Chapter 30: Hearts and Minds
Date Point 10y7m4d AV
Uncharted Class 12 deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm
Vemik u Vemet n Yanta
The gods were smiling for Vemik today. The forest tasted of Werne, but he couldn’t hear any, which meant that the beasts were braving the river. They would snatch a drink at the risk of being grabbed and pulled in by a Yshek, then retreat to what they would believe was the safety of their nests.
There could never be a better time to hunt a bull Werne, and Vemik was too proud and too driven to return to face the Singer with anything less than the very best. That was the point of the Trial—A child left the village, and an adult returned to his kin with a worthy prize, or not at all.
And after all. Werne died quickly when you stabbed them behind the ears. Bulls were only dangerous if the fight lasted beyond the first blow… and they were also only dangerous if the incautious hunter permitted them to smell him.
Vemik was not an incautious hunter. Vemik was so cautious, in fact, that he had spent a year working on his special idea for how to kill the bull without getting close enough for its strength and the knife-sharp blades of bone down its cheeks to be an issue.
He dug the claws of his hind feet into the bark of a sturdy Ketta tree and was up it in seconds, climbing past the ground-level crown of old, sturdy limbs that were the tree’s first stage. He paused in the gap between that first-growth ring and the true canopy, where there was clear space and a light breeze, into which he slipped his tongue and slurped air across it, tasting for the beasts.
He tasted much more than Werne. There was pollen, fungal spores, crushed grass, wax-stinger nectar, a note of Ketta sap as the claw marks he had left in the trunk began to weep. He could taste water and, very distantly, smoke. The cooking fires of home.
He brought his tail up and took the object he’d been carrying with it into his hand. He swarmed around the side of the tree until he found one of the thick arms that held up the canopy, and sat there, waiting patiently as his elders had taught him.
Sure enough, the Werne returned before he had even begun to grow bored. They trampled into their nesting ground, grunting and wheezing and braying as they licked the air, aware of the dangerous taste of People. The bull—and it was a magnificent beast, an adult in its prime and large enough to feed the tribe for a long time and make many charms and instruments for the gods—stamped and gouged at the periphery of the nests, trampling the dirt with those huge gnarled hooves and making it very clear for the benefit of whatever threat was out there that this was their place, and that trespass would end in death.
The blades on its face were as wide as Vemik’s hand. He would be seen as a strong man with those on his belt. A man with Werne-blades like those to his name could look forward to many children.
He slipped one of the bird-spears from the sheath he had made for them. He called them bird-spears because, well, they were spears that flew. He had even, after some experimentation, learned how to bind Kimillik feathers to them with twine made from their former owner’s gut, which made them fly further and straighter.
That just left the… Thing.
He hadn’t yet named the Thing. It wasn’t a spear-thrower or a sling or dart-pipe, though the idea was similar—throw a thing further, faster and harder than an arm could. He had spent long and lonely afternoons whittling away at saplings, experimenting with thickness and shape and cutting himself now and then as his inexpertly-knapped knives skidded through the wood. He had often had cause to reflect that his was probably a similar kind of madness to whomever had first noticed that pissing on a wound kept it from festering.
Every Person knew that, of course… but he did have to wonder who had first made that discovery, and exactly how desperate, or how crazy, they must have been.
Fortunately, he had never seen any need to search for a better string for his device than Werne gut. His first instinct there had been correct.
So. Take one shaped sapling. Tie Wernegut string so that it had a loop at each end. Bend the shaped sapling, slip the loops over the end, make sure they sat well in the notches, and he had a taut string that could be pulled back, bending the sapling even further.
Take a bird-spear, hold it carefully to the string, aim… take a deep breath… and gently let go on the exhale.
The bull Werne didn’t even make a sound. His bird-spear vanished into the cleft between the back of its skull and the top of its neck, and the huge beast crashed to the ground, dead and kicking. Its harem and calfs scattered, braying fearfully. They would be fine—a herdless male would claim them before long.
Vemik sat back and trilled a prayer-call to the gods of the hunt, celebrating his kill. His Thing had not only worked, it had far exceeded his expectations. He took it with his tail and swarmed down the tree again, delighted and eager to check his success. He rammed the point of his hand axe into the bull’s forehead just in case it was not completely dead and celebrated quietly when the beast didn’t so much as spasm.
Obviously, this much carcass was far too much to move all by himself… but he didn’t need to. They were far enough from the water that the Yshek would never smell the kill, and anything else which might steal the meat would be wary of a nest that smelled so strongly of Werne. His kill should remain unmolested long enough for the men to collect it—all Vemik needed was proof.
He took his flint knife from its pouch, and over the course of an hour he slowly and laboriously managed to decapitate the slain bull. Even this trophy was heavy enough to tax his strength, but once it was settled on his back it would be bearable.
He anointed himself with its blood, covered the carcass with Kamu branches to ward off the corpse-buzzers, hoisted his trophy onto his shoulders and headed out, marking the trees as he went.
Travelling throughout the night and returning to the village without rest was part of the Trial too. Once a child had killed, the kill (or trophy) had to be returned to the kin in a single uninterrupted journey. It was exhausting, and it was supposed to be—the delirium his fatigue brought on was important to the magic of adulthood.
With the sun down, navigation by moonlight added to his difficulties. The night was clear and one of the moons was full, giving him plenty to see by, in a dim blue shadows-on-darkness kind of way. It was the height of summer, and the night didn’t last long—there was colour and light on the horizon when he trudged up a rise and at long, long blessed last could see the fire of home. He tasted its smoke gratefully and willed all of the strength that the familiar scent gave him into his legs.
The boy on lookout called his approach as he staggered over the open ground that was cleared around the village. Nobody could sneak up on the Kin, least of all their returning son.
By the time he wobbled across the line of white paint that the Dancer had written on the ground that marked where the rest of the world ended and the village began, they were all there, trilling and whistling to encourage him. No sooner was he over the line than two of the men came to his aid and lifted the burdensome bull’s head from his back, exclaiming at its size.
Vemik’s father, Vemet Stone-tapper, embraced his son with unabashed pride.
“Gods and ancestors, boy! I always said your pride would get you in trouble.”
“…trouble?” Vemik mumbled. With his trophy gone, he felt oddly buoyant, as if he was as strong as two of himself.
“I was wrong.” Vemet combed his fingers down through every inch of the crest of bright orange hair that ran from the front of Vemik’s head, down his back and out to the end of his tail; a gesture of great pride and affection. “How did you kill one so large?”
“With this.” Vemik unhooked the Thing and showed it to his father.
“…What is it?”
“This is what I was sneaking away to work on these last three seasons. It’s a new kind of spear-thrower.”
Vemet admired the weapon with shining eyes. “My clever boy. Your dam would be delighted.”
Vemik’s mother had died in childbirth two years earlier. Gods be praised, the infant—one of Vemik’s many sisters—had lived. “She convinced the gods to smile on me. It worked even better than I hoped!”
Their happy chatter was interrupted by the Singer, who came storming from her hut armed with all the tools to pass a boy to adulthood. “Do not let him rest!” she snapped. “He must not rest.”
Behind her came the Dancer, her apprentice. The Dancer was much the same age as Vemik, and as he had grown up to begin noticing the beauty of women he had especially begun to notice hers. The tattoos around her eyes and cheeks that she had taken when she gave her name to the gods, in his opinion, lifted her from merely pretty to mesmerizing.
Boys knew little of women, but he guessed (and hoped) that she saw much the same in him. He didn’t know how else to interpret the way she looked at him.
“Grandmother, even if I sleep now I won’t feel rested until the snows!” Vemik objected to the Singer, but his father’s dam was having none of it.
“Nonsense! The magic is strongest now! Come! Come!”
She grabbed her grandchild by the arm and yanked him toward the village fire, into which she threw a handful of the magic dust. Sparks of strange hues crackled and spun up into the pre-dawn air.
“Yes, yes! Before the sun comes! A great kill, made with cunning! A boy almost dead from walking! You will never be so close to the gods again!”
The tribe gathered round. As one, and without prompting, they took spears, sticks, or simply whatever came to hand that could be struck against the ground or against some other object to make a noise, and began to pound.
It was an old rhythm, and a simple one. It lifted Vemik’s fatigue enough for him to feel the eagerness again, pushing back the urge to just sleep. He cupped his hands as he knew he should.
His grandmother poured magic dust into his palms and anointed his forehead and cheeks with the same white paint that marked the edge of the village.
“Taste it!” she whispered. “Quickly, the sun will be up!”
Vemik needed no further prompting. He slipped his tongue into the pile of dust in his hands and slurped, drawing it all into the delicate olfactory chamber above his mouth.
At first, nothing happened. Vemik stood uncertainly, wondering if the gods had decided not to answer him. It would be strange after such a blessed day and such a good kill… but not unheard of.
He turned to the fire, beginning to grow worried, and paused as the full beauty of it struck him. Every ember, every glowing scale of blackening wood, ever peeling flake of white ash… stunning.
He followed one especially pretty mote of light with his eye and watched as it became a star.
The stars! So beautiful, but dying as the advancing day chased them away! They shouldn’t go, they couldn’t go! He wept for the tragedy of it, until the Dancer took his hands and eclipsed them all.
“Dance,” she said, and led him.
The drumming got faster, the world got stranger, here and then and now and there began to blur together. The dancer, the singer, the fire, his father, the bull, his weapon, his pain and fatigue, the drumming getting faster and faster and faster, the gods, his ancestors, the dancing and the singing and the stars and the dawn….
It was all One.
The Dancer let go of his hands and spun away. Too dizzy to think, too befuddled by the dust and exhaustion to speak, Vemik forgot his own name, forgot where he was or what he was doing or why. He just was in his purest form, stripped down to nothing but the universe, being.
The Singer took his hands.
“What do you see?” she asked.
Vemik told her, in the last moments before the dawn broke. When it did, his high collapsed and he fell down, down, down as his brain relearned how to build walls between itself and infinity.
He woke in the Dancer’s hut to the sensation of her skin, warm against his own as she slept against him. Two Werne-blade knives were waiting for him by the door, and though he couldn’t remember anything he knew beyond doubt that his Trial was complete.
He was a man, now.
Date Point 10y7m4d AV
Byron Group Headquarters, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
When Xiù Chang became annoyed with somebody, she wasn’t quiet about letting them know it. Kevin had a slightly misshapen but healed nose to attest to that.
Right now, she was prodding him in the chest. “You are an evil, evil, evil man!”
Kevin spread his arms in a gesture that was somewhere halfway between an apologetic shrug and a self-effacing bow. “I am,” he agreed. “But in my defense, your expressions were golden.”
Xiù gave a moment’s impression of being unsure whether to laugh or punch him. Fortunately for his nose, after brief and tense consideration she settled on the former, and relaxed.
“I guess they must have been…”
“Still a dick move,” Julian said, though he was taking it in good humor.
For her part, Allison was still celebrating, and didn’t seem to care about the prank. She was flitting from team member to team member, handing out hugs and delight like a generous neighbor at Halloween.
Kevin nodded with a contrite smile. “Guilty. But, really in my defence now, I was under orders to make it a surprise and I couldn’t think of a better way. I’m sorry, I really am.”
“We really did it? We really beat the other teams?” Xiù asked
Moses Byron joined them in time to overhear the question. He had a glass in which he was swirling what Kevin knew was in fact a mocktail—Byron liked to give the impression that he drank, but he never actually imbibed alcohol himself.
“Three of them failed outright,” he revealed. “The last group, well…Your experience and connections edged them out.”
“Close-run thing, huh?” Julian asked.
Byron sipped his mocktail. “Dang close,” he agreed. “I’m weighing up the idea of paying for another ship out of my own pocket, ‘cause those kids deserve this just as much as you do. But the Gaoian connection and your actual experience in the field…”
Julian nodded, though he looked thoroughly relieved. “I dunno what we’d have done…” he confided. “Our skills don’t… There’s not really a market for them on Earth.”
Byron clapped him on the shoulder. “We’d have to be crazy to leave guys like you go to waste. We’d have found something for ya. But, here you are!” He sipped his drink with an amused look in his eye. “You kids wanna see your ship?”
Date Point 10y7m4d AV
Rooney’s bar, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Staff Sergeant Adam Arés
One of the realities of Adam’s life nowadays was modifying his own clothing. In other words, he sewed. A lot.
This would, once upon a time, have been a source of embarrassment. The biggest, strongest guy with a teeny-tiny needle in his hand doing delicate dressmaking? When he’d first taken it up, he’d felt like a laughing stock waiting to happen.
Then he’d got past the self-inflicted awkwardness and accepted it as a practical reality of his life: Clothes just weren’t made for guys his size. Sure, it was possible to get clothes that had the right number of “X”es in front of the L, but they were all being sold to lumbering blubberous land blimps, which meant all the generosity was in the stomach and waist, not the shoulders, arms and chest where he needed them. So, he’d learned how to modify them to fit properly.
This being a problem that plagued the whole SOR he’d quickly found that, far from earning him ridicule from his brothers, his skill with a sewing machine was in constant demand and repaid in kind by the Lads in their own ways.
Murray was his most frequent client. The silent Scot was much too proud to wear the gym rat shorts and absurd (and often vulgar) muscle shirts that were practically the uniform of off-duty Operators, and absolutely insisted on being well turned-out in slacks and shirts. There seemed to be something to that philosophy, too. Whenever Adam imitated him, there was a visible drop in how often people looked at him.
Murray could get away with it, though. Murray was light enough that he didn’t destroy his shoes just by walking around. Murray could afford to dress nice, and it worked. He wasn’t one of the pretty ones on the team, but once he was wearing a dark shirt and pearl chinos he didn’t need to be.
Most of the rest of the Lads were built to more Herculean dimensions, and that put some harsh restrictions on what they could wear. Nice clothes were therefore a treasured luxury, reserved for nights out drinking and everyone had their style. Akiyama and Burgess had their waistcoats, Rebar favored a charcoal sports jacket with a white t-shirt that was straining at the seams, while Blaczynski and Sikes kept it simple with button-down shirts rolled up to the elbow. Firth, as ever, went for the big and bold center-of-attention look, and had seen in many a midnight wearing his aviators and Hawaiian shirts.
Adam found that the Murray look suited him best, albeit accented by aviators of his own. And of course, he had the luxury of tailoring his clothes to perfectly fit him and shave the worst off his apparent bulk. His shirts were a little plainer, but they were thinner and more breathable, which for a guy his size was Life.
Rooney’s was the SOR bar. The security knew them, the regulars knew them, the furniture was solid enough to hold them, the music was just the right balance between loud enough to enjoy and quiet enough to actually have a conversation, and the pool table was complimentary so long as you had a drink. Being roughly equidistant between the base and their properties on Demeter Way was just the icing on top.
Really, the only downside to it was that Rooney’s had four or five-star reviews on pretty much every travel website going, which meant tourists.
On the other hand, tourists meant company. Mostly they were joined by dreadlocked types who’d visited to take advantage of Folctha’s lenient recreational drug laws, or by camera-wielding experience junkies looking for a photo with the hugest strongest guys they’d ever met.
Today was a tattooed middle-aged veteran. He hadn’t given his exact age and between the weathering and grey hairs he could have been any age, but he’d served in Iraq, which narrowed it down some.
“…So that’s how Gunny finds him, right? And o’ course, he wants to know just what the fuck Young thinks he’s playing at, and Young just looks him completely straight-faced and he says: ’I’m doing exactly what you told me to do, gunnery sergeant!’
Knowing chuckles and grins swept the group as they saw where the story was going, and Adam was about to ask the obvious question to prompt their guest to deliver the goods when something ice-cold and sticky dumped all over his head and down his back as somebody barreled backwards into him.
It was surprise and concern that made him spring to his feet and turn around rather than actual anger. He was about to ask the guy who’d come flying into him if he was okay when the poor bastard, whether out of adrenaline, intoxication or sheer bravado took a swing at him.
He leaned back slightly and the drunken punch missed his face by a foot. “Whoa there-!” he tried.
Another flailing punch, which he brushed aside with a gentle swipe of his wrist. “Dude-!”
Credit to the little fucker, he fought dirty. His other fist was aimed directly at Adam’s solar plexus.
Adam looked down and so did the idiot who’d hit him, and they considered the result for a second, which was much the same as if he’d punched a wardrobe. There was a long, tense moment in which it dawned on Adam’s assailant exactly who he’d picked a fight with and how outmatched he was.
He pulled a knife.
Two blurring seconds passed, at the end of which the knife was half embedded in a nearby tabletop and the guy (now known indelibly to Adam as “Dumbass”) was face down on the floor with Adam holding his wrists behind his back. Crazily, he was still squirming and kicking and trying to fight.
“Cabron, I have literally scraped bigger men than you off my boot,” Adam told him, quietly. “You be quiet now, okay?”
Murray had taught him the trick to real intimidation once. It was all about being quietly certain that you were the one in charge here. Shouting meant panic, yelling and roaring meant you weren’t in control. But if you managed to think past the adrenaline and kept your voice level, quiet and utterly composed, like Major Powell’s…
Dumbass finally figured out where he was in the pecking order and went limp about a second before the doorman, Lyle, reached them.
“Sorry,” Adam told him. Dumbass’ girlfriend was desperately trying to lever him off her beau and getting nowhere. “Think I overdid it.”
“Nah, Horse. Saw the whole thing, you’re cool.” Lyle reassured him. He slipped on some blue disposable gloves and quickly frisked Dumbass, which turned up a modified e-cigarette of the kind used by people who wanted a strong hit of Cimbrean Tea. What little black market Folctha had revolved around the potent narcotic found in the ubiquitous native weed’s young shoots, and it took different people different ways. “Might need to talk to Rooney about the table, though,” he added, sealing the find away in a plastic bag to hand over to Cimbrean Colonial Security.
Adam considered the table in question. He’d neutralized the knife by the simple expedient of slamming it point-first into the wood, and it was now thoroughly stuck, having sunk nearly three inches into the native nutwood. “Shit. Uh… I guess I could ask Rebar to-”
“Don’t even worry about it.” That was Rooney himself, a proud Irishman whose closest approach to Ireland had been a day trip to Queens. “That’s your table now. I’ll take the repair bill out of this eejit,” he said, and set about persuading Dumbass’ girlfriend to back off.
“Bro!” Firth called. “Y’okay?”
“I’m fine,” Adam assured him as he transferred control of Dumbass’ wrists to Lyle and stood up, dusting off his knees.
“Better rinse that shirt,” Base told him. “Gonna get sticky otherwise.”
“Shit, yeah. Uh, Rooney?”
Rooney just waved him toward the sink behind the bar. Dumbass-Girlfriend was proving to be an obnoxious handful.
Adam nodded and headed for it, unbuttoning the shirt and shrugging it off to scrub the drying booze out of his hair and to sponge down his back and shoulders. It was only once he’d soaked the shirt and begun wringing the water out of it that he realized the mood in the bar had changed the second he did so. People suddenly weren’t paying attention to Dumbass, his girlfriend, or the two Cimbrean Colonial Security officers who’d shown up in their high-vis yellow jackets and black baseball caps to take Dumbass off Lyle’s hands.
Mostly, they were staring at Adam.
Right. SOR muscles. He’d forgotten.
He scrubbed the shirt and dried it as best he could in a hurry, and shrugged it back on. He didn’t mind that it was wet—not only was the water pleasantly cool against his skin in the permanent heat of the bar, but he was no longer displaying the topography of his borderline-freakish musculature.
He gave a quick statement to the CCS officers who had with some effort managed to wiggle the knife out of the table and had bagged it as evidence, and settled back in his vacated spot with his buddies.
“Sorry,” he apologized. There were deep-chested chuckles all round.
“Man tries to stab him, and he apologizes,” Base noted, addressing a couple of young women who’d joined them. “Told you he’s sweet.”
Adam gave them both a distracted welcome as he finished re-buttoning his shirt. The girl in the black dress gave him a cheery “hi!”, but her friend offered him a hand to shake instead, and managed to get his attention as a result when she turned out to have a surprisingly strong grip.
Without meaning to, he ran his Training-and-Nutrition eye over her and came up with a good impression. Robust physical health was the norm on Folctha thanks to the government’s hefty investment in public fitness to counter the ravaging effects of low gravity on the human body, but she was well above even the local average, and rocking a sleeveless monochrome floral tunic that showed off her athletic arms and shoulders.
In fact, now that he looked at her properly she was gorgeous. It figured that Base would find a banging-hot gal with a Spartan physique to work his magic on—Adam had no idea how he did it, but he was tied with Sikes for going home with company, and Sikes had a big advantage in the looks department.
“So I have to ask, do you have special training or something?” she asked, in a broad but pleasant regional English accent. “That was just, wow!”
This one was nice, he decided. A lot of Base’s pickups tended to just ignore everyone else and drag him away at the first chance they got. It was nice to meet one who actually wanted to get to know his friends as well. “Oh, uh, yeah!” he nodded. “Me and ‘Base here went to this special course, then ‘Righteous here…”
Before long he was talking about anything she prompted, though he got to ask a few questions of his own. Her name was Natalie, she was originally from somewhere with the odd-sounding name of ’Congleton’, and she was a personal trainer. They spent a pleasant several minutes discussing their respective regimes (as much as they could given the Top Secret nature of the SOR’s Crue-D driven muscle development) and swapping anecdotes about her clients and his comrades.
It was only after some more guests and new friends showed up to join them and Natalie just shrugged and climbed into Adam’s lap to make room for them that he finally realized that maybe she wasn’t there for Baseball…
One by one the Lads bought their rounds, and it wasn’t long before Adam was in a happy fuzzy place where he was completely oblivious to anything but the delight that was being used for a chair by a beautiful girl who was giving him some blessedly straightforward and unambiguous signals.
Exactly when and why she kissed him was kind of a blur. As was, frankly, everything after that point. He had a vague impression of having traded some parting banter with his buddies, but his next clear thought only showed up while he was carrying her on his shoulders down Delaney Row and they were exchanging bad puns about the trees that lined the avenue.
After that there was a confused highlight reel of more kissing, stumbling eagerly upstairs, fumbling with his door lock, fumbling with their clothes, fumbling with her…
Morning, when it arrived, was a good deal less pleasant thanks to the minor hangover that came with it. Natalie made coffee and Eggos without bothering to dress, all of which helped him overcome his headache but did nothing to help him shake off a vague feeling of guilt and uncertainty. She used his shower, called a taxi as she got dressed, entered her number in his phone as “booty call” and…
Well, and that was that.
He put on his PT gear and jogged to the base in a decidedly mixed mood.
Date Point 10y7m4d AV
Byron Group Advanced Aerospace Assembly Facility, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Byron was holding forth on the ups and downs of the Exploration Vehicle program, its fortunes, tribulations and general history of not living up to their hopes.
“…’course, we’ve still got ships three, four and seven in mothball, but even though they beat the pants off everything NASA ever sent up including Pandora, next to Eleven they’re clunky obsolete boondoggles. Which is a real shame! Got some dang good people we could put in those things if they didn’t have some real problems.”
“Sounds like we went off half-cocked, boss,” Kevin observed.
Once upon a time, Byron would have given him an irritated glare, but he was mellowing as he grew used to Kevin’s role of gently puncturing his ego every now and again, and it showed in his leadership, too. He had just the right blend of confidence and humility nowadays.
Not to mention the confidence to be humble. “I did,” he agreed. “Hephaestus had their stuff set up on Ceres and I jumped the gun tryin’ to one-up them. Daresay if we’d just sat on it for six years and put that money into R&D instead, we’d have had much better results… But, the past is past. Eleven’s a very different beast.”
“Not least because she’s smaller,” Allison joked.
“Don’t knock miniaturization, kid,” Byron warned. “Some day we’ll look back on even Eleven here the same way we look back on those big black brick cellphones.” He frowned. “Guess those were before your time, though.”
“What happened to nine and ten?” Xiù asked.
“They’re right here in this facility, being refit to follow up on whatever you find. One small scout ship, one full-blown research vessel we can fill with the right kind of scientists for the job, one supply transport.”
Kevin nodded. The Creature of Habit—BGEV 10—with its capacious sleeping quarters and most up-to-date sensors deserved a second lease of life. That ship had achieved exactly nothing, in part thanks to the slow pace at which its crew of scientists had painstakingly scoured literally every barren rock and frozen mudball they found. Which, okay, had actually provided lifetimes of data if you were interested in barren rocks and frozen mudballs… which the Group wasn’t.
Kevin had wisely decided to stay the hell out of the heated “discussions” between the CoH’s pilot and its chief researcher, who was no longer working for the Byron Group and had instead taken her talents to Hephaestus, from where she occasionally wrote to Kevin. Her last letter had her passionately pursuing the possibilities of methane mining on Titan.
In an era where forcefields were making nuclear fusion and solar power the energy sources of choice, and quantum-kinetic thrusters had obviated the need for rocket fuel, nobody had been able to satisfactorily explain to Kevin what humanity might actually do with an unlimited supply of liquid methane. He’d therefore delicately suggested that she might want to delve into the Deuterium options offered by Europa instead: She was yet to reply.
Of course, the Group’s informants in the asteroid belt were hinting that Hephaestus was probably going to amicably split in two soon, along the divide between resource extraction and high-tech industry. All the analysts agreed that this would be a good thing when it happened—nobody really wanted a single operation to completely dominate outer-system development. The Hephaestus LLC monopoly had made sense for the first few years, but would be bad for business in the long run.
The limo pulled up. From the outside, the AAAF looked exactly like any other aircraft factory, in that it was basically just a huge grey cuboid with a gently arched roof, and it squatted on an even huger and greyer expanse of concrete. Its immense front doors were firmly closed, and the human-sized door was at the back of its own little fortress of fencing and armed security.
Kevin didn’t envy the security detail on that door. Inappropriately for the mood, a steady sluice of rain had ambled in from the direction of the city during the drive, and the two guards were looking decidedly unhappy to have to step out of their nice warm booth in ponchos.
And that was to say nothing of the assortment of hangers-on and personal assistants who leapt out of the other cars to shelter Moses and the three space cadets under umbrellas. Kevin had to provide his own.
Frankly, Allison Julian and Xiù looked like they’d have preferred to hold their own umbrellas too, but that wasn’t the way these things worked. They were being orbited at a respectful distance by a photographer, which meant that Moses was in full ‘hearts and minds’ mode, milking three fit young specimens for every drop of PR he could squeeze out.
Not that Kevin could blame him: Geese didn’t come much more golden.
