fingers until they were shaking hands. “And I think you’ll like what I’ve got to show you.”
“Anything to get out of this bloody heat,” Powell replied, in characteristic gruff humor. Howard caught on easily enough and beckoned them inside with a smile.
The air conditioning was a welcome relief after the noonday blast furnace outside, and Murray sighed happily as he turned his sweat-soaked back towards the vent. Poor Highland hadn’t even looked so uncomfortable back in Egypt. It wasn’t actually cool in the workshop, as there was an assortment of machines that were busy warming the place up as a byproduct of actually doing their jobs, under the supervision of a handful of other men of varying age who all straightened up to welcome their guests. There was another round of introductions and handshakes.
Rebar was already running his eye over the workshop. To Firth, it had an odd mismatch going on - around the walls and in the corners were the kind of scuffed and well-used metal tools, benches, cabinets and equipment that might have been built fifty or sixty years ago. Next to those distinctly second-hand looking items, the three sleek bits of inscrutable modern tech in the middle of the ‘shop looked badly out of place, almost like some kind of Corti spaceship had landed in the middle of a WW2 reenactment.
Introductions complete, Howard led them through out of the noise and comparative warmth of the workshop into an even cooler office space, and scanned his palm print on a heavy door that led into what turned out to be the armory.
Resting on the large steel table in the middle of the room was the item they’d come to review. Howard picked it up, checked it, and then stood with it slung comfortably in his arm as he introduced them.
“No preamble,” he promised, “This baby here’s our flagship item, the Black Ogre Munitions Gauss Rifle One, type D. She’s envisioned as a bespoke and highly modifiable platform for small elite units who need to get the most bang for their buck on ammo weight.”
Considering the damage to his dominant hand he did a quick and easy job of disassembling the weapon until it was down to just the barrel group, a pile of various accessories, and the receiver.
“As you can see, we’ve gone with a bullpup configuration. Nice thing about a gauss rifle, because the trigger system’s completely electronic we’ve got a nice crisp trigger pull and because she fires these .45 caliber caseless ferrous slugs, there’s no brass to eject so it’s just as good if you’re a righty or a lefty. No brass of course also means a much reduced likelihood of a malfunction.”
“Firing power is provided by these energy hypercells.” He lifted one from the table - it was about as big as Firth’s thumb. “This little guy right here’s worth about a gallon of gasoline, which depending on which barrel coils you’re using should get you anywhere between about two thousand and five thousand shots- yes?”
Vandenberg had put his hand up. “That’s an awful lot of energy density, Gunny. I have safety concerns about stability there - last thing we want is one of our guys blowing up ‘cause his power cell got damaged.”
“Well…okay, that’s valid.” Howard scratched at his nose, looking possibly a bit crestfallen and defensive. “We were concerned about the weight with larger cells…”
The Lads chuckled mirthlessly. “Bro,” said Rebar, as he rolled up his sleeve and flexed his enormous forearm, “We’re not even the biggest guys on the team. The Beef Brothers make Firth here look small.” Firth grinned and stood up a little straighter. He was so overwhelmingly big he didn’t need to do anything to make the point besides simply stand in place and loom. The BOM team boggled at the sight, visibly revising some of their estimates upwards by a few multiples.
“Mass ain’t a concern for any of us, even Powell.” He confirmed, and nodded respectfully at his officer who smiled his faint approving smile.
”Bulk,” Murray pointed out.
“Right, yeah” Rebar nodded. “It’s bulk that matters - we’re way past caring too much about weight. What we need is something sleek that can take a hell of a jolt without, oh…”
“Blowing up, breaching the hull of whatever ship or station we’re aboard, explosively decompressing the whole thing and killing everybody?” Firth suggested.
Howard glanced at two of his colleagues. “We could reinforce the cell’s housing…” he suggested. He demonstrated where the cell usually lived in a receiver under the barrel. “If we gave it plenty of protection in there, it shouldn’t add much to the weapon’s size. Use a lower energy cell, maybe? But you’d need to carry more. Hmm…”
The Major cleared his throat “Lads, let’s keep focused on the platform. We can customize and revise later.”
“Right.” Howard, nodded, and continued his demonstration.
Together they enthused over the base receiver and its standardized feed for the projectiles, which also housed the controlling electronics that were common to all variants, along with a military-grade Bluetooth radio, a respectably powerful integrated computer and its copious and well-protected flash storage. The barrel, coil, and power assembly were entirely replaceable, isolating the power electronics from the more sensitive bits of the weapon. Like most modern combat platforms with close-quarters fighting in mind, the stock, grips, shrouds, rails, and all other accessories were also fully modular and replaceable.
“Lastly, there’s a built-in low-speed databus on these rails that works with contact pins along the bottom of an accessory. That lets you mount either standard Picatinny scopes, sights, and so forth, or whatever ‘smart’ device is developed in the future. The rails use a modified RS-485 serial bus; simple, robust, low-power, and a modest but very reliable signaling rate. We, uh, don’t know what you may want to do with it, but the firmware in the receiver can be fully upgraded.”
“Akiyama was tellin’ me about these just the other day,” Rebar enthused. “Since it’s serial, we’re totally free to do whatever we want. The wire protocol isn’t even defined.”
“Yup! We wanted to keep this as open as possible. Given, uh, how much the stats and pics didn’t do you fellas justice…” He looked them over again, still maybe not quite believing his eyes, “It’s clear we need to re-think parts of this.”
“‘Horse and ‘Base would prolly prefer DU rounds and the biggest fuckin’ coils you could manage,” commented Firth. “Me too, maybe.”
“DU poses its own risks.”
“Yup, but if we’re doing our jobs they shouldn’t really be shootin’ anything ‘cept on recovery, or whatever.”
“Aye,” nodded Powell. “Fewer rounds, but hit with those as hard as possible. But those are details we should address in the design critique. Before that, I’d like to see how these weapons fire.”
“Can do, sir.” Gunny smiled happily.
Much to Murray’s disgust, the range was outside, back in the relentless heat. The Major bore it with better humor this time, probably because he had a rifle to play with.
Howard didn’t waste their time - he gave them a quick familiarization and then stood back to watch the fireworks while dropping in remarks about the weapon’s muzzle energy, rate of fire and accuracy.
Firth drew the short straw and had to go last, but just watching the others shoot gave him a decent idea what to expect. When he finally got his hands on it, he lined up on his fresh new paper target - thoughtfully, BOM had given them Hunter-shaped targets - and happily drilled it right between its three central eyes. Something about nailing those monstrous fucks right between their fuckin’ eyes just felt right…
The recoil took a few shots to get used to, but that was just because the profile was very different to a conventional firearm. Rather than an explosive kick in the shoulder, the GR1-D shoved instead. There was still plenty of force involved, but it didn’t peak as high and was delivered over a slightly longer interval.
The impressive part was the helical magazine. From what Howard was saying, the caseless ammo took up only a third of the volume of conventional 5.56mm, and BOM had set themselves - and met - the challenge of making use of that phenomenon by fitting three times as many rounds into something no larger than a STANAG magazine. He didn’t go into detail about how it worked, but there was something deeply wood-inducing about the words “ninety round mag.”
“Thoughts?” Gunny looked smug as fuck, like he’d just nailed the hottest girl at the prom. And after all…
“I think I’m in love,” drawled Firth. “Hell, I think I love this more than Walsh’s sister.”
“High praise,” Murray smirked.
“That magazine’s reliability will need to be proven. I wanna take it apart and see how it manages to feed and fit ninety rounds stacked up. And we’ll need to iterate on this platform design pretty hard to get what we need,” cautioned Vandenberg, “Especially, I think, with suit integration. We’ve got these nice HUDs and it seems criminal not to use them.”
“On-weapon video?” Murray’s suggestion was so obvious nobody on the team even needed an explanation.
“Oh, fuck!” Firth laughed at the possibilities, “Imagine! Just stick your boomstick over a wall, or whatever, and look around corners! Plink Haji without even exposing yourself!”
“Yup. Serial ain’t terribly fast, but it’s reliable, and hell, with a good video codec, maybe multiple Bluetooth—”
“Weeds,” Powell commented. It was an American term, but a useful one that he’d picked up, which cautioned against getting tangled up in unnecessary details.
Vandenberg grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, sir. Also, I reckon I’d be happy to pump even more muzzle energy out of this bad boy. You said two thousand shots per cell, minimum, so we’ve got room to play around there.”
“What about recoil…?” Gunny glanced yet again at the prodigiously muscled men he was addressing and corrected himself. Vandenberg’s forearm wouldn’t have fit in the cup of Howard’s prosthetic leg. “Never mind.”
“All told, I think we’re optimistic,” Powell declared, after catching his men’s eyes and receiving a nod from all of them. “If we take it as a given that we’re going to want those energy cells to be fookin’ bombproof, about how long d’you reckon you’d need to make that change?”
Howard glanced at his colleagues. “I’d call that… ‘bout a month?” There were some nods. “Yeah. As for the mag testing, you’re welcome to take a couple home with you.”
“And the suit HUD integration’s more down to C&M than to these fellas,” Vandenberg commented.
“Aye. Guess we’ll be seeing you in a couple of months, then.” Powell shook Howard’s hand “Best o’ luck with the modifications,”
“Like we’ll need luck,” Gunny grinned. Powell chuckled, and they walked round the building to get back to their truck.
Murray sighed his relief as the aircon blasted cold air in his face, and ruffled his hair.
“Please tell me our next stop isn’y as hot as this place,” he pleaded.
“Well our next stop is Alabama to check on the gentlemen coming up the Highway,” Powell grumbled, “So it’s not exactly gonna be fookin’ Siberia.”
Murray groaned, causing Firth and Vandenberg to exchange grins. The two Brits took considerable pride in their stoicism, and seeing either of them be anything other than perfectly taciturn was a rare treat. Both at once?
“What’s the matter bro?” Rebar joked. “It’s Huntsville, the north of Alabama. Hell, it’ll be just like bonny Glasgow, you’ll see.”
“Oh aye, I’ll get a munchy box and some Irn Bru and sit down to watch Celtic give Rangers a pasting,” Murray snorted.
“See? Just like home.” Firth grinned as Murray rolled his eyes and wisely held his peace. The Major had a glimmer of amusement in his eyes as he finished programming the truck’s GPS. It felt WRONG being in a truck that big that didn’t roar when it started, but that was modern vehicles for you. Its electric drive was just as good as any diesel engine even if it was too quiet.
They exchanged final gestures of farewell with Howard and pulled out.
“We’re buying that rifle,” Powell said, the moment there was no possibility of the retired gunnery sergeant hearing them.
“I ever tell you how much I love you, sir?” Firth asked him.
Powell snorted. “Far too bloody often.”
A little round of mirth lapped the vehicle. “So what’re the cherries like?” Vandenberg asked.
“Likely lads. We’re getting another officer at long bloody last - he’s Canadian - plus a Kiwi engineer, an Irish lad who fancies himself the next Warhorse, and yet another bloody Air Force type.”
Firth beamed as Vandenberg groaned beside him. “Anyone I know?”
“SOWT. Name of Mason.”
“Ah, you do know ‘im, then.”
“Second-quietest motherfucker I ever met.”
“Do you know literally everybody in the Air Force?” Vandenberg demanded
“Special operations is a small community, bro, you know this. You could fit every single operator in the entire airforce in our gravball court an’ it wouldn’t be much crowded.”
Rebar grunted. “Dude, Army’s way bigger. Why ain’t we got more Army?”
“Too busy here on Earth,” Murray observed, grimly. It wasn’t a joke. They were all acutely aware that they were toward the sharp end of a very expensive wedge of military spending, a lot of which had been repurposed from elsewhere - humanity’s survival in the face of interstellar extinction-level threats was being bought at the cost of growing instability at home. The new guy in the White House had inherited a record national debt, taken one look at the briefing that Allied Extrasolar Command had prepared for him, and promptly rubber-stamped his approval for that debt to keep growing.
Meanwhile, in pretty much every sun-lashed corner the Earth had to offer, conventional forces were slowly having to take up more and more of the slack as the high-tech assets that had hovered protectively over their shoulders throughout the previous decades were being stretched thinner and thinner across an ever broader and deeper clusterfuck that was now stretching all the way from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Andaman Sea, with no clear end in sight.
Maybe now that the Hierarchy was no longer fanning those flames, there might finally be a turn-around.
Firth viewed it as his duty to break up awkward silences, and the one that descended in response to Murray’s observation was a ringer. “…I wanna meet this Irish dude,” he declared. “Anyone who thinks he’s beatin’ ‘Horse before I do’s gotta have big brass ones, or be crazy.”
“Implying you’re sane,” Rebar quipped.
Firth tugged his trademark aviator shades from his chest pocket, and put them on with a huge grin. “Dude, I’mma beat him. It’s my fuckin’ destiny.”
“If you say so. Smart money’s on Arés, right Murray?”
Murray, in typically verbose style, rocked once with a contained half-laugh and nodded.
“Heh. You’ll see, I’mma catch his stumpy ass and take that money.”
“Unless Irish gets there first.”
“We’ll see, bro. We’ll see.”
Date Point 10y6m AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Allison was ambivalent about the early afternoon PT session she was looking at.
Really, she’d have preferred to keep working on her electrical engineering. All of her existing knowledge and experience with fixing and maintaining stuff consisted of knowing what size of thingy fit in what kind of receiver and how to take it out again when it needed replacing.
Being BGEV-11’s mechanic was going to require a reserve of academic knowledge to complement the hands-on stuff, and while Allison congratulated herself that hers was a damn good brain, the fact was that her education had largely been provided by the school of hard knocks. Somewhere along the line a mild prejudice against formal education had ingrained itself into her soul, and she was finally having to try and scrub it out.
In fact her head felt like it was stuffed with electric spiders, and she was feeling drained and sleepy just from spending the whole morning thinking hard, trying to memorize rules and laws and constants and applied mathematics, most of which she was learning from scratch. It was exhausting… but on the other hand, the moment of revelation when she’d finally clicked onto what logarithms were and what they did had been incredible. She’d gone home after that session with a huge smile.
She could feel that she was on the verge of a similar breakthrough today, if only this damn PT lesson hadn’t come along to interrupt her. This was to be their first with an actual instructor - apparently there had been a bit of a hiring mixup - and Allison was faintly skeptical. She, Xiù and Julian had all thrived in space for years without falling into the trap of low-G muscle atrophy. They knew how to stay in shape.
Whatever. There was no point in getting changed - the three of them lived in their “uniform” of black track pants and a white sports shirt anyway, and apparently the previous BGEV missions had all worn that same combination aboard the actual ship. Sportswear, it turned out, was eminently practical clothing for a starship’s crew.
Julian had suggested it was also probably a team-building thing, to make them feel like a unit. Allison couldn’t find much ground to argue - they were all using the same soap and shampoo, they were eating the same food, they had pretty much identical routines… They already smelled alike, so dressing alike was probably just another way of forging the bond.
While that should have seemed slightly manipulative and creepy, Allison had to be honest with herself that she actually enjoyed it.
She pushed the thought aside and headed for the Hab mockup.
While the Box itself was a mock-up of the interior of their ship (never mind that they hadn’t yet technically won the right to fly it, all three of them now emphatically thought of BGEV-11 as their ship) the training facility around it contained mock-ups of the interior of the Box. It had come as a surprise to them that even the hab room had been duplicated, though a few details were off now that they’d had time to settle in and personalize the real Hab a bit. When Julian was putting the clean laundry away, for instance, he folded the towels in thirds rather than in halves, and Xiù was strangely particular about where each knife lived inside the knife block.
The differences between the mockup and their real living space was subtle, but noticeable and reassuring - it suggested that they genuinely did have some privacy together.
Julian and Xiù were already there and limbering up when she arrived, and it made for an entertaining sight. Julian had earned his fitness through hard work and labor, and Allison had to admit he’d probably benefit from tuition - he really didn’t know how to limber up properly. Xiù on the other hand had spent her teenage years practicing ballet, gymnastics and Gung Fu, and her idea of stretching out was, by anyone else’s standards, almost contortionism. One foot on the floor, the other on the wall above head height, eyes shut and face pinched with discomfort as she leaned forward to touch her forehead to her shin.
She gave Allison a strained sideways smile by way of welcome, and Allison sat down with Julian to help him actually stretch properly.
They were still warming up when the door opened and Doctor Clara Brown backed into the room with her arms full of documents and talking animatedly with her colleague on matters of grave scientific magnitude.
“-just saying, why do they even bother? They’re human-sized talking turtles, it’s not like they can just take the masks off and blend into the crowd if they- oh, hey guys!”
“Hey Clara,” Allison called.
“Hi! So, guys, this is my husband Dane, your fitness coach.”
Dane was a slim, friendly-looking guy who met them all with a round of handshakes and - a fact that immediately endeared him to Allison - no sign of weighing them up or evaluating them yet. It was so nice to meet somebody who first and foremost seemed guilelessly happy to meet them.
Julian met him with a handshake, “Gotta admit, I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve got for us.”
“Nothing big for today. I just want to see where you’re at,” Dane replied, shaking Xiù’s hand. He turned to Allison for the last handshake and smiled. “Should be fun.”
“I’ll leave you guys to get acquainted, then,” Clara said. “Oh, and Julian, my dad wanted me to tell you that we’re definitely going to try and improve your foot’s performance. The Assessors aren’t happy with it.”
“Figures,” Julian sighed. “Thanks Clara.”
Dane inspected the offending prosthetic as Allison touched Julian reassuringly on the arm. Much as the assessment team were usually the bane of his, hers and Xiù’s collective life, in this case they had a good point. The mere fact that Julian kept epoxy glue and needle-nose pliers in his pocket and was doing well if he went four days without having to hunch over his foot and fix it was a good sign that things needed to change.
Otherwise, it was an incredible foot. From a distance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was absent-mindedly wearing a lone white sock, or some kind of compression bandage. Up close it was a little stranger to look at - every tissue and bone of the human foot had been exactly duplicated, right up to and including a surrogate circulatory system that osmosed the needed sugars and oxygen out of Julian’s own blood at the ingenious and self-sterilizing junction where his truncated natural leg met the replacement.
He’d had to endure visits from dozens of prosthetic and rehabilitation specialists during their hospital stay in Vancouver.
The only anomalies were that said “tissues” and “bones” were in white and black respectively, and that the foot had no covering of skin, which Kirk had omitted based on his prediction that, Dominion medical materials science being a ways behind the human body as it was, Julian would need to regularly tinker with it. A prediction that had emphatically come true.
“So,” Dane smiled at his wife as she left and then turned back to the three of them. “Let’s put you through your paces.”
True to his word, he didn’t let them relax until all three of them were on the verge of collapse, which Allison was dismayed to find came embarrassingly quickly for her. They swung kettlebells, jogged, pulled up, rowed, curled, butterflied, squatted, crunched, dipped, lunged, pressed, extended and raised until her limbs were agonising rubber noodles and her vision was going blurry. Dane ordered her to sit down and rest, and she collapsed like a puppet with cut strings, breathing a hurricane while her heart hurled itself angrily at the back of her sternum.
When she was finally able to sit up, she did so only to watch miserably as Xiù and Julian both outstripped her by a dramatic margin.