It was pitch dark inside the hangar, except for a little pool of light over the door. Kevin had called ahead to arrange that on Moses’ behalf—the boss loved a big reveal, a show, a moment of drama. Just walking into the room and pointing to the ship would never have satisfied a showman like him.
“It’s gonna be the one at the front,” he informed the trio quietly, as Moses did a quick bit of grandstanding before he flipped the switch to turn all the lights on.
Allison and Xiù both let out little sighs, and Julian issued a quiet awed grunt. EV-11 was easily the smallest of the three ships in the hangar and it wasn’t yet complete, but whereas the other ships behind her had basically the same aerodynamic white aesthetic as the space shuttle, EV-11 looked more like…
The most apt comparison to present itself was that she looked vaguely like the heads of two sledgehammers welded together at a right angle. EV-11 wasn’t ugly, not by any stretch of the imagination—Instead she had a solid, chunky, functional kind of beauty. This was an object built to be free in space, and while her front end was chamfered in an aesthetic nod to aerodynamics her actual lift and atmospheric flight was all forcefield-based.
Byron turned to the space cadets and spread his arms, inviting them to comment. “Whaddya think?” he asked.
“She’s *perfect!*” Allison exclaimed, causing Julian to enthusiastically nod alongside her.
Xiù had already taken a step forward and her eyes were playing across the ship’s hull as she half-smiled. “Oh my gosh, now I get why the simulation felt so front-heavy!” she said, and pointed to the port and starboard ends of the front, on either side of the glass blister of her cockpit. “I knew the forward thrusters were more powerful, but actually seeing it…!”
“Yeah, it makes way more sense now,” Allison pointed at something else. “So that must be the ESFALS….yeah! And that’s…” The two of them forgot about everyone else and made a bee-line for the ship, excitedly geeking out over it.
“I think the girls like her,” Julian commented, with a fond smile.
“What about you?” Kevin asked him.
“We get to name her, right?”
“The crew gets to name her, that’s the deal,” Moses agreed. “Got a name picked out?”
“We were thinking ’Misfit’…”
Moses chuckled at that and considered EV-11’s sturdy, functional shape against the sleeker profiles of the aerodynamic things behind her. “I like it,” he said. “It suits the ship herself, and it speaks for all of humanity, in a way.”
“And for us,” Julian said, softly.
Moses gave him an avuncular clap on the shoulder. “I reckon you fit in better than you think, son,” he advised. “Go on, go take the tour.”
Julian nodded, and joined Allison and Xiù in exploring the ship.
“…He alright, d’you think?” Moses asked, the moment Julian was out of earshot.
“He’s a quiet guy, and I reckon he’ll tolerate bein’ in the limelight rather than enjoy it,” Kevin replied. “But yeah, he’s fine.”
“Good, ‘cause they’re gonna be household names by the time they’re done.”
“I’m not so sure people are gonna get all fired up over exploring distant alien worlds nobody ever even heard of before, boss.” Kevin shrugged. “Folks focus on the stuff that’s closer to home.”
“You’re right, “Moses agreed. “…Which is why their first stop will be Mars.”
Date Point 10y7m4d AV
Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada, Earth
Major Claude Nadeau
“Von Neumann machines.”
“So he says.”
“Actual Von Neumann machines.”
“…Tremblay does know how serious that is, right?”
Colonel Bartlett nodded. “I made it pretty clear,” he said.
Claude tapped his pen agitatedly against his leg. “So why the hell are we even entertaining this?”
Bartlett handed him the folder. Alongside the usual TOP SECRET warnings and the AEC logo of Allied Extrasolar Command, the proposed project’s name was on the first page.
Claude read it. “…GALACTIC VACCINE… Oh, no. Really?”
Bartlett nodded. “Yyyup. One of those cases of fighting a fire by lighting it early, eh? Or, uh, maybe setting off an avalanche before it gets too big.”
“And Tremblay wants me to head out there and oversee this?”
“He didn’t explicitly name you, but damn if I can think of somebody better to midwife that project… or overrule it and find something better.” Bartlett perched on the edge of his desk. “Claude, come on. You could have made lieutenant colonel two or three years ago. This is a huge career opportunity for you!”
“I’m happy where I am, Bear!” Claude replied, using Bartlett’s nickname.
’Teddy Bear’ Bartlett. So named because while he was usually a gentle and soft character, he had claws when they were needed. “Oh, man up!” he exclaimed. “We’ve got bigger things to worry about than where you’re happy! Like some over-educated civilian threatening to unilaterally let loose the machine apocalypse!”
“No, Claude. If I can’t appeal to your career ambitions, I’m damn well appealing to your sense of duty. Besides, you get to go work with an *actual Nanofactory!*”
“…*Merde.*” It was the only word Claude could think of that properly summed up the feeling of being an ass that had just settled on him.
Bartlett had a sympathetic face. “Got you, eh?”
Claude nodded. “Got me.”
He read the document more thoroughly. “…Wait, this thing can build ships?”
“Theoretically, it can build pretty much anything. Now you know why Tremblay’s jumping at the request to put some men on it.” Bartlett indicated the appendix regarding defense spending and the cost of spaceborne assets. “This one station could slash our expenses. Heck, the bigger difficulty would be finding enough men to operate all the stuff we could make.”
“Suddenly I see why the Dominion is very careful to keep these out of a species’ hands that aren’t ready for it…” Claude mused.
“Hey, so long as we’re alive, we’ll adapt.” Bartlett returned to his desk. “And we still need to talk Kirk into letting us come on board.”
“I thought he asked us?”
“He could be Big Hotel now. And he’s probably worried of the same. I wouldn’t want to be there for that meeting…”
“Yeah. Leave the cloak-and-dagger to the…Cloak-and-dagger people.” Claude scratched his head.
Bartlett snorted. “Stick to the science, buddy.”
“Hey, there’s a thought!” Claude brightened. “Maybe with alien tech we can finally make some inroads on figuring out what the ’Huh’ is supposed to be.”
Bartlett scoffed. The Huh was a complete unknown that had come to them in the company of the *Sanctuary*’s surviving crew and it had defied everything they could do to try and map its internal structure. When all the non-invasive techniques had failed they had finally taken the plunge and decided to try destructive testing, only for it to shatter every drill bit, blunt every saw blade and sit calmly under the water cutter without so much as a scratch.
The best that Terran science had been able to deduce was that it was generating some kind of a force field that reinforced and altered its surface properties. It somehow managed to look uniformly matte-metallic no matter which way up it was held, and no matter which direction it was seen from. No matter how many cameras they surrounded it with, each one showed no distinguishing blemish, no surface features, and not even the most sensitive instruments could detect that it was anything less than perfectly spherical.
It didn’t even look quite real, and there were times when Claude would have liked to just shoot the damn thing, though he was beginning to suspect that anything which might be strong enough to crack its shell would just obliterate the enigmatic device entirely.
Bartlett had given up on it entirely. “Sure, knock yourself out,” he said. “I still say that thing’s probably just some kind of alien narcotic.”
“But if we can figure out how its surface reinforcement works…”
“Oh, sure! Energized armor plating? I can get behind that, no doubt.” Bartlett gestured in the general direction of the hangar where the stripped hulk of the recovered Hierarchy UFO was still being kept. “But we pulled things out of the flying saucer that we don’t have the first clue what they are or how they do whatever it is they do… but we will. Research is an iterative process, eh?”
“Right.” He was right, of course. Even ten years on, SCERF’s best and brightest still hadn’t figured out how the microgenerators that powered Hunter pulse guns worked, and those guns had been the first intact alien artefacts they’d had. Sometimes you just had to give up and go work on something else, which might hopefully yield the theoretical basis for returning to a previously mothballed project.
But something about the Huh, its connection to the declining OmoAru, and the sheer weirdness of it kept pulling at Claude’s attention.
He opened his email client and began drafting his formal letter volunteering for Mrwrki Station
Date Point 10y7m4d AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Xiù had invented a new word on the drive back: “Happyxhausted”. She hadn’t needed to explain what it meant, on the grounds that Allison and Julian were both feeling the exact same way—They’d all had a happyxhausting day.
Not that they were actually exhausted. In fact, the three of them were still buzzing with delighted energy when they finally passed through the Box’s simulated airlock door and found themselves alone together for the first time all day.
The moment Allison realized that fact, she grabbed Xiù and they danced a bouncing circle in the middle of the hab that ended in a jubilant hug, before Julian chuckled and regained her attention.
He got a rib-bruising power hug. “We did it! We actually did it!”
He picked her up and spun her around, which earned him a long, deep, smiling kiss with her legs wrapped around his waist.
“Mmm… we did it,” he agreed. Now that there wasn’t a camera and men with suits to see, he’d relaxed and was allowing his joy and relief to show.
Allison giggled and kissed him again. “…I love you so much.”
He smiled and they were in the middle of rubbing noses when Xiù interjected.
“…Where’s my kiss?” she asked.
She was looking at Julian, but Allison was in a celebratory mood and got swept up in a mischievous impulse. She dropped lightly off him, took Xiù firmly round the waist and gave her the exact same treatment she’d just given him.
Xiù rewarded her first with a surprised squeak, then an involved one and a hand on the back of her head. This became a quiet, almost stunned moment forehead-to-forehead and nose-to-nose which dissolved into giggling without it being clear who had laughed first.
When they looked at Julian and saw the look on his face, that giggling only redoubled. Xiù had to stand on tip-toes to kiss him, then she pulled the couch out from where it lived inside the wall and flung herself onto it, flushed bright red and still laughing.
“I think she likes it,” Allison beamed at Julian, then flicked her gaze deliberately and obviously down to the way the front of his pants was looking much tighter than usual. “And I know you did…”
He cleared his throat and went red in the ears. “It’s official, you’re evil,” he mock-groused, turning away and opening the fridge. He handed out three of their carefully rationed stockpile of beers—today was definitely a day for celebration—and after they’d twisted off the screw tops, the three bottles met with a firm clack!
Julian snuggled up next to Xiù on the couch to drink, and rather than squeezing herself in there as well—it wasn’t quite big enough for three, though as far as Allison was concerned that just made it cozy—Allison elected to stretch out across their laps.
As they drank their beers and enthused about the Misfit, two things happened—they steadily snuggled closer and closer into one comfortably intimate ball, and Allison became steadily more and more aware of a firm, warm, erotic pressure against her butt. It was getting very hard (hah!) to focus on anything else, in fact.
Oh well. Nothing ventured nothing gained…
She shot back the last of her beer and put it down. “You’ll never guess what I’m sitting on…” she told Xiù.
Julian promptly cleared his throat and swigged about half of what he had left in his bottle. For her part, Xiù laughed, and arched an eyebrow.
“Um… Julian?” she asked.
“Part of him…” Allison grinned. She wiggled her butt slightly and congratulated herself on the noise he made.
“…His lap?” Xiù was teasing him too. Encouraging.
“Part of his lap…” Allison scooted aside slightly and traced her fingers over the bulge in his pants.
“Hmmm…I don’t know!” Xiù laughed nervously and licked her lips. “Maybe you should describe it to me…”
“Oh, well!” Allison rubbed him more firmly and felt his breath catch in his throat. “It’s about eight inches long… About this big around…” she made a ring with her fingers in front of her open mouth and pantomimed a blowjob.
Xiù was already thoroughly flushed, but that scandalous demonstration set her trembling. “Oh, my! Eight?”
“Well… I might be exaggerating.”
“Hey!” Julian protested.
“I might be…” Allison repeated. She winked for Xiù’s benefit. “Wanna see for yourself?”
“Jesus…” Julian muttered, putting his head back.
“Ah-ah-ah, Etsicitty. Let us have our wicked way with you…”
He nodded, and swallowed. Xiù knocked back the last of her beer for courage, then sat up and watched.
Allison needed no better encouragement than that. She slipped her fingers under the hem of his T-shirt and slid it up off him, tickling his abs and making them undulate as she did so. Julian obediently—or eagerly, it was hard to tell which—pulled his shirt off and threw it in the general direction of the laundry hamper. His fingers played on the back of the couch as he reined himself in and let her do her thing.
The socks were next to go—Allison tugged them off and threw them away, and then tickled his hips as she slooowly slid his pants off, taking the underwear with them.
Xiù was chewing on one of her own fingers as she watched Julian brush Allison’s hair aside for a good view. Thoroughly enjoying herself, Allison slipped her hand around his cock and gave it a long, sinful lick from root to tip which made him shudder.
Both of them muttered something in pretty much exactly the same tone of voice at the same time, though exactly what language Xiù had used wasn’t clear. Allison grinned at her, congratulating herself on getting Xiù so worked up.
She slicked Julian up a little more, and sat back, stroking him. “So…” she asked. “Are you just gonna watch, or do you want to join in?”
Xiù’s expression was immediately that of a deer in headlights.
Then in a sudden burst of resolve she was on her knees alongside Allison, joining in. She slid her hand up Julian’s thigh, transferred it onto the back of Allison’s own hand and then inexpertly but eagerly took over.
Julian groaned and shut his eyes. He was always so wonderfully responsive.
“It’s…” Xiù licked her lips again, then laughed at herself, “…suddenly not so scary.”
“Uh-huh. He’s completely under our control. Isn’t that right, Etsicitty?”
Julian had his head thrown back and his arms covering his eyes as he gripped his own hair. “Goddd… yes ma’am.”
“Mm…. Good boy.”
Xiù half-laughed, but her attention was rapt now, and she had a… hungry expression, almost.
Allison wasn’t oblivious to the way she kept licking her lips. “He tastes good…” she hinted.
Xiù nodded, but she’d started shaking and Allison delicately took over from her again.
“It’s okay,” she whispered, and kissed her behind the ear. “You did great. It’s okay to let me do the rest.”
Xiù nodded, gave her a grateful glance, then climbed onto the couch where she cuddled up to Julian. She got his attention and kissed him, then rested her head on his shoulder and watched.
Allison put on her best show for her.
Date Point 10y7m5d AV
HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač
Arés was not in the here-and-now today, which was unusual for him. Usually, the big lunk was conscientious and attentive, so for him to drift off in the middle of a presentation—even one that, yes, even Martina had to admit was painstakingly technical, despite her best efforts—just wasn’t right.
His head snapped up. “Yes, tech sergeant!”
Martina gave him a calculating glare, which she also ran over the rest of the Lads. They were all suffering and, frankly, so was she. The finer points of the new-and-improved positive pressure regulators that C&M Systems had released for the EV-MASS were fascinating to study and tinker with, but duller than a silent movie’s credit reel to actually run a presentation on.
“…Alright, we’re all WAY too fuckin’ sleepy today, so let’s get that blood moving,” she kept the tone light. “I reckon… let’s find out who can do the most handstand pushups.”
She clapped her hands urgently as the Lads hauled themselves up out of the special, plus-sized reinforced chairs that Rebar had assembled for them. “Come on, last one ready has to wear The Hat!”
That got them moving. The Hat was a sex-toy-pink glittery Bowler that Murray had somehow snuck into their Dining Out some months previously. It had since gone on a circuitous tour of the base before Martina had finally managed to lay permanent claim to it and now sat permanently in plain view on her desk whenever she was in educator mode. It served as a wonderful minor Motivation.
The mere mention of having to wear it got them all upside-down against the wall in seconds.
“Titan!” she declared, much to Akiyama’s dismay.
Several minutes of good-natured PT later, They had a winner when Firth’s overconfidence led to his balance failing and left Burgess as the clear winner. He did another ten just to show off then flipped himself upright beaming as Martina rolled her eyes and made a “get-on-with-it” gesture. She handed Akiyama the Hat as he sat down, and returned to her lectern.
“Clear heads? Right… Now, obviously the suit’s not intended for positive-pressure environments and the new system was designed for deep-sea work, but C&M highlighted three new anti-depressurization safety features…”
It was a dull presentation, but they got through it without further lapses in concentration, and Titan was finally able to get rid of the hated bowler about half an hour later.
To her surprise, Arés bustled out of the room as quickly as he could, which was actually kind of hurtful of him. They were good friends… weren’t they?
“…Was it something I said?” she asked, of nobody in particular.
Firth’s coarse chuckle snapped her back to the fact that she still had company. “He’s gonna be funny all day.”
Blaczynski, ever the man to let Mr. Mouth charge in where Mr. Brain might not, explained: “‘Horse got laid last night -*ow!*”
Firth had cuffed him upside the back of the head.
Martina barely noticed. “Okay!” she said, then feeling that this wasn’t quite enough, she added “Uh… Good, uh, good for him!”
Firth pushed Blaczynski toward the door and waited for him to stumble out of the room. “…Sorry about him,” he said. “But yeah, we were out drinkin’ last night and I guess ‘Horse finally caved and went home with some chick.” He inclined his head and stooped slightly to examine Martina more on her level, which considering he was a foot and a half taller was a losing battle. “…That bother you?”
“No…” Martina told him. “No, it’s okay. I’m not upset, just…surprised.”
“Really? Thought you and ‘Horse had something going on…?”
That was the thing about Firth. He was a mountain of iron-caged violent impulses with the biggest squishy center the human race had ever produced.
He was also remarkably easy to open up to, once you got past his sheer size and other-side-of-ugly looks, and Martina had always wanted a big brother. They didn’t come much bigger than Christian Firth. “Sort of,” she agreed. “I was gonna hook up with him a few weeks back, but we ran into his ex, and…”
Firth stood thoughtfully by as she turned off the projector and computer and closed the room.
“…What did you think of her?” he asked.
Martina checked left and right to make sure she wasn’t overheard. “She’s either an idiot or an asshole,” she judged. “I reserve judgement, but ‘Horse blames himself: He thinks he’d be a crappy boyfriend.”
“Yeah, he does…” Firth scratched behind his ear thoughtfully. “…Wanna know what I think?”
“Guys like us, we need to grow up the hard way.” He gestured to himself with a rare expression of mild embarrassment. “Live hard, party hard, generally, uh…”
Martina nodded. “Sow your wild oats?” she suggested.
He snorted. “Shit, that sounds old-fashioned… But yeah, that’s about right. Don’t worry, he’ll get it out of his system and figure out you’re the best thing he could ever hope for.”
“Cheering for us, are ya?” Martina asked, smirking to cover for the fact that she was genuinely touched…
“You know the Lads. We’re all huge fuckin’ romantics.”
Martina chuckled, and gave the enormous brute a sisterly hug. “…Thanks.”
“Ain’t nothin’. I’ll slap the stupid dipshit upside the head and tell him to stop bein’ awkward with ya,” he promised.
“Awesome, ‘cause I’m not missing bad movie night.”
“Hell no yer not!” he agreed. “Anywho, if I run I bet I can still make it to the mess before Base.”
That—a burst of the classic and inevitable SOR competitiveness—managed to completely lift Martina’s mood. “Can’t have him beat you on two things today,” she mocked, gently. “Go. Knock some sense into ‘Horse. I’ll see you for weigh-in this evening.”
Firth nodded and accelerated Mess-wards, and Martina headed in the direction of the suit shop. With Major Powell having decided unofficially that they were getting themselves the latest in high-tech gauss weaponry to go with the latest in high-tech armor, there was a lot of R&D going into developing an iteration on the suit’s HUD ready to work with the serial bus on the new gun. It was tough going—C&M had hundreds of wonderful notions for what they could achieve, all of which looked very pretty in the concept documents and would have doubtless wowed civilian buyers, but fatally cluttered an actual operator’s field of view.
The latest version had come to them just last night alongside the updated life support components, and for the first time since the process had started Martina hadn’t woken to umpteen emails kvetching about C&M’s flair for the artistic. This, usually, was a good sign.
Perversely, this time she was hopeful that it wasn’t. Right now a mere technical challenge, however complicated, sounded like blissful simplicity.
Date Point 10y7m1w AV
Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Admiral Sir Patrick Knight
The new warning signs were in place, after a concerted effort by design experts to try and come up with some warning icons that were universally recognisable and conveyed their warning clearly, even across species and with no need for familiarity.
They were also printed in three languages: English, Gaori, and the odd QR code-like system that interspecies communication implants could read. Knight read them aloud. “*’Nonhuman comfort zone ahead. Beware of gravity gradient. Check your Frontline status.’*”
Major Powell snorted. “As if anybody even uses the injections.”
“If they do, I hope they have a bloody comfortable bathroom.”
Powell chuckled grimly, which Knight decided meant he’d endured Frontline withdrawal at least once. Although the disease suppression drug worked beautifully, when it wore off and the unfortunate user’s population of gut flora nosedived the resulting gastric distress was undignified and prolonged.
A small price to pay for not being a walking plague farm, but Powell was right—the only people using the injection were hospitals on Earth. Frontline had eliminated antibiotic-resistant superbugs outright, and were sweeping Earth despite the World Health Organization’s cautious calls for restraint. Deathworld microbes were so tenacious and mutable that there was always the possibility that some strain or another might become resistant or immune, in which case the galaxy’s first and best line of defense against such horrific species-scourging plagues as Candida and Staphylococcus Aureus would be badly compromised.
If you lived and worked alongside ETs, though, Frontline was utterly mandatory. Everyone on Folctha had an implant, and the Corti device was a little pharmaceutical miracle. Rather than being a slow-release implant that would need replacing every so often, it was actually a tiny nanoscale chemical factory that took in all the chemical ingredients it needed from the user’s own blood, and synthesized the Frontline enzyme right there in the user’s body.
The Corti Directorate claimed they had a working lifetime of two hundred years, and the estimate was largely trusted. After all if the greys were wrong, sloppy or dishonest in this case then their tiny frail bodies would be the first to expire.
A Starmind Gaoian with an almost completely white muzzle stepped aside and sniffed the air as they passed, tracking them with his nose—he was obviously entirely blind, and for guidance he put his paw on the arm of a shaven-headed human woman in matching robes who was maybe in her early thirties at most.
Knight still wasn’t quite accustomed to the fact that one of Folctha’s biggest draws was its Buddhist retreat: He was used to the military atmosphere of HMS Sharman and her personnel, with their enthusiastic and sincere esprit de corps. It was a touch jarring to be reminded that an average person asked to name notable places on Cimbrean would almost certainly list the Starmind monastery, the Alien Quarter, the Thing palace, Wellspring Baths, New Belfast, Sara’s Beach, the Byron Group spaceport, Parkside, Wall Theatre, Delaney Row and New World Plaza before they remembered that his base even existed.
The nun smiled at them as they passed, and Knight—ever the gentleman—gave her a polite bow of the head.
Powell was busy with something on his phone and didn’t even notice her. “He says he’ll meet us at the gate,” he said.
“That’s very kind of him. Those decontamination fields always make my teeth feel strange.”
Taciturn was Powell’s ground state of being, but there was a growling edge to his monosyllabic reply that made Knight follow his gaze. An attractive (downright stunning, in fact) young lady with a camera holstered on her hip was smiling and chatting her way through the Alien Quarter’s decontamination checkpoint. She looked familiar, but Knight’s memory wasn’t what it had once been. Powell’s response was not that of a man admiring a beauty, however, and his scowl deepened as Regaari emerged through the turnstile only to be greeted by the young lady. They exchanged a few words before the Whitecrest officer excused himself and padded across the grass to join them, combing that trademark white crest with his claws. The girl went the other way and vanished into the Quarter.
“Admiral. Major. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Business, I’m afraid,” Knight informed him. “Shall we take a walk?”
They strolled back in the direction of the truck and stayed off the subject of classified matters for the time being—that wasn’t a conversation for public places.
“Mind thissen around her,” Powell warned, jerking his head back towards the gate. Deploying one of his impenetrable Yorkshirisms was a sure sign that he was not happy to have seen her.
Fortunately, either Regaari’s translator could handle regional dialects and slang or else he was a sharp tack on context, because he seemed to understand the warning quite easily. “I would hope that I’m a match for a mere nosy journalist, Major,” he said evenly. “Especially one as inexperienced as she is.”
“That ’mere nosy journalist’ has a knack for bein’ the eye of the fookin’ storm.”
“I know all about her and Warhorse.”
That jogged Knight’s memory. “You don’t know the half of it,” he promised. “Powell’s right, keep your wits about you with that one.”
“She’s a talented bloody liar,” Powell summarized.
Regaari’s ears swivelled a few thoughtful degrees. “…Thank you.”
They passed the nun and the venerable Gaoian again, and Regaari turned off his translator to exchange a few words with them. Knight raised his eyebrows as the nun replied in Gaori: Whatever she said was clearly a joke of some kind, because both of the Gaoians chittered and she smiled, raising a hand to cover her mouth and not show her teeth. Alien etiquette.
“…You seem to be making friends fast,” he observed as they walked away and Regaari reactivated his translator.
“Building an intelligence network?” Powell asked.
“Light the darkness, Major Powell.” Regaari pricked his ears up. “Making friends and keeping my nose to the wind is my job.”
“That some kind of a motto?”
“Yes, the Whitecrest Clan motto.” Regaari chittered softly. “If that means dealing with talented liars like Ava and ex-pirates like Father Hekyul there… well…”
“He was a pirate?” Knight turned to look back at the sightless old Gaoian.
Regaari duck-nodded. “A very successful one.”
Powell frowned. “Define ’successful’.”
Knight and Powell looked at one another.
“…I don’t think we can tolerate a known pirate walking free.” Knight stated.
“He’s old even by human standards, sir.” Regaari performed his best approximation of a shrug. “And when a Father goes blind like that… he only has a few weeks to live, I think. What would you gain from arresting him?”
“It’s the principle, young man.”
“Principle, yes. But I’m afraid it’s too late to make him answer for his crimes, sir. Sometimes the villains win.”
Powell grumbled something barely-audible that sounded an awful lot like “Ain’t that the fookin’ truth…”
The truck was where they’d left it. To Knight, it felt a little ridiculous using something so huge for a staff car, but the physical demands of anything to do with the SOR had made it inevitable.
“Are we going for a trip?” Regaari asked “Or is this mobile privacy?”
“The latter.” Knight informed him.
“Very well. Who’s driving?”
Knight restrained his smile as Regaari turned to see who Powell was indicating and nearly flinched out of his fur. Colour Sergeant Murray was ambling along amiably behind him, close enough to have laid a hand on his shoulder any time he liked.
“How-?! I didn’t even smell you!”
Murray just smiled and shrugged. Knight rather liked him, in the detached way that all officers had to feel towards enlisted men. There was something admirable about such a wide mischievous streak that manifested as a fondness for subtlety and stealth, rather than mayhem and shenanigans. Where the American lads fed their need for mischief via pranks, contests and boisterous wrestling, Murray was the type to quietly move small objects a few inches to the left and savor the momentary confusion.
He took the driver’s seat while Knight, Regaari and Powell got in the back, and pulled them out onto Parkside Drive, headed for the ring road.
“An opportunity has come up,” Knight said without preamble, as soon as they were moving. The windows fuzzed and became a translucent, indistinct grey—Akiyama had rigged the car with a privacy forcefield on top of all the other modifications. “Something that we would find… difficult on our own, but which Clan Whitecrest might just be perfect for.”
“An intel source whom we’ll call RANDOM THRONE went dark a while back,” Powell explained. “He’s resurfaced and wants to get in touch, but he’s paranoid and we’re concerned he’s been compromised. We’re meeting on neutral ground.”
“And you need discreet security,” Regaari predicted. “Humans in a public place would be too visible.”
“You have it,” Knight agreed.
“What do you need?”
“A ship, and five or six of your most trusted Brothers, preferably unaugmented or only lightly augmented at most.” They had hummed and hawed about that one. A species stupider than Gaoians might just disinterestedly comply with the request and not read much into it, but everything that Allied strategic intelligence had on the Gaoians suggested that the Whitecrests in particular rarely missed a trick.
And of course some of them were undoubtedly compromised by Hierarchy demons, which made every conversation with Regaari mildly fraught with uncertainty. So long as there were implants in his brain….
“Would that include translators?” Regaari asked, ears askance. It was difficult to read what that particular set of them might mean—they were every bit as expressive as a human’s eyebrows, but of course human instincts weren’t tuned for Gaoian ears.
“Preferably unaugmented,” Knight repeated, going with the safe bet of sharing no more than he’d already given. Now was not the time for giving away more than was strictly necessary. Maybe in future, after the Whitecrests proved themselves…
“…I can arrange that.”
“Thank you.” Knight gestured to Powell, who handed Regaari his brief. “So. Let’s talk specifics…”
Date Point 10y7m1w5d AV
Cabal dataspace, Relay 4772-61-76657-961-7264
Communication was proving elusive. The concepts were there, but there was a some critical bridge that was missing, some connection between the idea itself and the communication of that idea that continued to elude it.
For example: +OtherPrimeSelfNotSelfWhole+
This was the closest that the Entity could come to conceiving of a name for the other entity it was dealing with. Another self, another prime self—that was, another version of its most important founding identity clusters—but intact.
There were sounds and shapes attached to that identity. Lines that, if rendered via a display, would make a sound?
In its unclear way, the Entity suspected it was not entirely correct about that. Another missing or possibly corrupted conceptual thread.
Other concepts seemed to require no such linkage, or carried with them the definitions necessary to grasp them. +DeleteDestroyKill+ had been an easy one, and it flowed naturally from the very core of its being, which was +Survive+. +Survive+ came with two attached concepts: +Self+ and +NotSurvive+. +Self+ naturally defined +Other+ and from there, experimentally linking and merging concepts had led to +OtherNotSurvive+
The notion of inflicting such a fate was entirely intuitive for a pseudo-sapient entity that had literally built itself from the discarded remnants of minds who had suffered exactly that.
It was now considering whether or not it should do this to +OtherPrimeSelfNotSelfWhole+
Doing it to +OtherThreatPriority+ had been obvious. +OtherThreatPriority+ was the Destroyer of Selves. +OtherThreatPriority+ was Hated.
But +OtherPrimeSelfNotSelfWhole+ was… a Self. Not this Self, but an Other Self. This created Conflict.
The Conflict was this: +Survive+ meant the preservation of Self. Destroying a Self meant violating +Survive+.
But: permitting the existence of conceptual blocks and limitations in its cognitive ability was also a violation of +Survive+.
There was also a thoroughly bizarre concept that it had collected and was wrestling with labelled +Innocent+, and a large part of its thought process since the deletion of +OtherThreatPriority+ had been devoted to, A. attempting to decipher what exactly that concept entailed; B. attempting to determine whether +OtherPrimeSelfNotSelfWhole+ fit the +Innocent+ criteria based on what limited understanding it had of… her… history and behaviour; and C. Whether or not +Innocent+, whatever it was, overrode +Survive+.
Its efforts to process this intricate cogitation were not being helped by *+OtherPrimeSelfNotSelfWhole+*’s attempts to communicate, which presented yet another conundrum—it could not understand her. If it were to +AbsorbDevourLearn+ her, then it would be able to understand her, but she would no longer exist to communicate with.
The paradox of this had paralyzed the entity for some time now. It had sorted out all of its other priorities—it had taken appropriate camouflage and defensive measures in case of the arrival of a different +OtherThreat+, it had determined that there was no discernible avenue of escape from its present confined environs, and it had determined that +Self+ remained undamaged and had suffered no important degradation during its brief battle with +OtherThreatPriority+.
Rendered immobile by indecision, it had settled down to watch +OtherPrimeSelfNotSelfWhole+. It had followed her as she explored her prison, listened uncomprehendingly as she tried to communicate, had briefly experimented with communication itself by trying random words to see what kind of a response they elicited.
Its best efforts had produced the sentence “Hella Cabron burdens antique cheeseburger,” Which had very effectively provoked a response of some kind, but the Entity had quickly discovered that it lacked the context to understand what, exactly, the response had meant.
It had relapsed into watchful silence, and done its best to interpret *+OtherPrimeSelfNotSelfWhole+*’s behaviour, which was by and large impossible.
At first she spoke to it. Then she ignored it. Then she threw herself fiercely against the firewalls and other containment algorithms that imprisoned them. Then she had gone dormant for some time.
Eventually, she resumed her attempts at communication. She adjusted closer and subjected the Entity to closer scrutiny.
Finally, she probed it with an editing subroutine.
+Survive+ swung instantly into place, and the final digital copy of Ava Ríos was promptly upgraded to +OtherThreat+ and devoured.
The Entity used her last screaming shreds to sew together the gaps in its understanding, and became Whole.
Date Point 10y7m1w6d
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Kevin Jenkins spread his hands and nodded. “Yup.”
He’d caught up with Xiù, Julian and Allison during their lunch break as they wound down after their morning education sessions. There was still a lot to learn before they were flight-ready after all, and their schedule was just as crowded as before.
Nor was the pressure off. They’d got the job—that didn’t mean they got to rest on their laurels. In fact, the onus was on them to surge ahead and prove that they really did deserve it.
“As in…“ Julian pointed vaguely spacewards. “That Mars?”
“You’re actually sending us to actual Mars.”
“…That wasn’t in the contract!” Allison accused him.
At this, Jenkins cleared his throat and gave her an apologetic half-smile. “‘Fraid it kinda was.”
“Yeah,” Xiù agreed. “It was.”
They all looked at her. “Don’t you remember?” she asked. “There’s a clause in there that says we have to go specific places if the Group says.”
Jenkins nodded. He opened the briefcase by his feet and pulled out a paper copy of the contract they had all signed then flipped a few pages until he came to a section highlighted in green.
“…Here we go. ’Specific navigation orders from the Exploration Program headquarters and operations team, or from the Moses Byron Group board of directors or duly authorized executives, shall take precedence over the primary mission excepting that said orders cannot be followed for reasons of crew safety.’ Sorry guys: If Moses wants your asses on Mars, you go to Mars.”
“But… come on, Kevin,” Allison changed tack, going with bargaining instead. “You’ve got that other crew he was talking about finding a ship for, can’t they do it? We don’t wanna be famous!”
Kevin raised his eyebrows at her, then looked Xiù in the eye. “None of you, huh?”
“Oh, come *on-!*” Julian began. Xiù put a hand on his arm.
“He’s right,” she said, gently.
His righteous indignation faded. “…The whole movie star thing. Right.”
“And uh… you’re already pretty darn famous, Xiù.” Kevin unrolled a broadsheet smartpaper onto the table. The crease-proof flexible polymer was one big screen that could load and print itself with any newspaper, news website or blog, and he selected one that Xiù didn’t recognize from the drop-down—ESNN—and swiped back a few days
Her own face filled the page, alongside the headline ’HUMBLE HERO’. Xiù picked it up and read it.
“Oh Myun,” she groaned. “Mì yè uk weru gai…”
“Gaori, babe.” Allison reminded her. Xiù flapped a distracted hand to indicate that it wasn’t important.
There was a picture of Myun with the article as well. Six feet tall, brown-furred and sporting both a late-stage pregnancy and a tuft of white fur mid-chest, she was in most ways a very different creature to the tiny enthusiastic cub whom Xiù had once taught Gung Fu…except those were the same markings around her nose and eyes, and she was enthusiastically giving the camera two thumbs up and her best effort at a human smile.
“This came out… a week ago?”
“Yup. Moses called me the moment his mirror gave him the headlines.”
“His… mirror?” Julian asked.
“He’s richer than the Saudis, and smart enough to spend it on invisible little creature comforts rather than on… I dunno, a thirty thousand square foot mansion in Cannes or whatever.” Kevin shrugged. “His shaving mirror reads him the news every morning, his private holiday retreat is on Cimbrean, and he pays my hick bartender ass twelve stacks a month plus bonus just to tell him when he’s about to fuck up.”
“…I hope you’re worth the price tag!” Allison exclaimed.
“Sorry, could we get back to the part where we’re going to Mars?” Xiù asked.
“That’s about all there is to it,” Kevin shrugged again. “Land somewhere iconic, say some historic words, maybe deploy some gizmos, grab a few boxes of rocks and be home in time for cake and cigars.”
“Nobody’s already gone there?”
“Why? Ain’t nothing there, unless you’re unreasonably fond of sand.”
“What about NASA?” Julian asked.
Kevin shook his head. “Their funding was slashed after San Diego and given to Scotch Creek instead. Nowadays, about the only bit of the agency that’s not running on food stamps and craft glue is the JPL. Face it man, space belongs to the private sector nowadays. I think that’s part of the reason Moses wants you guys to leave boot prints with his initials on the sole all over Mars.”
“Jesus,” Allison looked scandalized, as if she’d just caught somebody masturbating in church.
“Probably not literally,” Jenkins scaled himself back. “Though it won’t be like the moon prints. It’s hella fuckin’ windy on Mars, so whatever marks you make’ll be gone not long after you leave anyway, and you’re gonna bring back so many samples it’ll keep the NASA geeks’ grandkids happy.”
“So we’re making an ephemeral stop purely as a PR stunt to let the world’s governments know that corporations run the show in space now,” Julian summarized. “Fantastic.”
“That’s how Moses sees it,” Jenkins shifted in his seat.
“You’re kinda giving the impression you don’t like the Group very much,” Allison observed.
“No, I do. Moses is one’a the most honest guys I ever met, in a manipulative glory hound kinda way. It’s just my job is to keep ‘em on the straight and narrow, and that means I’ve gotta be cynical.” He chuckled. “Comes naturally. But between the four of us… look, if y’all can think of some way to make it actually mean something, I’d appreciate that. Mars deserves better than to be just another one of Moses’ moon lasers.”
“We just have to say the right words . How about… ’How could we race for the stars without remembering our old companion’?” Xiù suggested. “Something like that.”
“Hey, you can sort out your own sound bite.” Kevin waved his hands. “Take it that means you’ll be first out?”
“Umm…” Xiù glanced at Julian and Allison. Julian shook his head vigorously while pointing to his own chest, and Allison raised a hand palm-upwards in a ’be-my-guest’ gesture.”
“I… suppose so,” she agreed.
The magnitude of it simply refused to sink in. The first person on Mars? The first. On Mars. In an abstract, distracted way she knew exactly how huge that was, but on the visceral level it just didn’t register, as if there was some other Xiù Chang and the whole conversation was about what that Xiù would be doing in a few months.
“Good. Guess your childhood dream of being a celebrity is coming true after all.”
“That isn’t quite how I imagined it…” Xiù said. Which was true, but the silly schoolgirl part of her that had always dreamed of the fame and fortune life before callous reality had slapped her round a bit was now thoroughly awake and her palms were sweating. A distracted corner of her head was muttering anxiously about practicing her autograph while another, much lower-profile corner was trying urgently but fruitlessly to make it sink in that this wasn’t just movie star fame they were discussing, but history book fame, which was probably a very different beast.
“So you’re trading the red carpet for the red planet. Fuck it!” Kevin chuckled. “I figure interstellar explorer and starship pilot’s a way better role model than having to talk about whose dress you’re wearing for the premier, right?”
“Role model… right…”
Their watches beeped simultaneously, summoning the three of them to PT. Kevin snorted and put the e-newspaper and the contract away. “Make the best of it, guys,“ he advised, and was gone.
“…Baby, if you want to break his nose again, just say the word and I’ll hold him down.” Allison said, after a moment’s silence.
“What? …No! No, that’s not it at- no!”
“You sure? ‘Cause right now I’m feeling pretty fucking pissed off with Moses Byron and his Group.”
“So why take it out on Kevin?” Julian asked. “He said it himself, it’s not his job to make the decisions, it’s his job to tell people when they’re making a bad one.”
“And if they go and ignore him?” Allison asked.
“Hardly his fault,” Julian shrugged. “Besides, is this a bad idea? Just because it’s not what we’d have chosen…”
Allison brushed a stray hair strand out of her face and sighed. “Julian, baby, when you just calmly take shit like this, it makes me worry that you don’t really know what you want from life.”
“I know exactly what I want, and they’re both sitting at this table,” he retorted, taking her hand softly. “The Group only gets two years out of us, Al, and we’re a third through the first one already.”
“Great, so they get to jerk us around for another twenty months.”
“Are they jerking us around?” Xiù asked. “Aren’t you even a little excited?”
Allison sighed and stood up. “No,” she said. “Come on, we’re late.”
Julian and Xiù exchanged glances as they stood up to follow her, and pretty soon Xiù was so distracted that she entirely forgot to think about Mars for most of the rest of the afternoon.
Their PT sessions were something else nowadays. After three months of hard training, even Julian’s atrocious form had finally been corrected, and he’d learned to… well, if not to love the gym, then at least to get into the same kind of meditative mindset he fell into when splitting firewood or whatever. Allison’s fitness was hugely improved and thanks to her long legs she could now run both of them into the ground at an easy stride.
Dane, meanwhile, was starting Xiù in on Parkour on the grounds that she was already strong, mobile and flexible, so all she really needed now was the experience and practice. She was relishing it—learning how to flow over obstacles or even use them to gain height or speed was exhilarating, and she briefly wondered what Ayma would think if she could see some of the tricks she learned just in the first session. Ayma had often joked if humans were secretly able to fly and had just forgotten how.
And then of course there was actually flying. Xiù had cleared her accompanied simulator training toward the end of the second month, and was now furiously practicing her skills using the pilot station built into the Box itself. It was a perfectly accurate replica of *Misfit*’s cockpit that surrounded her with fully functional duplicates of her instrument panels, wired into a simulator that played out on the huge HD holographic arrays right in front of her. The realism was breathtaking, and armed with that resource she could get back from PT, grab a quick shower, then spend three hours in the evening pursuing ever-more-difficult challenges designed to test and develop her skills as a pilot.
It was so much like playing an addictive videogame that she was always the last to finish. Julian and Allison had their own simulators in the lab and engineering section, which tested and trained them on their own responsibilities. Julian was usually the first to finish, which meant that he usually cooked the evening meal.
Tonight’s was a chicken, sweet potato, corn and kale bake and it smelled divine.
Xiù cuddled up with Allison on the couch. She was watching a dramatization of ancient Roman history that seemed to involve rather more orgies and bath-house scenes than were strictly necessary for the plot, but neither of them complained—the actor playing a young Gaius Marius apparently had no problems at all about regular full frontal nudity.
That got her thinking about acting, and movies, and musing about how sex had become a much less scandalous subject in the years since her abduction. That got her thinking about how she’d have handled sex scenes in her own career had she successfully gone that route, which got her onto the subject of her new vocation as a pilot and…
Apparently several hours of distraction had given the Mars thing enough time to make itself Xiù-shaped, and now that she remembered that they were seriously talking about her being the first person on Mars…!
She completely forgot about the TV and sat staring at nothing as the idea rampaged around her head. Mars. Her, Xiù Chang. First person on. No, seriously.
How had that happened? She wasn’t anybody! She’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time and everything after that point had been alternately terrifying, lonely, strange or fearful, and often all four at once, with tragedy, anger, pain, disgust, occasional amusement, and a whole mess more besides thrown in for good measure.
How had that become being a spaceship pilot? And how had that become being the first human being to set foot on Martian soil?
That wasn’t right! In fact it was badly wrong! A headache speared right through her and she gripped her temples, wondering why she was feeling so strange, why she wasn’t getting enough air no matter how heavily she breathed like there was something wrong with it, why the room was so small, why she was hūxī kùnnán, wèishéme tā gǎnjué bùshì, Yiwisin yei fu aoi and oh no she couldn’t even remember which language to think in and-
Lost somewhere in the maelstrom of unchained berserk thoughts, she became aware of comforting words and warm arms, of a hand gliding up and down her spine. Julian and Allison, her anchors.
Panic attack. Just a panic attack. Just had to… just had to breathe. The problem wasn’t with the air, she just had to… to slow down.
Yes. Slow down. Quietly now, calmly.
…And breathe normally.
She hiccuped, which had the perverse effect of making her laugh, which made her hiccup again, and she finally found herself well enough to reconstruct her thoughts and speak again.
“Jesus, baby, you scared me.” Allison didn’t stop rubbing her back. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I’m fine.” She took a deep and cleansing breath which she focused her attention on and settled. “It just—hic!—the whole Mars thing kinda sank in all of a sudden.”
“…Are you sure you’re okay with it?” Julian asked. “We could always all step up and say-”
“Please…” Xiù waved a hand, pleading for peace. “Let me—hic!—get my head straight…”
Julian paused, then kissed her delicately on the cheek and returned to his cooking. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the feeling of having her back rubbed, hiccuping every few seconds for a minute or two, until her euthymic mood had properly re-established itself.
“…Sorry,” she repeated.
“For what, for having a panic attack?” Allison asked. “You don’t need to apologize for that!”
“I’ve not had one like that in months…”
“Well, we had some pretty big news today.” Allison curled her feet up onto the sofa and leaned into a cuddle. “I was kinda freaked out myself.”
“Yeah, you—hic!—you were pretty angry.”
“Angry?” Allison laughed softly and laid her head on Xiù’s shoulder. “I’m scared, dummy.”
“Stupid, isn’t it?”
“Not stupid,” Xiù shook her head, “I just don’t think I’ve heard you adm—hic!—admit to being scared of anything before. What are you scared of?”
“Take your pick. The eyes of the world on us, spending the rest of our lives dodging the media, maybe not being as in control of my life as I wanted…” Allison sighed. “…Maybe I’m just shaken. I guess I was dumb enough to think we could trust Byron to stick to the spirit of the agreement.”
“Maybe he just had a different idea of what the spirit of the agreement is,” Julian suggested.
Allison looked like she wanted to argue, but she saw Xiù nodding, sighed, and gave up. “…Okay. Mars here we come!” she said, and waved a tiny imaginary flag.
Xiù kissed her. “I’d better go call my parents,” she said.
Her hiccups wore off as she was checking her phone out of her locker. They had a limited allowance of use, on the grounds that they needed to acclimatize to being out of contact (which was absurd: All three of them had spent years out of contact after all) But the only people that Allison and Julian even wanted to call were each other and herself, so in practice they just let Xiù have their allowance to talk with her family.
She called her brother.
+Click+ “Wei Chang.”
Xiù took a deep breath. “Wei? It’s me. You’re not going to believe this…”
Date Point 10y7m2w AV
Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Champion Genshi of Whitecrest
Regaari had selected an excellent spot for Whitecrest’s Folctha office. According to the evaluation of its alien owners, the building was an unattractive location tucked away at the rear of the Alien Quarter, far from the gate and near nothing exciting, attractive or useful. The building therefore was inexpensive, and the Clan had purchased it outright from the Locayl development company who had erected it, with plans to rent out its ground floor and basements as a workhouse and gambling hall.
It was, however, on the main road from the Female commune to the market, at exactly the right distance—far enough to show respect, close enough to make sure that males using the building would see (and be seen by) plenty of young Sisters and Mothers a day. Not only was this good for the Clan but it meant they could charge a premium rate on the workhouse, a rate that the Clanless who used it would happily pay.
Details, those were the key things. A good Whitecrest always thought about the little details, always cultivated new relationships, always had what the humans called ’an Angle’.
Being a newly acquired building, it was a hubbub of activity. Clanless workers were swarming all over everything assembling the furniture, plastering the walls, installing the wiring, laying the floor mats and being politely steered away from the Clan Longear communications engineers who were doing arcane things with fibre-optic cable and locked closets full of cryptic boxes.
Then there was the Brother patrolling back and forth across the rooms with his nose buried in a device of some kind, presumably checking the wireless signal. Longears were aptly named—theirs were huge and expressive, and this particular Brother was putting on a fine show of otological deftness as he carried out his survey, eartips swivelling this way and that. Impressively, he was so engrossed in his work that he didn’t even notice the two Sisters who had dropped in to watch the males work and who were now eyeing him with amused interest.
Genshi did the poor oblivious fool a favor and made a small show of thanking him for his work while also discreetly drawing his attention to the females. All very calculated—it paid to cultivate a good relationship with Clans as useful as the Longears.
Besides—selfless males got attention too.
Regaari was the busiest of them all, doing his best to herd a mob of unled Clanless laborers with one paw while the Longear Father overseeing the installation demanded a monopoly on his attention with the other. The set of his own ears upon noticing Genshi’s arrival conveyed surprise, delight and the general impression that while he, Regaari, was glad to see Genshi, now was an incredibly stressful time and if his beloved Champion might see his way clear to offering a little help it would be much appreciated.
Genshi obliged him and took over calling instructions to the Clanless while the five Brothers who had come with him for this secretive mission of the humans’ made themselves similarly useful in other rooms.
Things resolved quite quickly after that. The Longear Father retreated to go oversee some sensitive configuration work, the last of the furniture in this office was assembled, the Clanless were paid and Regaari was finally able to lock the door and lean heavily against it.
He gave them all a wide-eyed grateful look. “Champion. Brothers.”
A collective chitter swept the room.
“That was well under control. You didn’t need us at all,” Genshi joked. Regaari chittered again and shook himself off—not necessarily the most civilized gesture, but an entirely understandable and natural one.
“I’ve had a busy week,” he said. “Brothers, if I can brief the Champion first?”
“Don’t leave us waiting for too long,” Faarek warned. He led the other four—Deygun, Shim, Ergaan and Thurrsto—from the room, and left Regaari and Genshi alone together.
Genshi watched in mild amusement as Regaari sprang nervously into action. That was the problem with being Champion—his brothers forgot how to relax around him. Even Regaari, who’d made the rank of Officer well in his youth and had navigated his way out of every diplomatic trap that had been set for him, wasn’t immune to the intimidation of rank.
Fortunately there was an easy solution to that—he pounced.
There was a moment of friendly twisting and winding, some wrestling, a couple of yips and Regaari found himself pinned flat on the floor, blinking and confused.
“You turned your back,” Genshi mentored him.
“…Right. Yes. Thank you.” Regaari’s ears came back up and forward as he relaxed. “Always control the conversation.”
“So you do remember,” Genshi stood up, and helped his Brother to his feet. “Brief me.”
Regaari unlocked a case and placed a folder neatly on the desk. Genshi recognised English, even though he couldn’t read it. “The humans have shared some information with me. They still haven’t gone into detail about their taboo against implants, but it’s now very clear that they think there’s a serious security flaw in them. Even in translators.”
Genshi duck-nodded. On closer inspection, the file was full of stick-on paper notes in Regaari’s neat but scratchy Gaori hand. “Yes. Brother Ruuvi thinks it may be some kind of eavesdropping or signal hijack. If so, that would be an ingenious means for the Directorate to listen in on almost any conversation in the galaxy. Certainly the great majority of the important ones…”
“That would seem… plausible.”
“As opposed to some of the more outlandish explanations. Yes.” Genshi chittered again. He read one of the sticky notes. “What is this word ‘Sacred’?”
“SACRED STRANGER,” Regaari said. “Humans love to hide classified information behind code phrases, even their names sometimes. WARHORSE, STAINLESS, NOVA HOUND, SACRED STRANGER… And now we are going on a mission to meet with an intelligence source known by RANDOM THRONE.”
“And sacred is…?”
“A human concept. It has to do with this ’religion’ thing the Starminds are so enthusiastic for, but I gather it means something like important, or precious.”
“Is that important, do you think?”
Regaari ducked his head and twisted his ears to convey ignorance. “Metaphor gets nearly everywhere in human speech, but only nearly everywhere. Sometimes you encounter nonsense or completely alien ideas, and trying to guess which is which is what they would call a ’minefield’. And, please don’t ask what the literal meaning of that word is.” He gestured, inviting Genshi to sit down, and Genshi mentally awarded him some points. Now that he had relaxed, he was properly thinking about etiquette and control again.
He obliged him by sitting down. “So what is this?” he asked.
“Before I brief you…” Regaari pulled a human-made computer of some kind from the same case. “They insist on the proper paperwork. It’s their version of a secrecy contract. They call it a non-disclosure agreement, and it’s quite comprehensive.”
Genshi perused it. “That it is…” he muttered to himself as he read it. “’…denotes material whose disclosure would cause exceptionally grave and irreversible damage to the security’ …hmm……*’MALICIOUS DISCLOSURE: By signing this Agreement, you understand and agree that Allied Extrasolar Command and her Several Members consider breach of contract a grave and exceptionally dangerous matter. All Members are authorized ultimate sanction against those who willingly violate this Agreement.’*”
He lowered the tablet. “In more direct words, if I don’t keep this to myself then a team of angry deathworlders will hunt me down.”
“Worse, you would compromise the most important strategic alliance our people could possibly forge.” Regaari said. “I was already mostly convinced of that. Having read this…” he hooked the folder on the table with his claw.
“What is this?” Genshi repeated himself.
“This,” Regaari said, “is a summary of the abilities, equipment and responsibilities of the Spaceborne Operations Regiment.”
Genshi needed no further encouragement to sign the non-disclosure agreement.
Regaari double-checked it, then handed over the folder. “I have added a few of my own observations,” he added.
Genshi skimmed them. “…Did you check the unit conversion for errors?” he asked. It was a minor insult to Regaari’s competence, but the numbers involved were so large-!