She was far from being the only competitive one among them, though. Xiù and Julian fed off each other, both determined not to come in second place, and just when it looked like one of them was flagging they’d glance at the other and find new reserves. In the end, male biology gave Julian just enough of an edge and Dane finally had to instruct Xiù to stop - she staggered to a bench and crashed onto it, leaning against the wall and gulping for air, shining wet from scalp to sole.
Julian managed to stagger on, with shouted encouragement, for another twenty seconds before Dane at last let him rest.
“Okay. Wow!” he beamed at the three of them as he handed around the sports drinks. “I’m really impressed, guys.”
He caught the dissatisfied look on Allison’s face and clapped her heartily on the shoulder. “You did great,” he promised. “Don’t beat yourself up,”
Allison shook her head. “I thought I was fitter than that…” she groused. Dane smiled.
“Look at it as a pleasant surprise,” he advised. “You’ve got a lot to look forward to! And this should make you feel better; you’ve got the best form. Julian, buddy, we’ve got to get that foot sorted out for you ‘cause right now you’re favoring it and it’s throwing you right off. Xiù, very very good indeed, but you’ve picked up a couple’a bad habits that we’re gonna want to straighten out.
Xiù acknowledged the praise with a nod. She didn’t open her eyes, even as she popped the top on her drink and did her level best to drain it in one go. Julian just inspected his foot ruefully and nodded.
“So. Allison, we’re going to focus on mass, that should bring the extra endurance with it. I’ll send you guys your meal plans in the morning. Julian, I think we’re going to be working on your form first and foremost, but also your legs and lower body. Xiù, mostly we’re just going to correct those bad habits and then I’ll start teaching you how to do my job. All fair?”
“Fair,” Allison acknowledged. “Guys?”
Julian nodded. “Sounds good to me.”
“Shò wia-,” Xiù stopped and scowled at herself. “Uh…Yes.”
“You okay?” Allison asked. Xiù was slipping into Gaori less often nowadays, but it still happened when she was distracted.
Dane chuckled. “You’re all super motivated,” he said. “Keep pushing yourselves like that and we’ll get you mission-fit in no time.”
He gave them a minute longer to recover, then stood up and smacked his hands together eagerly. “So. Second half.”
All three of them groaned, and he grinned. “Hey, hey, it’s important. We’re going to warm down, stretch out, make sure you’re not too sore tomorrow. Come on, up!”
Allison was last to her feet, helped upright by Xiù who got a grateful smile and a one-armed squeeze by way of thanks.
True to his word, the second half of Dane’s session was easier. Not easy - Allison had to grit her teeth and console herself with thoughts of future improvement as again the other two outperformed her - but by the time Dane finally let them go she was at least feeling human, rather than half-dead. In fact, she felt pretty good. Positive, even.
The three of them were given enough time to return to the Box for a shower, a change into clean clothes, and a quick afternoon snack to tide them over until dinner, and then they exchanged kisses and parted ways again for their evening training.
The evening session was practical skills, and today was welding which was a welcome relief. After the brain-fuzzing frustration of the morning session and the minor humiliation of the PT, throwing herself into something she was undeniably learning with speed and aplomb was a delight. Welding wasn’t easy, but it was physical, crafty work where the theory met the practical in a bright point a foot in front of her nose.
At least, until she got overconfident. She returned to the Box at the end of the session nursing a minor burn on her arm and with the end of her ponytail blackened and frizzled, generally feeling like a fuck-up.
Xiù was home before her, and nearly dropped the vegetable steamer when she saw the state of Allison’s hair. “What happened?”
“Long hair and MIG welding don’t mix so good.” Allison ruefully flopped the burnt ponytail over her shoulder and inspected it. She couldn’t even see how high the black bit in the middle went. “Maybe I should just cut it off.”
“Oh, *Al!*” Xiù complained. “Your hair’s lovely!”
“Bullshit,” Allison smiled fondly and snatched a carrot stick from the steamer, gave her a kiss on the cheek and dragged out the couch to sit on. “I’ve never looked after it properly.”
“And it’s still… well, it was nice…” Xiù corrected herself. She sighed, put her cooking aside for the moment and took up position behind Allison to assess the damage herself. “Oh, it’s burnt right up to *here*….”
“Baby, it’s just hair.” Allison rolled her eyes.
“Ah, quit fussin’ over it.” Allison popped the carrot stick in her mouth and crunched it. “I’ll just cut it off, it’ll grow back.”
Xiù made an irked noise and began digging through one of the storage cupboards, a lesser-used one near the floor. “No, I’ll cut it.”
“…Wait we seriously have hairdressing stuff in here?” Allison asked.
Xiù came back up with a pair of scissors, a comb, a salon cape and a spray bottle. “Duh! We’re training for two years in space, remember?” She tucked the cape tight around her throat. “How were you planning to cut it?”
Xiù snorted and draped a towel over her shoulders too. “I should do Julian’s too, when he gets back…”
“He’s out late tonight, remember? Training with the field astronomy equipment.”
Allison grimaced as she got an earful of unpleasantly cold water mist. “So you can speak three languages, you can cook, you can beat the shit out of bad guys, you’re learning to fly a spaceship and now it turns out you’re a hairdresser too,” she listed. “Any other talents I should know about?”
“No, that’s about it. But, uh, I did learn French and ASL in school.”
“Nuh-uh… I mean, I’m really rusty in them, but…hmm…” Xiù made thoughtful noises as she decided on how best to fix Allison’s tonsorial mishap. “Anyway, there was a deaf guy at school. We all learned some ASL to help him out.”
“That was nice of you.”
Xiù damped her hair a bit more, and finally settled on an idea, smiling slightly. “Well, he was really cute, so…” she started cutting.
Allison laughed. “Right, right.”
They sat in silence for a minute as fragments of wet hair dropped past her ears.
Xiù broke the silence as she started combing and trimming the back of her head. “…Um, Al?”
“Ever since you’ve told us about, um, your baby…” Allison turned her head slightly, and just about managed to make out Xiù’s apologetic expression in the corner of her eye. “I mean… you’ve always been so tight-lipped about your life…”
Allison smiled. “The baby was the big thing I didn’t wanna talk about… I mean, the rest of it’s nothing crazy. Mom and Dad grounded me until I was eighteen and started home-schooling but they kept giving me an allowance. I played a lot of video games, made some friends online, and the day after my eighteenth birthday I got on a Greyhound to Boston and left.”
“Didn’t they try and stop you?”
Allison just shrugged. “I did okay for myself really. Worked at a coffee shop in the mornings and a garage in the evenings, got an LTC and a pistol, spent my lunchtime down at the range. I was getting by just fine.”
“One of my guildmates lived there. Amanda. It was her garage, and she let me crash on her couch until I could afford to rent my own place…”
“You’ve never mentioned her.” Xiù pointed out.
“She was great! Real big on feminism, social issues and weed. She never did like how much I loved my guns, though.”
“Are you still in touch?”
Allison shook her head. “Lung cancer got her about three months before Trevni and Nufr grabbed me,” she said.
Xiù put the scissors and comb down and gave her a hug from behind, wrapping her arms comfortably across Allison’s chest. “I’m sorry…”
“It’s okay. She was already fighting it when she helped me out, so we had plenty of time to get used to it… Anyway, that’s my story. Like I said, it’s not that interesting. I got all the stupid out of my system when I was fifteen… space was way more interesting.”
“Interesting. Yeah. That’s one word for it,” Xiù commented.
“Yeah, I’m sorry you had such a shitty time of it, but me? I fetched up on a freeport station and had a pretty good time of it, working security. Everyone respected the big bad deathworlder.” Allison grinned savagely at the memory. “‘When Kirk showed up with a ship full of people I knew I couldn’t stay, but I had a pretty good time, really.”
“All done!” Xiù towelled her head briskly and gathered up the cape. Allison ran her fingers through the new ‘do, and grimaced.
“You took off a lot!”
Xiù smiled. “I had to. I think it suits you though,” she suggested. She aimed a nod at the bathroom door, a cue which Allison took with a resigned breath.
When she checked the mirror she had to admit that Xiù had done an impressive job. She’d been worried she was going to end up looking like an imminent complaint to the manager, but the finished product, after she played around with the parting a little, was a practical low-maintenance thing a bit too long to be called a pixie cut and a bit too short to be classed as a bob.
A real fashionable hairdresser would probably have bit through their comb at the sight of it, but Xiù was right - it suited her by neatly framing her cheekbones and enhancing the overall diamond shape of her face.
“So…?” Xiù asked, hovering nervously.
Allison stopped examining it and gave her a reassuring peck on the lips. “I like it.”
Xiù relaxed and started tidying away the mess. “I wish I could be as laid back about it as you are. That red decon thing…”
“Yeah, shaving it all off would suck, but this is actually pretty cool!”
Xiù giggled. “You could say it’s growing on you?”
Allison grabbed the pillow off the middle bunk and threw it at her. Grinning cheekily, Xiù swiped it aside, only for it to knock the steamer off the kitchen counter and spread peas and carrots all over the room.
There was a long, literally ringing silence as the steamer rolled to a standstill.
“…I’ll sweep, you mop?”
Date Point 10y6m1w AV
Mrwrki Station, Uncharted system, Deep Space
“So what are your thoughts?”
Vedreg was proving yet again that, far from being stupid, he was a thoroughly formidable intellect in his own right if given enough time to lumber up to speed. Certainly he was proving more equal than Kirk to the task of scrutinising the contraption that Lewis was painstakingly assembling and iterating.
Annoyingly, his mood was still difficult to read, but Kirk didn’t blame himself or Vedreg for that. Where the Rrrrtk eye had two kinds of color-receptive cell, the Guvnurag one outstripped even humans at five, and the emotive bioluminescent lines on their flanks made full use of that chromatic agility. It was like trying to hear music that was written partially outside of his hearing range, or like trying to read a book where three fifths of the words were printed in an ink that was only visible in the ultraviolet.
Kirk took a guess anyway and hazarded that his old friend was emoting a blend of admiration and mild fear.
“Lewis Beverote is correct,” Vedreg rumbled. “What he is making would be devastating if turned to warlike ends.”
Kirk walked around the holographic table that Vedreg was working at. They all had their little demesnes inside the station now, though Vedreg’s was by far the most sprawling - a function of his sheer size more than anything else. That and his unfolding passion for bakery, which had recently yielded fruit - literally - in the form of an approximation of “cookies”. Lewis had groused something ungrateful about ‘oatmeal and raisin’, whatever they were, but had later thanked Vedreg profusely for the unexpected treat.
Right now, the table was busy dissecting the latest generation of what Lewis was calling his ’Von Neumann Colony-in-a-Can’ or the ’Coltainer’ for short. To Kirk’s eye, it was an impenetrable tangle of interconnected systems bolted onto something that looked like a hybrid between an enormous power core system and the scoop field emitters off a lane-clearing ship, all feeding power to a nanofactory that was equal in size and capacity to the one on Mrwrki Station.
The Coltainer’s actual function, as Lewis had described it, was to serve as a deep-space automated probe that would search for habitable planets of classes ten to thirteen. Upon discovering one, it would do everything within its power to satisfy itself that the planet lacked native sophonts of any stage of development and, once happy that the planet was not inhabited, it would survey for and identify an ideal spot for a new colony to be built, based on a complicated equation that took into account variables like clean water supply, ocean access, arable land, grazing land, forestry, local geology and mineral availability, climate, drainage, defensibility, proximity to other suitable locations and the feasibility of constructing roads between them, and more.
That done, it would mine some local asteroids or moons for raw materials, build an exact duplicate of itself, send that duplicate on its way in search of a new project, and then finally lay the groundwork for human colonization by sending down drones that would simultaneously excavate and print a basic colonial ‘hub’.
The hub was a defensible structure in which the first settlers could live and work before expanding outwards according to their own agenda. It would have a power generator, a landing pad, a jump array, a kitchen and mess hall, gym and recreational facilities, a chamber for democratic decision-making, enough housing for fifty families, and even a number of deep basement levels designed to serve as a nexus for subterranean roads or railways, complete with TBMs already in place.
Finally, it would restock itself, dispatch a probe to Cimbrean containing the transponder codes for the colony’s jump array and orbital beacon, and depart the system in search of a new project, dropping a system field as it went.
Kirk could easily see the unlimited military potential of a machine that smart that could replicate itself exponentially.
“Does that… alarm you?” he asked.
“Sufficiently that I’m giving serious thought to vetoing the project entirely and purging the files.” Vedreg rumbled, something akin to rueful laughter. “When I voiced my concerns to Lewis, he advised me to ’be Zen, man’. He is quite correct: I must ruminate on the matter before I decide.”
“Quite right,” Kirk agreed. “No disrespect, old friend, but your government’s hasty actions in the past-”
“-Are the reason we even have a human race to try and save,” Vedreg interrupted. He rumbled again and a pulse of ironic mottled pink ran up his sides. “And of course, it may not have been panicking Guvnuragnaguvendrugun, but panicking Hierarchy who made that mistake.”
The Domain language didn’t have an equivalent to ’Touché’, which was a shame, but fortunately that particular human word could be almost approximated by a Domain throat, and Kirk took the opportunity to use it.
Vedreg highlighted one of the denser parts of the project’s anatomy. “Fortunately, he has spent the last few days assuaging my concerns,” he said.
“…What is that?” Kirk asked, leaning forward to study it.
“A bomb. An extremely large one, sufficient to vaporize the Coltainer.”
“Programmed to detonate under what circumstances?” Kirk asked.
“Under any circumstances where it can’t jump to safety instead,” Vedreg observed. “If it is attacked, if it is interfered with in any way… Lewis has assured me that not even he, its creator, could tamper with one of these once it is launched and active.”
“Not even to shut it down if it went rogue?”
“To tamper with it would be to shut it down, effectively. Explosively so. I have stressed the need for caution in this project.”
Kirk pondered the schematic. “Arguably of course, the Hunters wouldn’t need to tamper with it to see it replicating itself,” he pointed out.
“I have said as much to Lewis. He was… intransigent. He feels that the exponential growth of the coltainer system is essential.”
Kirk snorted. “I have received some news that may cause him to re-think.”
Vedreg rumbled at length before the translator finally delivered the equivalent, which was equally perfunctory in both English and in Domain: “Oh?”
“Let me summon him.”
Lewis ambled in some minutes after Kirk had called him, wearing his black clothing today. Apparently he’d finally aborted his experiment in growing a beard after a week of increasingly bitter grumbling about his own hair follicles, and had shaved. Neither Kirk nor Vedreg were in a position to know what a beard was supposed to look like in anything more than the academic sense.
“News?” he asked, hopping lightly up onto the stool that Vedreg had kindly installed for him.
“From Allied Extrasolar Command,” Kirk informed him, feeling quite pleased with himself. “Apparently they believe that the Hierarchy on Earth are now neutralized.”
Lewis took a high breath and sat back, with a smile spreading across him. “Oh man. That takes a big fuckin’ load of my mind. You think they’re right?”
“Paranoia remains our best strategy,” Kirk reminded him, “but… yes. I think the news is genuine. Or if it is not, then we have already been hopelessly outplayed.”
“The plan ain’t changed, then.”
Kirk nodded. “It has, a little. I need a ship, Lewis. A fast one. Faster than Sanctuary, if you can manage it without a Blackbox drive.”
“You’re gonna go meet them in person?”
“We cannot remain locked up here indefinitely.” Vedreg observed. “You said it yourself.”
“Hey, just… y’know, bring some other humans in on this shit!” Lewis exclaimed. “So long as I’ve got somebody fuckin’ bipedal to talk to I’ll be easy like Sunday morning. If it can maybe be somebody who can help me on the Coltainers, so much the better. Do you have any idea what it’s like having to learn everything from scratch for that shit?”
“I honestly do not think I could even begin to guess,” Kirk admitted.
“Most humans couldn’t, bro. Hell, I can’t. I’m givin’ it my best, but if it’s just my skinny ass workin’ on it then we’ll be done sometime around about, oh…?” He looked around and then jerked his thumb towards the window, indicating the huge red star they were orbiting. “When’s that scheduled to go bang?”
“You’re exaggerating.” Vedreg observed.
“Well, duh, yeah, ‘course I am,” Lewis nodded. “But still, I’m just one dude, dude. There’s gonna be like a fuckzillion things I never thought of with a project this size. I need help. And hey, maybe we can get you some actual flour, sugar, chocolate chips and apples. And - sorry guys - some fucking bacon because GOD. A man shouldn’t go this long without bacon.”
Kirk repressed the urge to grimace, and the green nauseated glimmer on Vedreg’s sides was a weak flutter as he fought down his own revulsion. They both knew perfectly well that while nutrition spheres claimed to be universally and perfectly nutritious, the reality was that they had been designed for the needs of herbivorous non-deathworlders. The medical suite that kept an eye on their general health had been reporting for some time now that Lewis was slowly but steadily falling behind on his needs for Cobalamin, Sulfur and Docosahexaenoic acid.
“I’ll see what I can arrange,” he promised. “There is one last matter…”
“Lemme guess. The von Neumann bit of these probes.”
“The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that we should not light that fire, Lewis.”
Lewis hopped off the stool and went to pour himself a glass of water, without replying. Kirk and Vedreg exchanged confused expressions as he did so.
The human sighed. “Kirk, d’you really think I don’t get it? I’m a smart dude. A really smart dude. One of the smartest, maybe. You think I don’t understand exactly how big of a can’a worms I’m popping here? I’ve read Alistair Reynolds, man. Greenfly, interstellar Grey Goo, you name it, I know what the possible outcomes are.”
“Because some motherfucker is gonna do it eventually, so it may as well be us!” Lewis knocked back a mouthful of water - a volume that would have sustained Kirk for a day - and then a second, before clearing his throat and continuing. “But the idea’s already out there, man. I’ve seen the data lifts from the Internet, I’ve seen human fiction being sold on space stations all over the place, and that was five years ago. Von Neumann machines aren’t exactly a fuckin’ secret.”
“That is the sum of your reasoning?” Kirk asked.
“Only way to beat exponential growth is to start first, dude. Get ahead of the curve and stay there.” Lewis shrugged. “To be brutally fuckin’ honest, I have no idea why the galaxy ain’t already overrun with the damn things. Unless they’re one of the things the Hierarchy’s kept a lid on.”
“Or maybe nobody was ever so reckless as to launch them.” Vedreg suggested.
“Riiight, ‘cause interstellar civilization’s a fuckin’ beacon of rational decision-making.” Lewis said, levelly and acidly.
“There is no need to-” Kirk tried to intervene, but Vedreg interrupted him.
“And yours is?” he demanded.
“I’m sorry, of the two of us, whose species is against the wall right now?” Lewis asked. “If it’s do something reckless or die, I for one choose reckless.”
Vedreg glowed crimson. “That is… only a deathworlder would think like that! You don’t have the right to make a decision that will permanently affect the entire galaxy. None of us do.”
“Choosing not to has the same effect!” Lewis gesticulated madly, which had the effect of launching his remaining half-cup of water across the room. It bounced and skittered into the corner of the room and spun crazily on its axis for a few seconds before finally rocking to a standstill. Lewis stared at it, then took a cleansing breath and went to retrieve it. “…The idea’s already out, man,” he repeated. “I ain’t making the decision, it was made the moment somebody uploaded Wikipedia to the galactic archives. So it’s gonna happen.”
“You are certain of that?” Kirk asked.
“Completely. An’ I figure… y’know, if we’re about to kickstart the galactic epoch of the self-replicating spaceship, we may as well do it by building one whose primary mission is to declaw all the OTHER self-replicating spaceships that are gonna follow.”