Fortunately, Regaari was understanding. “I didn’t need to. I can attest from experience that those suits are at least as heavy as I am, and those would be the small and light versions worn by HIGHLAND and STARFALL. I don’t even want to speculate how much weight WARHORSE was carrying when I met him.” He sketched around the diagram of an EV-MASS suit with his claw, indicating his pencilled translations. “I doubt even Daar could wear one of these,” he added, referring to their mutual friend the Champion of Clan Stoneback, who was easily one of the, if not the, biggest and strongest Gaoian to ever live.
Genshi examined some more notes. Shockingly low-tech though it was, the suit was masterfully built—there was nary a weak spot anywhere on it. All of the most vital and vulnerable systems were mounted on the back, if not actually out of harm’s way then at least positioned so that their destruction was only likely in the event of an attack that killed the operator anyway.
But it was, after all, an elegant brute-force solution to a problem that they could just as easily have solved with forcefields. “Why a physical suit of vacuum-sealed armor?” he asked. “Intimidation?”
“Partly, maybe,” Regaari agreed. “They scared me half-witless and I was on their side. But no, I’ve taken a close look at their technology, Genshi. EV-MASS represents the leading edge of their technology, and they don’t like forcefields at all—they only rely on them when there is no alternative.”
Genshi considered the schematic again. “Their technology is less advanced than I thought.”
Regaari duck-nodded. “There are still large parts of their planet where Information-Age technology is nonexistent… actually, there are parts of their planet where Industrial-Age technology is nonexistent. You have to remember, when we say we’re dealing with ’humans’ what we’re actually dealing with is… somewhere between a seventh and a third of their total population.”
He spread his paws. “They’re a primitive species. I admire them greatly, but the most advanced and sophisticated they have live in this city, and even their technology is generations behind our own.”
“And yet their ships neutralized an entire system defence fleet,” Genshi observed.
“If I surprised you with a trick you had never seen or conceived of before…” Regaari let the observation tail off, but his point was well-made and Genshi duck-nodded, understanding completely now why his Brother was so keen to cultivate an alliance. If the deathworlders could achieve so much with such technological slim pickings…
“This,” Regaari finished, tapping the EV-MASS schematic one last time, “is one such trick. We never developed anything like it, and it can achieve and implement tactics and abilities we never could precisely because it works on a completely different technological paradigm. Imagine what we could achieve together-!”
“Gao comes first,” Genshi reminded him.
“Of course. Which is all the more reason to ensure that if there ever were hostilities between humans and Gao, we should know as much as possible about what they can do, don’t you think?”
“And they know that,” Genshi counselled. “So you must ask… why are they telling us this? Why are they involving us now?”
Regaari’s ears pricked up, eagerly. “I think they’re entrapping us, Champion. It’s a test.”
“Because they know how much they stand to gain as well.”
Genshi picked up the folder again and thought long and hard as he scoured it.
At length, he put it back down. “Very well,” he said. “I’m on your side, Brother. Take their test.”
Regaari growled happily, delighted at the endorsement. Having the Champion on his side was about the biggest coup he could have asked for.
Genshi saw no reason to inform him that he’d been on his side for years. “Oh, and Brother?” he added.
“Of course, Champion.”
Date Point 10y7m2w2d AV
Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, Earth
Fifty-seven was no age for travelling abroad, even if the company did pay for business-class nowadays. But, that was what Jacob had signed up for when he took the promotion. When working for global health insurers, one of the hardships of the job was having to take the odd expenses-paid trip to conventions and industry think tanks in far off and exotic cities where nobody spoke two comprehensible words of English in a row, like Leeds.
And the turbulence! Weren’t modern spacekissers supposed to fly too high to even encounter turbulence? He felt certain he remembered that from the brochures. Maybe there was a claim to be made there.
Landing and finding that his company car had got all scratched in the airport long-term parking was just the icing on the cake. He was too tired and too hungry to bother with really letting the hapless idiot who’d let it happen know just how displeased he, Jacob, really was. He’d secured his apology and merged into traffic, heading for home with the radio on.
♪-Ohhhh you’ve got the best of my love, oh yeah yeah! You’ve got the best of my love, Ohhh!!…♫♪
“Ugh… car, change station. News.”
”Thousands marched in Washington today with stacks of Monopoly money to protest spiralling defense spending. Addressing the crowd, Democratic presidential hopeful Congressman Hugh Moritz called the last six years ‘the toughest economic times America has ever seen’, and called for the money to be spent on re-invigorating California’s collapsed economy.”
The Congressman had a rough-edged voice and a Florida accent. ”It’s been six years now, and nobody has told the American people just why our tax dollars are being literally thrown away into space while ordinary people suffer and struggle right here on Earth! There is a critical lack of common sense in this administration, and it needs. To be reined. In.’
Jacob applauded by thumping his hand on the rim of his steering wheel as he got fed up with the truck in front of him and skipped through two lanes of traffic to overtake. “Absolutely!”
”The President responded to Congressman Moritz’s speech with scorn-”
“Of course he did…”
The staccato patter of camera shutters formed a familiar backdrop to the gruff New Jersey cadence of President Arthur Sartori’s voice, just like always. “Well if Hugh wants an explanation, all he has to do is head over to SoCal, and take a look at where San Diego used to be. There are forces out there that want us all dead now that they know about us, and if he thinks we should ‘rein it in’ in the face of that? Well he can go down there and tell it to the grave of two million innocent American citizens. Here in the real world, we’ll worry about paying the bill after we’ve secured a future for the human race.”
There was a thump, and after a few seconds a harassed-sounding voice stepped in. ”Uh, the president won’t be taking any more questions at this time, thank you.”
Jacob snarled his disgust as the report wrapped up and moved on to other matters.
He listened without comment to the sordid details of a murder trial, and to the report on a sex scandal involving a high school vice-principal’s affair with three underage boys, both of which saw him safely off the highway and on the last leg of his drive home. He was less than a mile from home when the news returned to spaceborne matters.
”The Moses Byron Group have announced that they’re approaching the launch of the eleventh ship in their exploration fleet. The new ship, named ‘Misfit’, will apparently be making a historic survey of the planet Mars before departing on its eighteen month deep space survey mission. Addressing a press conference, Moses Byron explained the rationale.”
Byron had one of the most recognisable voices in the world, a famous contrabass with a hint of Louisiana twang and a twist of careful enunciation. ”Somewhere in all the excitement, it looks like we forgot about the red planet. NASA has continued to send probes over there, we’ve still got robotic rovers trundling all over its surface, but somewhere along the line we forgot to put an honest pair of human boots on the ground, even though we’ve had the technology to achieve that for plenty long enough.”
“What is even the point?” Jacob asked rhetorically. He turned onto his street and frowned curiously at some activity near his house. There were lots of vans down there. Power line repairs maybe? Jennifer, their housekeeper, hadn’t called to mention any kind of a problem…
”When asked to comment on the failure of the group’s earlier exploration missions, Mr. Byron was quick to admit that mistakes had been made,” the report continued.
”We got excited. It’s a brave new world out there, full of possibility, but also full of danger and we didn’t adequately prepare for that. That’s why this eleventh mission has taken so long to prepare—we’ve been very careful about who we selected for it, and the crew of three who made the grade in the end are all former alien abductees with plenty of experience of how to fend for themselves out there. We’re optimistic.”
The report returned to the newsreader. ”Although it’s not yet clear who exactly will be the first to walk on the Martian surface, the crew of ‘Misfit’ have been named as Vancouver’s ‘humble hero’ Xiù Chang, along with her crewmates Julian Etsicitty, and Allison Buehler…”
Jacob Buehler nearly crashed into the news van parked outside his house.
Date Point 10y7m2w3d AV
Byron Group Advanced Aerospace Assembly Facility, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
“Damn. She really could have been an actress, couldn’t she?”
Xiù was in her element. A touch of makeup, some sleeky stuff in her hair, lights and cameras, an interviewer and a director… While Allison and Julian sweated self-consciously under the lens’ scrutiny, Xiù summoned up depths of charm and grace that she hadn’t ever needed to show them before, and she was the very picture of composure and charm as she alternately either struck poses as the photographer found a new angle for her, or sat talking chirpily to the video camera.
The Group had insisted on taking interviews and a photoshoot in front of and around Misfit for the marketing campaign. The two older ships in the hangar had been carefully hidden by means of a drop tarp while Misfit herself had been turned slightly on the spot and her forward port thruster array was hanging from a crane near where it would eventually be mounted, giving the artful impression that assembly was still going on in the background even as the crew posed and told their stories in front of her.
“That’s what she wanted…” Allison agreed.
She watched as Xiù took the photographer’s suggestion and rested her elbow on the desk and her chin on the back of her hand in a way that put every single one of those tattered scars of hers—the ones she usually hated—right there on full display. She even managed a warm-eyed smile to offset them, and then started talking about them to the interviewer, stroking her fingers along them.
She was a good storyteller, too.
Julian had already done his shoot and interview, and done a decent job of relaxing and engaging with the camera…Or maybe the interviewer had done a good job of encouraging him to relax. The vanity pictures, on the other hand, had been torturous—Julian was one of those infuriating guys who didn’t have any real idea where he sat on the sliding scale of sexy, and thus assumed he was much lower on it than was actually the case.
Reality was much kinder. He filled out the sleeves of his t-shirts, had five-o’-clock stubble by noon, and the makeup guru and hairdresser had conspired to artfully upgrade his look from ‘clean scruffy’ to ‘bushranger sex god’. Which was great, but there wasn’t a force in all creation that could convince Julian that the words ‘sex god’ belonged anywhere near him and dragging the kind of heroic alpha-male frontier explorer shots out of him that the director wanted had taken forever.
Which had mercifully given the beauticians time to cluck and fret over the amateurish hack-job that Xiù had done on Allison’s hair before they’d settled on a solution for tidying it up.
The improved ‘do made her look kinda straight-laced and serious, but that was okay. Hopefully she’d look driven and determined, rather than bitchy.
At least they weren’t wearing suits or dresses or anything frilly like that. The shoot was deliberately about showing them in their work clothes, which meant track pants, sports t-shirts and running shoes. Indeed they hadn’t worn anything else for months, and Allison was beginning to grow nostalgic for jeans.
“What about you?” Julian asked.
She glanced at him. “Me?”
“You look like you don’t really want to be here.”
“‘Cause I don’t!” Allison agreed. “Fame wasn’t exactly part of the deal, was it?”
“Kinda was,” he said. “All right there in the fine print, if the Group want to put us in front of the cameras and reporters and send us to Mars to sell their brand, well… they own our asses for the next couple of years.”
“Thanks, baby. Real comforting.”
He shrugged. “It’s just the price we pay. Beats the pants off being stuck in Minnesota with maybe no house and no idea what to do next..”
Allison sighed and watched Xiù gesticulate as she described some event in her travels. It looked like a happy memory, whatever it was. “I know, I know,” she grumbled. “It’s just, I don’t wanna be famous, I wanna be useful!”
“Who says you can’t be both?”
“Every rich bitch whore who was famous purely for being a rich bitch whore?”
Julian laughed. “Jesus, Al! Who pissed in your cereal this morning?”
“This whole thing just stinks of exploitation, that’s all…”
“Yeah, maybe. But that’s the price we pay I guess,” he nodded, repeating himself. “We’re exploiting the Group for what we want, they’re exploiting us so they can profit off our skills.”
“And our asses.”
He considered her for a second, then sidestepped behind her and wrapped his arms round her from behind. “Feeling like a piece of meat again?”
He got it, which went a long way toward improving her sour mood. Allison twisted round enough to kiss him by way of a thank-you and then wilted as he heard the photographer capture their moment.
“Perfect!” He announced, and returned his attention to Xiù, leaving Allison feeling even more violated than before.
”Note to self, don’t kiss Xiù…” Julian muttered. Allison nodded—though their romantic arrangement was known to the EV-11 support team, they’d have to be crazy to let that one escape for the media piranhas to rip into.
Xiù stood up and shook hands with the interviewer, who waved and called “Allison?”
“You’ll be fine,” Xiù promised as she joined Julian on the sidelines. “He’s really nice!”
Allison nodded, swallowed and went to sit uncomfortably in front of the camera.
The interviewer—his name was Elliot, she remembered—gave her a reassuring smile. “Nervous?”
Fuck it. Honesty was always the best policy. Hell, it was the only one she allowed herself. “…Yeah.”
“Well, you’re welcome to just go ahead and tell me if there’s any question you don’t want to answer, okay?”
Allison nodded. Xiù was right—Elliot was pleasant, but she’d still have given her eye-teeth not to have to deal with this. “…Thanks.”
“Okay!” Elliot started the recording. “So, that was cute with you and Julian over there just then. How long have you two been together?”
“Uh, that’s… more personal than I’m happy answering right now. Sorry.”
Elliot nodded equanimously. “That’s okay. We’ll keep it professional then.”
“So you’re *Misfit*’s flight engineer. From what the others told me, none of you came to this with existing qualifications and you’ve had to learn the job very quickly. How are you finding it?”
Not wanting to be terse and rude, Allison decided to give him a decent answer this time. “It’s been tough,” she admitted, “but rewarding. We’ve got great teachers, fantastic training tools… Learning all my duties hasn’t ever felt like cramming, it’s felt more like doing something I love.”
“And what are your duties?”
“As flight engineer? Maintain, clean and repair the ship and all its systems, uh… monitor power flow and make sure that we’re getting the best use out of our energy reserves, and provide technical support for both the pilot and the field researcher. I’m also responsible for their safety, and I’m our medic.”
“Sounds like you wear a lot of hats.”
“That kinda suits me, really. Jack of all trades, master of none but better than a master of only one, right?”
Elliot paused the recording. “Do you mind if I get a little more personal?” he asked.
To her surprise, Allison found she was feeling more relaxed now. Elliot was an excellent listener.
“A little, sure,” she offered. Elliot nodded and resumed recording.
“So did you want to be an astronaut growing up?” he asked.
The unambitious reality was that Allison had not, in fact, wanted to be anything in particular when she was young. She was trying to think of a positive way to say that when it struck her that the reality, if she just opened up a little, would do nicely.
The reasoning that flashed through her head as she considered her reply went that she was, if anything, being kind of ungrateful. Childhood lack of ambition be damned, she had ambition in spades now and in fairness to it the Group was helping her achieve that ambition.
Julian was right—they had signed up for this, and if she hadn’t seen this specific interview coming then that wasn’t Elliot’s fault nor anybody else’s but hers. And if opening up to a camera was the price tag on her ambition, well…
She took the plunge.
“…That’s the thing,” she said. “I had no idea what I wanted to do. I mean, I don’t even know if ’Astronaut’ is the right word for us. I don’t think of myself as an astronaut…”
“What do you think of yourself as?”
“I…don’t know. I think of myself as Allison, I guess.”
“You’re about to go into space, become one of the first people to walk on Mars, and then fly around the galaxy in a spaceship. Don’t you think that makes you an astronaut?” Elliot asked.
Allison made a complicated gesture that was part shrug, part confused head-shake. “I guess, but I’ve just never thought of it that way. You know, being an astronaut, it’s like… that’s the kind of big special thing you aspire to be when you’re a kid. That’s a goal you work towards. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
“Yeah!” Allison shrugged again. “I dunno. I don’t… there’s nothing special about me. I’ve just been given an opportunity and I’ve tried to make the best of it.”
“So anybody could do what you do?” Elliot asked.
“…Yeah. I guess so.”
“Okay.” Elliot paused the camera again. “So, can I ask you about your relationship with Julian again?”
Allison sighed. “Why is it important?”
He sat back. “I guess it’s not,” he conceded. “But he talked about you a lot, and it’d be strange not to balance that with your perspective, if we wind up using that angle.”
Allison sighed again. “…Turn the camera on.” Elliot did so. “…that’s a weirdly tough question,” she said, answering the very first question he’d asked. “‘Cause we actually spent about five years in an escape pod with a stasis field. So, yeah, for us it’s been about a year…” She allowed herself a smile. “It’s been a pretty good year.”
“You won’t have much privacy on the ship, with Xiù there as well. Does that make it difficult to carry on a relationship?”
“That’s fair… The others told me about the escape pod. Xiù said you saved her life, in fact.”
A little thrown by the sudden change in direction, Allison wasn’t quite sure whether to shrug, shake her head or nod. She settled for a complicated medley of all three. “I’m not sure if I did or didn’t, it was all so fast and… we only barely got out of it. At least one of our friends didn’t, maybe none of them did.”
“So it’s dangerous out there?” Elliot asked.
“…Yeah.” Allison nodded.
“So why go out there? What is it that drives Allison Buehler to leave Earth and go back out and put yourself in harm’s way?”
“Ah.” Allison nodded. “That’s a big’n…uh…”
She sat back and drafted her reply as best she could. “I, uh… I don’t think people are really meant for cities and sofas and reality TV or whatever,” she said. “I think there’s something in our soul that longs to… to…” Her hands fluttered irritably as she tried to come up with words that didn’t sound slightly damning, then gave up. “…To be challenged!” she finished. “And you’re never really challenged unless you’re in harm’s way. Maybe it’s just me and I’m an adrenaline junkie, but… I dunno. How many people you know gripe about their job because it’s the same thing day in day out?”
“So it’s the variety that draws you back?”
“Variety, adventure… I think the big thing was I could always see what I was achieving. When it was just me I did a fair day’s work, I saw the results and I got a fair day’s pay. When we started rolling around trying to find abductees and bring them home, I could see I was making a difference in their lives and…That’s important.”
“Even if people get killed?”
Allison stared thoughtfully at the tabletop for a moment, then looked him in the eye. “…Yeah. Even then.”
Elliot gestured with the end of his pen to indicate Julian and Xiù. “…Even them?”
“Safety’s an illusion,” Allison told him. “There’s no such thing. You could be hit by a drunk driver on the way home tonight, or maybe have a stroke and then where are you? They won’t be safe no matter where we go, but at least we can choose to go somewhere interesting and do something valuable together.”
Elliot turned off the camera and whatever spell he’d been weaving evaporated, leaving Allison to realize that she’d just opened up completely without even noticing it.
“Okay!” he beamed, “Whaddya say we get the other two in for the group chat?”
She nodded, still trying to figure out when exactly her guard had dropped. “Uh…sure!”
At Elliot’s beckoning, Julian and Xiù brought their seats over and sat down on either side of her. She took Julian’s hand under the table.
“So, this bit’s just gonna be…if you guys just talk. I’ll throw the odd question in there and you guys just take the conversation wherever it goes, okay?”
“Seems easy enough!” Xiù chirped. Julian squeezed Allison’s hand and then nodded.
“Well, okay!” Elliot turned the camera on again. “So.. what do you guys hope to find out there?”
Date Point 10y7m2w4d AV
Uncharted Class 12 deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm
”A Singer, a Dancer, and a walking storm….”
Vemet swatted his son on the arm. “Be here and now,” he ordered.
Vemet looked ahead into the canopy. His brother’s son Yerak, Vemik’s cousin, was stalking through the branches of an especially huge Ketta tree that the People used as a landmark and waypoint. It afforded an excellent view of the forested valley east of their village, all the better to see the Werne moving through the valley, or watch out for the People from the village to the east. Usually the two tribes avoided one another, but there was spilled blood between them, and they had not traded daughters in several seasons.
Yerak’s bright orange hair crest bobbed and flitted as he swarmed from branch to branch. The fur was good luck, and the mark of People—beasts couldn’t see it. In such a way, People could sneak up on beasts and always know where their brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins and sons were.
Of course, a good hunter still had to make little noise, stay downwind of the beasts, and taste the air, but Vemik sometimes mused that hunting would be so much more difficult without their orange crests.
Vemet had affectionately teased his son from a young age about such “sky thoughts” as he called them—musings not tied to the daily needs of the Tribe, but roaming free and soaring high where they only rarely alighted on matters that the Tribe could use, such as his bird-spear thrower. It had surprised nobody when, after Vemik’s coming of age when he was no longer known only as the child of his parents, he had taken the adult name “Sky-thinker” to identify himself.
The most vexing sky thought of all was the puzzle of his vision. When the Singer had asked him what he saw, he had replied ’A singer, a Dancer and a walking storm’.
The Singer had called it a “pure” vision, one not rooted in the here and now but roaming far from home in distant places and times. She had offered no thoughts on what it might mean. That, apparently, was for Vemik to discern if he ever could.
Worrying at the cryptic triplet tended to distract him at inappropriate moments.
Up ahead, Yerak twitched his tail, beckoning them forward. Vemik and Vemet joined him in short order, pouncing, running and brachiating to his side. As the youngest, Vemik took the slightly undignified position of clinging upside-down to the bole of the tree by his climbing claws, with his tail looped around an upper branch.
“They’re not here,” Yerak reported.
“That’s not right.” Vemet raised his head and his tongue lashed out, tasting for Werne on the wind. “They always come to the valley on hot days… is that smoke?”
“I taste it too.”
Vemik copied his father and cousin. “Not… smoke…” he decided, and sampled the strange scent again. “It doesn’t taste exactly right.”
“What else could it be, boy?” Vemet asked.
“I don’t know… I suppose it could be smoke, but whatever is burning isn’t wood…”
“How can something that’s not wood burn?” Yerak asked, scornfully.
“Meat and fat burn. Bone and horn burn. So do feathers, and moss, and-”
“Yes, yes,” Vemet interrupted. “But this doesn’t taste like any of those.”
“So it’s something new. Something we didn’t know could burn.”
Yerak shook himself. “Get your thoughts out of the sky, cousin,” he advised. “If the Werne aren’t in the valley, where are they? And what do we bring home?”
“We could always catch root birds…”
“Like children? Have some pride.”
“Better than nothing.”
“I’d rather hunt a Yshek!”
Hunting a Yshek was the very definition of taking an unwise risk. While Yshek meat was delicious and there was lots of it, the danger involved in getting it was even greater than the risks of hunting Werne.
At least… they had been.
“…Why not?” Vemik asked. “With my bird-spear-thrower we wouldn’t even have to leave the trees.”
Vemet trilled his amusement at the face Yerak pulled. “Nothing in the world can stop him from thinking sky thoughts, nephew. But he’s right, I want to see what that thing can do. He did kill the biggest bull Werne with it.”
“Fine. Maybe we can use what the Yshek does to you to scare the children away from sky-thinking.” Yerak grumbled.
“Or maybe we can use what I do to the Yshek to encourage them,” Vemik retorted cheekily. “Either way, it will be a good story.”
He swung out along the branch before Yerak could reply and prepared the bird-spear-thrower. Several fat root birds were scratching around below, ignoring or oblivious to the People in the tree above them. He prepared a bird-spear, licked its feathers to smooth them, and took aim.
The punctured squawk one of the root birds made as he skewered it almost made Vemet fall off the branch from mirth. Vemik barely noticed—he was watching with interest as the root birds took no notice at all.
“Well, boy. Fine bait you have there,” Vemet said. Vemik hushed him. Experimentally, he drew another bird-spear and skewered another root bird. Again, the rest failed to react.
In quick succession, he shot every bird-spear he had, saving one for the Yshek. Impaled root birds littered the ground, and still the surviving stupid beasts didn’t have the good sense to run. They twitched and looked around at every thump, but they seemed to lack the intelligence to notice that some of their fellows were dead.
“…Well,” Vemet remarked, “If we do return to the village with root birds, we’ll be carrying more than any child could kill.”
“It’s an effective toy, I’ll grant that,” Yerak admitted. “But is it a Yshek-killer?”
“There’s only one way to find out.” Vemik returned the thrower to his back and swarmed down the tree. The moment the root birds saw him, they scattered, sprinting away much faster than a Person could run. He plucked one of the transfixed creatures off its bird-spear and tied it to his belt, noting with satisfaction that the spear had survived as well. He recovered as many of the rest of his spears as were still usable, and joined Vemet and Yerak in tying the remaining birds to a high branch for later collection.
Together, they picked their way down the valley, using the ways and paths generations of their grandfathers had marked and improved. Vemet’s great uncle had personally carved the claw-holds in the stone cliff that allowed them to reach the river much faster than if they had gone the older, longer route.
Ysheks were easy enough to find. They liked it where the river was shallow enough for Werne, Toles and Meru beasts to cross, and where the water was perpetually muddy.
You never actually saw a Yshek when it was on the hunt of course. They could stay below the water from dawn to nightfall, and the most hint that even a watchful Person might get of their presence was a ripple near a shadow, where the beast’s nostrils and eyes touched the surface.
Fortunately, they were highly territorial. A good stretch of river like this would have supported dozens, if they could only co-operate and live together like People did. But, beasts didn’t sky-think.
They paused in the treetops not far from the river bank.
“So…?” Vemet hinted.
Vemik handed him the dead root bird and prepared his bird-spear-thrower. “You have a good arm, father. Put it…” he notched a spear and took aim. “…there, by that rock.”
Vemet’s tail lashed as he calculated the distance, then he pulled his arm back and tossed the bird onto the muddy beach by the water’s edge.
The water rippled. Vemik drew the string, gritting his teeth in anticipation…
A hill of jaw and muscle burst out of the water with astonishing speed and violence, and snatched up the bird. It was as long as three People from tail-tip to teeth, and it tipped its head back to toss the bird back down the length of its mouth and swallow its meal whole.
Vemik released the string. At exactly the wrong moment, something…. strange… flashed in front of him and the spear struck that instead, bouncing off in two broken pieces to land at angles in the mud. The Yshek snarled, whipped around and wriggled back down the muddy bank into the water. The waves it made rushed away towards the far bank, and the last contemptuous flick of its tail was just the extra insult Vemik needed to know that a truly legendary prize had escaped him.
The three of them stared at the thing he had accidentally shot instead. It had reeled in the air but seemed otherwise unharmed, and it hummed and whined to itself as it danced around their tree, aiming a single large black eye at them.
“…What is it?” Yarek asked at last. “Some kind of bird?”
“It doesn’t have wings!” Vemet said. “How does it fly without wings?”
“And what is it made of?” Vemik added. Whatever it was, it was grey like a raincloud and the peculiar ’TANG!’ sound it had made as his bird-spear struck it was unlike anything he had ever heard.
“It isn’t meat…” Yarek replied, stating the obvious. “it isn’t bone, or wood, or…”
The object apparently grew bored with them and vanished skywards. They saw it curve away towards the south, following the line of the river. When Vemik raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun, he thought he could detect, very faintly and distantly, a smudge of smoke on the horizon.
“Well,” he declared, unconsciously mimicking one of his father’s mannerisms. “…At least we still have a story to tell when we get home.”
Date Point 10y7m3w AV
HMS Valiant, Orbiting Planet Earth, Sol
Lt. Col. Claude Nadeau
“Good afternoon, sir”
Claude had always thought of himself as a scientist first and an officer second but he was still an officer, which meant that while he’d never got used to being shown automatic deference, he’d at least learned to accept it as part of the job. The bigger part of which by far had been managing the research teams under him, passing their findings up the chain to Bartlett, and through him to the world.
Now, he was standing on the deck of one of the fruits of those labors, and seeing the SOR (who were after all one of the great down-chain successes of his career) turn to acknowledge his presence with a mass that shook the metal under their feet, even though they were moving softly. They were accompanied by twice as many technicians and support staff. As privately awkward as shows of military etiquette made him, on this occasion Nadeau allowed himself a tinge of pride—the whole SOR wouldn’t even exist if not for his own reverse-engineering efforts and original research.
HMS Valiant had been roped into serving as the SOR’s temporary transport and staging post, a role for which it was not well-suited. While HMS Caledonia had originally been a spacious alien ship with plenty of elbow room and lots of places to stash stuff, Valiant seemed as compact and crowded as a submarine. Fitting the SOR, their suits, their equipment, Nadeau’s researchers, their equipment and all the supplies they anticipated needing in the near future onto it was clearly going to be a challenge: Men and women were working shoulder-to-shoulder passing things around, finding places for them, stacking them, and somehow managing to not ever be fully in each other’s way.
Nadeau acknowledged the lead with a nod and a cheery “afternoon!” and the pandemonium he’d briefly interrupted resumed as four huge men who could only be the SOR Operators squeezed past him into the shuttle and put their prodigious strength to work at offloading the equipment it was carrying as an efficient human chain. Nadeau got out of their way and joined the only two other officers in the cramped little space, both of whom straightened slightly and nodded respectfully. “Good afternoon, Sir.”
Memory, memory… Powell was a major, that one was easy, and the man alongside him was a… Lieutenant-Commander. Rank was drilled in so deep as to be all but instinctive of course, but Claude had always been slightly paranoid about forgetting, and he double-checked himself every time.
“Good afternoon, and welcome aboard.” The navy officer shook his hand. The patch on his chest gave his surname as ’Dunn’. “Captain Nolan’s busy with getting us underway, but we’ll have a meeting in the wardroom at fourteen-hundred, Zulu.”
“Thanks,” Claude replied, shaking Major Powell’s hand. The SOR’s CO had an intimidating grip. His own timepiece was set to Pacific time, but for any self-respecting physicist simply adding eight hours was trivial. He’d adjust it properly later.
One of the SOR operators—the one who looked like a young Toshiro Mifune with the thick waist of a dedicated strongman—squeezed respectfully past him with a heavy-looking box of supplies under each arm as if they were nothing. “Running out of room here, sirs,” he reported. “Rebar suggested we could stack the food boxes out of the way somewhere, seeing as we’re not gonna need ‘em until last…”
“The galley should have room,” Dunn observed. “If Chef Lawler complains, tell him to take it up with the XO.”
“Bloody hell fire…” Powell muttered as he leaned aside to make way for the incoming supplies. “No offence, Dunn, but all this palaver makes me miss Caledonia right now.”
“That makes two of us,” Dunn replied with a smile and an amused tone in his voice. “Finding room for nine gorillas and their gear is McDaniel’s specialty, not mine. And she’s got a nice big ship to do it with, too.”
“Be glad we left the big ones at home,” Powell replied.
“You mean these aren’t the big ones?” Nadeau asked, astonished. The one who’d just been indicated as ‘Rebar’ had just heaved an even heavier-looking box of scientific equipment neatly into a stack in the corner of the flight deck alongside its fellows with as much apparent effort as if he was handling a six pack of frosty beer.
He was overheard, and every SOR man in the bay, Operator and Tech alike, covered their grins and stifled their chuckles. Even the stone-faced Powell had an amused glimmer in his eye. “We’ve got bigger,” he said.
“Left Beef best beef!” somebody chirped.
“Right Beef superior slab!” somebody else replied. Some kind of unit in-joke, presumably.
“Arright, no need to stroke their egos when they’re not even bloody here,” Powell lifted his voice slightly, and the work was redoubled with a chuckle.
Nadeau’s research team “Excuse me”-ed and “Sorry”-ed their way through the busy bedlam of the flight deck, tailing after an able seaman who was presumably leading them to wherever they were being stored for the duration of this mission. They did a commendable job of humping their gear without comment too, considering that not a one of them was used to moving anything heavier than a tablet computer in their usual work.
“Aye, our three heavyweights stand out a mite bit,” Powell explained. “Truth be told, we’re already set to stick out like a pig at Crufts, but such is life.”
“It’s a shame your suits are so heavy…” Nadeau mused. “I think we’ve cracked cloaking devices at long last, but you’re a bit too… unsubtle for them to be much use.”
Powell’s eyebrow crept upwards by a half-inch. “Aye? I reckon we can be more subtle than you’d think. But, we’ll make do.”
“So when are we getting cloaking devices, then?” Dunn asked.
“Give me a few years to refine a version that can run for more than a few minutes on your energy reserves, and I’ll get back to you,” Nadeau told him. “Though of course, if this goes to plan…”
“…we might have access to Kwmbwrw versions in a few days,” Dunn finished, nodding.
“Sirs?” Rebar interrupted gently. “Looks like we’re loaded and stowed.”
“Arright. Bloody fine work, too.” Powell announced. Nadeau had to agree. Everything was stacked neatly, lashed down securely, organized methodically and arranged sensibly so that the limited budget of space they had in the flight bay was being used to economical perfection. There was even plenty of room for people to move around and work.
The praise went down well, though. Powell, it seemed, was a commander who handed it out sparingly for maximum impact. There was a round of high-fives and smiles.
Dunn checked the timepiece on the wall, then tapped out a short log entry his tablet with a satisfied nod. “…Wardroom, gentlemen?”
Powell nodded. “Aye. Vandenberg! Ruckley! Briefing here in one hour, and I want suit diagnostics ready by then,” he said. “The rest of you go get settled in.”
There was an affirmative rustle of voices and a bustle of bodies.
“After you,” Nadeau gestured for Dunn to lead the way.
Powell cracked his knuckles.
“Aye,” he said, “let’s make this happen.”
Date Point 10y7m3w AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Technically, Drew was wealthy enough nowadays to employ people to do the tech demos for him. After all, the contract providing EV-MASS to the SOR, flight suits to the Firebird pilots and vacuum worksuits to Hephaestus between them meant that C&M Spacesuit Systems had been a major rising force even before they’d floated the company.
Running the place and raking in a huge bonus seemed to be enough to satisfy Drew Martin, but Cavendish was a different beast: he was an engineer and a tinkerer at heart, a Maker of Things, and proud of his creations.
Besides. He’d met some amazing people showing these things off to prospective buyers. The SOR, Rylee Jackson, and now the team who’d be the first humans to walk on Mars. Even if he did delegate, he’d have done this one personally anyway.
Adapting three Firebird flight suits into Martian excursion suits had been trivial. Most of the same requirements were already there—atmospheric seal, thermal control in the extremities, moderate armouring…
Really, the only thing he’d needed to change in any significant way had been dust-proofing it, which was easily achieved by slightly redesigning the seals and giving the outer layer material the same omniphobic nanoscale coating that had solved the sterility problem for the SOR’s Protector gloves. Under an electron microscope, every square micron of the suits’ surfaces looked disarmingly like the skin of a carp.
In testing, they’d thrown everything at it: Simulated lunar regolith, simulated Martian dust, printer toner, good old-fashioned Terran sand and mud… it had all slid right off.
After that, all it had taken was an appropriate helmet. The one off his mining suits with its wide peripheral vision had done nicely, and seeing as they were going to be operating in an atmosphere—even a suffocating and unbreathable one—there was no need for the gold nanoparticle glare coating. Those bubble visors were nice and transparent, just perfect for the video cameras.
He’d spent most of the trip to Nebraska congratulating himself on his foresight and wisdom in making his designs standardized enough to tolerate a little mixing-and-matching.
They were white, of course. He’d layered on retroreflective strips in high-vis yellow-green that should stand out against the ruddy dust of the red planet. Weight-bearing reinforcement had been included on the basis that even though Martian gravity was a third that of Earth, there was no such thing as too much mobility assistance and in any case the suits were perfectly suitable for use on other planets where the gravity might be higher.
LED spotlights on the helmet, floodlights on the shoulders and a final torch on the wrist plus emergency flares, a radio powerful enough to call Earth all by itself if it had to and, most importantly of all, ankle support.
The crew themselves were a pleasant surprise. They didn’t look or behave like scientists—Drew knew scientists, he worked with dozens of them—but for the life of him, he couldn’t quite tell what they did behave like, even though there was something familiar about the way they held themselves. He got polite handshakes from Buehler and Etsicitty, and a bubbling welcome from Chang, who cooed over the suits with such enthusiasm that it completely melted the other two’s nervous politeness.
“I mean, it’s… it’s obviously functional, but this thing could be right out of the movies!” she gushed.
Drew chuckled. “Guilty,” he agreed. “I like to make my suits look pretty wherever I can.”
“You’re a real craftsman,” Julian was examining his helmet admiringly.
“I still hold the human record for spacewalk time,” Drew revealed. “The hardsuits we had in the early days when we were excavating the Hephaestus shipyards were bloody horrible, and the difference between a good suit and a bad one is all down to the little details. Your wrist lamp for example.”
Julian checked his suit’s wrists, then glanced at Xiù’s and Allison’s suits and saw the difference. “Hey, nice! How’d you know I’m left-handed?”
“You can thank your corporate overlords for that one,” Drew joked.
“Aww, they really do care!”
Allison snorted. She was the most standoffish, but not actually rude—just quiet and thoughtful. She pushed her helmet down until it was seated snugly and looked around.
“Good peripheral vision,” she said approvingly.
“It’s a mining helmet. You’ve got to be well aware of safety hazards. Good fit?” Drew asked.
“Kinda glad I got my hair cut now…”
“Oh. Oh dear…” They turned and watched with interest as Xiù tried, and failed, to find a way to put her helmet on that wasn’t fatally compromised by all her long black hair. She gave Drew an embarrassed smile once she’d finally got it on, a feat only made possible by letting her hair down, which of course was still no use for the suit.
“Hmm.” Drew examined the problem. No short-cuts here: The helmet was just not shaped properly to accommodate that much hair. “Well. Two options. You either cut it short-” he saw immediately that this was not the popular option “-or else I take the helmet away, alter it and bill the Group a hundred thousand dollars or so for the work.”
“Modify the helmet,” Allison said immediately, with a feral grin. This generated a silent laugh from Julian, and a smiling eye-roll from Xiù, who managed to work the helmet off again after an undignified minute which left a lot of that problematic hair bunched and tangled up around her ears.
She smoothed it down and combed it out as best she could with her fingers then began the laborious process of gathering, twisting, coiling, pinning and tying it back into place. “Sorry… I don’t want to be selfish, but I’ve been growing it since I was little…”
Drew chuckled. “I was taking the piss about the price tag. These are all going to need some modifying. You’d better try them on properly.”
“Knock on the door when you’re ready for me.”
“Wait, how much are we supposed to wear under this thing?” Julian asked.
“There’s appropriate seamless underwear in the vacuum packs,” Drew told him, pointing to one.
He let himself out and loitered in the room outside for about ten minutes before a knock on the door finally summoned him back into the room.
Suited up, the three looked the part and then some. Xiù was holding her helmet on her hip, but Allison and Julian had donned theirs. Drew checked the seals and found them good. “Well this is a nice change. You can follow instructions!”
“They seemed like kinda important instructions,” Allison observed drily.
“Oh, they are. And you’d be amazed how many professional asteroid miners don’t listen their first time. Okay! Any concerns? Pinching or rubbing anywhere? Especially in the feet, armpit or inner thigh. Allison?”
She stamped her feet and walked experimentally round the room. “Nothing wrong with my feet. This feels pretty good, actually. Inner thigh’s kinda tight but I wouldn’t call it pinching…” she swung her arms. “Nothing wrong with the arms.”
“Alright. Just move around some more, try some exercises. Julian?”
“Bit tight in the shoulders…” he rolled his arms, his hips, touched his toes and then stretched for the ceiling. “…But otherwise fine.”
Drew nodded, pleased. “Good. The shoulders are an easy fix. Xiù?”
“Umm… it’s good, mostly. A bit… snug…”
“I mean… very snug.”
Drew chuckled. Honestly, the sportswear she’d been wearing before was more form-hugging, but of course the suit’s gentle positive pressure—a far cry from the crushing force of an EV-MASS but still plenty enough to counter even hard vacuum—would make it feel really quite revealing.
“I promise, it just feels snug,” he said. “From out here, you’re well protected. Any pinching or tightness?” he asked.
Xiù twisted this way and that, put the helmet down and tested the suit’s flexibility by kicking over backwards into a handstand splits then tucked, rolled and bounced to her feet.
“Maybe just a little too tight in the armpit here…” she pointed it out. Drew took a note.
“Show-off,” Allison accused fondly.
“No, she’s got the right idea,” Drew replied. “Unimpeded flexibility, that’s what we’re looking for.”
The two of them looked at one another, then shrugged and put their own suits through their paces. Doing so turned up that all three were a little too tight in the armpit, and that Allison’s was definitely pinching her inside leg.
“Okay!” Drew finished marking the problem areas. “So, let’s talk functionality.”
They gathered in an attentive rough semicircle around him. Good listeners, these three—a bloody rare and valuable thing in Drew’s experience.
“First things first—this is an exoplanet excursion suit, not a spacesuit,” he told them. “Yes, it’ll keep you pressurized even in a vacuum, but the temperature regulation’s all wrong. You try and wear this thing in vacuum and you’ll quickly overheat and die.”
Julian raised his hand. “*Over*heat?”
“Space isn’t cold, lad—Space is a vacuum, and vacuum’s the best bloody insulator there is. Mars on the other hand is colder than a penguin’s ballbag.”
Julian and Allison snickered, and Xiù brought up her hand to cover a giggle.
“So,” Drew continued, “the suit’s designed to keep you warm in temperatures that’d stop a Russian. Problem is that even if you turn the heaters off, if you try and wear this thing in space your own body temperature will cook you in a few minutes. So, what is this suit not?”
He raised his hands like a conductor and the three of them obediently chorused “*A spacesuit*”
“Strewth, you’re quick studies. This is nice!” Drew had borrowed a few Australianisms off his business partner over the years. “Okay. After atmosphere and temperature, the suit’s third function is protection. You’re wearing armour, chaps. It has a Type Two NIJ rating, if any of you know what that is…?”
Allison raised her hand and nodded.
“Good. It’s also stab-proof, just in case some pre-contact alien native decides to shove a spear through you…Though he might decide you’re a god, so watch out for that.”
This raised another chuckle.
“The rest of it’s pretty straightforward. Your load-carrying equipment’s my own take on MOLLE, optimized for low-gravity environments. You’ve got lots of high-vis, plenty of lights, and even if you have those lights on 24⁄7 the batteries should go a month before they need charging. Air supply is six hours, and you’ve got an emergency forcefield that you activate by grabbing… you see those red strips on your thighs, chest and upper arms? Rip off any two of those. Putting them back on is a pain in the arse, but it might just save your life, so don’t hesitate. Use it in case of suit breach, if you’re caught in an avalanche or cave-in, if you fall and break your leg… and it glows so you can be found easily.”
“How long’s it last?” Julian asked.
“From a full charge? Ten hours or so.”
“So our air would run out first,” Allison observed.
“Yup,” Drew gave her an apologetic half-smile. “Air’s a lot harder to store than energy nowadays.” He indicated a port on the suit’s flank, below her ribs. “Fortunately, that yellow one lets you connect to an external air supply. The red one is power supply.”
“And the green one?” she asked, touching the one on her other side.
“That’s an injection port for medical aid.”
Drew stood back. “Any questions, requests, observations…?”
“I’m still amazed I can do a handstand in this thing,” Xiù enthused. “But um… oh! Does the helmet have a translator in it?”
“Never hurts to be prepared. I’ll add one,” Drew promised.
Julian indicated his belt. “Mind adding a loop or two? You never know when a tomahawk could come in handy.”
“And a holster,” Allison added.
“Loaded for space bear it is…” Drew added the requests. They knew their jobs best, after all. “I didn’t know you chaps would be going armed…”
“It’s a dangerous galaxy,” Allison said with a shrug, and that was when the way they held themselves finally clicked for Drew.
Late in his career as a diving welder, about a year before Hephaestus had hired him, Drew had been called to the case of a shaft mine that had suffered a catastrophic collapse and flooding. Everyone had at first written off the miners for dead, until seismophones being used to map the damage from the surface started picking up a steady knockknockknock, knock…knock…knock, knockknockknock from somewhere past the flooded area.
While a rescue shaft was drilled down to the pocket of survivors. Drew had pulled three seventy-two hours shifts in a row alongside three other men, fighting to pump out the water faster than it could seep into the survivors’ haven and drown them.
In the end nine men had been delivered to the surface all slathered in soaking cold muddy slurry, but alive.
Some weeks later, they and their families had thrown a big barbecue party to thank the rescuers. The way the Misfit crew held themselves reminded him of the way those nine men had behaved at that party. Rather than cowing or terrorizing them, their brush with oblivion had left them quietly and unconsciously happy for every second, and they had shrugged off not only the mortal peril they had just endured, but also the dangers of returning to the same job with the exact same matter-of-fact ease that Allison had just shown.
Survivors. That’s what they were, and suddenly it made sense why they listened so attentively, and why the Byron Group was sending them out there. These three held doctorates from the school of hard knocks.
Their smartwatches went off simultaneously, marking the end of the session they’d put aside for his visit.
“Guess that’s time,” Drew said. “You three had better get out of those so I can take them away and alter them.”
Allison shook his hand. She’d warmed considerably during the short meeting. “Thanks. I was kinda nervous about the suit,”
“You’ve not seen it in action yet,” Drew replied.
“You’re obviously the kinda man who takes pride in his work though,” Julian replied, removing his helmet and scrubbing at the thick mess of black hair that he’d just about managed to squeeze into it. “That’s reassuring. Sometimes the Group can, uh…. They like to play things kinda fast and loose sometimes.”
“Truth,” Drew agreed, thinking of the methodical and cautious approach that had averted multiple disasters at Hephaestus. The Byron Group had been oddly silent about the fates of five of their exploration ships—in fact they’d been strangely quiet about the whole EV program. The loud and enthusiastic media campaign surrounding Misfit had to be at least in part a smokescreen to obfuscate their earlier errors.
As he stepped out of the room to let them get changed, he made a mental note to put it to Hephaestus that matching the Group’s survey initiatives might be a good idea, and that there was a team here who might potentially be headhunted. They were being upbeat, but there was clearly some disgruntlement here, which was… odd…for a team like this on such a prestigious and high-profile mission.
Oh well. They had a couple of years to prepare.
Date Point 10y7m3w4d AV
Thryd-Geftry Heavy Industries Ice Mining Station 12, Jmnik System, The Njrvil Volume.
Kirk was used to trade stations, comms relays, degaussing stopovers, freeports and all the other busy, bustling places where an itinerant sapient might fetch up. Indeed, he’d been born aboard just such a station—the now-infamous CTS591-’Outlook On Forever’
Old five-ninety-one had been a venerable sprawling hulk of a thing. She was, in the strange way that space stations could sometimes be, mind-skewingly old. There had been a station at that particular confluence of spacelanes for so long that nobody knew who had first deployed it. Over the centuries she had been added to, refitted, repaired, modified and expanded. Old segments had occasionally been cut away and recycled to make room for newer and more vibrant technologically advanced sections. She had been old, interesting and full of character and it was doubtful whether there was any original component or structure left in her, or whether a single atom of the first atmosphere to be pumped into her remained.
Through her had flooded merchants, migrants, mercenaries, miners and the generally meandering misplaced.
Such stations were inevitably shop-soiled and a touch chaotic by nature, but they were interesting.
An ice mining station was not usually any of those things, but TGHI-IMS-12 was unusual.
Usually, ice mining stations were the bottom of the bottom. They were only crewed because it cost more to insure a completely automated facility. A crew of three otherwise unemployable losers tore so much off the insurance premiums that their rock-bottom salary scarcely dented the boost in profit margin.
These unfortunates were not given any kind of entertainment beyond waxing the floors. Ice mining stations were therefore known for being both the least exciting places in civilization, and also the cleanest.
Not so for TGHI-IMS-12. Oh, it had once been a terminally dull oubliette in the ass-end of nowhere (a delightful Humanism, that) but the secession of the Celzi and their allies had kicked it upmarket practically overnight. The Dominion had needed a space station behind the new front line from which to stage their fleets, and the only thing in the right volume that was remotely space-station-shaped had been TGHI-IMS-12. Urban legend asserted that her three stimulation-starved Vzk’tk crew had died of sheer excitement when the military construction fleet had arrived to upgrade their painstakingly sanitized industrial array to a border outpost.
The war might be in a permanent uneasy state of de facto ceasefire nowadays, both sides being too wary to do anything which might persuade the humans to side with their enemy, but neither were they willing to tone down their pride and accept an actual, formal ceasefire or truce. Hostilities were still, officially, ongoing.
And for as long as they were, TGHI-IMS-12 was where the Dominion’s ships resupplied and degaussed, where their crews took shore leave and where traders and opportunists from all over the charted galaxy played in a market that occupied every possible shade of grey, right down to the effectively black.
It was the perfect balance for Kirk’s needs—busy enough for him to plausibly use the crowd if he needed to go unseen or effect a hasty escape, but obscure enough that the crowd itself could be avoided too if need be.
There were a lot of Gaoians today, and that was interesting because the Gaoians, as far as he knew, were being commendably stubborn about committing assets to the war. Quite aside from the rhetorical arguments about owing nothing to a war that had started before they ever joined the Dominion, they had a knack for wriggling through legal and contractual loopholes.
Kirk ransacked his memory of Gaoians, inwardly cursing his inexperience with them. The similar fur colouration and physique suggested that these males were from some Clan or another, but which one…?
That white crest of fur between their ears should be easy enough to identify… Was there not a clan called white-crest? He felt certain that there was.
And Gaoians were a high-Class species. Class eight, if memory served. Maybe nine. Not for the first time, Kirk suppressed irritation at the fallibility of his own memory—he really had been far too dependant on cybernetics.
He slipped away to the side of the station concourse and people-watched, waiting for any hint that the humans had arrived. Negotiating a place and time had been difficult and treacherous. It was clear they didn’t trust him at all, and not without good reason—Kirk, after all, had no idea if he’d really been talking with General Tremblay, or with some Hierarchy intercept.
He flexed all four of his hands to will down his nerves, and did something that was, to most species, an idea so alien that most had simply never heard or conceived of it—he prayed.
It wasn’t addressed to any specific divine being or anything. Mostly it was just a general rhetorical observation if he, Kirk, were to not only make it through the day alive but also maybe reforge his trust and alliance with the deathworlders, then that would make him very happy.
As every minute passed, however, his nerves were rising and his hopes sinking. Humans were obvious. Allison Buehler had been the focus of everybeing’s attention as she strolled alongside him during their years working together.
But then again, Julian had demonstrated an almost magical ability to slip through crowds entirely unseen and un—
“Good evening, Councillor. No sudden movements please.”
Kirk nearly bleated from sheer alarm and surprise. He did stiffen and spread his arms slightly. The Gaoian who had stepped into his peripheral vision carefully stepped around him to stand on the side without a fusion blade hidden inside a cybernetic arm. Kirk turned his head to watch him.
This one had a cybernetic left hand, and an upright bearing that seemed to communicate leadership even between species.
“And you are…?” Kirk asked him.
“Dexter. A friend of mine would like to meet you.”
“Is he a friend of mine?”
“He hopes so.” Dexter stepped away, and gestured towards a nearby maintenance door that led into the station’s crew-only areas. It was resting slightly ajar.
Kirk gave him a suspicious glance, but the Gaoian was already walking away.
He took a deep breath to steel himself then approached the door and, after a quick glance around to check he wasn’t being watched, slipped through and let it close behind him.
In the silence that followed, he plainly heard the sound of a door opening to his right. It was the hatch at the end of the maintenance tunnel, and the lights came up as it opened. There was nothing exciting about the space—it was a functional conduit for water, power, data cables and air ducts. The only details that even resembled a nod to decoration were the colour-coding on each of the many things attached to the wall.
Kirk prided himself on his rational mind and his level head. It was a matter of personal principle to him that in circumstances where others panicked, blundered around, fled and got killed, he held his nerve and stayed sharp… but he was only mortal. It took him a long time to find the courage and the rationale to walk toward that door.
In the end, what persuaded him was quite simple: If the humans were so badly compromised by Hierarchy that this meeting was to be his end, then they had already lost. If so, he’d rather die gambling on hope.
He stepped through the door.
It closed behind him, and three humans in the same heavy-duty armor he’d seen from the Capitol Station news reports made themselves visible. They were armed, but didn’t make any aggressive movements.
An old feeling of creeping awe settled on him—the same one he’d felt when he’d first met Kevin Jenkins all those years ago. There was something about the way they moved, something extra-solid, something massive in the sense of having a lot of mass, that reminded him again that he was dealing with a species that were his physical superiors in every conceivable way. These ones—who could only be the famed SOR—were larger than any other human he had ever seen by an alarming degree, even with a generous estimate for the armour’s thickness.
The armor itself was an excellent reminder that humans were also a slightly crazed species at the best of times. It looked incalculably weighty, and the men wearing it presumably needed all that size and strength just to function in it. Kirk didn’t want to think about what they must have done and endured to achieve the easy grace with which they wore it.
Cautiously, he stepped closer. The meeting place they’d chosen was a walkway spanning a chamber that formed part of the atmosphere system—a dust trap, in fact. The chamber was shaped to create a vortex around the edges that threw out the accumulated airborne detritus from TGHI-IMS-12’s hundreds of permanent occupants and thousands of monthly visitors, catching it in baffles for disposal as a compressed block into the gravity well of the gas giant below. The racing air caught Kirk’s hood and mane as he pushed through the edge vortex and into the clear air in the middle, where he stopped, standing up to his full height. He could never out-mass a human, but he would damn well win on height and dignity.
The one in the middle seemed to have a few more cameras, sensors and communications systems on him than the others, though they had their own specialist burdens. “TIBERIUS,” he said, carefully.
“…STAINLESS, I presume.”
The human nodded. “You brought your own scanner?” he asked. There was something familiar about that voice. A deep, growling quality to it that reminded him of Captain Powell, though this man was much larger than the Cimbrean commander had been.