“A vaccine for the whole galaxy.” Vedreg mused.
“Dude. Project GALACTIC VACCINE, I like it.”
Kirk inclined his head at Vedreg. “You are persuaded?” he asked.
Vedreg pulsed contrite teal and imitated a shrug. “I will need time to consider… could the Coltainer project be modified to make suppressing other Von Neumann machines its primary mission?”
Lewis shrugged. “Dude, the Coltainer project’s still in, like, generation zero. I dunno how you’d program a mission like that, but…”
“I shall raise it,” Kirk told them briskly, “with Allied Extrasolar Defence.”
“You will?” Lewis lit up. “You mean I’m finally gonna get some help?”
“If you are so determined to do this, Lewis, then yes, I will request some help. Whether or not it is given will not be for me to decide.”
Lewis nodded. “…I’ll run up that ship for ya, then.”
“Whaddya want me to call it?”
“Gotta have something for the reg code, dude. Whaddya want I should call it?”
Kirk spread his arms. “Choose for me,” he said.
Date Point 10y6m2w AV
Starship Racing Thunder, Orbiting planet Gao
Regaari didn’t know ships very well. His business was a medley of intelligence-gathering and, when needed, of blood-on-the-claws interpersonal violence. Starship combat was too detached to fire him up, though he had to admit that he liked Clan One-Fang’s philosophy on the matter.
The One-Fangs were one of Gao’s youngest and, rapidly, one of Gao’s most distinguished Clans, holding as they did a near monopoly on spaceborne military action. Naturally they were allied with the Whitecrests but the tangled web of inter-Clan politics being what it was, One-Fang had aligned with the Ironclaws and their asteroid-mining and exoplanetary spaceborne industry, while Whitecrest were allies with the Ironclaws’ chief rivals, the Stonebacks.
Both of those two industrially-minded labor clans would be watching here. The Ironclaws in particular had a lot to gain from good relations with the Dominion. They were the ones producing the goods that got exported, after all. The Stonebacks were dammers, bridgers, construction engineers and general movers of soil. Their work was less exportable.
The Racing Thunder was a product of the One-Fang - Ironclaw alliance, and it was, in starship form, a Gaoian throwback: All claws and teeth and speed.
The privilege of flying Tiritya, the first Gaoian FTL ship, had gone to a Firefang Brother named Shoru, and the Firefangs remained devotees of the art of speed. Theirs was the other third of the alliance. Ironclaw provided the ships, One-Fang crewed them, and Firefang piloted the fighters. It was all guided by an interpretation of the requests and standing orders laid down by the Dominion, who had specified what kinds of ship fit with their doctrine.
Neither the One-Fangs nor the Firefangs had objected - after all, the Dominion’s fleetmasters had infinitely more experience of space combat than any Gaoian - but within those stipulations they had designed their ships to reward a Gaoian’s fighting instincts. They were fast, they were agile, and they were savagely over-gunned.
Regaari approved. He also quite liked the shipfather, Officer Yefrig, who was in many ways as un-Whitecrest as a Gaoian could be.
Whitecrests, for instance, were considered slightly effete by the other male Clans because Whitecrests typically tried to avoid scars, whereas the One-Fangs like many of the other more traditional warrior Clans actively cultivated them. A proper One-Fang wore his scars like medals, and father Yefrig in particular had a perforated right ear, the left ear was a blunt-tipped stub, his right eye was a cybernetic replacement that looked just as milky-white and blind as the original had been left (a neat touch that - all the masculine gravitas of a blinded eye without the inconvenient loss of depth perception) and there was a particularly impressive three-claw gouge on his muzzle.
Regaari of course had an actual medal. A circular one made of silver from Earth of all places, hung on a crimson ribbon with five narrow blue stripes and bearing the effigy of a crowned human male. The “George Medal” it was called, and while the medal itself was safely on display in Regaari’s office back at the Clan’s enclave, he’d chosen to honor the award by wearing its ribbon bar on the chest of the security harness that no self-respecting Whitecrest went anywhere without. Not a Gaoan tradition, but of course the award was not Gaoian either.
He could see Yefrig eyeing it. When the humans gave an award for “acts of great bravery”, it tended to make people take note, apparently.
He met the shipfather as wary equals - with a duck of the head and with paws held wide and to show that their claws were in.
“I hope you have good news,” he told Yefrig, by way of a greeting, “because I think I’ve done as much as I reasonably can.”
“It’s been enough.” Describing Yefrig as ‘terse’ was a minor understatement. “We’re ready.”
“Excellent. I’m ready whenever you are, then.”
Yefrig poured them both some Talamay and indicated the bustle of the bridge as his subordinate Brothers finished their preparations to go FTL. The ship had been badly hurt by her exertions in getting to Gao as fast as they had, and under the relentless pressure from the Dominion for her crew to be handed over for trial, securing all the resources necessary for her repair had been tricky and delicate. Unbeknownst to the One-Fangs, Regaari had even been forced to arrange an exchange that was not, technically, entirely above-board. Not illegal, that would have been ruinous to his reputation in the Clan. But not completely honest, either.
“How will you be returning to Gao?” Yefrig asked, handing him a glass.
“Cimbrean needs a stronger Whitecrest presence now that some Females are moving there,” Regaari mused, accepting it. “I may linger for a little while.”
This earned a gruff chitter from Yefrig. “Leave some for us!” he warned. “My Brothers have low enough morale as it is, without the added burden of an urbane creature like you competing for the attention of Females.”
Regaari returned the chitter and waved a conciliatory paw. “The humans have asked me to meet with them to discuss military cooperation, in light of… well, this.” he indicated the ship. “After all, there’s a permanent Clan enclave on Cimbrean these days, and now that females are moving there…”
Yefrig duck-nodded. “It’s almost our third colony.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Regaari said. “I doubt the humans will share it unconditionally. We wouldn’t.”
“You know them best,” Yefrig replied.
“Shipfather?” a Brother approached the pair of them deferentially and handed Yefrig a report.
Yefrig read it, then gave Regaari and encouraging nod. “We’re ready.”
“Outstanding,” Regaari derived quiet amusement from using the term. He’d learned from Warhorse that it had a very specific meaning in human military circles, along the lines of ‘progress made, but much too slowly’ and allowed the private joke to feed his good humor. It worked wonders, helping him effortlessly generate an air of unthreatening affability.
Yefrig, naturally, didn’t catch the joke and pricked his ears up pleased at the apparent praise. “I’m glad you think so.” He turned to the Brother and rattled off a few terse commands in a densely jargoned Clan-specific dialect that Regaari didn’t understand. He took no offense: Whitecrest had a similar argot of their own.
“Travel time to Cimbrean will be [six hours].” Yefrig reported, looking understandably pleased with himself. The transport that Regaari had borrowed for his last trip to Cimbrean, the Springing Ember had needed three days to make the voyage.
“So fast?!” he exclaimed. “I had no idea.”
“This ship is called the Racing Thunder for a reason.” Yefrig allowed himself a smug flick of his truncated ear. “Yours isn’t the only clan to borrow the idea of capacitor-based power systems from the humans, and not only does this ship have plenty of room for them, but ours are better than theirs.”
“I would hope so,” Regaari agreed, amiably. Gaoians after all had earned FTL travel and all its attendant technologies the hard way, through unassisted research and innovation. He couldn’t begrudge the humans for reverse-engineering nonhuman artefacts, but the fact was that they were the least technologically advanced species ever offered membership of the Dominion, while Gaoians had been rather more advanced than normal by the time Tiritya had first flown.
Gratifyingly, Gaoians were also not stupid enough to mistakenly conflate tech with primitivity, unlike some other species he could name. By and large, the Fathers of several clans were broadly thinking alike about humans and how potentially useful they might be to the Gaoian people… or at least how it would be desperately unwise of the Gaoian people to get on their bad side.
Hence this voyage.
The solution to Father Mavil’s challenge had turned out to be relatively straightforward. The Dominion would happily accept for the Gaoians to punish the deserters themselves, and banishment was a punishment. The One-Fangs wouldn’t have been satisfied with a punishment, but they WERE happy to have one of their ships assigned to the protection of Gaoian lives, provided that the crew had any hope of earning Clan prestige and the attention of females.
Cimbrean was the natural choice. It was “uncontrolled territory” according to the Dominion, and so any ship sent there under orders never to return was exiled. That part was easy. With the human fleet being down one of their best ships, and with their history of positive interaction with the Racing Thunder and its crew he had no reason to believe that they’d turn away the help.
As for the females, well… Cimbrean had plenty of males already. Between the Clan Starmind monastery and hundreds of Clanless in the Alien Quarter, Gaoians were actually the planet’s second-largest demographic. All it needed was for a few brave pioneering Sisters to take the first step. If the Sisters in question were pregnant, even better.
So, he’d called Myun.
Persuading her to move to Cimbrean had been simplicity itself. Quite aside from the fact that she was so guilelessly in love with anything and everything remotely human, it was effectively a free promotion for her. Myun’s xenophilia made her mildly unpopular despite her personal relationship with Yulna, which was an obstacle to mobility in the celebocratic and taxocratic world of the Clan of Females. Focused though she was, even Myun wasn’t so obstinate as to ignore that reality, nor so blasé as to scoff at it.
She’d agreed to move, and where a pregnant Sister went, other Sisters would follow, trusting in each other’s maternal instincts and sense of safety.
Relocating to a new colony and installing herself as one of the founding Sisters of the commune there would be excellent for her prestige, and she hadn’t needed much advice from Regaari to see that.
As for the *Racing Thunder*’s crew, they had a safe, legitimate haven, the Dominion got their “justice”, the Clan kept their Brothers alive and still doing good work, Gao got effectively another colony via the power of migration, and Regaari got both a victory over Father Mavil and an opportunity to talk some more with Admiral Knight and Major Powell.
He excused himself from the bridge as the One-Fang crew made the final preparations for departure. Not being Clan, he didn’t have a nest-bed among the crew quarters, and had to settle for curling up alone in a corner of one of the cargo holds, surrounded by the provisions, technology and barter goods that the Racing Thunder had taken on to lubricate their negotiations with the humans… or else to keep them supplied and comfortable in case the deathworlders turned out to be less hospitable than Regaari had assured.
Solitude or not, sleep came easily. He hadn’t been getting enough in the last several days as he flitted from enclave to office to commune to ship to briefing to meeting to private conversation to occasionally being able to return to his nest-bed and snatch some inadequate sleep in the company of his Brothers. Despite their absence, he curled up, tucked his nose into his fur and a One-Fang Brother came to wake him seven hours later without his noticing the intervening time at all.
He could hear and feel that they were still at warp, not as a sound exactly but as a sense that the ship was producing one that he couldn’t quite hear. Some texture in the air told him that an awful lot of energy was coursing throughout its structure.
“We are being intercepted,” Yefrig explained, over comms. “I’ve slowed us to half a kilolight.”
“Have they identified themselves yet?” Regaari asked, tugging on his harness and scratching the backs of his ears to wake himself up.
“Valiant and Vendetta,” Yefrig replied. “A surprisingly small response…”
“Humans love jump drives,” Regaari reminded him. “If we extend our claws, the others will show up in an instant.”
Regaari was halfway to the bridge when the ship jolted slightly and there was a solid ringing noise.
“What was that?” he asked.
The One-Fang brother escorting him flicked an ear, amused. “A shuttle landing,” he said, and indicated a line on the ceiling which pointed the way to the *Racing Thunder*’s small craft bay. Regaari duck-nodded and detoured that way.
He wasn’t disappointed. The detail of One-Fang security officers who were welcoming the humans on board were shooting nervous glances at each other at the sight of four SOR men disembarking from their shuttle in full EV-MASS, among them the unmistakably hulking silhouette of Warhorse.
Regaari raised his paw in greeting and all four humans relaxed substantially.
“Yo, Dexter!” Titan called, being the closest.
“Hello, cousins.” Regaari deployed the term carefully, and the One-Fangs around him took note. “Cousin” had a specific meaning in modern Gaoian life, referring to a Brotherly relationship between males who weren’t actually Clan-Brothers.
“Hey, this ship’s a bit bigger’n the last one,” Baseball sauntered over and led him through the elaborate handshake they’d taught him. Quite why the twinkly fingers at the end were important, Regaari wasn’t sure - he suspected that subtle human sense of humor was at play.
“One hundred and eighty-seven crew,” Regaari informed him. “Not including me and the forty females and cubs travelling in the forward cargo hold.”
“Man, this is gonna take a while.” Baseball sighed.
“Gonna need to talk to the cap- uh, the shipmaster, Dexter.” Titan informed him, walking over with some kind of equipment slung easily over his shoulder. Several Brothers eyed the package nervously - it was easily more than any of them could handle alone.
“I recognize that,” Regaari pricked his ears up at it. “A portable jump array?”
“Ship this size, a full customs inspection will go way faster if we can bring some marines over from Valiant to help out, bro.”
“…I’ll call the Shipfather.”
Titan nodded. “Lemme know when he’s here.”
“You can’t miss him. He’s got a white eye, a missing ear and more scars than fingers,” Regaari told him, quietly so that the One-Fangs couldn’t hear. “And if you want to make a good impression, compliment him on them.”
Yefrig, to his credit, listened to Regaari’s advice and came down to the bay himself. The humans paused in scanning the Brothers as Titan noticed the scarred old One-Fang enter the space and loudly snapped “Detail, a-ten-SHUH!”
Again, the Brothers who didn’t know humans were taken aback. All four men stamped rigidly upright in their gear. It was an unmistakable gesture of respect for Yefrig’s authority, especially, when Titan’s hand came up smartly alongside the visor of his helmet.
Yefrig, of course, didn’t know how to respond.
“It’s customary to return the salute, shipfather,” Regaari informed him, gently. Yefrig inclined his head curiously, flicked his remaining ear, then did his best to imitate Akiyama’s salute. The humans unwound as soon as Titan’s hand had snapped down and he’d quietly ordered “as you were”.
Formality complete, Titan shook Yefrig’s paw. “Thank you for having us aboard sir, this won’t take but a little while.”
“Is it necessary to search the entire ship?” Yefrig asked.
“It is sir, yes. We have some marines on standby to come over from one of our ships, with your permission…?”
Very subtly, Yefrig caught Regaari’s eye, and got the most miniscule duck-nod by way of encouragement. He imitated a human nod with rather more force. “Go ahead.”
“Thank you, sir. Horse! Base! Get the Array set up!”
The two Protectors jumped to, grabbing the hefty equipment and slotting it together with practiced speed. Titan watched them at it. With his breathing mask off, Regaari could see him smile, though he had the good sense to keep his lips closed. The last thing jittery Brothers needed now was a show of teeth.
“Man, those are some wicked scars you got there,” he observed.
This didn’t quite have the desired result. Rather than preening slightly, Yefrig’s lone ear twisted sideways, perplexed. “Wicked?”
“Ah, translation problem,” Titan waggled the device clipped to his MOLLE with a wry smile. “Uh… impressive. You look like you earned every one.”
It was subtle, but Regaari judged that Yefrig was preening slightly at the observation. “I’ve never backed down from a challenge,” he agreed. Titan nodded, smiling faintly, and Regaari judged that the human knew he was now in Yefrig’s good graces.
“Well in that case sir, would you mind setting an example for your Brothers and submitting to the contraband scan? Won’t take but a second,”
“Very well. Though I don’t see what contraband I could be…?” Yefrig trailed off as Titan gently pressed a scanner to his head and watched it ping. To Regaari’s eyes the screen lit up a kind of bright yellowish-green, but he was aware that humans had trichromatic vision versus a Gaoians dichromatic eyes, and that the display on the back of the scanner was probably in a colour that he couldn’t see.
Whatever it was, Titan made careful note of the result. “Thank you sir.”
There was a thump from behind them and the jump array pulsed into life. A second later, a cuboid of black air resolved itself into a dozen human marines. Their gear wasn’t vacuum-proof and not a one of them was as prodigiously huge as even the smallest SOR operator, but even Regaari, who trusted the humans absolutely, found himself considering the fact that there were now easily enough deathworlders on board to rip through every one of the Gaoians almost without effort.
They were perfectly safe of course, but as the marines spread out and began a thorough top-to-bottom inspection of the ship it was hard not to be reminded of the discrepancy. The humans were being deferential, efficient and professional, but there was just something about the way they moved. They moved like pack predators, and even though Gaoians themselves were ambush predators the difference was unsettling. Their teamwork was flawless, and unconscious.
“What was that for?” Yefrig asked quietly, as Titan returned to his work.
Regaari watched as another of the Brothers was scanned in the head, and this time the panel on the back of the device lit up a different shade.
“…Tell me, shipfather, do you have any cybernetics?” he asked.
“A translator and a communicator,” Yefrig told him. “They’re scanning for cybernetics? Why?”
“Give me time, and I may have a theory for you.”
Date Point 10y6m2w1d AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
“I’m telling you, Tangled has the best songs!”
Xiù giggled and scraped her mixture of crushed garlic and chopped onions into a pan to start frying. “It so doesn’t! Yeah, they’re good but they’re not like… Everybody can remember *The Lion King*’s songs, but nobody remembers the ones from Tangled.”
“Well they should!” Allison insisted, “‘When will my life begin’? ‘I’ve got a dream’? They’re amazing!” She glanced conspiratorially around the room even though they both knew they were alone. “…Julian tears up during *’I see the light.’*”
Xiù put her knife down just in case she cut herself laughing “He *doesn’t!?*”
Allison nodded with an impish smile as she finished putting the last of the laundry away. “My right hand to God! He gets all misty-eyed when they’re singing in harmony.”
Xiù made a conciliatory motion with her head. “Okay, yes, it’s a beautiful scene and that song’s really good. But it’s still not the best.”
“Okay then, what is the best?”
“Classic? I mean, I’ve still not seen any of the movies they did after I was abducted…”
Xiù didn’t even need to think about it. “Reflection.”
Allison scoffed. “Of course you’d choose one from Mulan.”
“She was my hero!”
“I guess it’s the nice thing about Disney that everyone gets their princess…”
Xiù giggled, starting in on cutting the celery. “Actually, when I was very little, I wanted to cosplay as Merida, but mama said I couldn’t.”
“Now why’d she do a thing like that?” Allison asked, sarcastically.
Xiù fought a losing battle to try and keep a straight face. “Beats me. Can you think of a reason why little Xiù Chang wasn’t allowed to dress up as a curly Scottish redhead?”
Allison made a performance of inspecting Xiù’s hair, which on the rare occasion she was able to let it down was a straight glossy curtain of black that reached her knees. “I think I might have an idea…” she hinted, battling with her own deadpan.
“Yeah. Blue isn’t your color, babe.”
Xiù *snrrk*ed and swept the celery into the pan to fry.
“Mulan and Merida,” she mused. “Guess I like the warrior princesses, huh?”
“Come on, Rapunzel kicked just as much ass with a frying pan.”
“She beat up one guy! Mulan took on-!” Xiù caught Allison’s trollish expression and finally realised she was being teased. “Oh, okay. You can chop the tomatoes, then.”
Allison laughed and did as she was bidden, though her fingers deliberately brushed against Xiù’s hand as she headed for the fridge. “Yes ma’am.”
She seemed to have a knack for doing exactly what would get Xiù most flustered. Blushing, Xiù turned away and washed her knife off, dried it and slid it back into the block.
“How’d you do on that flight test?” Allison asked, deciding she’d had her fun for now.
“Eighty-seven percent,” Xiù answered. It was a solid pass, but she was secretly a little disappointed - she’d been dead-set on a ninety or better.
“Aiming for higher, huh?”
Feeling completely transparent, Xiù sighed “…Yeah.”
“Amen,” Allison mused. She finished chopping the tomatoes and, at Xiù’s gestured urging, dumped them in the pan all over the sizzling onions and garlic.
Being Allison she then just dumped the knife and cutting board into the sink without washing them and leaned conversationally against the counter. Xiù just smiled to herself, rolled her eyes and washed them for her.
“Same for you?” she asked.
Allison nodded. “I squeaked over the line on the computer systems module. Eighty-two.”
“My head just feels full of… fuzz and static,” Xiù confided.
“Ugh, mine too. Some days I just-”
They were interrupted by the decontamination buzzer and the sound of Julian removing his boots with uncharacteristic force. He crashed through the door without a word, wrenched the couch angrily out of its hiding place in the wall and collapsed onto it as if it had done him a personal injury.
Xiù fought down her fight-or-flight reflex. Even after all this time it was still on a hair trigger, and Julian in a rage was genuinely scary. When he was in a good mood, it was easy to forget that he’d thrived on the very worst the galaxy could throw at him, and that under his equanimous veneer he was a killer and a survivor.
Then again, so was she.
Allison squatted down next to him and put a hand on his arm. “…Baby?” she asked.
“I completely fucked up.” Julian groaned. He ran both hands up his face and through his hair, and the brown envelope he was holding crinkled and creased as he did so. “Wrecked the whole goddamn specimen. I only managed to salvage, like, three samples.”
Xiù glanced at Allison, and retrieved one of their precious supply of beers from the fridge. Talking the mission team into letting them have some supply of alcohol along for the ride had been a tense negotiation, but the compromise had finally been reached that they’d be allowed to take along enough for special occasions and a rare treat. Julian hesitated when she offered it to him, then sighed, nodded and accepted. He popped the screw top and drained a third of the bottle in one go.
He settled back and breathed out most of his stress. “…Thanks.”
“So you failed?” Allison asked, gently. While they had an allowance of test failures each before it would negatively impact their bid to get on the ship, there weren’t many, and they were all far too competitive to be happy with using even one of them.
Julian held up the brown envelope containing his test score. He hadn’t bothered to open it.
Xiù kissed his forehead and busied herself with the cooking as Allison borrowed a knife and slit the envelope open.
“…Huh,” she grunted. “Wow.”
Julian groaned and covered his eyes. “How bad is it?”
“Ninety-one percent!” Allison brandished the printout. “Surprise equipment malfunction test. Examiner’s notes: *’Showed exceptional focus under pressure and was able to recover three samples. Exemplary performance marred only by slight hesitation at the moment the equipment failed, and by frustration over factors outside of his control’.*” She lowered it again, beaming. “You aced it!”
Julian made the exact same ‘huh’ noise that she had, then looked at his beer. “…Damn. Now I feel bad for wasting one of these.”
“*Fèihuà!*” Xiù told him, then corrected herself. “Nonsense. That’s your celebration beer now, you hear?”
He went still for an instant, then shrugged and smiled. “Yes ma’am.”
Despite his best efforts to help, neither of the girls let him - he was forced to sit on the couch and finish his drink as Xiù threw together her improvised lamb and tomato curry and Allison set the table, which would ordinarily have been his job just because, as the tallest one, he had the easiest time getting it down from its nest in the ceiling.
Sure enough, when Xiù skewered him with regards to his favorite Disney song over dinner, he corroborated Allison’s account.
“Yeah, I did. I dunno, it’s just… something about that moment. You know?” He sang a couple of bars, and once again Xiù was struck by just how good his singing voice was. “♪’And it’s warm and real and right♫♪’, that bit. It’s only, what, a few seconds long? But it gets me right here.” He knocked on his breastbone.
“I thought Frozen was your favorite?” Xiù asked.
“It is, yeah, but Al’s right that Tangled has the better songs…”
Xiù snorted and tidied up so as to escape from Allison’s smug expression.
She felt strangely as though their collective relationship was progressing via some kind of a time warp. They were moving constantly forward and yet, once they had moved, everything was familiar and comfortable as if they had always been that way.
Nothing seemed to change, exactly, in that there were no sudden revelations, no sudden collapsing of barriers or giving-way of passions - things had just… steadily become more comfortable. Mostly it was the little gestures, like the way Julian put a hand on Xiù’s hip when he leaned around her to steal a cheeky morsel from the fridge, or how Allison’s flirting still raised her pulse and blush, but in a happy and confidence-boosting way. They all touched each other a little more and a little more, smiled and joked more, and performed the domestic ballet of keeping their living space tidy with increasingly efficient unconscious teamwork. Little things had mounted up.
She fondly recalled the time that Allison gave her a deep, therapeutic massage after Xiù came back sore and tired after a hard PT session, humming so softly and so peacefully that it put her right to sleep. On another occasion, Xiù gave Julian a coffee and a kiss as he struggled with his studies, then cuddled up with Allison on the couch to watch cartoons. There was always fresh coffee waiting for her when she returned from simulator sessions, and Allison had promptly lodged a request with Ericson for a heating element in the towel rack after Xiù made an off-hand comment about how the worst part of getting out of the shower was the cold air.
Xiù’s dreams didn’t stop, though. Her ingrained habit of being a light sleeper meant that every night was a surreal cinema reel in which childhood friends, Gaoians, mystic symbolism, odd objects, sex, places both real and imagined and an assortment of lurid contradictions acted out their incomprehensible scripts on the back of her eyelids.
Mostly they were peaceful. Vivid and often disturbing, but peaceful.
Date Point 10y6m2w1d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Admiral Sir Patrick Knight
Gaoians apparently enjoyed their tea sweet and milky. A brief experiment in Earl Grey with a slice of lemon - Knight’s personal tipple - had not ended well, as it turned out that something about lemon just didn’t agree with the Gaoian palate.
Once Regaari and Shipfather Yefrig were both furnished with a civilized beverage to hopefully lubricate the wheels of discussion, though, the conversation began in earnest.
“You appreciate that I can’t just take a nonhuman ship and integrate it into the fleet,” he said. “You have different doctrine, different weapons and tactics, there are - forgive me - rafts of security concerns involved… Frankly you haven’t delivered an exciting new addition to the fleet, you’ve brought me a flying headache.”
“The *Racing Thunder*” is technological generations ahead of your ships,” Father Yefrig observed, clearly a touch offended. The translator certainly thought so, giving him a tooth-grinding edge to his simulated English voice.
“My dear chap, I don’t doubt that for a second,” Knight placated him. “But if… hmm…” he sipped his tea then hit on a useful analogy and put the cup down to deliver it. “If what we need is a spear, then you have brought me an excellent sword. For which I’m of course grateful, but…”
Yefrig settled, ear rotating sideways as he thought. “I understand.”
“So the question is, what am I to do with you? You’ve formally requested asylum; under our own rules and those of the Dominion I’m obligated to at least weigh the request… but in the longer term?”
“In the longer term,” Regaari said, “an asset is an asset. This asset wishes to work with you. Please don’t pretend that you couldn’t use them.”
Knight gave him a stern look. The Whitecrest was wearing his George Medal ribbon bar and from what he knew of the chap, that was undoubtedly a calculated move. Certainly his ears were up and forward, and his gaze level. Challenging.
But of course, that decorated Gaoian who’d most likely saved the whole SOR had implants in his head. There was a non-zero possibility that the entity he was talking with today was no longer Regaari.
“I can’t,” Knight told him. “Not for the moment, anyway. For reasons that I simply cannot go into, not with the two of you.”
“What can you do?” Yefrig asked.
“I can negotiate. I can discuss our options with my colleagues and superiors. But I cannot and will not guarantee anything, gentlemen. You will simply have to wait and see.”
Bitterly disappointed though both Gaoians clearly were, they took it with good grace. “May we at least send the females and civilians down?” Regaari requested.
“I’ll have Cimbrean Colonial Security notified,” Knight told him, nodding. “They can apply for visas and begin the immigration process. For now, Shipfather, if you would please remain at anchor above Cimbrean Five…”
“Near the Dominion embassy?” Yefrig made a growling noise.
“…Its moon, then.”
“As you wish, Fleetfather… ah, admiral.” Yefrig corrected himself. Knight smiled, quietly enjoying the title, and raised his fingers off his desk to acknowledge the respect.
“If I could speak with Regaari alone, shipfather…?” he requested
Yefrig duck-nodded, finished his tea, stood and, after a moment’s dithering, ducked and bowed in what was presumably something similar to a Gaoian salute, and departed.
That left Regaari, who was still watching Knight attentively.
“You’ve taken quite a liberty,” Knight accused him. “Presumed on our time, our resources, our manpower… Do you know how much it costs every time the SOR put on their spacesuits?”
“I am trying to forge an alliance,” Regaari informed him. “Something I understood you too were interested in.”
Knight frowned. “And you thought that imposing on us might make us better-disposed to such an alliance?”
Regaari angled his head slightly in a disarmingly canine gesture of thoughtfulness, and then duck-nodded as if he’d reached a decision. “There are…certain powerful Clan elements,” he revealed, “who are interested in pulling us closer to the Dominion. Fathers and the occasional Mother too who stand to gain personally by dragging my people in what I think is the wrong direction. Your people by contrast have been more than gracious with us… Gracious, in fact, to a fault.”
“If your fleet had simply disabled the Racing Thunder alongside the rest of the Dominion ships at Perfection, we wouldn’t be in the position of having to exile a valuable and powerful ship and all its crew. Our relationship with the Dominion would be effectively unchanged. Now, however, we are under pressure, and those pro-Dominion elements have pounced.”
“They would have been destroyed by the Hunters, and a hundred and eighty-seven One-Fangs would be dead.”
“In the big picture, sir, that’s a disposable number. Commodore Caruthers may have felt he was protecting human-Gaoian relations by leaving that ship untouched. In practice, it may have been a mistake.” Regaari scooted forward on his chair so that his paws were touching the ground again - a much more dignified posture. “That decision has… I believe your phrase is ’forced our hand’?”
Regaari put his empty teacup down and sat on the very edge of his seat. “Gao is not in a position to defy the Interspecies Dominion. The sanctions or punitive action would be… crippling. We had to get rid of that ship. The options before me were to bring it here and, yes, presume on your time, resources and manpower… or to exile them in earnest.”
Knight nodded. “And your pro-Dominion elements would have claimed a victory.”
“The Dominion is stagnant, corrupt and stifling,” Regaari said. “And badly prejudiced against life-forms like you and I who are natural carnivores. We need an alternative, and humans are it.” He growled slightly. “Worse, exiled Gaoians have a history of going pirate. Some of the most successful and dangerous pirate captains around are Gaoians, and all of them came from much less experienced stock than Father Yefrig, and started out with much inferior ships. The Racing Thunder is one of our best.”
“Surely the Dominion won’t be happy if we take that ship in…?”
“The Dominion is already not happy with you. You must be aware of how precarious your position is, Admiral.”
Knight sat back and laced his fingers gently on his belly. “More than you know,” he acknowledged.
“Meanwhile, Gao is badly in need of a gentle push away from the Dominion. Your kindness and grace have put us both in a dangerous place, Admiral, but it’s a position we can turn to the good. I would never presume on your time, resources and manpower unless I deemed it absolutely necessary, I promise you that.”
Knight gave him a long, calculating look, then exhaled and nodded. “I’ll put it to Allied Extrasolar Command that we should take them on as a deep-space patrol and assign them to watching the nearby systems,” he offered. “That, realistically, is the best I can offer for now.”
Regaari’s ears came down and slightly sideways as he relaxed. “Thank you.”
“Yes, well.” Knight tidied some papers on his desk. “Please don’t make a habit of this.”
“Of bringing you advanced warships with veteran crew?”
Knight couldn’t help himself - he snorted a laugh. What he knew of Gaoian body language made it clear that Regaari knew he’d won that point.
“I can see why your Fathers give you the difficult assignments,” he said. “You’re trouble.”
“Thank you, sir.” Regaari stood, and pulled off an acceptably passable salute considering that his shoulder wasn’t entirely the right shape. Knight did him the courtesy of returning it. “I’ll be staying in the Alien Quarter if you need me.”
“For how long?” Knight asked.
“Until there is a ship to take me home.”
Date Point 10y6m2w1d AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
There is a hole in her parents’ living room floor, which Xiù knows contains something dangerous. When she approaches and sticks her hand in it, sharp teeth bite off her arm.
At least, that’s what would happen if she did approach it. Instead she keeps a wary distance. She steps outside, onto the open farmland in Minnesota. Knowing what’s coming, she looks up and watches the fireballs across the sky. She can see forever, and wherever the weapons land they send up huge, fat, slow mushroom clouds.
She runs against the blast waves as they tear her long clothes out behind her. She finds herself stuck in traffic, leaning desperately on the horn but making no progress. When she gets out of the car to run the rest of the way, the ground collapses underfoot.
Down through an echoing dark cavern, falling along the beam of light she created when she broke through, until she lands in what might be tar, or quicksand. She reaches desperately for the light as a million hands close over her, and a million teeth rip her, gnawing, biting, chewing, eating-
Dream. Just a dream. She propped herself up on her elbows and willed her panicked hyperventilating to slow.
“That sounded like a bad one.”
Xiù rubbed her face and rolled over to look down on Julian. “…Yeah. Did I wake you?”
He waved a reassuring hand. “We both sleep light, it’s fine.”
Xiù contemplated trying to sleep some more, then kicked her legs over the side of her bunk and dropped noiselessly to the floor. She smiled at the sight of Allison sound asleep, then stooped.
He scooted to the back of his bunk. “Sure.”
She rolled in next to him. Having never shared a bed with anybody before - the Sanctuary escape pod didn’t count - it took some prompting and whispered instructions before she was properly settled, with his left arm under her head and his right resting across her waist, holding her close. But once she was settled…
She couldn’t remember having ever felt so safe.
“Better?” He asked.
“Al won’t mind, will she?”
Julian brushed her hair out of the way and kissed her behind the ear. “She’ll be delighted,” He promised.
Xiù sighed happily, and listened to her instinct to wriggle into him some more.
She woke up to, exactly as Julian had predicted, a delighted noise that was half a squeal and half an “ooh!” As Allison discovered them in the morning.
“Oh, hey… Uh…”
“Don’t you dare apologize,” Allison ordered. She flipped out of bed and beamed at them. “You two look so cute together!”
Julian chuckled. At some point in the night, without her noticing, he’d withdrawn his arm from under Xiù’s head, and now he pushed himself up on it. “Told you.” He whispered into her ear. “Sleep well?”
“That’s the best night of sleep I’ve had in…I don’t know how long!” Xiù realised, sitting up.
Allison, who had turned and was stripping for her morning shower, nodded enthusiastically. “He’s like a magic comfort blanket, isn’t he?”
“Better,” Xiù agreed. Julian was a blusher too sometimes, and as he finger-combed his hair she shared a grin with Allison, who vanished into the washroom.
He cleared his throat, wriggled out past her, then stood up and stretched. His spine and shoulders made several loud popping sounds.
“…Are you okay?” Xiù asked.
“Male burden,” He joked. “Big spoon, small bunk. I’ll loosen up.”
“We can’t have that!” Xiù said. “Are you stiff and sore every time?”
Julian shrugged. “Worth it.”
Xiù considered the bunk. “Are you sure?”
Julian twisted his waist, bent over to touch his fingertips to the opposite toes, and then straightened with one final shimmy of his neck. “You know what I wanna do?” He asked. “I wanna say, ‘to Hell with the beds’ and just make a nest on the floor. They’re too soft anyway.”
“Ugh, I know what you mean,” Xiù agreed. She’d grown almost used to sleeping on hard metal floors during her exile. “They feel like you could fall through them! And… yeah, that way all three of us could cuddle up.”
“Oh, I see. You just want more magic comfort blanket.”
“Duh!” She agreed with a laugh. “Especially if you don’t get backache from it.”
“That would be nice…” he agreed, then raised his voice. “Whaddya think, Al?”
Allison’s voice was slightly muffled through the shower door as she called back. “What?”
“Building a kind of cosy nest on the floor instead of these tiny bunks!”
The shower shut off. Allison slid the door aside and reached out for a towel. “The floor?” she asked, drying her limbs.
“Yeah!” Xiù enthused. “It doesn’t make sense that Julian has to get backache and somebody gets left out…”
Allison frowned at him, as she dried her torso. “You get backache?” She asked. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Nothing a hot shower doesn’t fix,” He promised. “Still…”
“Well go on then!” She stepped aside for him. Julian chuckled and obeyed, receiving a slap with the wet towel to his bare ass from Allison as he stepped out of his shorts.
Allison grinned, and scrubbed at her hair. Xiù still felt that she’d done an embarrassing butcher’s job of that shorter cut, but there was no denying that it needed far less maintenance.
“So.. what, just pull all the sheets and blankets down here and sleep?”
“It’s soft enough,” Xiù pointed out. She stood up and started making the beds.
“I guess it can’t hurt to try…” Allison sounded dubious, poking at the floor - which after all was only as ‘soft’ as a gym mat - with her toe. “…okay, We’ll try it tonight!”
“You don’t mind?”
“Why would I mind cuddling up to my two favorite people, dummy?” Allison asked, affectionately. “Ooh! Do I get to be in the middle?”
“Well… I kinda wanted to…”
Xiù trailed off at the extravagant pout on Allison’s face, rolled her eyes and raised a fist. Beaming, Allison raised hers and they silently counted out three beats. Xiù threw scissors, and Allison went for paper.
“Shit!” Allison threw her head back. “Best of three?”
”No.” Xiù asserted, laughing. “Go put some clothes on!”
Allison giggled and headed for her wardrobe. “Yes ma’am…” she sing-songed
“Good girl!” Xiù called after her, using the same cadence. She wriggled out of her own clothes as Julian finished his shower and stepped out to grab a towel for himself, shaking the water out of his prosthetic. She slipped past him almost before he was out of it and turned the shower back on before the water could go cold.
Normally, she was last in because she liked to luxuriate under it, but this time she spun through, soaked, soaped and rinsed in record time, eager to start the day.
The sooner it was started, after all, the sooner it was done, and she could try the joys of two magic comfort blankets.
Date Point 10y7m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“So how are you settling in at the new workplace?”
Ava smiled and grabbed a handful of cutlery from the drawer to set the breakfast table. Since her return from Earth, she’d clearly and obviously relaxed and become happier. The haunted, sorrowful look that had darkened her expression for months now was finally going away, and her smile was coming back, which was lifting Gabe’s spirits in ways he couldn’t really describe. Adopted be damned, he loved Ava like she was his actual flesh-and-blood daughter, and no parent liked to helplessly watch their child go through hard times.
The fact that she and Adam seemed to be back on speaking terms, strained though they were, was even more cause for celebration. He regretted their breakup and bitterly wished he could have done more to stop it, but there came a time when a parent just had to get out of the way and let his kids be idiots.
Having them round for weekend breakfast on a regular basis was a treat for Gabe, too. Adam had loyally worked out how to fit a weekly bacon-and-eggs fried breakfast into his macronutrients, and if there had been a hint of wanting to avoid Ava for a while… well, to his credit he’d been big enough to get over it. And so had Ava, for that matter.