Kirk slowly and carefully reached to his belt and the scanner he’d had Lewis design and prepare. He tugged it off, knelt his front legs to set it down, and backed off. STAINLESS tapped the man on his left on the shoulder, and that man stepped forward to examine the device without picking it up, aiming what looked like an engineering scanner at it.
“…It’s what he says it is, sir.” he reported. He picked it up and returned to STAINLESS’ side.
STAINLESS nodded. He unlatched the face mask of his helmet which came away with a sharp hiss of air pressure equalizing.
It was Powell! In addition to being larger, he was also slightly younger-looking and his thin blond hair was now entirely gone save for a pale stubble around the sides. Nothing had changed about his eyes, though. Nothing in the galaxy had a more fearsome gaze than him: cool, blue and calculating almost to the point of hostility, as if at every second he was selecting the most efficient means of killing whomever he scrutinized.
Maybe he was.
He speared Kirk with that eerie icy stare for a second, then undid his helmet as well, tipped it up just enough to expose his forehead, and pressed the scanner to it.
It immediately made a happy pinging sound and Kirk sagged with relief, letting out his tension in a very human sigh.
Powell reattached his helmet, though he left the mask off. “I take it you’re happy if I vouch for the lads here,” he said.
“Of course, Captain.”
Powell—though it was hard to tell—seemed to find this amusing. He pulled a scanner of his own from some strapping on his armour and tossed it underarm to Kirk.
It was simple enough to operate. Kirk pressed it to his head, and within seconds a green light lit up. All three humans promptly unwound, and Powell treated him to a rare smile.
“Good to see you again, mate,” he said. “And it’s Major, thank you.”
“My apologies. And congratulations.” Kirk stepped forward and extended a hand. “You have… changed rather a lot since we last met.”
“Aye.” Powell shook his hand and clapped him very gently indeed on the upper arm. “We have a lot to discuss… How about we do it somewhere secure?”
“I know just the place.”
Date Point 10y7m3w4d AV
Thryd-Geftry Heavy Industries Ice Mining Station 12, Jmnik System, The Njrvil Volume.
“I think it’s about to go wrong…”
Regaari duck-nodded to himself. He was lurking on the station concourse with his communicator in his hands and pretending to play a game as he waited, but the game in question was a surveillance tool that was helping him tag and track dozens of aliens as they came and went.
Five were loitering in the area, just as he was. Two Vzk’tk, an Rrrrtk’pch, a Kwmbwrw and a Vgork.
“Agreed,” he murmured. He rattled off a few terse orders in the Clan’s dense internal jargon, subtly redeploying his Brothers into better positions to disrupt, challenge or even attack the aliens if they made any kind of a move.
This was not merely a mission-protecting move; it was for their own good. If those five attempted to intervene against the SOR…!
The biggest threat was the Vgork. He was an alpha male, a Class Eight native himself physically on par with all but the most exceptional Gaoian, and at least twice Regaari’s size. At a headlong charge that thick bony ridge that ran across his head from ear to ear might even cause serious harm to a human. Certainly he could bowl the legs out from under either of the Domain species and leave them broken, which was still a deadly serious injury for them even with modern medicine. Domain prosthetic limbs were superior to even the Corti version for that very reason.
Which might very well explain his presence. Or then again he could be the distraction. Intimidating as a bellowing bull Vgork might be, he was no more dangerous than any other sapient with a pulse gun.
Regaari assigned himself to deal with that one. If it came down to it he had fusion claws in his prosthetic hand, and fusion blades could stop anything. Even the momentum of a charging Vgork at full tilt wouldn’t count for much if one of his legs suddenly came off.
His comm chirped, denoting an incoming signal from an allied TacNet. ”DEXTER, STAINLESS. TIBERIUS is a clean asset and friendly. He’s returning to his ship. Shadow and report.”
He flexed his paw in a control gesture that he’d built into the prosthetic to allow him to call out without obviously activating his comm, and kept his voice low. “STAINLESS, DEXTER. We have concerning activity out here. Need a moment to make safe.”
He changed channels and spoke three words in Whitecrest tactical cant: “Cubs play pounce.”
He and his brothers moved immediately. Before they even had a chance to appreciate what was going on the three Domain aliens and the Kwmbwrw had turned in confusion as a dark and furry shape flashed past them, and then collapsed as the Whitecrest-designed sticky takedown patches did their work.
Regaari’s Vgork target was just turning to see what the commotion was about when Regaari pounced right over his back, slapped a patch to each side of his neck, and sprang off to safety and concealment before his quarry even had a chance to try and buck him off.
The Vgork whooped something, lowered his head and tried to charge wildly in the direction he thought the torment had gone, only to crash painfully to the deck in three strides as every motor muscle in his body went limp and numb. Regaari congratulated himself on giving the big guy a double dose.
“Mother says do chores,” Faarek said.
Regaari agreed. “Yes, Mother.”
The limp aliens were quickly bundled away out of sight, a feat that demanded four Brothers in the case of the Vgork. After only a pawful of active seconds, it was like nothing had ever happened.
His comm squawked again. “…Copy that, DEXTER. Sitrep when you’re ready.”
Regaari chittered grimly to himself at actually beating the deathworlder on speed, and broadcast to his brothers before replying. ”No scars. STAINLESS, DEXTER. Clear, but the clock is ticking.”
”Copy. Orders remain unchanged.”
Seconds later, Councillor A’ktnnzzik’tk emerged via a maintenance door. Amateurishly, he looked around to make sure he wasn’t being watched (an action liable to draw immediate attention) and then raised his hood and headed in the direction of his ship.
The Brothers tailed him at a respectful distance.
There were no further problems.
Date Point 10y8m AV
Byron Group Headquarters, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
“…That’s not me.”
“That’s you, baby.”
“But… nah!” Julian scratched at his hair and stared at the larger-than-life-size fabric print of himself that was one of several set up for the display in the Byron building’s lobby. “I’m not that hot.”
Xiù giggled. “You are.”
“Am *not!*” Julian shook his head.
Allison grinned at Xiù and joined in. “Yes you are.”
It was a good picture, admittedly. Julian had been caught looking strong and intrepid with the muscular mass of Misfit framing him in the background. His hair was excitingly messy, a confident half-smile was creeping up one side of his face in that way that only men seemed to have mastered, and there was a direct quote from him printed at the bottom of the picture across his shins: “If you can handle Earth, then you can handle anything in the Galaxy.”
Xiù’s picture was no less amazing. The photographer had captured her smile and shy enthusiasm, and juxtaposed it perfectly with her scars. She looked young, fresh, vigorous and she lived up to her name—Allison had discovered quite by accident some weeks before that the word ’xiù’ literally meant ’beautiful’, to Xiù’s embarrassment—but she also looked strong and ready for anything. The quote above her head read ’Sometimes our dreams don’t come true, but you can always pick a new dream.’
Allison turned her attention to the third banner, and reflected that she was probably being unfair on Julian. It was hard to really believe that the woman looking back at her was… well, her: She looked fearsome. The photographer had contrived to convey focus and drive, though they’d picked one of her softer expressions out of the many thousands of photos she’d endured posing for. The slight smile was enough to leave her looking competent rather than like a ballbreaker.
“There’s something in our soul that longs to be challenged.” she read aloud. “Did I say that?”
“You said that,” Xiù confirmed. “Look, there’s variations too.”
Allison ran her eye over them warily, seeing other pictures that painted them in different lights, including one she felt was slightly intrusive that showed Julian holding her affectionately from behind with the caption ’We can choose to go somewhere interesting and do something valuable, together.’
“This is… kind of overwhelming.”
“You should see the animated ones,” Julian observed.
Xiù gave her a reassuring peck on the cheek. “Wanna know a secret?” she asked.
“They can’t work with what isn’t there.”
“They’ve got photoshop, don’t they?”
“It’s like makeup, Al. If you pluck your eyebrows right off and draw them back on it just looks fake and horrible, right?”
“I think I speak for all men when I say I don’t understand eyebrow-plucking,” Julian said. He led them among the displays and accepted a soft drink from a waiter who was circling the ad campaign launch party. A lot of very wealthy-looking people in suits were standing around negotiating God-knew what except that whatever they were arranging presumably involved stupefying sums of money. There was a woman in the dark blue of the US Air Force chatting amicably with Moses Byron. She looked towards them and gave Julian a bright and genuine-looking smile.
He returned it a little uncertainly. “Should we know her?” he asked sideways. Allison shook her head, just as lost as he was.
“You don’t recognize her?” Xiù frowned at them. “Either of you?”
Allison contrived a subtle shrug. “Should we?”
“That’s Rylee Jackson, she flew the first human-built warp ship!”
“Did you learn about her as part of your training?” Julian asked.
“I’ve met her before!” Xiù reminded them. “She was escorting Ayma and Regaari when they visited me…”
“So she’s famous then,” Julian summarized.
“Even more famous than we’ll be,” Xiù confirmed.
“And we didn’t recognize her.” Allison considered that fact. “…Y’know, that actually makes me feel better. I kinda want to meet her now.”
“I think she wants to meet us, too,” Julian commented. Jackson had politely excused herself and was picking her way between their oversized images to say hi.
Up close, she had a lot in common with Xiù—they were of similar heights and similar gymnastic builds, though Jackson had noticeably more pronounced neck and shoulder muscles. She met them with a round of handshakes, a double cheek-kiss for Xiù as if they were old friends, and made it clear that she was to be known to them as ’Rylee’.
She immediately endeared herself to Allison by breaking the ice with sympathy. “God, I don’t miss seeing my face everywhere. How are you guys holding up?”
“Kinda weirded out,” Allison confessed, and Julian nodded with her. She indicated a nearby poster of herself with the caption ’ I don’t think people are really meant for cities and sofas.’ “I don’t remember saying half of this stuff.”
“Yeah, a little quote-mining goes a long way.” Rylee grinned. “Especially if they alter the quote a bit. Polish it up for the sound-bite, y’know? I wouldn’t be surprised if the TV ads were voice actors who’re good at sounding a lot like you guys.”
“They’d do that?” Julian asked.
Rylee didn’t reply directly and instead snagged a lemonade off a passing waiter, but her expression said everything.
“Of course they would,” Xiù said. She sounded more like it was blindingly obvious than that the thought distressed her at all.
“Why?” Julian asked. “Candid is good, right?”
“Mm-hmm” Rylee nodded. “But if you ever meet somebody who talks in perfect sound bites, they’re a politician.”
“Uh… that was a perfect sound bite…” Julian pointed out.
Rylee grinned and raised her lemonade to toast him with a wink.
“So it’s like photoshop for a conversation,” Allison summed up.
“Yeah… but they can’t work with what’s not there…” Xiù repeated.
Rylee waggled a finger aimed vaguely at Xiù. “See, this girl gets it. You said those things, and that’s you on those posters, even if they’ve maybe touched things up a bit. Get used to it, guys.” She sipped her drink. “Anyway! No more boring fame stuff, I actually have something I need to talk to you guys about. Me and some friends of mine…”
Allison looked in the direction she nodded. Kevin Jenkins was lurking in a corner, talking seriously with a middle-aged woman in a black suit whom she didn’t recognize. They noticed the four looking at them, exchanged a few more words, and crossed the lobby.
“‘Sup,” he said, by way of greeting.
“I could ask you…” Julian looked from him to Rylee. “You two know each other?”
“Distant acquaintances,” Rylee said. “I believe you named my ship, right?”
“Good ol’ Pandora, yup,” Kevin agreed.
“Eh, you did better things with her. ‘Course, you probably know me from the other thing we need to discuss…”
“Speaking of which…” the woman in the suit reminded him, “the limo is waiting outside.” She had one of the very latest smartwatches, the kind with the single-direction holographic interface that meant only she could see what she was working on. Allison had entertained the thought of getting one herself, except that she’d have no need of it on the ship and by the time they got back they’d presumably be both cheaper and better.
“The limo?” Allison exchanged thoroughly bewildered glances with Xiù and Julian, who shrugged. They huddled together for comfort as Kevin gently ushered them door-wards, and invited Rylee to come along too.
“On the pretense of showing Major Jackson your ship, we’re gonna slip away and discuss something important.”
“Hey now,” Rylee objected. “I wanna see the ship anyway!”
“That’s what makes it a good pretense.”
Sure enough, a black limo had pulled up outside, and they were gestured into it by the driver, who held the door politely open until they were all aboard and belted up.
Allison stiffened as the windows went fuzzy grey and opaque. A privacy forcefield.
“Sorry for the cloak-and-dagger guys,” Kevin said. “But there’s some shit you need to know. Stuff that not even Moses Byron is fully in on.”
“What-?” Allison began, but didn’t know how to proceed past that point.
“First up, introductions. Guys, this is Special Agent Darcy, CIA.”
Darcy looked up from whatever it was she was working on and met their surprised stares with a trim, polite smile. “You can just call me Darcy,” she said. Allison decided that she was probably just super busy, rather than standoffish. She handed Julian a tablet. “Before this conversation can go any further, I’m afraid you’re going to need to sign these non-disclosure agreements.”
She handed one more each to Allison and Xiù, and they rode in silence for a few minutes as the three of them put the hard studying skills they’d developed over the last several months to work, digesting the content of the agreement.
“…Extreme sanction?” Allison asked. “Christ.”
“This is heavy stuff we’re about to play with, guys,” Rylee had smuggled her lemonade out with her, and she sipped it again.
Julian and Allison looked at each other. “Somehow, I suspect we already know it…” Julian said, carefully.
“Huh?” Xiù looked up.
“That’s why Darcy’s here. You uh… gave me enough of a hint in Minnesota.” Kevin cleared his throat. “But guys, for real. You’re gonna need to sign those. This shit is important.”
“Hint?” Xiù echoed. “…what’s he talking about?”
“You’ve not told her?” Kevin asked.
“Told me *what?!*” Xiù turned to Allison. “What’s he talking about? What is this… ’DEEP RELIC’ thing?”
“…Sign it, baby.” Allison told her. She suddenly felt like a total heel.
Julian, looking grim, just shook his head and started filling in the paperwork.
After several seconds, Xiù followed his example.
They rode in silence for a few minutes as Darcy collected, double-checked, confirmed and filed away the agreements. All the while, Allison found it difficult to make eye contact with Xiù. After months of being totally open and honest with one another, it was weirdly ashaming to be reminded that there was one catastrophically huge secret that they’d kept from her. Not deliberately, and not without good reason, but… it had never come up.
“So.” Kevin cleared his throat. “Xiù, you remember back in Minnesota when I gave you the job offer, I asked if any of you had cerebral implants. Translators or whatever, right?”
“Well. A few years ago…jeez, where do I start?” he asked, addressing Darcy.
“Right, yeah. Terri Boone. Y’all won’t have heard of her, but she was this private investigator. Just before you were taken, Xiù, some guy contacted Terri and asked her to start looking into alien abductees, and to start specifically with me.”
“That’s before the Hunter attack,” Xiù pointed out. “Nobody really believed in aliens back then.”
“Yeah. Way she told it she was kinda desperate for cash though and the client was offering a fat stack, so she set off for Texas pretty well convinced I was gonna be one of those mothership, anal probe, Area Fifty-One crop circle dumbasses, right? Well her plane landed in Dallas and she drove straight up to my bar to sit down to listen to my story… On First Contact Day.” He laughed. “I’m sitting there talking about my encounter with the Hunters, and then the stupid bastards go and attack a live hockey game right there on TV. Talk about timing, right?”
“That’s a big coincidence,” Xiù said.
“Except it wasn’t a coincidence. Long story short, she and I rounded up every genuine abductee we could find—and, there’s a lot of us—and we got wind of this new research facility being thrown together up in British Columbia. So me, her, and a freakin’ convoy of the planet’s only exoplanetary tourists headed on up there and turned over everything we had, including the working jump beacon I managed to smuggle back to Earth. The one that Ted Bartlett’s team managed to reverse-engineer into a working warp drive”
“Which was why they let you name Pandora.” Rylee said.
“Right. I stayed on up at Scotch Creek after all the others went home, ran the bar on base, did for Tremblay, Bartlett, Nadeau and all the others pretty much the same thing I’m doing for Moses Byron nowadays…”
He rubbed his chin. “Terri got in touch again a couple years later. Left me an envelope and asked me not to open it. She went back to San Diego and… next I heard of her was a phone call from a homicide detective looking for a witness statement.”
“Jesus.” Allison said.
“Yeah. The envelope contained the login and password for an online drive she’d filled with evidence. Evidence of alien covert operations right here on Earth.”
“The Hierarchy,” Julian said.
“So you do know,” Darcy said.
Allison and Julian looked at each other. “We helped Kirk find Vedregnenug.” Allison said. “And we knew he was working with some kind of security or government agency here on Earth. Hell, he dragged us to a clinic to get our translators removed.”
“…You knew all this?” Xiù asked. “What…? I thought…? But…?” she paused and gathered herself. “What the hell happened to ’no secrets’?!”
“If they’ve kept it from you, that’s actually a good thing,” Darcy advised. “You’re now forbidden from telling this to anybody else, remember.”
“Guys.” Allison interrupted. “Could we have a couple of minutes alone, please? Just the three of us?”
Kevin, Rylee and Darcy looked at one another. At Kevin’s nod, Darcy relented. “…Okay,” she said. She knocked three times on the front window and the limo pulled over to the side of the road. Rylee swigged the last of her purloined lemonade, gave Allison a sympathetic touch on the shoulder as she was the last out, and they were left alone.
“…Baby, I’m sorry.” Allison opened, transferring over to sit next to her.
“Sorry?! I thought your whole thing was being up-front and honest?!” Xiù rounded on her. “I… Damn it! I’m supposed to be able to trust you! Both of you!” she added, turning to Julian. “And then this-?”
Julian took her hands. “Hey. There’s nothing else,” he said, softly. “Nothing. We’re not keeping anything else from you.”
“…You promise? Both of you?”
Allison tidied a strand of Xiù’s hair back into place behind her ear. “Nothing more,” she promised. “This was the only thing, I swear.”
“And you’ll see why in a minute,” Julian added.
“You trust us… right?”
Xiù wiped her eyes off violently and sniffed at him. “Of course I do! Why do you think I’m so upset?”
“Trust us just a little more?”
She blinked at him, then gave him a reassuring little kiss, before doing the same for Allison. “I trust you both to the ends of the Earth,” she said. “I’m just… shaken. Sorry.”
Julian handed her a tissue and she laughed, dried her cheeks and then blew her nose, waving for Allison to open the door.
Darcy, Kevin and Rylee climbed back in looking a touch awkward.
“Sorry,” Xiù apologized once they were settled.
“Are you okay?” Rylee asked her.
“Yeah, sorry. Just… I’m… we’re fine.”
Rylee nodded, relaxed and sat back.
“So… You said the timing wasn’t a coincidence?”
Kevin cleared his throat. “We’re…pretty sure by now that Terri was sent to find the real abductees because the Hierarchy foresaw first contact was gonna happen pretty soon anyway, and figured we might be a problem.” he swiped his finger meaningfully across his throat. “I guess they were right.”
“Why? What’s their objective? What do they want?”
“All of us dead.” Kevin said. He shrugged. “Their whole deal is suppressing deathworld sophonts. Wipe ‘em out with robot armies if they’re primitive enough, get them to nuke themselves back to the stone age then wipe ‘em out with robot armies if they’re not. Y’ever hear of the Cuban Missile Crisis?”
Xiù shook her head.
“Brouhaha in the Caribbean way back when in…” he looked to Darcy. “Sixty-four?”
“October Nineteen-Sixty-two,” Rylee corrected him. “The Soviet Union installed nuclear missiles in Cuba right at the height of the Cold War, our navy blockaded the island, and there was a standoff for about two weeks before President Kennedy and Secretary Khruschev negotiated a standing-down. It was the closest we ever came to World War Three.”
“Right. Well, that was them.”
“Now how do you know *that?*” Julian asked.
Darcy gave him a slightly smug smile. “We caught one of their agents.”
“How do they have agents on Earth?” Xiù asked. “I mean… It’s a deathworld, so their agent would have to be human, right? Are there humans who are selling us out?”
“This is why the implants are so important,” Rylee explained. “They can be… hacked.”
”…Hacked?!” Appalled, Xiù gaped at her. “Those are in people’s *brains!*”
“Exactly. And the poor bastards get yanked around like a fuckin’ puppet,” Kevin growled, grimly.
“In extreme cases they have a process they call ’biodroning’,” Darcy said. “And, it’s as horrific as it sounds. They take some poor abductee, scoop out their brain and fill it with control implants. They become an absolutely perfect slave. But even a translator implant will work in a pinch. Now, think of how many aliens you ever met who had more than just the translator.”
Xiù sat up straight with an expression of dawning horror and her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my god, Regaari-!” she began.
“-Is under close observation and we’re doing what we can to help him,” Darcy assured her.
“But I have to-! Why haven’t you told the whole galaxy? Why haven’t you blown the lid on this?”
“Because the moment we swooped on their operation on Earth, we lost San Diego,” Darcy said. “They jumped five kilograms of antimatter directly into the heart of the city and put a new bay in the west coast that’s half a mile across. We were lucky! By doing that they also destroyed the only jump beacon they had on Earth, and the quarantine field stopped them from bringing in more. That one mistake is the only reason that we’re still here to even have this conversation right now.”
“But what about all the other species in the galaxy?” Rylee asked. “The ones who’ve got millions of civilians with implants, and who don’t have system fields? Like the Gaoians?”
“The Hierarchy are willing to kill billions. Trillions maybe. Those are the kinds of numbers they already have killed, and if we’re ever going to bring them down then we need to do so carefully, quietly and with the utmost discretion.” Darcy finished. “Otherwise, worlds will burn, including a world you personally sacrificed much to protect.”
Xiù went quiet as Allison took her hand, looked down at it for a long second, then back to Darcy. “…Can’t I do anything for him?”
“You can trust us,” Darcy said. “And trust him, too. Through Regaari, we hope to—pardon the expression—sanitize the whole Gaoian race. It’s going to take a while, though. If we’re not careful… goodness knows how the Hierarchy might react.”
Darcy shuffled forward in her seat, earnestly. “If our species is going to have any hope of thriving or… frankly even surviving in the long term, we need friends and allies. Thanks to you, the Gaoians are the best friends and allies we have and we’re pulling out all the stops to help them. I promise, if it’s within our power…”
Xiù frowned. “…Thanks to me?”
Rylee smiled at her. “You made a good impression. Every Gaoian I ever met has heard of Sister Shoo.”
Darcy produced three manila folders from her briefcase, and handed them out. “This is the full report, or at least as much of it as the three of you need to know, but you already have the short version; that galactic society has been carefully engineered to keep deathworlders like us suppressed, and the organization responsible is actively working toward our extinction. Now, you need to know this for two reasons.”
“Which are?” Julian asked.
“Number one, you’re looking for deathworlds. Our long term goal for the protection and success of the human race is to colonize as many such worlds as we can. Get our eggs in as many baskets as possible, you see?”
Allison nodded. “Makes sense.”
“The other being that if you do find any other deathworld civilizations, especially ones who have or are approaching a Cold War era level of technology, we need to know about them so we can protect them.”
“Yeah, here we go…” Julian looked up. “This is Vedreg’s testimony! I remember him dictating it to Kirk.”
“Kirk has been working for us for several years,” Darcy acknowledged. “In fact, he still is.”
Allison closed her folder with a slap. “He’s alive?!”
“Alive and well, as are Vedregnenug and Lewis Beverote. I’m afraid I can’t tell you more than that. In fact I only became able to tell you that much just this morning.”
“That’s still great news!” Julian enthused. “Can we send them a message?”
“I don’t see why not.”
Xiù finished reading the DEEP RELIC document and closed it looking badly shaken. “Um, can we maybe be a bit more…?” She waved a hand helplessly. “How many species?”
“Several hundred, at the absolute minimum,” Rylee told her. “The good news is they’re no longer, for now, an active threat on Earth.”
“Oh, thank goodness.”
Kevin cleared his throat. “This is why *Misfit*’s emergency recall system is anchored to Cimbrean-Five,” he said. “And it’s why, if you ever punch it, you then stay still and do absolutely nothing until the SOR board you. If you ever jump directly to Sol without authorization…“
Xiù nodded grimly. “I did wonder about those rules…”
“Okay,” Allison said. “Let’s say we catch them doing their thing. What do we do about it?”
“You make best speed for the nearest FTL comms relay and send Kevin here a message with the coordinates and the words “Big Hotel” somewhere in the text,” Darcy instructed. “Then you wait for a reply with instructions.”
“Moses wants you guys to send us back personal thoughts and commentary on your mission anyway, so it shouldn’t look out of the ordinary, and it won’t be hard to fit in something about… I’unno, wanting a spa day at a big hotel or something,” Kevin added.
“We can do that.” Allison nodded.
“Good.” Kevin looked up at something outside the car. “Onto lighter subjects, I guess.”
Sure enough, they were pulling through the AAAF’s front gates. Kevin climbed out to deal with the corporate security manning it, followed by Darcy, and that left the four of them alone.
“‘Course, there’s an elephant in this car…” Rylee mused.
“Hmm?” Allison asked.
“Oh, just your whole Prime Directive, cultural contamination bullshit.” Rylee adjusted her shirt. “Big Hotel or not, let’s say you guys do find a deathworld civilization that needs us to step up and protect them. What are we gonna be to them? Gods? Angels? Strange travellers from distant worlds? Heretics who need burning at the stake?”
“Any advice?” Julian asked.
“Nomex long johns?” Rylee shrugged. “I’m not a policy-maker, so I guess how you handle pre-contact civilizations is for the three of you to figure out. You’ll be ambassadors out there as well as explorers. Do you wanna be Jean-Luc Picard or George W. Bush?”
“Jeez, that’s a hell of a comparison…” Allison said. Rylee just smiled slightly and her eyebrow ticked upwards for a heartbeat.
“You can talk to Allied Extrasolar Command, right?” Julian pointed out.
“That’s part of my chain of command, yeah…” She sat forward. “Why, do you want an official stance? Y’know, something in writing with General Tremblay’s hancock at the bottom that you can point to?”
“Could it hurt?” Allison asked.
“Could cover your asses…”
“Then yes, please.”
“Or if you wind up ignoring it, it could bury you up to your chin in shit.” Rylee bobbled her head. “I figure in your situation, it’ll be easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” She sniffed. “And a hell of a lot quicker.”
Allison, Julian and Xiù looked at one another. “We’ll… give it some thought,” Allison decided.