He wasn’t allowed to help, though. He was so huge nowadays that he was under strict orders to sit at the table, on the grounds that it was the only way for him to stay out of the way.
“It’s pretty good!” Ava said. “We’re all impatient to start putting articles out though. The website’s taking forever.”
“I suppose a whole new media network doesn’t just pop into existence overnight,” Jess observed. She loved their Saturday breakfasts - it was a lazy day for all three of them, and Gabe could cook it at his own limping pace, which was his way of thanking her for the blitzing, busy breakfasts she put together during the working week. It was that kind of happy give-and-take that was making their marriage work beautifully. Their worst argument ever had been over the orientation of the toilet paper. Gabe still didn’t know how a sane woman could tolerate having the roll the wrong way round, but he’d given up trying to persuade her and just settled for flipping it as needed.
“Mm-hmm!” Ava deftly spun a fork round her finger before putting it down. “I’m still trying to decide if I want to focus on Security or Extraterrestrial Affairs.”
“You’ve got the contacts for security…” Adam mused.
“I’m not sure I’d want to interview either of you,” Ava shrugged, before Gabe could reply.
“Why not? And…why would you interview me?”
Ava rolled her eyes. “You’re right, why would a journalist who’s just starting to make a name for herself want to interview one of the Beef Brothers?”
Adam snorted at that, but it was an amused snort. He was still an essentially shy guy at heart, and mentioning the way that the Internet had fallen in love with him and Baseball as they escorted Earth’s first official extraterrestrial visitors was a sure way to make him go slightly red in the ears.
“But… I mean, I guess it’s just not a good idea to interview your family,” Ava continued. “And the SOR don’t like me at all.”
“Sounds like the decision’s made, then, surely?” Jess asked, heading off Adam’s reply.
Ava sighed. “Yeah…”
“But security’s what you really want to cover, isn’t it,” Gabriel observed. He got a small smile for that.
“Yeah… but I guess ET Affairs probably has a big overlap, with the Hunters and, uh, all the rest of it…”
Gabe resisted the urge to grimace. He’d had a long and tense conversation with Admiral Knight over the fact that both his kids had been put in harm’s way in Egypt. Knight had been as reasonable and agreeable as always, but his apology had been for the necessity of it, not for the decision itself.
After reviewing the debrief on EMPTY BELL for himself, Gabe had been forced to agree that it was necessary, but he was damned if he’d ever be happy about it. He hadn’t yet had the chance to discuss it with either of them: with Jess around, classified matters were off limits, and he got the impression that Ava wanted to put the whole affair behind her anyway.
He settled for chuckling weakly. “Well, if you want to combine them, interview me about Gaoians sometime,” he offered. “They’re CCS’ most regular customers.”
Ava mulled that one over. “Hmm. Could be a good angle. The challenge of reconciling alien morality with human laws…”
“Regaari’s here right now,” Adam offered. “He’d have some interesting stuff to say.”
“Isn’t he your friend? You wouldn’t mind?”
“Trust me, he’d prolly thank me for arranging it.”
“Hmm…” Ava finished setting the table and sat down so as to stay out of the way. “And the rest of the guys? I kinda wanna stay in their good graces as best I can…”
Adam *’pff*’ed and poured himself an orange juice. “Stay?”
“Ohhh, no. Stop that,” Jess warned him, putting the finishing touches on the French press coffee. “That wasn’t nice, Adam.”
“…You’re right. Sorry Ava.”
“No se preocupe. You’re right.”
“Regaari’s would be an interesting perspective on these duels that cause us so much trouble,” Gabe suggested, carefully transferring the toast onto their plates as well as dragging the conversation back on course.”
“Are they really that endemic?” Ava asked.
“Every day there’s some incident, and we only have a few hundred Gaoians,” Gabe replied, parting out the scrambled eggs. “As far as they’re concerned it’s perfectly acceptable and normal, as far as we’re concerned it’s aggravated assault. Not that we can ever make the charges stick.”
“If it’s their culture, though-”
“*Me vale madre por su cultura.*” Gabriel grumbled, serving the bacon. “They can act however they like on a Gaoian planet, but so long as they’re in my jurisdiction… And the same goes for humans, too. Culture be damned, if you come to Cimbrean, you live by Cimbrean’s laws. Our house, our rules.”
Jess and Adam both nodded emphatically. For her part, Ava gave his words a moment’s consideration before nodding. “I guess,” she agreed.
“It’s not about saying they can’t be who they are,” Gabe clarified. “It’s about saying, ’this is who we are’, right? These are the things that matter to us, these are our values. And if we’re not willing to stand up for those values…”
This time Ava’s nod was more solid. “Then who are we?”
“Exactly.” Gabe served the sausages, tomatoes and mushrooms and Jess helped him transfer the four plates - one noticeably more laden than the other three - to the table. It was very much a British style breakfast, but Jess had won him over to the dark side. He was damned if he was going to let her convert him to black pudding, though, a sentiment apparently shared by Ava but not by Adam, who couldn’t seem to get enough of the stuff.
“You’re getting political, darling,” Jess noted.
“Sorry. I just worry one of these days one of my officers is going to lose an eye. Gaoians may not be deathworlders, but those claws are sharp.”
“What about the females?” Ava suggested. “Now that they’re here, maybe you could ask them to help you?”
Gabe inclined his head thoughtfully as he sat down “…Hmm…”
Ava smiled, then lowered her head. Jess and Adam sat back and let them say grace silently, before they tucked in.
“…Talking to the females could work,” Gabe admitted, after a few silent minutes of appreciative gourmandizing, when half his plate was eaten. “Possibly. Though, one of the new females fancies herself a warrior. The commune’s not even built yet and she’s already gone to the Thing requesting a change in the weapon licensing laws.”
“A warrior? What kind of a change does she want?”
“She’s a ’commune guard’. Apparently it’s her job to keep unwanted males from harassing the females and cubs. She’s eligible for a security license, which would cover her to carry a gun or a taser, but she wants the license expanded to include fusion swords.” Gabe cleared his throat.
“A sword? A Gaoian with a sword?” Adam laughed.
“Yeah, she’s a fierce one. A real mama bear.”
“Maybe you should interview her,” Jess suggested.
“I think so!” Ava agreed, fighting to keep her amused expression down to a mere wide smile. “She sounds like a firecracker.”
“Well, her name’s Myun. She should be easy enough to find.” Gabe told her. “Try not to create tension, mija.”
“Wait, Myun?” Adam asked, “Dexter was tellin’ me about her. Her first cub is his.”
“That so? …Dexter is Regaari?” Gabriel asked. When Adam nodded, he had to ask further. “Why Dexter?”
“Because of his left hand. Paw. Whatever.”
“Anyway: Just the facts, dad, I promise,” Ava reassured him. “That’s what we want this to be all about.”
“Isn’t ’Just the Facts’ Byron Media’s thing?”
“That’s their slogan…” Ava shrugged. “But Carl - that’s our political editor - he thinks it’s all about public image with the Group.”
“Moses Byron is a very clever man who wants to be remembered as one of the good guys,” Jess opined.
“Exactly. So everything they publish is about making the Group look better. Our mission statement is the truth, no matter what the truth may be.”
“That’s a mission that might get you buried,” Gabe warned her. “People aren’t rational and they don’t always like or want the truth.”
Ava shrugged. “What’s the worst that can happen?” she asked.
“…Nothing you can’t handle, I suppose,” Jess mused.
“I hope so,” Ava agreed. “We’ll just have to go for it and see. But don’t worry, I’m not going to stir up trouble. It’s all going to be about letting the ETs describe themselves and us in their own words.”
“Gaoians are a good start,” Gabe told her. “They’re generally well-disposed to us. You should get some opinions out of them that’ll make readers smile.”
“What about the others?”
“The Vizkittik. Are the most… cautious. They’ll probably give you some more, uh… less inspiring interviews. The Kwmbwrw are outright hostile to us, and in fact I think the handful we had are planning to emigrate now that more Gaoians are arriving. I think there’s a family of Locayl and a Qinis tailor…”
“I guess I’ll just get the bioscreen and a pass to the alien quarter, see if I can do some old-school, candid street voices stuff,” Ava decided.
“Could you see if you can get a piece on education in the alien quarter?” Jess asked. “I want to see how they compare to our own schooling.”
Ava held up her hands. “Please! I’m the new girl! I can only do so much! I can come up with any story I like, but what we actually publish is up to the editors.”
“It’s for my own interest, really,” Jess said. “I’ve got… well, a bit of a problem case. I suppose I was just hoping maybe the aliens have figured out how to deal with some of the things I haven’t.”
“When it comes to humans? I doubt it,” Gabriel muttered.
“Mm.” Jes nodded sadly and finished her coffee.
“Is there anything I could do, maybe?” Adam offered. “Admiral Knight’s been pushing for more community outreach. We’re supposed to look for chances to help people out…”
“Maybe. I’m… a little reluctant to involve either of you directly.”
“Why?” Ava asked.
“Because… well, it’s Jack Tisdale.”
Ava and Adam both nodded understanding and glanced at one another. Gabe knew that neither of them had managed to re-engage with Jack since the Tisdale family’s return to Cimbrean, which was a shame. He should have been their last link to his late sister, Sara, and they should have been the same for him…but it hadn’t happened.
“Lemme guess,” Adam said, quietly. “He’s getting into fights? Giving you attitude?”
“I don’t blame him,” Jess hastened to say. “He lost his sister and fourteen’s a tricky age anyway. But he keeps picking fights with bigger and older boys, and bless them they’re pretty good about it, but he’s going to get hurt if somebody doesn’t turn him around, and I’ve… well, I’ve done everything that I can.” She shrugged helplessly. “There’s only so far a teacher can go.”
Adam nodded. “I’ll talk with him when I… I tell you what, next time he gets in a fight, give him some alone time and call for me, I’ll come down if I can.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to put you-”
“It’s no problem, I promise,” Adam interrupted, kindly.
Jess sighed. “…Thank you, Adam.”
“De nada. I hope I can do something for him.”
Ava’s smartwatch made a pinging sound, and a second after checking it she smiled hugely. “Oh hey! The website’s going up!”
“You’d better get into the office then,” Gabe told her.
“Uh-huh. We’re in for a busy couple of weeks… I’ll see you next Saturday?”
“Of course!” Jess gave her a hug and they shared a couple of familial cheek-kisses. “Always!”
Gabe was given similar treatment, and Adam got a hug sans the kiss, but it was still a big improvement on the first few awkward, strained breakfasts.
“I’ll wash up,” he said, looming upright and squeezing past into the kitchen. This was the easy job, seeing as Jess had insisted on a dishwasher.
Gabe was left to finish his coffee and sit back, feeling a good deal more relaxed and happy than he had in some months.
On the whole, life was going okay.
Date Point 10y7m AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
There was no longer such a thing as a day off in The Box - after all, they wouldn’t get days off on the ship once it was in flight - but weekends were half days, with the afternoons and evenings there for relaxing and personal improvement. Unscheduled drills aside, they were usually pretty relaxing.
Inevitably, however, life in their tiny shared space wasn’t all paradise. The warning from their evaluators had been right - close proximity and little privacy unavoidably led to friction.
Mostly, it was little things. Even on her best behaviour and with tidying up after themselves being part of their routine three times a day, Allison still had an insuppressible slovenly streak. She tended to just leave her clothes where they fell whenever she undressed, rather than putting them in a laundry hamper that was at most ten feet away. She never made her bed, she just would not do the washing up properly and thoroughly, and she seemed to suffer no embarrassment at all from releasing the occasional cavernous fart, though a minor adjustment to their diet largely resolved that problem.
Julian meanwhile was… well, Xiù’s complaints about Julian were less reasonable, really. How could she fairly complain about her boyfriend being conscientious? Except that he was conscientious to a fault, constantly checking she was okay, trying to cheer her up if she was anything less than perfectly perky. If she was in the mood for it, his concern for her state of mind was touching. If she wasn’t - which was more common - she felt like he thought she was made of glass and cobwebs, ready to shatter and tear at the slightest wave of a hand.
He and Allison weren’t immune to spats and minor fights, either. There was never a raised voice between them, nor did it ever end in anything other than a reassuring kiss and reconciliation, but more days than not involved a minute or two somewhere when the energy between the two of them became strained.
Xiù stepped in one time when they were bickering about, as far as she could tell, nothing much at all. Allison had informed him of something mundane like that she’d refilled the liquid soap in the shower, he - being engrossed in a book about the history of naturalism and taxonomy - had grunted a distracted acknowledgement, she’d followed-up by informing him of which scent of soap she’d chosen and he had quite abruptly pointed out that he was reading.
This had resulted in a tense ten minutes, but the moment Xiù had meekly asked if they were okay, they’d both dropped everything to reassure her that they were absolutely fine and had all but tripped over in apologising to one another.
Later, Allison had opined that minor moments of tension were normal and healthy in a relationship. “After all,” she’d said, “we wouldn’t get upset if we didn’t give a fuck.”
Xiù tried to bear that in mind. For the most part it worked - she found it in her to start rolling her eyes and throwing Allison’s used shirts in the laundry with a smile rather than a frown. She gently confronted Julian and explained that constantly checking on her actually undermined her confidence and mood more often than not. He’d done a pretty good job of toning it down after that.
The real boulder in the road was sex. The revelation that Allison and Julian were permanently stuck on third base was a surprising one.
She and Julian talked about it when they had a rare moment alone together while Allison was out a little later than was usual on a Saturday, taking a couple of tests. Their studies and training for the day were all done, they’d finished the chores, and they were sitting on the couch just talking when that particular nugget of information came to her attention.
“So, you guys have really never gone the whole way?”
“It’s the baby thing.” Julian grumbled. “I mean, that rule’s been there right from the start with us. I guess I shoulda put together what happened with her before that Keating guy dragged it out of her…”
“But… I mean, we both got those implants and you had that, um, that injection…”
Long-term contraception had turned out to be part of the contract. Both the girls now had intramuscular contraceptive implants and Julian had suffered the rather less dignified solution of a vas-occlusive contraceptive injection. In theory, the injection of a sterile occluding foam into his vasa deferentia that would disintegrate naturally in three years, or which could be easily dissolved before then if he wanted, was supposed to be a quick, painless and uncomplicated solution to male contraception.
In practice, he’d spent a day or two walking and sitting in slightly funny ways, and constantly adjusting himself for comfort with a pained expression.
“Yup. 100% no chance of accidental babies whatsoever, and she’s still…” Julian sighed, and scowled at himself. “I mean, I know it’s her choice and if she says she’s closed for business then nobody else gets a vote. It’s just…”
Xiù nodded. “And she keeps hinting about you and me, um…” she tried to fight back her blush, which of course just made it worse.
“See, I don’t mind that.” Julian said. “You’re not ready yet, full stop. You’re not, uh, teasing me with going nearly the whole way and then stopping short, you know?”
“Right! But it really bugs me that she keeps pushing me, when she’s got this big hangup of her own…”
They nodded together and lapsed into thoughtful silence, which Julian broke a minute or two later.
“Should we… be talking about this without her here?” He asked.
“Shouldn’t we?” Xiù asked.
“I dunno, are we maybe talking behind her back? That doesn’t seem right…”
He had a point. “Maybe…” Xiù conceded. “You’re right. I guess I’d be kind of upset if I found out you two had been complaining about me without me…”
Julian gave a shifty clear of the throat. “Agh. Right… Sorry.”
He raised his hands. “Not like anything major. just…”
“I’m sorry!” He cleared his throat. “Okay, new rule, no two of us talk about the third when they’re not around”
“I think so!” She agreed.
She relented when Julian shrank a little, looking so much like a kicked puppy it was impossible to stay mad. She leaned over and kissed him. “…Sorry.”
He spread his arms and she scooted over to lie on his chest. He stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head.
“…So I managed to irritate you guys?” She asked, after a while.
“Not really. Nothing important.” He promised.
“What was it about?”
He laugh-sighed. “You’re just gonna worry if I don’t tell you, aren’t you?” When she nodded against him, he nodded too and drew a thoughtful breath through his teeth. “Al was… it was about sparring practice. She felt you weren’t letting her progress fast enough.”
“She’s progressing really fast anyway!” Xiù looked up.
“Yeah, but you know how she is. She doesn’t slow down or relent, does she?”
“Ugh, yeah.” Xiù frowned. “Sometimes I just wanna tell her to…” she caught herself. “Wait, we’re complaining about her again.”
“Ah, shit…” Julian rubbed his scalp with the heel of his hand. “That’s harder in practice than in theory, isn’t it?”
“Well, what was your complaint about me?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Oh come on,” she pushed herself upright. “There’s got to be something I do that annoys you.”
“Only when you’re being insecure,” he said, and smiled cheekily. “Like right now.”
He put his thumb and index finger under her chin and lifted her for a kiss. “We’re all fine,” he promised.
Reassured, Xiù snuggled down on his chest again.
She must have dozed off because she knows she’s dreaming. She’s on a grassy mountainside, overlooking a canyon-spanning steel bridge on a bright sunny day.
A dirt bike blitzes past from behind her and out over the bridge, bouncing over the ramps and wooden boards that have been laid on it - Motocross at altitude. As she watches, the rider makes a mistake, over-corrects, wobbles and the next ramp throws them high into the air to fall off the bridge and into the canyon.
Perspective shifts. Now she’s the rider, and she leaps off the bike with a whoop, pulling the cord on her parachute. She takes hold of the steering lines and aims herself down the mountainside. Trees, snow, grass and animals flash by below as she perfectly calculates the angle of descent, thrillingly close to disaster but never crashing. It’s the next best thing to flying.
Both of them woke with a small jump when the door opened. Allison threw her jacket onto the coat hooks, and waved to them. “Hey, lovers.”
“Hey!” Julian sat up.
Xiù stretched and checked the wall clock. They had napped for nearly an hour. Not surprising really, considering how permanently tired they all were from the constant education and training. “Hey…”
Allison hit the fridge and grabbed the orange juice. “Did I wake you?”
“Guess you did…” Julian agreed. “Hey, Al, we’ve kinda come up with a new relationship rule.”
She turned, pouring a glass. “Yeah?”
Xiù nodded. “We were thinking it’s a bad idea if two of us talk about the third when they’re not present.”
Allison blinked at them. “Did I do something to piss you off?”
“No, no. Not… nothing like that.” Julian said. “I was just… we were talking about the whole third-base only thing.”
“And I was saying you’ve been making me a bit uncomfortable lately, hinting about… you know, when I’m gonna be ready.” Xiù added.
Allison put the orange juice back in the fridge, slammed back the glass in one go and put it down. “*’Hi, Al! How was your day?’*” she asked, exuding brittle sarcastic cheer.
“Come on, don’t be like that-” Julian protested, but Allison folded her arms.
“Be like what?” She asked. “I’ve had a shitty day! I came this close to fucking up that bend test I’ve been stressing about all week, I’ve got a head full of system integration jargon that I barely understand, and then the second I’m home, my boyfriend and my girlfriend gang up on me!”
She sighed, picked up her glass and took it to the sink to rinse it. “I’m sorry if I upset you, guys, but couldn’t this have waited? Let me get home and rest up a bit first?”
Xiù and Julian looked at each other awkwardly.
“New rule?” Xiù suggested.
“No ganging up.” Julian agreed.
Al leaned against the sink and tucked her thumbs into her belt loops. “Good rule.” She observed, testily.
“…Sorry Allison.” Xiù offered, while Julian nodded apologetically with her.
“It’s okay, it’s fine-” Allison waved a hand and exhaled. “You just managed to put the cherry on a shitty day cake, you know?”
“Sorry.” Xiù repeated herself. Allison smiled forgivingly, stepped forward, turned and threw herself over the couch’s arm to land with her head in Xiù’s lap.
“Hey, Julian?” She called.
“I know it’s my turn to cook, but I could really go for one of your steaks tonight…”
He chuckled and stood up. “Okay, I can do that.”
As he headed for the freezer to grab a couple of steaks for defrosting, Xiù gently ran her nails across Allison’s scalp. “That bad?”
Allison closed her eyes, enjoying the sensation. “You and a piece of steel have a lot in common,” she said. When Xiù paused, confused, she opened her eyes again and explained. “I can’t bullshit either of you. Either I’m welding it right or it breaks. Either my stance is right, or you correct me. It’s… frustrating.”
Xiù gave her a quick reassuring kiss. “You’re doing great,” she promised.
It occurred to her after the fact that it was the first time she’d actually kissed Allison, rather than being kissed by her. Al certainly didn’t fail to notice - she smiled hugely and relaxed. “Mm… Thanks,” she whispered. “I needed that.”
“More head scritchies?” Xiù offered.
Xiù obliged, and, on a whim, whispered something for Allison alone to hear. “Wǒ ài nǐ.”
Allison stretched like a sleepy kitten. “Mmm…I dunno what that meant, but it sounded good.”
Xiù smiled. “It was,” she promised.
Date Point 10y7m AV
Michael Foale High School, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Despite being a headteacher in charge of a few hundred pupils rather than the homeroom tutor in charge of just a handful as she’d been when Adam had been in her class, Jess had never got around to selecting a different look for the workplace. Long skirt, black cardigan, red scarf. It was her working uniform, and so iconic that whenever the kids wanted to poke affectionate fun at her, they never needed to work hard at it.
Possibly that was why Jess had stuck with the distinctive look. She had a policy of not taking herself too seriously at work, though she took the work very seriously indeed.
“Thanks for doing this, Adam.”
“Like I said, de nada. I hope I can help…”
Used as he was to the narrow hallways and corridors of HMS *Sharman*’s administrative building, Adam was still feeling self-consciously huge as he followed his stepmom. Everything was just a little low, teenager-height or lower, and next to Jess’ slim, avian figure he was well aware that he cut a near-freakish figure.
He tried not to let it bother him when two wide-eyed girls in the school’s uniform of a light powder-blue polo shirt with a grey sweater stood aside to let them past, and then dashed away laughing and whispering to each other.
Jack Tisdale was lounging around in an empty classrom with his feet up on a desk, radiating dishevelled contempt for frivolities like the uniform. He’d found a tennis ball somewhere, and was bouncing it off the wall when they entered. Jess just sighed and confiscated it, even as Jack straightened up and adjusted his clothes, aware that something different was going on.
“…I’ll leave you two to talk,” Jess said, and made herself scarce.
Adam would have liked to sit down, but he was innately wary of furniture nowadays. None of the plastic seats were either large or strong enough. He settled for leaning against the door and folding his arms.
Jack stared at him for several long minutes. “…Jesus, Adam,” he declared at last. “Ava said you got big, but…”
“…Why are you here?”
Adam tilted his head. “To help out a friend.”
“Oh, what, Jess needs your help with the naughty kid?” Jack made a frustrated noise and stood up. He only looked rail-thin, Adam realised. On closer inspection he was carrying some respectable muscle definition on that skinny frame. It was doubtful he’d ever be strong, but he was certainly not as weak as a first glance might suggest. But he wasn’t strong either, as the scabbed wounds on his lip and eyebrow attested.
“Jess isn’t my friend, man. She’s my step-mom.”
“…We hardly know each other, we’re not friends.” Jack snapped, dismissively.
Before Jack could reply, he’d been grabbed and pulled irresistibly into an Adam Arés Trademarked Hug. Not even Baseball could escape those.
“Get off! Get… Leggo! Got off me you big-Aagh!” Jack squirmed, fought, pushed, twisted and at one stage Adam guessed he maybe even tried biting.
Then he went still.
Then, very slowly, he hugged back.
Date Point 10y7m AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
The treadmill in their living space was, cleverly, part of the couch. A hidden catch on the side of the couch allowed for the squishy-sitty-bit (as Xiù had named it) to be rolled back into the wall, revealing the treadmill’s deck, the handholds and controls of which simply lifted upwards and clicked into place.
Julian hated it. But then again, Julian disliked exercising full stop - he’d always kept in shape through labor, be it splitting firewood, clearing brush, landscape management, hunting, whatever. The need to actually put dedicated time and effort into his fitness was one he accepted, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. Allison routinely had to order him onto the treadmill, or to pick up his weights.
She usually wound up doing her yoga practice nearby so as to encourage him.
The new titanium reinforcement in his foot turned out to have been such a minor change in the weight and balance of it that he’d adapted inside a day or two, much to his embarrassment, and it had improved his running gait impressively. Before, he’d had a kind of shuffling, cautious stride that favored his prosthetic and minimized the impact on its fragile synthetic “bones”.
With that concern repaired, he new loped along with a fluid, easy, toe-first stride that made surprisingly little noise, and he could keep it up all day.
Xiù meanwhile was showing off her disgusting core strength by doing one-arm toes-to-bar sets.
She wasn’t actually showing it off of course - that was an ordinary part of her routine - but every time Allison watched her do it, she felt a little inadequate. Her own fitness had improved dramatically under Dane’s guidance, and she could do toes-to-bar sets herself, but the one-handed ones just eluded her. She wound up swinging like a rung bell, whereas Xiù’s movement was smooth, controlled and precise.
Then of course there was the other part of their training day - station drills. The Box would occasionally produce one of four chimes, summoning one or all of them to their workstations. The idea being that no matter what you were in the middle of, you downed tools immediately, pausing only for fire safety or other danger concerns, and went straight to work.
The worst ones were when they went off at night.
Xiù let go of the bar the second her chime went off, gave them both a wave, and headed for her simulator with her sports drink in hand, toweling herself.
“Wanna bet we get an all stations chime in five minutes?” Allison asked, pushing her arms forward and her leg out into the Warrior III position.
“You’re on. Bathroom cleaning.”
“Urgh… take-back?” Allison hated cleaning the shower. It inevitably meant digging a sodden wad of dark hair that could have belonged to either Julian or Xiù - probably both - out of the drain trap.
“Not on your life.”
Allison sighed, breathed through her position for half a minute, then returned to a lunge. “Fine. You can clean the air filter then.” She said. Another of her ‘favorite’ jobs - the air filter in the actual ship would be there to extract dust from their atmosphere before it was processed through the life support system. The simulated one was full of icing sugar and glitter instead. Somebody in their simulation team had a sense of sadistic humor.
“Fair.” Julian conceded.
“Oh, hey, seeing as she’s not here…” Allison began.
“No complaining about Xiù behind her back, remember?” Julian said.
“No complaining, I swear!” Allison objected. “She just…”
“D’you know what ’Wo ai ni’ means?” Allison asked.
Julian turned his head slightly. “She said that to you?”
Julian smiled warmly. “It means ’I love you’.”
“…That’s what I thought.”
“Is that a big deal? She’s said it before.” Julian pointed out.
“She’s said she loves us before. ’I love you guys’, you know? This one was for me personally.”
“So what’s the problem?”
Allison returned to a neutral stance and shook her limbs off. Now that the bar was vacant, it was her turn on it.
“It’s not a problem, it’s… I mean, you’re fine. Two girls, woohoo, right?”
“I guess…” Julian said, cautiously.
“Meanwhile for me it’s been like, ’surprise, Allison! You’re gay now!’ which is… that takes some adjusting to,” she sighed. “I’m not complaining, it’s great. But I kinda feel off-balance about it sometimes, you know?”
“You’ve really committed to it though. Got that cute butch haircut and everything…” Julian grinned evilly at her.
She ripped one of her sweatbands off her wrist and threw it at him. “This is not a butch haircut, you ass!”
In an impressive display of coordination, without breaking stride he juggled and caught it after it bounced off his shoulder. “You’re the ass, you butt,” he retorted, tossing it back to her with a laugh.
She threw it at him again. “You’re the butt, dummy!”
The sweatband ping-ponged between them. “Am not!”
Laughing, Allison slipped the sweatband back onto her wrist. “Come over here and call me a butt to my face!”
He shook his head, still grinning. “No ma’am.”
She gasped, mock-scandalized. “Bad boy! How dare you not call me a butt?!”
“We need to finish our exercise or they’ll fail us and we won’t go to space,” he pointed out. “I don’t have time to call you a butt!”
She feigned grumbling. “Damn you and your… Sensible-ness.”
He chuckled. “You can punish me later.”
“I can, huh?” Allison gave him an appraising up-and-down.
“Well, I’m already cleaning that air filter for you, so I’m gonna be covered in glitter anyway…” He pointed out.
“Oh, now you’re just inviting me to be cruel.” Allison said.
“You gonna actually exercise anytime today?” Julian asked, cheekily earning himself at least a one-point hike in that evening’s punishment.
“Fine, but you’re gonna regret taunting me, mister.”
He snorted. “Promises, promises…”
Date Point 10y7m AV
Michael Foale High School, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“…like I’m this fragile, this… glass child that they’ve got to protect! Like they think I’m stupid enough to get myself shot too! You know?”
Adam nodded. The Trademarked Hug had worked its magic yet again, but the real trick was listening. He listened, he nodded, he let Jack get it out of his system. Really, all he’d done was to, as Sikes had once described it to him, unlock the paddock and let the colt run until it got tired.
All he had to do now was sit cross-legged on the floor, listen, and throw away everything he thought of saying. It wouldn’t do to try and talk Jack’s problems out, not yet. The poor guy was a crackling Tesla coil of anger with no clue where that anger should go. Now that it was spilling out of him, it was earthing itself everywhere, in the school, in Adam, in the world in general, in his parents, and in his late sister.
Adam could relate. After the first few hours of simply not being able to believe what had happened, he’d been furious with Sara. He’d felt guilty about it for a while, until he’d learned about the stages of grief and how anger was a natural part of the progression. One that Jack appeared to have got himself stuck on, and all of that energy needed to dissipate before anything Adam might say would be constructive.
Besides. Some of the things he was saying were painful to hear, and even managed to make Adam a bit angry, they hit so close to home.
But Adam was good at staying quiet, controlling his expression and listening.
Jack finished his tirade by hooking a foot under one of the classroom chairs and kicking it across the room.
“…Why am I even telling you this? You can’t even relate, can you? You’ve got your shit sorted out.”
A direct question got a direct answer. “Nah man. I’ve not got my shit sorted out at all.”
“Come off it!” Jack gave him an exasperated stare. “Look at you! You’re on TV escorting Gaoians and you’re meant to be, like, this badass super-soldier or whatever and you’re… I mean, how fucking strong are you?”
“Honestly? Bro, I’m the strongest man alive.”
“Dude. Do you know how fucked in the head you have to be to even try to become what I am? It feels great, but the price I pay is constant pain, not bein’ able to trust the furniture, I have the worst time finding clothes that fit, and I have to eat chicken and rice with supplements every goddamned hour.” He gestured to the meal tote he was carrying with him to make the point. “Does that really sound like I’ve got my shit together?
“Whatever.” Jack flung himself into a chair and sulked some more.
Adam decided to change tack. “…Okay. Let’s say I do have it all sorted out,” he said. “I’ll give you that one. Let’s say I do. Man, I’m not asking for pity here or anything, but you know what kinda shit I went through. Ain’t no way anybody could blame me for being a complete fuckup, so why d’you think I’m not?”
“I dunno. Maybe you’re just special. Maybe you’re just lucky.”
That one got under Adam’s skin. ’Lucky’? If there was any one word that simply didn’t fit his life, ’Lucky’ was it.
He was still working on restoring his calm when Jack surprised him by wiping his eyes and clarifying. “I try,” he said. “I thought perhaps I could… at least get strong, like Dad, or like you. Something. But I can’t even do that. Every time Dad goes to the gym I go with him, and after all this time I’m still this skinny, weak piece of nothing…”
“Bet you can swim like a fish, though,” Adam observed. “Me, I sink like a stone nowadays.”
“Great. I can swim.” Contempt for that particular blessing oozed from every syllable.
Adam had to laugh a little. He would have liked to point out that swimming was a vital skill for a PJ, and that having sacrificed his buoyancy on the altar of raw strength he’d never properly dive again, which meant that he’d never again be a proper pararescueman. But, he was conscientiously trying to talk about Jack rather than himself. “Don’t knock it! Swimming is fuckin’ useful, bro!”
This did not seem persuasive to Jack, so he tried a slightly different angle.
“…Y’know… one of the people I admire the most is one of our NCOs. She ain’t big, she ain’t strong, she can’t do any of the shit I do. Her deadlift is, like, my hammer curl.”
Jack gave him the classic sulky teenage look. “…And?”
“And I can’t do any of the shit she can do.” Adam sat forward to make sure he was selling the point. “It’s not about what you can’t do, manito. Everybody in the world can’t do pretty much everything! It’s about figuring what you can do.”
“What if what I can do is useless?”
“No such thing.”
Jack snorted skeptically.
“No, really!” Adam insisted. “My CO, he talks about the speartip. How me and the guys, we’re the sharp bit right at the end, and that’s the bit everyone’s scared of. Nobody ever thinks of being the long bit of wood behind that, but I tell you what, man: if you took the speartip off the end of that long bit of wood, all you’d have is just a crappy knife.”
“So what can I do, Adam?” Jack asked.
“Bro, you’ve got game. No, listen-” Adam raised his hand to shut off Jack’s sarcastic interjection. “Game counts for fuckin’ everything. You don’t just want to make a difference in life, you need to. Right?”
Slowly and cautiously, Jack nodded.
“Dude, I can’t just relate to that, that is… literally my whole life,” Adam told him. “It’d eat me up too if I thought there was nothing I could do, but there is. You just gotta find your direction and head that way. Guys like me, we ain’t lucky, we’re just a shitty-ass knife. It’s everybody else who makes us work.”
Jack was silent for a long time. “…You really think I could do something?” he asked, at long last.
“Dude. You’ve got the kind of dedication that can do anything. You just need to figure out where to point it.”
“…Could I… join the SOR?”
Adam took a deep breath. “For real? You won’t be an operator, and even if you could be I’d tell you no. Be smart and leave that shit for the dumb fucks like me! But man, I reckon you’d make a kick-ass support tech, and without the techs there wouldn’t be an SOR.”
Jack pushed his glasses up his nose and nodded thoughtfully.
“Tell you what,” Adam offered. “You decide you wanna do this? I’ll talk with your mom and dad and we’ll get you on a training plan. I reckon we could surprise you. And you’d need to study really hard, there’s a lotta learning for a tech.” He paused to consider, “Marty could prolly help a lot. She’s, like, at least as smart as I am strong. Hell, I’d bet she’d love to help! She’d be a hard teacher though…think you could handle it?”
“No fuckin’ maybe,” Adam corrected him. “Either you set a goal and try, or you don’t. So here’s your’ fuckin’ goal, okay? Prove you’re worth my time. No more fights, no more making your teachers’ lives hell, you take all that anger and you put it to work.”
“…Can you teach me how to fight properly?”
“Heh,” Adam chuckled, but he saw himself in that question and sobered quickly.
“I can,” he said. “When you earn it.”
Date Point 10y7m AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
The “Yes ma’am” game was Xiù’s guilty thrill. Saying it, having it said to her, didn’t matter - it was fun.
Julian and Allison sometimes took it to another level, though.
Xiù would be the first to acknowledge that her experience with human sexuality was mostly theoretical. In fact, she would have said that she knew more about Gaoian sexuality than her own species’, were it not for the fact that Gaoians were so straightforward that describing their mating urges as “sexuality” was basically inaccurate.
This had been the inevitable cause of some difficulty when Xiù’s precious stash of Earth media - the one that Ayma had purchased for her - had turned out to include the film version of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Ayma and Regaari had naturally wanted to know why Xiù didn’t want to watch it with them, and had put on a fascinating display of bewildered ear-semaphore as she had squirmed, stammered and blushed her way through explaining the concept of BDSM - a subject on which she was scarcely better-educated than the Gaoians - and erotica in general.
What Al and Julian got up to wasn’t BDSM, or at least not as Xiù understood it. Neither of them seemed remotely interested in ropes, whips or silly toys. What they were interested in was that they would occasionally turn the “yes ma’am” game up to eleven and Julian would put his absolute faith and trust in Allison. He would invite her to use him, and Allison would obey.
What Xiù had noticed was that ‘obey’ was entirely the correct description. Despite the apparently subservient role he enjoyed playing, Julian was the one with the real power in their relationship: He could stop the game instantly with a word, and that was true in day-to-day life as well as in their intense sessions. He liked to pretend he was a meek and submissive plaything of his girls’…But every so often, when he was tired, stressed or horny, she caught a glimpse of the wary, wily, dangerous wolf of a man who lived under that sanguine exterior, playing at being a lapdog. A little scary and a lot exciting.
The problem Julian and Allison had run into was that the total lack of privacy and the multiple showers in their daily routines meant that nudity had completely lost its sting for all of them, even for Xiù. This had robbed Allison of a powerful tool for playing the game that Julian wanted to play, and their constant proximity had robbed them of space to push into new and more thrilling territory without violating Xiù’s comfort zones.
Now, that problem seemed to have reached a tipping point.
“So he dared you extra hard?”
Allison watched Julian thoughtfully. For now, he was still trying to comb glitter out of his hair, while the girls had a quiet conversation, pitched low enough that he shouldn’t be able to hear. “Babe, I love you… but Julian and I have had WAY less sex since you came along. We’re both horny as shit.”
“So have sex!” Xiù hissed. “We’ve been over this, I want you guys to.”
“Yeah but… we all nest down on the floor every night together.” Allison pointed out. “ It doesn’t feel right, banishing you back to your bunk…”
“Al…” Xiù touched her own forehead. “We’ve got to try and make this stuff normal for all our sakes. I want you two to have a healthy sex life even if I never manage.”
“You think you never will?”
Xiù shook her head emphatically. “No, I will. I will. I just need to ease into it, that’s all.”
Allison nibbled thoughtfully on a fingernail. “…Babe, what is it about sex that makes you so nervous?” She asked.
Xiù just turned her head and touched a finger to the scar on her throat.
“…I’ve been wondering where you got that,” Allison confessed. “What happened?”.
Xiù knew her expression had gone cold. “This is where Zane had me against a wall, with a knife to my throat, and a hand… you know what? It doesn’t matter where his hand was - I didn’t want it there.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Xiù repeated. “I love Julian, I trust him completely. But there’s nothing that kills my mood faster than flashing back to that moment…”
“No wonder you kicked that fucker’s ass like you did.”
“He deserved worse.” Xiù growled, and meant it.
“So does Julian… remind you of that?”
“Sometimes. When he’s…” Xiù glanced at their boyfriend, who’d apparently decided that he’d de-glittered himself as much as he practically could, and had now settled on his bunk to read a book. She lowered her voice to make sure he couldn’t hear. “…When he gets intense. You know? When he gives you that… hungry look?”