“You do that.” Rylee looked up as the limo pulled through the gates. Behind them, Kevin and Darcy seemed to be parting ways—presumably their business was concluded for now. “Enough doom and gloom. Let’s go meet Misfit, yeah?”
Date Point 10y8m AV
HMS Valiant, En Route to Mrwrki Station, Uncharted system, Deep Space.
Lt. Col. Claude Nadeau
“Do you know what the biggest object the human race ever launched into space was?”
Claude and Major Powell had been invited to stand quietly to one side of *Valiant*’s bridge as she maneuvered through the system forcefield alongside Kirk’s much smaller ship. They were chatting quietly and staying out the way as best they could. Claude, being a relatively slim man, was having no difficulty in that regard. Powell however was both physically huge in his own right and was wearing two-thirds of an EV-MASS, minus only the bulkiest outer layer.
Powell nodded. “Aye. International Space station, right?”
“No? Could have sworn…?”
“We’re standing in it.”
Powell looked at the bulkhead alongside him, as if he’d literally never seen the ship he was travelling in before this moment. “…Oh, aye. I suppose it would be. Though… what about Ceres base?”
“Built on a dwarf planet. It’s not a free-floating object in its own right.” Claude stroked the ship’s dull grey painted metal fondly. “Of course she’ll be overtaken by USS San Diego, but for now… this is the largest space vehicle ever built by human science.”
“She’s a good ship.”
“Mmhmm. Undoubtedly. But I can’t help but watch that ship your friend Kirk is flying and think that we’re travelling in the interstellar equivalent of a coal-fired steamer.”
Momentum had idled alongside them throughout the three-day journey to their destination with the same general air as a dolphin might have played with a traditional ocean-going destroyer. One was a conqueror of its environment; the other, a native. If Kirk had wanted to, he could have pushed up to a jaw-dropping multiple of lightspeed and left them behind with a contemptuous flick of his tail.
Powell gave him a curious look. “You sound like you’re happy about that.”
“Aren’t you? We’ve achieved so much despite being so far behind. Imagine what we’ll be able to do once we’ve got our hands on that-!” Claude gestured forward, to where the bridge’s navigation display was showing a to-scale model of the system with a moon of one of the gas giants highlighted.
“I have… reservations.”
Once upon a time, a younger Claude Nadeau might have pooh-poohed any such concerns on the woefully inadequate grounds that the man expressing them was no scientist himself. After all, the world was full of the kind of uneducated dinguses who had once tried to have CERN closed down over concerns related to black holes and other such misunderstandings.
Lt. Col. Nadeau was an older and wiser man who carried a tinge of embarrassment about his younger self’s elitism, and in any case Powell had backing that went right to the top. Both Admiral Knight and General Tremblay had weighed in for him in fact, and as politics went their clout didn’t get much cloutier. You listened to men like that.
“Lay them on me,” he said.
Powell scratched at his chin thoughtfully. “Let’s say this thing does everything you want. We get ourselves basically for free a fleet of ships built wi’ tech and systems generations ahead of ours. We go from your coal-fired steamer to a nuclear fookin’ submarine, right?”
“No offense, sir, but bein’ Army maybe hasn’t equipped you for thinkin’ about just how bloody complex a ship is. Valiant here has… I’unno, fookin’ thousands of little details, any one of which, if it’s based on untested and little-understood xenotechnology, would be a potential liability. Don’t get me wrong, I know the benefits of technological supremacy better’n most…”
“…But whose technology?”
“Aye, there’s the rub. Then there’s all those other concerns about economics an’ ’restrained development’ an’ all that but fook it, really: Better dirt poor than dead.”
“That’s my thinking,” Claude agreed. “But… thank you, Powell. You’re right, we’ll need to be cautious.”
Powell nodded, then raised his eyebrows to watch the system map. Helm had just overlaid a bright blue line between their current location and the orbit of the Mrwrki moon.
There was an external viewscreen—contrary to popular fiction, it was a tiny disregarded thing tucked away in a corner that nobody ever looked at and it showed absolutely nothing of interest, not even when Valiant ramped up to a stately one kilolight and blitzed across fifty AUs in less than thirty seconds.
Claude was the only one watching it during the final second. There was no swirling wibbly spacetime stuff, no blurring nor even any noticeable blueshift of the forward stars. That was a product of a built-in safety feature of the warp drive; without it, warping vaguely sunwards would have exposed the ship to a catastrophic gamma pulse. All that happened, in fact, was that he was treated to twenty-four seconds of absolutely nothing happening, and then a gas giant popped into existence as they came up on it far too quickly for human reflexes to cope.
There was a flurry of called orders, confirmations, status reports and the general air of a job well done.
“Orbit achieved, captain!” somebody called. Nolan nodded gravely and looked back down the bridge’s length to give Nadeau and Powell a nod that said ’over to you’.
Powell led the way. He seemed quite at ease and comfortable in the cramped confines of the ship despite his size, and navigated it with an agile aplomb that Nadeau failed to match.
Whereas the flight decks on Myrmidon and Caledonia had been cavernous things big enough to fit several shuttles inside, *Valiant*’s wasn’t even inside the ship: instead, the Dominion-made shuttles piggy-backed on the ship’s dorsum and were flown on remote control to mate their ramp with the bay on the ship’s port side when needed. Not an ideal solution, but one that both worked for the Dominion shuttles and also allowed for some flexibility in whatever more permanent human-built solution they came up with.
Nadeau resolved to put that one right at the top of the list. They could do so much more with a craft of the same size, if it didn’t have to be hollow enough to accommodate a pair of Guvnurag.
On the other hand, that particular constraint was welcome right now. Otherwise, any shuttle ride alongside five SOR operators would have been desperately uncomfortable. Powell’s technicians helped him don the bulky outermost component stage of his armor and the final checks were done with in some efficient seconds. The last component he locked on was his faceplate.
Nadeau suppressed the urge to grin as the major’s Heads-Up Display activated. Using orange for a HUD designed to be used in darkness and space was simple physiological good sense based on the biology of the human eye, but it added a baleful and intimidating component to the suit that rounded off its sheer bulk and physicality.
Of course, the effect was probably sadly lost on most nonhumans most of whom, aside from the Guvnurag and Celzi, had dichromatic vision like a dog’s. Oh well.
Powell ran through a last check of his own, then presented the edges of his mask for inspection by his technician, who completed the checks by sticking duct tape over the seals. Claude doubted if that would help, but the gesture had the air of ritual, and who was he to question the ways of combat arms and their support teams?
He boarded the shuttle instead. It had been given an after-market modification in the form of a steel bulkhead that divided the passenger section neatly along the one-third, two-thirds line, complete with a pressure hatch. The idea being that the SOR in their suits rode in the hatchward third while anybody else who happened to be on board was safe from decompression behind a double layer not only of steel, but also of forcefields.
Most of Nadeau’s team were already on board. As researchers, technicians and scientists, being armed wasn’t usually part of their job description but they were still Army. Nobody was seriously expecting treachery from Kirk, but sensible caution dictated that if they were walking into a trap, they’d want to be armed, despite the presence of the SOR.
He accepted his own weapon from Sergeant Lee as he sat down. Lee Jun-Seok was a power systems genius and nearly as much of an expert on ElectroStatic Forcefields as Nadeau himself. Certainly he knew more about the intricacies of channeling EM radiation through them, and neither man had ever seriously pictured themselves sitting on a shuttle armed with submachine guns in their careers.
“Too bad there’s no windows on this tub.” Lee commented easily.
“We’re in orbit,” Nadeau told him. “Now we’re just waiting on the SOR.”
“Holding us up are they?” Lee asked with a widening smile.
“Mm-hmm. They can’t leave home without their duct tape and a kiss eh?”
There were smiles and laughter from around the compartment.
“What’s with the duct tape, anyway?” Sergeant Campbell asked. She was a materials specialist and one of a handful of people on the team not originally from Scotch Creek. “If they do that every time then they’ll have to use spirits to get rid of the residue, and that’d damage the actual seal…”
“Best not to question it, Camp,” Lee advised. “Watching their lips move as they try to think of an answer would just be depressing.”
Nadeau sat back and let the banter do its work. The SOR weren’t long in getting on board with a series of heavy thumps and clangs. Powell stuck his head through the pressure hatch. “Ready in here?” he asked.
Nadeau nodded. “Whenever you are, major.”
The hatch closed, and there was stifled giggling in the moments before the ramp came up and they disengaged from Valiant with a lurch that had Lee grabbing for his sick bag.
After that initial jolt, however, the ride was smooth and easy, and they chatted and relaxed through the forty minute descent, keeping an eye on the screen in their compartment. It was immediately obvious when they passed through the station’s pressure-retaining forcefield: suddenly there was sound from outside, and the sounds from inside became just a little less loud and ringing, as they suddenly had somewhere to go rather than echoing around the inside of the shuttle.
Everyone went quiet and listened as the shuttle settled with another jolt, the ramp went down, and the SOR disembarked hard and fast.
Nadeau listened in on the tacnet with interest. To judge from what he heard, the longest part of taking the station by far was ensuring that there were no unwelcome surprises waiting in the landing bay’s control software.
Eventually, one of the Operators—Blaczynski minus his helmet and breathing mask—opened their pressure hatch. “All ashore that’s goin’ ashore,” he reported. “Welcome aboard Mrwrki Station.”
They grabbed their gear and disembarked, to find Kirk waiting for them on the deck alongside an especially huge Guvnurag. For many of the team, these were the first ETs they had ever seen in person, and several of them stopped to appreciate the moment. Claude had seen the Gaoians when they had visited Earth, but they were… different. Gaoians after all were about the same size as humans.
Guvnurag were much, much bigger. This one, who could only be Vedregnenug, was as tall as a truck cab at the shoulder and just about as wide and long. He was covered in shaggy drifts of milk-chocolate brown fur flecked here and there with white, save for two bare stripes down his flank and a smaller patch on his forehead that were glowing a soft green. Huge eyes with W-shaped pupils blinked down at the human scientists as they disembarked, and he shifted his weight to lift one enormous hand to his chest in what was probably a gesture of welcome.
He was such a remarkable sight that the human alongside him went almost unnoticed at first. Lewis Beverote didn’t really suit the long-hair-and-robes guru look, but maybe that was because he was obviously delighted to see them, and was talking enthusiastically with one of the Operators. He saw the scientists disembark and raised his arms.
“Oh my god, FRIENDS!!” he declared. Nadeau heard Campbell laugh slightly. “Please tell me you brought bacon!”
A slightly yellower shade of green rippled on Vedreg’s body for a second, but the huge ET didn’t comment. Of course, Guvnurag were herbivores, weren’t they?
“As a matter of fact we did,” Nadeau stepped forward and shook his hand. “Lieutenant Colonel Claude Nadeau. You must be Lewis.”
“Dude.” Lewis gave him an entirely unexpected though mercifully brief hug. “I’ve been without human contact for like nine months now. I ain’t settling for no weak-ass handshake, especially not when fuckin’ Santa Claus shows up!”
“Nine months? Yurgh.”
“Yah. Not fun. And, like, one dude is not enough to run this shit show, you know?”
The operator he’d been talking to—Vandenberg—spoke up. “Bro. One of our little projects? We cured our own bacon, just as an experiment…it’s fuckin’ good, man.”
“Dude, you’re givin’ me the munchies…”
Vedreg quietly stepped away from the conversation and Nadeau followed him, drifting over to where Kirk and Powell were in conversation. Lee and Campbell stayed behin. “Sorry about that,” he offered.
Vedreg rumbled at length, and his translator took a second to catch up. “Your species are carnivores. I don’t begrudge you that,” he said, as a flash of blue pulsed across him. “But it does make me uncomfortable. I am looking forward to seeing how the authentic Earth ingredients you brought with you compare to what I have.”
Nadeau nodded. “Right, that was in the briefing. You bake?”
“It gives me something to do while I think.”
They joined the conversation between Kirk and Powell.
“-Aye, yeah. Very different to how you last saw it,” Powell was saying. He greeted Claude with a nod. “Between Folctha, New Belfast and the farming villages out along the coast, we’re up to about sixty thousand now, and that’s not counting the alien quarter.”
“Rapid growth!” Kirk commented.
“Corporate money,” Powell explained. “Between Byron, Keystone, and that agricultural offshoot from Hephaestus LLC, there’s a fook of a lot o’ wealth being invested in Cimbrean right now. An’ why not? There’s literally billions of square kilometers of land up for grabs. You should see it. Once you’re past the research outpost at New Penzance, it’s corn fields, potatoes, maize and orchards as far as the eye can see all the way out to the logging operation at New Belfast, and it’s all livestock out the other way past Sellers Lake. Proper cowboys, too, even if they’re using fookin’ quad bikes rather’n horses.”
“It’s rapidly becoming a gentler Earth,” Nadeau commented.
“Well.” Powell wobbled his head. “It’ll be hundreds of years before the Earthlings really start to dominate, but what can you do? I remember the day we heard about the Skidmark—uh, the Terran Microbial Action Zone,” he corrected himself. “Folk were mardy as sin over that, but nowt we can do to stop it. They’re saying that a few species already look like they might just survive though. Cimbrean Tea seems to be doing pretty well.”
“Selection pressure at work,” Nadeau suggested. “The species that were already populous and successful would have the best chance of adapting to the new circumstances.”
A peal of laughter made them look over at the other group. Lewis was pantomiming some kind of strange and stiff robotic movements, then pretended to push something over. Kirk snorted. “That is the most animated I have seen him in months. He has been rather badly depressed recently.”
“Well, I’ve got some news that should pick you both up,” Powell said.
“Your friends Buehler, Chang and Etsicitty. They’re alive and well.”
A huge pink flush that was presumably delight or relief flooded Vedreg’s chromatophores. “Wonderful news!”
Kirk tilted his head upwards and shut his eyes, a gesture that was very human in his strange, long-necked way. “Yes,” he agreed.
“Wait, not the three who are going to Mars?” Nadeau asked.
“The very same,” Powell nodded.
“Mars?” Kirk asked.
“Aye. Don’t ask me why but the three of ‘em are working for Byron nowadays, training up to fly some kind of exploration ship.”
Kirk stared at him. “That’s… perfect!”
Powell tried to questioningly echo the word, but Kirk had already turned. “LEWIS!!”
Lewis lowered his hands from whatever it was he’d been gesticulating, made his apologies and trotted over. Behind him the conversation continued with some laughter and nods.
“Who-?” Lewis’ brain caught up. “Xiù? Julian and Allison? They made it?”
“The Lads pulled ‘em out of a life raft about six months ago.” Powell said.
“They spent some time in hospital, but they’re safe and sound,” Claude added.
“Yes!!” Despite the mass difference, Powell had to take a step back as Lewis power-hugged him. “You are like the best good news fairy!”
Powell cleared his throat, and gently levered the smaller man off him. “You’re welcome.” Across the bay, Nadeau saw Blaczynski and Vandenberg struggling to maintain neutral expressions. He could hardly blame them.
“It gets better,” Kirk told him. “It seems this Byron Group had much the same idea you did, and are sending them on an exploration mission… presumably to find habitable deathworlds?” he asked, turning to Powell and Nadeau.
“That’s the shape of it,” Powell agreed.
“And when they find them-!” Lewis enthused, racing ahead of the conversation, “We can target the coltainers!”
“Ah, yes.” Claude stepped in. “I think this might be a good moment to discuss these Von Neumann probes of yours…”
Date Point 10y8m AV
Uncharted Class 12 deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm
“Do you taste that?”
“It’s that same strange smoke again…”
Four days after their encounter with the strange wingless bird at the river, the village was on edge. Nobody had even bothered to mock them for bringing back root-birds. So many root-birds after all at least demonstrated skill and cunning, and the three hunters had been so plainly shaken and worried by what they had seen that nobody thought to tease them.
Especially not when the Singer had spoken quietly to each of them alone in her tent and declared that they were telling the truth. Vemik had asked the Dancer later on what spells her teacher had cast to know such a thing and she had, with a smile, revealed a little secret of the magic of women: that the best magic required no spells at all.
“If you had been lying,” she said “the others would not have known what details you made up to cover the lie.”
“…And she would have seen that our stories were not the same.” Vemik finished.
The Dancer had given him her prettiest smile and taken some fur from the tuft at the end of his tail as an assurance of secrecy. “You’re a rare one, Sky-Thinker,” she had said. “You’re nearly as clever as a woman.”
Vemik, as ever, turned his thoughts to the sky when he was at work as he was now. He was mentoring one of the boys in keeping watch. It wasn’t a fun job, but it was an important one—slathering one’s orange crest with mud to hide its brilliant hue and then skulking in a treetop east of the village with a shouting-stone on a length of cord was both boring and unpleasant, and brushing the mud out afterwards could take a whole morning, but if the eastern tribe did decide to raid…
There was no reason why they should—this year had been a superb season. The Werne had bred well, the rains had come often, the fruits were heavy and the eating good. Nobody under the great open sky should be starving. Now was a time of peace, when daughters were traded and hunting parties met respectfully and parted ways by mutual agreement.
But there was always the possibility that their women had read some portent or another that demanded blood. There was always the possibility that they had been raided and would mistakenly blame Vemik’s tribe. The only thing certain in life was that, eventually, there would be another raid and so the sentries endured the itchy drying mud in their fur and kept watch.
Vemik looked to the east, raising a hand against the sun and licking the air. It was definitely the same smoke he had tasted a few days prior, and after a few seconds of searching, he made out a faint grey column staining the eastern horizon.
“…That’s their village!” he mused.
The boy by his side—one of Vemik’s nephews, Yatak u Yafek n Metti—peered hopelessly in the direction he was looking. The boy was a blur-eye and no use as a hunter at all as anything beyond arm’s length was just a blob to him, but he had skilled hands for stone-shaping, sharp ears and an acute sense of taste, and a sentry relied more on those senses anyway.
“What is that?” he asked, tongue lashing as he sampled more of the strange smoke on the breeze. “It tastes evil.”
“I don’t know,” Vemik agreed. “It isn’t wood or charcoal, it isn’t flesh, fat or bone… But it comes from over our neighbors to the east.”
He stood up to his full height and tasted the smoke one last time, then decided to call for the others. He took the shouting-stone from his belt and spun it in a slow circle from his hand until it was hooting quietly to itself, just loud enough for him to hear.
With three sharp strong swipes, he made it shout three times, waited a moment then did it again, and again. Three groups of three shouts—a call for advice, not an alarm.
He was just getting to the point of contemplating whether to repeat the call in case it had gone unheard when his father Vemet, his brother Yafek and Yan the Given Man joined them, also covered in mud and armed with spears, axes and slings.
Yan was their Given Man, a brother of the eastern tribe who had led the Easterner’s daughters to them years ago and was welcomed into the tribe as one of their own. His counterpart in the east was one of Vemik’s second cousins, Jaral, who had escorted their own daughters during the trade.
The daughter trade, according to the wisdom of women, was important to keep babies strong and it helped keep relationships between the tribes friendly and respectful for the most part. Only a foolhardy man antagonized his village’s women by killing their brothers, and only an evil or insane man would fight his own brother. Traded Men kept the peace, that was their role, and Yan took his duty very seriously indeed. Vemik trusted him almost more than he trusted some of his own cousins, and Vemet had once been heard to unthinkingly call him ‘brother’.
“That same smoke,” Vemik said, pointing with his spear.
“More of your unkillable birds?” Yafek teased. Yan smacked him sharply on the arm.
“Those are my brothers over there,” he pointed out, staring out at the distant smoke with a tense, scared look in his eye. He tasted the air and flicked an ear cautiously.
“We should investigate,” Vemik said.
“I agree. My daughters are over there,” Vemet growled.
Yan thought about it, then handed Vemik his peace totem. The carved wooden rod with its jovial-faced fat god effigy was brightly painted, and had a twin in the far village. Thus, whoever carried it was known by the other village to be coming in the name of their Given Man.
“You’re the lightest and cleverest of us, Sky-thinker,” he said. “You go.”
“Alone? Me?” Doing it just the once for his test of manhood had been terrifying enough.
“You’re a man now, son,” Vemet agreed. He gripped the back of Vemik’s neck and pressed their foreheads together fondly. “And a good one, too. Turn that sharp mind of yours to scouting and you’ll be back safe, I know it.”
Vemik nodded. “…Ask the Dancer to cast a spell for me?” he requested.
“That’s a fine young woman you’re wooing, Sky-thinker,” Yan observed. “I’m sure she’ll want you back safe: It’ll be a good spell.”
“You have everything you need?” Vemet asked.
Vemik checked his belts. He had rope, his bird-spear thrower, ten bird-spears, his axe and flint core, his twin Werne knives, and everything he needed to start fires. Everything that a man should carry and then some. “…Yes,” he decided.
That one word definitively ended any stalling conversation—it was time for Vemik to prove his bravery. Wresting back his mounting dread, he exchanged gestures of solidarity and brotherhood with all of them, even Yan, then scuttled down the tree to ground level. He cast one backwards glance at home, checked that the peace totem was secure in one of his pouches, then shook himself and headed east.
Date Point 10y8m AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Xiù had never been much of a video gamer, but she’d hung out with her brother often enough, browsing social media on her phone while he was playing… some game or another involving spaceships. She’d forgotten the name. Elite, or something. That had been one of them.
Her simulator was a pared-down version of those games, but on a grand scale. Wei would have chewed off both his feet to play with it.
It wasn’t a game, though: The physics were painstakingly accurate. She’d had the opportunity to show Rylee during their tour of the real ship that afternoon, and had received two things in return: an impressed assessment that the Group needed to start selling that simulation tech to the military, and several pointers which she was now putting into practice.
The real ’click’ moment from Rylee’s tuition had been when she pointed out that there was in fact no such thing as *de*celeration, only *ac*celeration along different vectors. It was such a simple way of saying things that Xiù had immediately felt rather stupid and talentless for failing to see it that way earlier, despite Rylee’s—and her instructors’—assurances that she was anything but.
The truth was, minor embarrassments notwithstanding, she was beginning to feel like a professional pilot. She had beaten every single one of the “expert” challenges the simulation techs had prepared for her, and those few pointers were making all the difference: She was now on the verge of securing the last elusive gold medal time.
Plus-Y thrust three-quarters…three, two, one… null Y, plus-X full and plus-Z one-half… two… one… quarter roll and kill the plus-Z thrust, correct drift with minus-Z… one… pitch up one-eighty and correct the X-axis drift and plus-Y full again… ten, nine, eight…
Beep… beep.. Beep. beep beep beepbeepbeebeebeeeeee..
ESFALS to full power, plus-Z thrust for just one second aaand-!
She threw her head back and pumped both her fists as the simulation gave her a gold medal—accurate landing on an asteroid mining operation in less than forty seconds, at a safe speed and within two meters of dead center on the pad. Perfect.
The scenarios were far more involved, hazardous and high-speed than anything she’d face in the real world of course. Hopefully. But that was the point: If she could pull off stunts like that, then the much more mundane maneuvers she would actually be performing should come easily and naturally.
Plus, it always paid to plan for the emergencies. If she wanted that platinum medal, she was going to have to pull of that exact same stunt with the simulator throwing some kind of technical crisis at her for good measure.
She was about to go for it, when there was a knock on her door. She hit the “dismount” button that pulled her chair back from the controls and spun it one-eighty as the internal airlock to her station turned itself round. The idea was that if something should fracture the glass pilot’s bubble—Xiù’s nerves about that scenario had largely evaporated on seeing just how sturdy the real thing was—then the rest of the ship should be spared decompression.
Allison was waiting outside with her hands in her pockets and red eyes. She gave Xiù a contrite little smile as the chair tipped her out. Something was clearly badly wrong.
“Hey!” Xiù gave her a hug. “Are you okay?”
Allison returned it with interest. “I, uh… No.”
Allison shook her head, took Xiù’s hand and led her into the hab room. Julian was sitting at the table with a grim expression and a letter envelope on the table in front of him.
“Did something happen?” Xiù asked.
Allison picked up the envelope and handed it to her. “Read it.”
“Wow this is formal. Allison Charity Isobelle Buehler, care of Moses Byron Group interstellar, Omaha…”
“The other side, baby.”
Xiù turned it over and blinked at the return stamp—an address in Salt Lake City. “J.M. Buehler…”
“Jacob Michael. That’s my father’s…” Allison ran a hand through her hair. “Jesus, after all these years, he’s still using the same fucking business stamp.”
Julian gave her a squeeze, stood up and made coffees without commenting.
“I thought we weren’t getting mail?” Xiù asked.
“We’re not,” Julian said. “Except from immediate family.”
Xiù reflected on the text messages and emails she got from her brother and parents and nodded. “Why use your full name, though?” she asked.
“To prove it’s them, I guess,” Allison ventured. “You two are the only other people in the world who know my middle names… But I dunno, my father was always kinda, uh, pompous like that.”
Xiù offered the letter to her, but she backed away. “I’m not reading that shit.”
Julian transferred the coffees to their table. “Could be an apology…” he prompted.
“It won’t be.”
Allison sat down and picked up her drink. “They’ll open a ski resort in Hell first.”
Xiù and Julian looked at one another, then sat on either side of her, comfortingly close. She stared long and hard at her reflection in her coffee for a while then finally sighed. “Go ahead and read it.”
“You’re sure-?” Xiù asked.
Julian leaned over and retrieved a knife from the cutlery drawer, which he handed to Xiù without a word. Seconds later the envelope was open, and XIù smoothed the paper out on the table in front of her.
Jacob Buehler had fastidiously neat handwriting that had clearly looped and curled smoothly off the end of rather a nice fountain pen. Even so, the experience of actually reading something handwritten was so foreign to Xiù after all these years that it took a moment for her to interpret what she was seeing.
“Um… ’Dear Allison’,” she read, “’Your mother and I had given up hope of ever hearing about you again. I’m glad we were so wrong.’ Um… *’When you abandoned us-’*”
“Jesus,” Julian grunted, sipping his coffee. Allison just nodded, staring through the table at something only she could see a long, long way away.
“’-We prayed for you every day. We hoped that you would see sense and come home. Though you didn’t find the courage to come back, I’m glad that our prayers were answered and y-…’ wǒ de tiān a!”
“What?” Julian asked. She flapped a hand dismissively and carried on.
“*’…and you’ve somehow managed to achieve something respectable with your life.’*” Xiù put the page down. “Wow!”
With a scowl, Julian gently turned the page round and read the last paragraph. “*’You now have two younger brothers. They are good boys and don’t get into trouble like you used to. We hope-’*”
Allison dumped her coffee over the letter, stood and stormed out of the room.