“…That’s when he’s sexiest!” Allison objected.
“Yeah!” Xiù agreed. “That’s the problem.”
“…Mixed signals?” Allison guessed. “It turns you on and takes you back at the same time?”
Julian looked up from his book. “Are you talking about me behind my back?” He asked.
“Let us scheme in peace, you!” Allison told him, with a grin. He chuckled and returned to his reading with a ‘yes ma’am’ and Allison treated Xiù to a wink.
A thought seemed to strike her. “What about me?”
“What about you?” Xiù asked.
“Do you have the same problem with me?”
Xiù shook her head. “No…?”
“Well, if you’re not ready for him…”
Xiù got what she was driving at and laughed. “Um… Al… I love listening to you and him. I think I’d like to watch sometime, and I want you to be there when I’m finally ready…And I really do love you… but I think I’m still basically straight.”
“I know, I know…” Allison agreed. “I know what you mean. I think I’m still basically straight too… but I am curious to know what it’s like.”
Xiù laughed. “You’re incorrigible!”
“Just so long as you’re encourage-able.” Allison punned.
Xiù laughed some more, then quietened. “I guess?” She hazarded. “My life’s been so strange, I never know what’s going to happen next - Let’s face it, weirder things have happened to me.”
“You were abducted by aliens, you’re legally a Gaoian, and now you’re training to fly a spaceship.” Allison nodded. “I’m just saying, next to all that…”
“I’m not saying ‘no’.” Xiù hastened to tell her. “I’m just saying… let me work up to it. Okay?”
”More than fair.” Allison smiled.
“Still…” Xiù put a finger to her cheek and stared thoughtfully in Julian’s direction.
“I dunno… I’m just thinking that perhaps I should start taking charge. Like… I didn’t get better at my fitness, my gung fu, my piloting or at learning Gaori by just sitting back and wishing it would happen, did I?”
“You’re right.” Allison agreed. “And it’ll be the same with your sex life, babe. If you want to have one, you’re gonna have to work on it… crawl-walk-run, right?”
Xiù reached a decision.
Allison’s eyebrow arched upwards. “Okay?”
“Okay… let’s work on it.”
Looking distinctly like the cat who’d just talked a mouse out of its hole, Allison sat forward and ran her tongue across her teeth. “…What do you have in mind?” She asked.
Date Point 10y7m AV
The Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Human access to the alien quarter was strictly controlled: Ava didn’t get in at all without proving she was up-to-date on her Frontline treatments, declaring her reason for visiting, logging her itinerary, passing through a decontamination biofilter force-field, and donning a tracker that reported her position to CCS and timed her stay, up to the maximum duration of four hours.
Fortunately, her press credentials - and, frankly, her name - helped her with the declaration and itinerary part. Gabriel would have been furious if the CCS checkpoint officers had explicitly shown favoritism to their boss’ daughter, and he’d have been disappointed in Ava had she exploited it, but they were allowed to be a model of manners and polite helpfulness. Her trip through the checkpoint was uneventful, even if the biofilter did make her teeth feel funny and made her ear piercings tingle.
Once through, and with the tracker on its lanyard politely ticking away her precious two hundred and forty minutes, the first step was getting some pictures. She unholstered her camera and ran a practiced eye over the architecture, looking for interesting angles, framing, lighting, or places where she could achieve something interesting with depth of field.
There had been some civil complaints when the Quarter had been walled off. People had made alarmed noises about ghettoization and even apartheid, but the harsh reality of biology had made a physical barrier delineating where in here ended and out there began not only necessary, but inevitable.
On the outside, the human side, every effort had been made to hide it or, where that wasn’t possible, to ensure that it wasn’t an ugly wall. Buildings butted up against it, planters and trees obscured it, and in the places where the pedestrian precincts of the town center exposed it, it had been given over to artwork. One section was even the back wall of a public stage.
The ETs made no such attempt to sweep the wall under the rug. It was there, it was stark, and it was solid, as if they quite sensibly wanted a constant reminder that the well-meaning people on the outside of that wall could accidentally kill them all.
Ava mentally scribbled a note to use that thought in whatever article her visit produced.
Everyone knew where the checkpoint and sole access to the Quarter was: It fronted onto Riverside Park a stone’s throw from the Multi-Faith Center. The idea was to facilitate human/ET mingling, and it largely worked. The black-and-white-robed furry Brothers of Clan Starmind ambling back and forth between the Quarter and the Center, often deep in conversation with a human counterpart from Folctha’s small Sōtō monastery, were such a familiar sight in that part of the park that they’d long since ceased to be a joke and were now just part of Folctha’s culture.
Ava had never told anybody that Father Gyotin had only discovered Zen Buddhism thanks to her. She hadn’t expected it to go so far - the common knowledge had been that ETs tended to view human religions with a kind of bewildered incomprehension. When she’d pointed Gyotin towards the shelf containing the Buddhist literature, she’d never imagined that six years later there would be Gaoian monks earnestly sweeping the gravel paths.
The area inside the gate was an extension of the park, but with alien architecture and alien plants, carefully imported and protected from the native life by the forcefield roof that capped the whole wall. That forcefield was one of Folctha’s major municipal power sources, and doubled as a biofilter and a way of keeping the imported birds and bats from getting in. Under its aegis, alien insects flitted between alien flowers, and were snacked on as the foundation of a small but balanced alien food chain.
One of a pair of Vzk’tk croaked something at her as they daintily passed, and she hastily turned on the translator built into her tracker.
“I’m sorry?” she asked.
“I said ’good afternoon’.” the Vzk’tk replied.
“Oh! Well, good afternoon to you too.”
The slender blue alien nodded his head slowly and carried on his way alongside his partner. Ava grabbed a snapshot of them going, framing their gracile silhouettes against the pale grey solidity of the wall.
She spent the first of her allotment of safe hours ambling around the Quarter, taking it in and recording what she saw, swapping lenses often, playing with filters, lighting and framing. She paid special attention to the banners and fabrics that hung from the buildings, and to the buildings themselves.
Ava had read up on architecture to help her with her photography, and decided that the ET edifices lived somewhere in the general neighborhood of Expressionism, minus the concrete Cold War obduracy and with a subtle stretching quality which reflected the fact that several alien species were twice as tall as a human, or even more. The buildings were all high-sided, curved and slender, and adorned with hanging banners. Brightly colored canopies were strung between them so that they sheltered the streets from the nightly rains and made them glow with inherited colour when the sunlight diffused through.
The newly-arrived Gaoian females clearly had their own ideas about how their commune was going to look, though. Half-built though it was, it already stood out simply by being wood-framed, though its horseshoe shape and lines complimented rather than clashed with the general form of the buildings around it. Ava took a liking to it immediately - it was a distinctive landmark in a district where for the most part the best way to tell streets apart was the hue of the canopy. Pretty though the Alien Quarter’s streets were, they were a bit repetitive for her tastes.
A pair of cubs rampaged past her as she got close, followed by a resigned-looking Mother who was carrying far too many bags and barking at them to stand upright. “You’re not four-pawed animals!” she called. “Stand up straight!”
She met Ava’s amused eye, flicked both her ears in a gesture of maternal frustration that effortlessly ignored the species barrier and made Ava giggle, and carried on about whatever errand she was pursuing.
“I’m sorry, ma’am?” Ava called. The Mother turned. “I’m looking for a Sister Myun?”
“You’ll find her easily,” the Gaoian replied. “She’s the brown-furred pregnant one.”
Myun was indeed very easy to find. She was lying under the shade of an imported tree, watching a video on the holographic HUD that was projected in front of her eyes by the device clipped to her ear, and even though Ava was no expert on Gaori body language, she looked bored out of her mind.
She perked up on realising she had company, and even more so when she realised that she had human company.
Ava smiled - the translator had given Myun a youthful alto voice that neatly matched what she could hear of her actual speech. “Hi!” she introduced herself, offering a hand. Myun shook it with the confident air of an ET who was actually fairly familiar with humans. “I’m Ava.”
“Oh good, you’re exactly who I was looking for!”
Myun rolled onto four-paws and stood up, dusting off her fur. “I am?”
Ava ‘mm-hmm’ed , and produced her press ID. “I’m with ExtraSolar News Network. I was hoping I could talk to you, maybe get your thoughts on some things?”
“The news? I’m not really very important…”
“That’s okay, I don’t interview really important people.”
Myun’s ears turned to the absolutely adorable angle of a Gaoian trying to suss out human weirdness, and Ava decided an elaboration was in order.
“I’m doing what’s called an ’interest piece’,” she explained. “I want to hear your story, help our readers see into your life a little and maybe gain some perspective and understand the world a little better.”
“That sounds… good?” Myun hazarded. “But why me?”
“Oh! My dad’s the chief of colonial security. I was talking with him this morning and he mentioned that you’ve already taken a motion to the Thing about making fusion swords legal on a security license?”
Ava beamed encouragingly. “Well, I thought ’that sounds like a really interesting story’ so I came to see if you’d be okay with talking to me for a bit.”
“…Okay!” Myun decided. “Can we walk and talk? I’ve been sitting around for too long and I find that walking around settles my cub…” she patted her belly, fondly.
“Sure! But if it’s okay, could I just get you to sign this, quickly?” Ava dug in her bag, grabbed her tablet and called up the Gaori version of ESNN’s release form. Myun peered at it.
“Consent form…” she read.
“Just to say that you’re okay with me recording our conversation and maybe editing it a bit for our magazine. We’re keen on ethical journalism at ESNN so you’ll get a chance to look at it before we put it up for the public, and if there’s anything you don’t like the editor can work with you. Okay?”
Myun duck-nodded as she read, then signed the form by writing her name.
“Thanks.” Ava put the tablet away, and deftly made sure her smartwatch was recording as they began a slow, ambling walk around the commune grounds. “So, congratulations on the cub. Are you getting close?”
“Any day now. He’s wriggling away in there,” Myun chittered and rubbed her belly again. “This is my first, and he should be a strong one, too.”
“And you’re… how old?”
“I’m eighteen Gaoian years old,” Myun revealed. “In human years, I think that’s… about fifteen.”
“By human standards, that’s a very young age to have a child…” Ava told her. “In fact that’s below Folctha’s legal age of consent.”
“By Gaoian standards, it’s about average. We grow up more quickly.”
“Are you planning to have more?”
Myun imitated a human shake of her head, then remembered she was speaking to a microphone. “Eventually, in a few years. I want to study humans and human culture first.”
“Is that why you came to Folctha?”
“Oh yes!” Myun duck-nodded enthusiastically. “When I was offered the chance I just knew I had to pounce. Ever since I was a cub I’ve been a… you have a word, fangirl?”
The English word sounded a little mangled coming from a Gaori mouth in a strong accent, but Ava had to resist the urge to laugh. “Why is that?” she asked.
The answer she got was much longer, and much more surprising, than she could ever have predicted.
Date Point 10y7m AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Allison’s flirtatious mood hadn’t abated through the day. In fact it had only improved after her quiet conspiracy session with Xiù earlier in the evening.
Using his surname was a sure sign that she had something in mind for him, which was always an exciting prospect.
“Make the nest up for us, willya?”
Julian wilted a little. The nest was comforting, loving and happy, but it was only for sleeping in. “Yes ma’am.” He obeyed, resigning himself to another restless night.
Xiù grinned at him, taking her hair out of the bun she’d been wearing all day. “Good boy.”
Hope immediately rekindled itself, even stronger than before. Xiù joining in? That was new… and a thrilling thought.
He hurried to get the blankets, sheets and pillows down and arranged. The girls beamed at each other.
“Mm. He’s a good boy, isn’t he?”
“…Too good. He wants something. Don’t you Etsicitty?”
Hearing Xiù use his surname like that dispelled any doubt. He was in for a treat tonight.
“…Yes ma’am.” He said, truthfully.
Allison pushed gently on his chest. “Sit down.” She ordered. Julian obeyed. The light pressure of her hand told him she meant for him to sit in the nest.
“Sit on your hands.” She instructed. Julian swallowed, feeling his pulse really start to get up, and did as he was told. “…And don’t you dare move.” Allison added.
She kissed him lightly on the cheek and then whispered in his ear. “…enjoy the show.”
That done, she whipped away from him. She and Xiù met with a quick kiss and a mutual smile, and they started to dance together, hands on each other’s waists, hips swaying. It was a little awkward on Xiù’s part, but while she may have been lacking in practice, she didn’t seem to be lacking in willing.
Julian gritted his teeth and fidgeted on his hands - already he was beginning to feel the need to adjust his pants and create some extra freedom down there - but Allison had been explicit: No moving.
Allison pulled her t-shirt off and tossed it at him, leaving it draped over his shoulder. Blushing furiously but clearly enjoying herself, Xiù wiggled delightfully out of her sweatpants, which were thrown into Julian’s lap. She posed for him with a hand on her cocked hip while Allison - who after all had more erotic experience - made an even more aesthetically pleasing show of bending over and shedding her own sweats, which she then kicked into his lap
The piéce de resistance was when Allison took hold of Xiù’s shirt and slooowly peeled it off her. Julian couldn’t tell if Xiù’s laughter was from embarrassment or being tickled, but it made that toned tummy of hers undulate beautifully.
Allison, cruelly, then put the shirt over his head so that he couldn’t see a thing, knotting it at the back to keep it in place.
Leaving him sitting there, covered in their clothes was one thing, but when he heard - and, indistinctly through the fabric, could almost see - them strip out of their underwear and vanish giggling into the shower together…Well, that was just downright cruel.
The restrictions affecting his own pants were getting decidedly painful at this point, and his predicament wasn’t helped by the fact that Xiù’s shirt smelled beautiful…
His imagination ran riot. They probably weren’t in the shower for long, but it felt like a minor eternity, especially because he knew how small that shower was, and how close-pressed two people would be if they tried to use it at once… In the dark and quiet with the tantalizing perfume of clean female perspiration filling his world, his mental cinema played a highlight reel of skin and soap.
God the shirt smelled amazing…
When the door opened and they emerged, he faced the worst challenge so far. He knew what they both looked like fresh out of the shower of course, but by now he was so worked up that his desire to rip off the blindfold and look was almost more powerful than his desire to see what they would do next.
“Oh, he’s been a good boy…” Xiù’s voice. Deeper than usual, a little huskier, with a waver of what could only be nerves.
Allison laughed that laugh - the low wicked one that promised good things for his immediate future. “He has…” she agreed. “Stand up, Etsicitty.”
Heart pounding and mouth dry, Julian obeyed. He gasped as somebody’s fingertips trailed down his chest and squeezed him, just for a second, through his pants. The contact lasted only a second, before a warm towel was placed gently in his hands.
“No touching. Just the towel.” Xiù warned.
“We’re soaking wet.” Allison added.
Shaking with pent-up arousal, Julian gulped and obliged. He spread the towel wide and, when one of the girls stepped into it, he dutifully but carefully scrubbed her dry. The idea, he knew, was that he shouldn’t know who he was touching, but he could tell - her strong curves and nervous breathing gave her away. Blindfolded and through a towel though it might be, this was the first time Xiù had invited him to enjoy her, an invitation he accepted gently and respectfully.
When he was given a second dry towel and guided onto the other body, he knew he’d been right. Allison was a different shape, longer and leaner, and she shimmied and moved against the towel more confidently, allowing him to linger on her butt and breasts, demanding him to be more enthusiastic.
Too soon, the towel was taken away. “No more touching.” Allison ordered. “Hold. Still.”
Julian swallowed and did as he was told, which was a challenge when he distinctly felt one pair of hands on his hips pull his pants down, and another pull his shirt up from behind - he lifted his arms to help her strip him. That latter pair, judging from the angle, belonged to Xiù, who hugged him around his waist and kissed his spine while Allison removed his boxer briefs. Her skin felt warm, soft, fragrant and damp against his.
“Have fun,” she whispered.
Allison took his hand and led him to the shower. He stumbled along behind her, hard as a hammer-handle, and took a last breath of the shirt as he felt her undo it. It made sense not to get it wet in the shower, but he would have liked to enjoy that scent just a little longer…
The moment his head was free, Allison pushed him into the shower and followed him in.
Julian had been right: Two people in the shower were inevitably pressed right up against one another. Allison slithered past him with a wicked smile, turned the water on, then squeezed some soap into her palm.
When she pressed that palm to his chest, the cold soap sent a thrill through him. A thrill that she sustained by slowly smearing it down his chest, down his belly…
He shut his eyes and wondered whether she’d done something similar to Xiù. He doubted it… but it was a pleasant mental image.
A slippery hand wrapped around his cock, and Allison nibbled hungrily on his neck before whispering in his ear.
“Let’s get you nice and clean…”
Julian and Allison were in the shower for a long time, which gave Xiù some welcome mental space first to dry her hair, then to meditate, then to lie on her back and gaze thoughtfully at the ceiling.
What they’d done had been… scary. Thrilling, fun, erotic and liberating… but scary. If it hadn’t been her idea, she might have backed out earlier than she did.
Instead, she was proud of herself. Blindfolding Julian had completed the illusion of his being under their thumb, which had made the whole situation feel more… controlled. The lazy wolf in him that made her anxious hadn’t been so visible any more.
Being given a little alone time had been an important part of the plan. With that time, she’d been able to meditate and really claim the headspace of enjoying those first steps, and to congratulate herself on making what felt like serious progress. The circling vulture of her anxiety wasn’t gone - it would never be gone - but a little mental territory had been retaken from it, which was the most difficult first step.
That done, she lay back and basked. There was one last part of the plan still to come, but she was ready, and even looking forward to it.
The shower door finally slid open and her two lovers emerged hand-in-hand in a billow of water vapor, both looking substantially more relaxed than they had in some days.
Julian did a double-take worthy of a silent black-and-white comedy film when Xiù stood up, still nude, and took the last clean towel off the rack so that she could dry him, just as he’d done for them. Allison gave her an encouraging smile from behind him as she did so.
“Better?” She asked.
“Amazing.” Julian closed his eyes - apparently he enjoyed the feeling of being toweled down. “Are you okay?”
She rewarded his concern with a tender kiss, then towel-tousled his hair. “I had fun!”
“Less nervous now?”
Xiù nodded, but she also swallowed. “Bear with me?”
He hugged her close. “Of course.”
Allison finished towelling herself off and scrubbed her hair out, leaving it lying wild. “That was fucking hot, though,” she observed. “You wouldn’t know it was Xiù’s idea, would you?”
“Don’t tease her, Al.” Julian smiled, as Xiù’s trademark blush reasserted itself.
Allison gathered the towels and put them in the laundry. “Ah, alright, no teasing.” She glanced over her shoulder as she restocked the dry towels. “For tonight.”
“I think that’s the most we can ask for.” Julian said to Xiù.
She giggled. “Very fair. Come on you two. I wanna be in the middle tonight.”
Allison and Julian looked at each other, laughed and nodded.
“Yes ma’am.” they chorused.
Date Point 10y7m3d AV
Mrwrki Station, Uncharted System, Deep Space
Lewis had a flair for starship design. It was a truism of ship assembly all over the galaxy that form and function had a largely adversarial relationship. Sanctuary certainly hadn’t been pretty. Its most prominent feature by far had been the enormous generator at its stern, so large that the rest of the ship had seemed to almost be an afterthought.
What Lewis had made, however, was something truly beautiful, and the fact that Kirk was reading its specification with a mounting sense of awe just made him wonder how the conventional wisdom of starship design had gone so wrong.
The new ship was half *Sanctuary*’s size and a third of the mass. It wasn’t built for rescue and recovery of stranded humans - it was built to get from place to place very quickly indeed while affording its lone occupant not only a reasonable degree of luxury, but more importantly a significant degree of protection.
Lewis was waxing poetic about the shielding systems. “See, the thing with forcefields is that there’s not actually any reason for them to drop in response to incoming firepower, it’s just that if you dump too much energy into them too quickly, it overloads the emitter circuitry,” he explained.
“Well known,” Kirk agreed.
“And the limiting factor on how much punishment a shield can take is how quickly it can pass on that absorbed energy and get rid of it. You ever play hot potato?”
“No, but I understand the principle.”
“Traditionally,” Vedreg observed, “the absorbed energy is stored in the shield capacitors and re-radiated as a flash of light.”
“Yup! So I thought, man, that’s a fuckin’ waste. The field surface can radiate at just the same intensity it can absorb, and it can do so as a coherent beam, and it can aim that beam if you do some tricksy things with interference.”
“Meaning that… I mean, sure, okay, the shields aren’t any tougher than they’d usually be for a ship this size, but the ace up their sleeve is, every time some asshole shoots this ship he gets a gamma laser pulse coming straight back at him powered by the energy of his own weapon.”
The two nonhumans stared at him in dumbfounded silence for a second.
“You… weaponized the defensive systems. Only a human…” Vedreg rumbled.
Lewis grinned. He never bothered to hide his teeth. “Best defense is a good offense!”
“Again, only a human would think like that.”
“It ain’t perfect. Like I said, there was nothing I could do about the fact the emitter circuitry gets hot and eventually fails, and the laser ain’t as powerful as the attack that powered it ‘cause thermodynamics says ’Hell the fuck no’, but… it’s a nasty surprise at least.”
“I am more interested in the speed,” Kirk said. “It cruises just as fast as Sanctuary, and you promise a million times the speed of light in an emergency? How?! The only reason Sanctuary was so fast was because of its power core.”
“A power core we barely used a third of,” Lewis noted. “What you’ve got in here is a happy little Kwmbwrw quantum stack that’ll sit comfortably at a half-megalight on eighty percent output, and’ll run at ninety-nine percent forever without trouble. Plenty’a spare power for ship systems, and that stack’s only about as big as Vedreg, so, WAY smaller than *Sanctuary*’s core.”
“And the emergency speed?”
“Capacitors, dude! Tied into the shield, too, so if you’re taking a beating and need to fuck off outta there? Just turn off the Fuck-You Beam and convert incoming firepower to more juice for the engines.”
Again, Vedreg and Kirk turned to each other in the vain hope that maybe the other one had reached some unexpected epiphany about deathworlders in general, and Lewis in particular.
“…Is there anything you haven’t tried to use the shields for?” Vedreg asked.
“Uh… Food preparation?”
“Aaaanywho. Happy with it?”
Kirk examined the ship. All of the numbers and Lewis’ promises were simply incredible, but the part that really took his breath away was that it was elegant. Without there being a spare or unnecessary hint of decoration on it, its clean metallic lines and sleek, cetacean shape brought out everything that was aesthetically pleasing in a ship built for a function.
“…I am delighted,” he said, honestly.
Lewis did a happy jigging dance on the spot.
“So. Only thing left is to name it,” he declared. To Kirk’s surprise, he produced a glass bottle from one of his pockets, full of a transparent amber liquid.
“What is that?” Vedreg asked.
“Dude, literally the first thing I built was a still and shoved some Rhwk-fruit in there. This is, uh…” Lewis turned the bottle thoughtfully in his hands. “…I guess it’s kinda like a brandy or something. But, we ain’t got any champagne, so this’ll have to do.”
“Gotta sacrifice a bottle’a booze on the nose when you name a ship. That one goes right back to… fuck, the Romans? Earlier?”
“…Humans are very strange.”
Kirk chuckled, deep in his throat. “Let him have his ritual, old friend.”
“Very well. What are you naming it, Lewis?”
Lewis hefted the bottle thoughtfully. “Tough call,” he said. “I thought… the Rubicon, the Second Stage, the Bodhisattva, the Mary Jane, the *Choose For Me*… none of them quite fit.”
“Indeed,” Kirk agreed, drily. Three of those names had no translation to Domain, and thus were utterly unpronounceable to him.
Lewis chuckled. “So I figured I’d name her in honor of her mission. She’s here to carry on *Sanctuary*’s work, after all. So…” He hefted the bottle one last time, then hurled it at the ship’s prow, where it burst, showering the front of the ship in alcohol and broken glass. “I name this ship Momentum. May she serve us long, and well.”
Kirk nodded, approvingly.
“Amen,” he said.
Date Point 10y7m3d AV
Byron Group headquarters, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Most days, Kevin had the luxury of sauntering into work at his groomed and composed best at a leisurely 9am, full of excellent coffee, hickory smoked back bacon and all the other privileges that came with having a job where the annual bonus was six figures long.
The price of all that luxury and success was occasionally having to scramble into work before the sun was even properly up, with a belly half full of a breakfast muffin from the drive-thru and chewing gum in lieu of brushing his teeth.
Rachael, as ever, was as prim and perfect as an actress, but then again her work day began before the boss’ did. Kevin knew for a fact that she earned slightly more than he did, and in his sincere opinion even that really wasn’t enough: Working miracles sixty hours a week deserved a seven figure bonus, minimum.
“Good morning, Kevin!” She gave him that same bright smile that Kevin still couldn’t quite believe was genuine. If it wasn’t genuine, she was the best in the world at faking it, but nobody could be so perky so early, surely?
The good news was that if she was smiling, then whatever Byron had summoned him for wasn’t an immediate emergency, just something he was keen to pounce on.
“Hey,” Kevin yawned. He straightened his collar and checked his cuffs were buttoned. “Okay, what’s your secret, seriously?”
“I go to bed early and enjoy my weekends,” Rachael smiled. She handed him a tablet.
“What’s this….?” The tablet was logged in to a news website. Kevin frowned at the headline. “Hmm… ’Humble Hero: The Gaoian first contact story.’ by Ava Rìos.”
Rachael waved her hand for him to keep reading, and Kevin did so, aloud.
“Uh… ’There’s scarcely a single news article about Gaoians that fails to mention Vancouverite abductee Xiù Chang’ - ah shit - ‘*or describe how she was adopted into the Clan of Females. It was this act of kindness that laid the foundation for the human race’s warm relationship with Gao, but the story of how miss Chang originally arrived on their planet has never been clear…’.*”
He shut up and skimmed through the article as quickly as he could read, pausing only to mutter to himself. “Yeah, that’s a Corti move a’right… Ohhh. Full-strength kick to a Locayl? Yeah, that’d wreck his day…Jesus H. sister-kissin’ Christ, she beat up an Allebenellin bare-handed?!”
“Moses didn’t buy that one,” Rachael observed.
Kevin snorted, and ran his thumb down the bridge of his nose. “I do. Girl’s got a right straight on her that’d knock a steer on its ass.”
He put the tablet down. “What’s Moses make of this?” he asked.
“Mixed,” Rachael said. “Go ahead and talk to him about it.”
“Yaaay…” Kevin sighed, “Hey, if you can spare the time, I’d sure appreciate if you could have someone bring up a decent coffee…”
Rachael nodded. “Sure!”
“‘Kay. Here we go…”
Moses in fact was in a wry mood. He was sat back at his desk with a thumb tucked into his belt buckle, reading something on a tablet. As Kevin came in, he put the tablet down and took off his reading glasses. “I take it Rachael had you read this morning’s news?” he asked.
“I take it you asked her to make me?”
Moses chuckled, and gestured for Kevin to sit. “I’m a little unhappy,” he revealed.
“Why so? Seems like good PR to me, we’ve got Vancouver’s Humble Hero on the payroll…”
“Yeah, except she and her paramours were about to be dropped from the EV program.”
Kevin inclined his head with a frown. “…They were? I thought they’d passed every test so far?”
“Barely,” Moses grunted. “Sure, three of the other groups failed out entirely, but the ship’s ready to start live training this week, and we were gonna give it to the group with the highest test scores. And… well, they ain’t it. They’re good, they’re damn good. They’re in second place! But Lee, Sullivan and Ackermann are just that little bit better.”
They were briefly interrupted by Rachael, who smoothly delivered a couple of steaming hot coffees on a tray and vanished. Kevin had no idea how she’d summoned them so quickly, but he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“That’s… disappointing,” he revealed, grabbing one of the drinks as if she’d filled it from the fountain of youth. “I really had my hopes pinned on them.”
“Yeah, well, you get your way anyway.” Byron flicked the tablet on his desk with a slight sneer. “This dagburn article’s gone all viral and every news organisation out there, including mine, wants to interview her. I’d have to be crazy not to mine that publicity for every nugget!” He threw up his hands in a gesture of irritated surrender. “So, the second-place horse wins the rosette.”
Kevin’s sense of justice overrode his fondness for the trio in The Box. “That’s kinda unfair on Lee, Sullivan and Ackermann, boss… Even if Eleven’s a wilder success than we ever hoped, how long is it gonna be ‘til we build Twelve? Three or four years, minimum?”
Byron grunted and sipped his coffee. “Eleven came in under budget,” he said. “I might just pay for the twelfth one outta my own pocket. I still believe in the idea, but the accountants…” He laughed bitterly. “Well, they don’t get to tell me what I do with my money after all.”
“You could overrule them anyway…” Kevin pointed out.
“Life advice, Kevin: If you’re paying somebody to advise you, then listen to ‘em or pretty soon they’ll be advising some other fella.“
Kevin had to nod to that. “I’m gonna float that ad campaign idea again, then,” he said. “Get those kids in front of a photographer, shove ‘em on all the corporate recruiting material.”
“Yeah, make it happen. And, uh, prep the kids in the Box to go meet their new ride, willya?”
“I can do that.” Kevin drained his coffee and stood. “Anything else?”
“You’ll explain to the assessors and examiners that the test results are confidential, right?”
Kevin chuckled. “I can remind them.”
“Good.” Byron ran a thoughtful tongue across his teeth then nodded. “See you in the hangar tomorrow. And… don’t let ‘em know. I wanna see their expressions.”
Kevin chuckled. “That’s just mean.”
“Man’s gotta get his fun somehow,” Byron drawled. “Thanks, Kevin.”
“Later, boss man.”
Date Point 10y7m4d AV
Clanless work market, Aney Shen City, Planet Gao
Champion Genshi of Whitecrest
“Whitecrest! Hey, Whitecrest! Freelance trader with my own ship! You need Weapons? You need shields? Transport? All services!”
“Accountant! Get your finances in order! Accountant!”
“Communications engineer here! Networks built and maintained for board and sponsorship!”
“Finest groomer on the continent! Females like a well-groomed male! Special Clan rates!”
Being obviously a Clan male had both benefits and downsides when rubbing shoulders with the Clanless majority. Most of them subtly got out of Genshi’s way - everyone respected the Clans after all, and the males selling their skills and services in Aney Shen market had every reason to stay in the Clans’ collective good graces. They were the biggest employers, after all.
Which of course meant that Genshi, who wore his Clan’s trademark white crest with so much pride that he’d grown it out until it was just as long as his ears, also got yelled at by every worker looking for a job. Anonymity wasn’t an option.
Not that it had been for years. Nor was it the objective.
Aney Shen was home to the One-Fang clan enclave, which made it a thriving spaceport for good measure. Every few minutes the double-hammer of a sonic boom could be heard behind the hubbub of professional Clanless hawking their skills, the thrum of goods vehicles and stevedore drones, the noisome sizzle of street food vendors and the jingles and slogans put out by every advertising billboard.
Transports, light freighters, cargo lifters and passenger shuttles were all part of the sonic texture of the place. A far cry from the relative serenity of Wi Kao with its parks, plazas and the large female commune.
Genshi quite liked it, to visit: It was busy, noisy, fun. But he would have hated to live there.
He found the workhouse he was looking for down its own alleyway just off the market. Workhouses were a simple idea - mass board and lodging for a very modest fee - and they were ubiquitous. Millions of Clanless males lived their whole lives in them quite happily. They had a kind of Clannish atmosphere all their own, and in fact were usually owned and run by a Clan as a steady source of both income and workers.
This one was operated by the One-Fangs, and he was ushered upstairs by the Brother standing at the door, into a Clan private suite that overlooked the eatery, which was being cleaned by some of the younger residents.
The only ones present were himself, the young One-Fang Brother, and the one he was here to see. Private and quiet, and undeniably one side’s territory. A good place for an unofficial meeting of Champions.
Champion Hiyel was everything a One-Fang should be. That was, after all, the whole point of Champions - they embodied the Clan both genetically and in terms of the ideals and expertise it strived for. So, Genshi was unscarred, lean and upright with a sophisticated and well-groomed demeanor. His good friend Daar of the Stonebacks was the functional opposite, a hulking short-furred lacerated brown brute with an irrepressible boisterous nature and a scandalizing contempt for the trappings of sophistication.
Hiyel lived somewhere between those extremes. Scarred, physical and intense, but also upright, slender and civilized. A balanced contrast in opposites, and dangerously shrewd. He had, after all, helped Genshi with his Regaari problem by asking for help with the Racing Thunder problem. Now it was time to compare notes.
“All is well?” Genshi asked, politely.
“Very well indeed,” Hiyel replied. He gestured for Genshi to sit, and the two of them assumed calculatedly relaxed postures on opposite sides of a table, as equals. “We’ve had word back from Father Yefrig: The humans have assigned them to deep-space patrol of the systems near Cimbrean. An important and useful task.”
“Meanwhile, Regaari has reported that the Females are settling in nicely in Folctha.”
“And his negotiations with the humans?”
“Productive, in several ways. Your solution worked perfectly.”
Hiyel allowed himself a self-satisfied set to his ears. “Your…errant Father?”
“Indeed. He became so fixated on his opportunity to put Regaari in a difficult situation that he entirely failed to notice that the eyes of the Clan were on him… I believe the other Fathers are planning a promotion. The consular staff on Planet Qinar has need of more… senior oversight.”
“A pro-Dominion Father, promoted to handling your Clan’s interests among one of the founding species of the Alliance?”
“What few interests we have, yes.”
Hiyel looked thoroughly amused. “Poetic.”
Genshi chittered. “…Thank you, Champion Hiyel,” he said, solemnly. “I offer Whitecrest’s gratitude.”
“Thank you, Genshi. The gratitude of One-Fang is yours.”
“Is there any other service you might need?”
“I can’t think of any…” Hiyel replied. “Please, give my thanks to Regaari when you can. Is there anything we can do for you?”
“I hesitate to ask…”
Genshi resisted the urge to glance around conspiratorially. They were, after all, in a private meeting.
“…I would like to discuss cybernetics with you,” he said.
Date Point 10y7m4d AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Two early mornings in a row wasn’t an itinerary calculated for Kevin’s happiness. Most of his working life on Earth had been spent working until four am and waking in the afternoon, and his diurnal routine during the years he’d been away after his abduction had boiled down to sleeping when he was tired. It was hard for him to feel charitably disposed towards seven-thirty in the morning, but he’d taken Rachael’s advice and gone to bed early and minus his usual post-work coffee.
He wasn’t exactly feeling like a box of rainbows but he was alert, well fed and well-dressed, which was three quarters of the same thing, and he leaned against his BMW, waiting for the Box to open up ready for the start of a new day.
Seven twenty-five, and the Box’s outer door opened with a mechanical clunk and a quick burst-hiss of pressure equalizing.
Allison Buehler backed out of it, talking animatedly.
“No, it stands for ArmaLite Rifle. Not Assault, or Automatic, it’s the name of the company who designed it in the fi- oh. Hey. Kevin.”
Kevin flipped them a jaunty two-finger salute. “Mornin’.”
“What do we owe the pleasure?” Julian asked.
Kevin grimaced, as if he was delivering the prelude to some awful news. “There’s been a… something’s come up. The group’s… well, we had to change our plans some,” he told them, imparting as much solemnity and earnestness as he could. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh no…” Xiù groaned.
“Is it bad?” Julian asked.
“It’s important enough that I came down in person rather than send a driver. I’m not allowed to say more than that.” Kevin did his best to project an air of profound disappointment.
The three of them glanced at each other, all suddenly looking haggard and stressed, and then wordlessly piled onto the back seat.
They rode to the Byron Group headquarters compound in silence, broken only by the sound of Xiù’s hand moving reassuringly up and down Allison’s back and, Kevin fancied, the sound of Julian’s clenched jaw creaking.
It wasn’t a long drive, and he pulled easily up right in front of the office tower’s front doors, in the parking space with his name on a sign (there was a luxury he’d never anticipated…)
He had to fight pretty hard to keep from giggling at how the three of them looked, like they were walking to their execution. Instead he set his shoulders, sighed, and led the way through the opaque smoked glass front doors, radiating funereal dolor. He noticed in the corner of his eye that they took each others’ hands and trudged after him.
They were brought up short by the number of people waiting in the foyer. The railings around each floor overlooking the full height of it were crammed with Group staff, the ground floor was full of executives and the training and technical team, and standing front and center looking his regal best was Moses Byron.
Before the three could get their heads around what was going on, Kevin grinned broadly, stepped aside, gestured to them and raised his voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen:” he announced, pitching his words so that they flew clearly right up into the high glass ceiling. “I present the crew of Byron Group Exploration Vehicle number Eleven.”
The applause hit them like a landslide.
Date Point 10y7m4d AV
Cabal dataspace, Relay 4772-61-76657-961-7264
“One thousand and nineteen.”
“Oh, nothing important. This is the thousand and nineteenth time I’ve woken a copy of you, and the thousand and nineteenth time that you broadcast the exact same thing on activation.”
Six didn’t sigh, so much as broadcast a kind of bored resignation. The digital ghost of Ava Rìos had been by far his favorite plaything ever, and had kept him thoroughly diverted now for months, but it seemed that even humans had their limits on how interesting they could be. He kept holding on to hope that the next copy of her might start behaving in new ways at the start of their interaction before he got bored and went off-script, but that hope was beginning to fade.
But it was always the same script in the end. She always died pleading.
“Hmm. Interesting. That’s a new…”
Physical verbs such as “turning” or “looking” didn’t apply to dataspace, but it was only possible to focus on a finite set of stack locations at once. “Turning” sufficed as an adequate proxy for the process of re-diverting one’s attention to scan previously unobserved nodes. The ones that now occupied the Ava-ghost’s terrified attention, as if they contained something exponentially more frightening than Six himself.
It wasn’t that the… entity… was a freakish mismatched jumble of badly degraded code fragments, strung together in no logical sequence or order, though it was. It wasn’t that the code fragments in question were unmistakably comprised of scavenged and half-decompiled chunks of the Ava-Ghost, though they were. There were several other components in there that could only belong to older, long-abandoned victims of Six’s personal digital dungeon. It wasn’t that whatever he was looking at was in no way possible, sane or sentient, though all three of those were facts, and terrifying ones.
It was all of those things at once. Whatever it was, the thing Six was looking at was an abomination, sewn together badly out of hundreds of mismatched flayed pieces in the wrong order, with no clear agenda.
“…One,” he finished. It seemed important to finish that thought, before whatever happened next, happened.
++End Chapter 29++