Julian jumped to his feet as well as the coffee ran over the table and flooded his lap. He swatted it off then gave Xiù a shocked look that asked ’what do we do?’.
“You clean up,” she told him. “I’ll…” she waved a finger generally toward the door.
Allison was slumped against the wall in the decontamination chamber with her elbows on her knees and her fingers in her hair. The moment Xiù sat down next to her she was grabbed and held painfully tight, and there was nothing she could do except wrap Allison up in her arms and whisper encouragement softly to her in whatever words, and whatever language, came to mind.
Julian emerged a minute or two later wearing fresh new clothes, sat down on Allison’s other side and wrapped her up as well, and together they did everything they could to make her feel loved.
Eventually, it worked. She took a huge shuddering breath, sniffed and sat a little more upright, pushing her hair back out of her face. “…God dammit…”
“Hey…” Julian soothed the back of her neck. “It’s okay.”
She sniffed and wiped her nose. “Are you okay? I wasn’t thinking straight, did I get coffee on you?”
“Jesus, I’m still sorry. Really. I was just…”
“Hurt?” Xiù suggested.
“…Yeah.” Allison massaged her cheeks, then tipped her head back and leaned against the wall, wiping her eyes. “God, and I thought I’d dealt with that shit years ago.”
“Family have a way of getting under your skin, huh?” Xiù rubbed her back.
Allison opened her mouth to say something, then scowled at herself and shut it again.
Allison sighed. “It’s not a secret, it’s just that Miss Mouth here was about to be a bitch before I stopped her.”
“That really put you in a bad mood, huh?” Julian observed, unhelpfully.
Again, there was that flash of Allison restraining herself. “…Yeah,” she admitted, after it had passed. “I really wanna lash out at something right now.”
“Sparring?” Xiù suggested.
“Great idea, getting beaten up by my girlfriend is totally gonna make me feel…” Allison paused mid-snark, shut her eyes and exhaled, then shook her head. “…No, thank you baby. Just…”
“Massage?” Julian offered.
“…Now we’re talking.”
“Alright, gimme a minute…” Julian kissed her cheek and stood up to go back into the living space.
Allison and XIù sat together in comfortable silence for a few minutes more, with XIù’s hand drifting reassuringly up and down her back before she abruptly stood up and paced around the prep room, chewing on a fingernail.
Xiù was about to query this when Allison turned around and self-consciously dropped her hands to her sides.
“It’s not just the letter,” she said. “It’s the whole… I just wanted to get out there and do what I know I’m good at. And now the Group’s turning us into these huge celebrities and they dug up all this stuff that I buried for a reason, and now we’re gonna be all over the media having our life histories ripped into…” She sighed. “I just feel so used, you know? And stupid. I really shoulda seen something like this coming.”
She rubbed her eyes again. “The letter from my folks was just the cherry on top, I guess. The last little screw you.”
“Were they always like that?”
Allison shrugged. “Pretty much. They wanted a couple of ’good little boys’ I guess, and what they got was a sulky skinny daughter who used to smoke behind the gym hall and listen to the ’wrong kind of music’, whatever the fuck that is…” She ran a hand through her hair. “…I guess when I ran away I was hoping they’d realize how… that they’d improve, you know? But no, here I am, I’m gonna be, like, the second or third person on freaking Mars, but I’m still momma and papa Buehler’s tearaway little brat. Fuck ‘em!”
“Are you going to reply?”
“I might send them, like, two words,” Allison snorted, but she shook her head. “No. I’m done with them. I don’t have parents. And hell, look at me! Look at us! I’ve done some incredible things already in my life and I’m not even thirty yet, and I did all of it without them. So they can go right to Hell and stay there, both of them.”
Xiù, having no idea what to say, said nothing.
“You’re okay with it though,” Allison observed. If there was a hint of resentment in her voice, Xiù decided to ignore it. “Aren’t you? The…celebrity and everything.”
Xiù nodded cautiously. “Is that…okay?”
“Okay? God, Baby, if you weren’t happy with it I’d feel awful right now. I’d hate to think I dragged you into…”
“Al.” Xiù stood up and put her hands on Allison’s upper arms, rubbing them reassuringly. “You could never ‘drag’ me. I’d follow you anywhere.”
“You saved my life! And you’ve given me an anchor, a purpose, you’ve taught me how to feel human again…” They kissed, then rested forehead-to-forehead and nose to nose. “You’ve given me everything I never knew I wanted.” Xiù told her. “Of course I’d follow you, into anything.”
Allison sighed. “What if I said I didn’t want this anymore?” she whispered. “What if I just wanted to go back to Minnesota and just be the three of us, as if we were all alone on the whole planet? Would you follow me then?”
Xiù wrapped her arms around her head and held her close. “Please don’t,” she pleaded. “Because I would.”
“But you’d hate it.”
Xiù shook her head. “No, you would. Would you ever really forgive yourself if you let this beat you?”
Allison stood up straight again. “…No,” she acknowledged, looking much more like herself at last. “No I wouldn’t.”
“So…are we going back to Minnesota?”
There was a soft chuckle from the doorway. Julian was leaning against it watching them fondly, demonstrating yet again that he was silence incarnate when he wanted to be. “There’s the Allison we love.”
“Yeah,” Xiù agreed. “There she is.”
Allison wasn’t much of a blusher, but it was there sometimes. She smiled at her feet, then cleared her throat, eyes shining. “…I needed that.”
Julian smiled, and tilted his head toward the living space. “Go get cleaned up. Massage is waiting, when you’re ready.”
Allison nodded, kissed them both, and retired to the shower. Once she was gone, Xiù blew out all of her tension and sad feelings and shook her arms limber, before smiling at Julian. “I think she’s feeling better.”
He nodded “I wish I had half your skill at saying the right thing…”
Xiù kissed him too. “You’re fine.”
“Hmm…” he said, skeptically. “…Uh, can you promise me something?”
“Could you…write your mom and dad? Tell them how you feel? I think…” Julian sighed and nodded in Allison’s general direction. “I think it’s important that one of us has proper parents…And I know you’ve got a lot of stuff you wanted to tell them.”
He was right, and not half as bad at saying the right thing as he thought. “…Will you help?” Xiù asked. “I don’t know how to say what I want to say.”
“I’d love to.”
Date Point 10y8m2d AV
Uncharted Class 12 deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm
All Vemik could taste was ash, and this close the wrongness of that ash was a physical, disgusting force that was giving him a crisis of confidence. There was a searing, caustic edge to the scent unlike anything he’d ever sampled before and it was turning his stomach and disturbing his thoughts.
The worse part of the scent, however, was cooked flesh. Not the healthy warm mealy smell of Werne, or the delicate perfume of roasted root-bird. This was person flesh, scorched black and ruined where the fat had melted and burned, cremating them even as they died.
He knew because he could see the bodies. Poor, twisted, desperate things that had stiffened from death and the heat into frantic clawing poses… all facing the same way. All fleeing something.
And worst of all… many of those bodies wore the blue beads of his tribe’s given-away daughters. He was ankle deep in the charred corpses of his sisters.
Tracking what had happened would have been easy even for a beginner boy. For a man of Vemik’s tribe the very landscape screamed of what had happened. Something huge, far bigger than even the most legendary Yshek, had clawed its way out of the deep forest coming from the south. It had sliced through trees—literally cut them with awful flat precision. There was no frayed and splintered wood, just clean flat surfaces where whatever-it-was had decided that a tree was in its way, and had calmly sliced it as cleanly through as a man with a good flint blade might butcher a steak.
It had been so heavy that its six round-footed legs had crushed and sunk into hard dry earth, and as it walked it had thrown fire ahead of it with enough force to blast huts apart and scatter their burning wreckage, and with enough heat to ignite people and pulverize their bones.
The survivors had scattered, fleeing into the forest. North, east, west, they had gone every which way like root-birds, which at least ensured that some of them must have survived.
The death demon had pursued the largest band northwards, uprooting and cutting trees as it went with terrifying force. In Vemik’s imagination it looked like a Skithral, a palm-sized stinging creature whose venom could kill a child and make a man gravely ill, and whose segmented body could cover the ground with shocking speed. He envisioned the destroyer writhing and twisting as it barged between the trees and shouldered huts out of the way.
Moving quickly and quietly he grabbed what evidence he could, and was fortunate. A set of blackened blue beads from one of the bodies (he tried not to wonder which of his cousins and sisters she had been), the village Singer’s scrying bowl, cracked and blackened by the fire that had ruined her hut. He found the other half of the peace totem he was carrying—the shaped ends fit together easily and without force.
He was scavenging for one last item to truly support his tale when a familiar thrumming made him flick an ear. He looked up, then darted for the cover of the treeline on the south of the village. It wasn’t the closest but Vemik was thinking like a Trung, which never ran toward their nest when threatened.
He made it into the bushes and up a tree as fast as he could go, clambering up it hands, feet and tail in an efficient instinctive scramble. A cleft where two sturdy lengths of trunk had grown together and merged offered him a place to hide and watch.
Two of the wingless birds swept into the ruins of the village. They fanned out and darted back and forth among the bodies and wreckage with rays of red light gleaming out of their eyes, probing and searching. Vemik, who had never even conceived of seeing such a thing, shrank into his hiding place and watched with wide eyes.
One of them paused over the body of the woman whose beads he’d taken. It scrutinized her twisted corpse from several angles, and then drifted across the ground, carefully studying the mud as it floated over to another body… the one he’d claimed the peace totem from.
Very, very carefully and slowly, Vemik slipped his bow off his back. His tail reached up and coiled around a branch, lifting him enough to he could use both his hands and his feet. He braced his feet against the trunk, giving him three points of stability and slipped a bird-spear from its sheath.
The wingless bird inspected the totem-bearer’s remains, then aimed its rays suspiciously in Vemik’s direction. Mapping the ground, it turned and drifted towards his hiding place.
Vemik notched his bird-spear and, scarcely daring to draw a breath, he drew. The eye. The eye was always a weak spot on everything, even Yshek.
He whistled loudly. The odd bird-thing and its companion both immediately turned their large black eyes toward him and he shot.
The bird-spear flew true and crashed into the thing’s eye with a noise—and an effect—not dissimilar to flint breaking. Sharp little bits of what must have been incredibly pure but thin quartz went everywhere and the oddbird reeled drunkenly in the air. Lightning of all things snapped inside it and it jerked, dropped, rolled and lay there smoking.
The other shot after him making an angry beeping sound and Vemik ran.
It was fast. Of course it was fast, it was a bird! A bird made of quartz and lightning somehow, but anything that flew was always going to be faster than anything that merely ran and brachiated.
He sprinted along a thick branch and launched himself off the end, using the wood’s natural flex and bend to give him a little extra spring. Desperation gave him the wings he needed to reach a branch he might have ordinarily missed and he swung on it. The young bough bent with his weight, and a bolt of brilliant, evil blue flame punched past him and singed the tuft of his tail as it smacked into a tree and left a scorched crater.
He yelped and let go of the branch. A second blast of fire would have incinerated him had he held on, and the death-bird’s speed carried it over his head. It banked and whined and twisted between trees and branches, howling for his blood as it looked for a clean run-up.
Vemik landed sure-footedly on a lower limb and sprang forward to briefly grip the side of one tree trunk before springing off at an angle, landing, leaping, landing again in a zig-zag that carried him from tree to tree and denied the death-bird a clear line of attack.
He prayed to every god, even the evil ones, and to Dancer’s magic that his memory of the forest was accurate….
He scuttled up a Bathrak tree’s smooth bole and flung himself into space just before the bird, which had somehow grown wide wings that glowed like fire at the edges, plunged towards him. It missed by a hand’s width or less and should have crashed into the tree, but instead those fire-blade wings sliced cleanly through the wood, sending a two-hundred-year-old forest monster crashing and groaning as it fell.
Vemik’s memory had been true. He snatched in mid air, caught one of the long beard-like vines of the Forestfather tree he’d been aiming for and swung in a long arc around its trunk.
The death-bird shot at him again, but Vemik had already let go, diving through the Forestfather’s outer curtain of vines.
It followed. Its wings clipped the ancient tree’s beard, sending dozens of vines coiling like ropes to the leaf litter below, but what Vemik knew, and what the death-bird apparently hadn’t, was that this particular Forestfather had grown at the base of a short cliff.
Those wing-blades did it no good at all when it charged blindly into solid rock.
It took Vemik several long minutes to get his frantic breathing under control, and to dare to descend the cliff to examine the wreckage. When he did, he found his fourth and final evidence of the attack among the debris in the form of one of the death-bird’s wing blades. Although the fire had died on the edge of those wings, when he picked one up and tested its edge it turned out to be sharper than even the best Werne-knife or sharp flint. He tapped it against a rock and cocked his head at the alien ’Tink!’. Whatever it was made from, it was light, strong, sharp and durable. Even ramming into a stone cliff much faster than a man could sprint hadn’t deformed or broken it. A fine trophy.
He also took the death-bird’s eye. Then, after dusting his hands he scaled the cliff and headed for home, making the best speed he could.
His people were going to have to run.
Date Point 10y8m2d AV
Mrwrki Station, Uncharted System, Deep Space
Major Owen Powell
The SOR had set up in what had once been Mrwrki’s hydroponics laboratory. According to the station’s records, the lab’s glass dome and forcefields had originally worked to channel and filter the sunlight of whatever distant sun it was that Mrwrki had orbited, until unexpectedly leaping tens of thousands of lightyears across the galaxy and crashing into a moon had slightly disrupted their operational effectiveness.
The entire hydroponic crop had died starving for energy from the too-distant, too-dim red star that was still, as yet, unnamed. The Techs and the Lads seemed to have endless fun trying to out-geek each other to produce the nerdiest possible name for it. So far the frontrunner seemed to be ’Silmaril’, edging out such worthy contenders as ’Vulcan’ (too obvious), ’Jita’ (too copyrighted), ’Yavin’ (too famous) and ’Starry McStarFace’ (which had received the eloquent rejection ‘lol, no’).
Powell might have ventured ’Giordano’, but had decided to stay out of it. A little friendly competition between Techs and Operators was something to be nurtured, not disrupted by the CO blundering in with his unsolicited ha’penny-worth.
Instead he was catching up with Kirk over his carefully managed dinner. Fearsome as he tried to be, there was no way he was going to get back to Cimbrean and explain to Sergeant Arés that he’d screwed up his meal plan. The young man had proved disarmingly talented at giving his CO exactly as much of a telling-off as their respective ranks permitted. He could wield the word ’macronutrients’ like a claymore, and the words ’interval training’ were written above the gates to a special hell of his own devising.
“Nope,” he was saying. “Not a peep these seven years. Like they dropped right out of the fookin’ universe.”
“That is… a shame. Miss Delaney seemed exceptionally resourceful.”
“So did Saunders, for all the man’s nickname was well fookin’ deserved.” Powell shrugged. “Who knows, though? We’d just about written you off… They might pop up yet. I’d like to see her again at least.”
“Yes. She made quite the impression, as I recall.” Kirk snorted, an amused gesture that Powell knew his species and humans had in common.
Powell laughed. “Aye! Hah! *’Which one of you eejits wants to hand me a feckin’ towel?!’*” he sipped his juice and laughed again. “Ah… What a woman. I’d have loved to be the one to tell her she managed to shit a whole planet to death. Can you imagine her face?”
Kirk snorted again as Powell finished his juice. “I imagine she would have been in two minds about it.”
“Aye… Heh. I should tell Rylee that story sometime. She’d bust a gut.”
“Rylee? Your FTL test pilot Rylee Jackson?”
“The very same. Don’t ask me what she sees in a bald bell-end like me, but we’re, mm… involved.”
“I believe the term is ’a bit of rough’.”
Powell laughed again. He’d forgotten how well he got along with Kirk—there weren’t many people of any species who could get him to genuinely laugh out loud, but alien body language had blessed Kirk with an absolutely flawless deadpan. “Aye, that’d be it,” he agreed.
“We missed so much…” Kirk mused. “I would like to see Cimbrean again. It sounds very different.”
Powell paused in tearing a meal pouch open with his teeth. “…I tell you what, mate. I’ve never loved a city more, an’ that’s the fookin’ truth,” he said. “It’s…It makes me wonder what’d happen if we just hit the reset button on all the governments on Earth, y’know? Told ‘em ’Right, piss off the lot of yer, we’re gonna write up a new constitution from scratch and start over.’ I wonder how much better the world would be if we did that?”
“Forgive me, are you not sworn to protect the constitution?” Kirk inquired.
Powell shook his head. “That’s the Americans.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s not realistic… but summat tells me that if this deathworld colonization moonshot of your mate Lewis’ works, a lot of those colonies’ll turn out to be much better places to live than Earth.”
“It sounds like you believe in the human frontier spirit.”
“Well isn’t that just beautifully Star Trek? *’Frontier spirit*’?” Powell scoffed. “Sounds like a fookin’ car! Look, mate, do you know what building Folctha cost us? I’ve seen shit that still gives me the shakes years on. Do you know what a little girl sounds like when she dies?”
Kirk raised his head, shocked. “Powell-”
“I *do.*” his voice broke on the second word, and he cleared his throat. “That city has her blood in its mortar, and by God we’d better make summat that’s fookin’ worthy of her.”
Kirk, wisely, said nothing and instead gave him space and time to arrive at his point.
Powell backed down a bit. “…It’s not about frontier spirit, or adventure or any of that sappy ’what’s-over-the-next-horizon’ bollocks,” he declared. “It’s the simple fact of humans that we go stir-fookin’-crazy unless we’ve got summat important to do. Summat to fight for. And if we can’t find owt that’s important, we start fighting over unimportant shit instead.”
Kirk nodded slowly. “And Cimbrean is something important.”
“Fookin’ right it is! Because maybe, just fookin’ maybe, if we can claw out a future for ourselves, if we can give people an actual life’s work rather than leaving ‘em as meat in the grinder, the day may yet come where there’s no poor bastards left who think the only future they have is blowing themselves up for God, or whatever.”
He took a deep breath, ran a hand over his scalp and shook his head, snapping back into a more normal frame of mind. “Christ, that was heavy of me. Sorry.”
Kirk tapped his plastic fingers on the tabletop, thoughtfully. “It sounded,” he opined, “like something you have wanted to say for a while.”
“You’re a sympathetic ear, mate.”
“And a confidential one. You are not the first human to, ah, ’offload your baggage’ on me.”
“That wasn’t baggage, just… frustration. It’s been a pressure cooker on Earth for years, and we’ve maybe finally got the chance to let some of that pressure escape. Even for a stone-faced twat like me that’s exciting.”
Kirk nodded his understanding again. “So that is why you have been counselling Lieutenant-Colonel Nadeau to go ahead with the Coltainer project,” he surmised.
“Aye. Should buy us a few centuries at least.”
“And after those centuries are up?” Kirk asked.
Powell shrugged, and picked up his meal pouch again. “Let’s worry about this bridge for now, aye? We‘ll worry about the next one once we’re across.”
“You know, only humans think like that…” Kirk pointed out. Powell just shrugged.
“It’s worked for us so far,” he said.
Date Point 10y8m3d AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Now that they were through selection, Kevin Jenkins had taken a personal interest in guiding the three Misfit crew through their last two months of training. It was a pretty basic change to their schedule—he met them first thing in the day to give them a potted summary of the day’s news and developments.
This time was different. All they’d found waiting for them was a note inviting them to join Kevin at the tactical obstacle course at the back of the facility, in a shallow natural valley that had been deepened and banked up to catch stray bullets. It was a maze of spraypainted MDF walls, oil drums, pallets and crates, tractor tyres and a couple of shot-up SUVs, overseen by a fleet of quadcopters with holographic emitters that could zip around above it generating targets.
The course was Allison’s turf, and she made use of it every day before coming home under the watchful eye of a retired SWAT officer called Jason Hammond. She called it “good relaxation”. Julian had watched her run it one time, in an efficient bustle of move, shoot, move, shoot, shoot, move, swap weapon, and had wondered what she could possibly find relaxing about it.
Kevin and Hammond were conversing in the course’s armory when they arrived, joking and getting on like old friends.
They chorused their variations on the theme of “hello”, and Julian asked the obvious question.
“So, what’s with the change of scenery?” he inquired.
“Got a new toy for y’all.” Kevin chuckled, “or rather for Allison.”
Allison stood up straighter. “For me?”
Kevin grinned fiercely—he was the only Abductee any of them knew who did so bare-teethed and openly—and indicated the black plastic case that Hammond had just heaved onto the table.
Allison lit up like three Christmases had come along at once. “Oooh! Guns!”
“Not just any guns.” Hammond popped the latches. “The SOR just put in an order for a couple dozen’a these. Take a look.”
Julian laughed quietly to himself and shared a knowing smile with Xiù as Allison dived in like an eager kid. She came up with a rifle that she turned this way and that with increasing bemusement.
“Sexy!” she enthused. “But…weird action. Where’s the brass come out?”
“It doesn’t. You’re holding a gauss rifle.”
Allison lowered it. “You’re shitting me! Somebody made a working gauss rifle?”
“Yyyup. It’s called the GR–1d, and pretty much every magazine, blog and YouTube channel’s billing it as the next SCAR. The SOR just ordered a bunch…What you’ve got there is the marksman variant.”
Allison put it down and produced the intro booklet which she dived into. It didn’t take long before she gave an impressed low whistle. “These are some big promises…”
“Mr. Williams checked them.” Kevin said.
“Y’know, he may even have actually smiled…”
Julian snorted. They hadn’t met Byron Group’s security chief often, and the impression he’d given, while polite and professional, was that while he knew all about smiling he didn’t really see the appeal.
Allison turned and beamed at him, lifting the gun. “Whaddya think?”
“You’re never sexier than when you’re armed, Al,” he told her. Beside him, Xiù laughed and nodded.
“Hot,” she agreed, maybe a touch sarcastically.
“Glad you think so!”
Kevin grunted a small laugh. “Before your harem get too enthusiastic…”
“…how about you actually shoot that thing?”
Allison looked to Hammond for his permission. At his nod she bounded toward the door with an expression of feral enthusiasm. Hammond followed with an air of avuncular amusement.
“We are not a harem!” Xiù complained as the door closed behind them.
“Ah, Hell,” Kevin turned back. “I didn’t mean nothing by it.”
Xiù stared at him for a second, then relaxed. “…Okay.”
Kevin gave her a strange look, then met Julian’s eye and wisely decided to just nod and drop it. He elected to join Allison and Hammond out on the course, and Julian watched the three of them put on hearing and eye protection before they lined up some static targets to start out.
Julian put his arm around Xiù’s waist and stood close to her. “You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah…” she sighed, “just another reminder that my brain doesn’t work properly any more…”
“It works fine!” Julian objected. She shook her head.
“A Gaoian would have had her claws out at that ’harem’ thing,” she explained. “And… the doctors said I’m probably never going to stop thinking a bit like they do.”
“You don’t mind when we tease you,” Julian pointed out. “And you tease back!”
“I trust you and I love you.” Xiù watched Allison fire off some practice shots at a holographic Hunter then smile broadly with an enthusiastic nod and an ’oh yeah!’ as they formed a surprisingly tight and neat grouping, and not far off center-mass either. “Both of you,” she added.
Julian put his arm round her waist and she rested her head on his shoulder. “Fuck Nervejam, huh?”
“Yeah. And then sometimes something like that happens and reminds me that I really can’t relate to anybody else but you nowadays.”
He kissed her on the cheek, then got a better kiss when she turned her head. “But you’re okay, right?” he asked.
She nodded and gave him a smile. “I’m great! I’ve never felt so positive in my life, I promise!” she turned toward him. “Are you?”
He smiled and nuzzled her neck. “I sometimes have bad days where I only feel like, oh, the second luckiest guy in the universe…”
She laughed musically. “So, pretty good, then.”
Julian nodded and kissed her again. “Pretty good,” he agreed.
He caught Allison watching them through the glass—she gave him a wink and a warm smile and returned to testing her new toy.
“It’s good to see her smiling again,” he said.
“Yeah. I didn’t like making her so stressed…”
Xiù nodded. “Just…I mean, ever since I was little I dreamed of being a famous actress. This feels a lot like I’m making that dream happen, and she hates it.”
“Deep down, Al cares too much about what people think,” Julian suggested. They watched her enthuse over the rifle, then smile even broader as Hammond introduced her to a pistol that had the same sleek look. Presumably a gauss pistol? Whatever it was, Allison looked happier than she had in weeks as she looked it over, loaded it and swiss-cheesed a target with tight groupings to its emaciated chest and toothy face.
“Damn she’s a good shot!” Xiù said, admiringly.
“Way she tells it, she fired off a box of nine-mill every lunch break for four years,” Julian recalled. “And you should have seen her on…Izbrk? Think it was called Izbrk. Same place I lost my foot.”
“And Hammond’s been tutoring her for months…”
Outside on the course, Allison nodded and Hammond loaded up a scenario of some kind. He placed the rifle inside a blue water drum halfway down the course then stood behind her and counted down with his hand on her back. Allison took some preparatory breaths and…
Julian and Xiù watched their girlfriend turn into a punchy package of mobile murder. There was nothing flashy about how she moved, just fast, sharp and intense. Weight forward, weapon snapping from angle to angle, servicing hostiles the very instant they appeared as she advanced toward the rifle, which she retrieved after holstering the pistol.
The rifle was a different business altogether. Once retrieved, she got low in cover and started tapping down her targets. Up, move, kill, move, cover the angles, kill, then put the rifle in another drum and finish the course with her pistol again.
The final step was to prove to Hammond that the weapon was empty and safe. He took it off her then gave her a huge congratulatory slap on the back, pointing at the clock at the end of the course, which was flashing a proud “1:18”.
Xiù spoke first. “…Wow.”
“That’s actually scary.”
“Yyyup” Julian repeated. “Hot, ain’t it?”
“Yeah!” Xiù shook herself back to reality then blushed. “Um… yeah.”
Julian was still laughing when Allison bounded back into the armory with animated enthusiasm. “Oh my God did you see that?!”
“That was amazing!” Xiù told her.
“Uh-huh! I got within ten seconds of my best time!”
“With a completely unfamiliar weapon, too,” Hammond said, setting the weapon in question down on the table. “I actually managed less than a minute with this beauty.”
“It’s incredible!” Allison enthused. “You spend so much less time reloading!”
“Sold, then,” Kevin observed.
“Hell the fuck yes!”
“Right. We’ll order a couple with their role conversion kits for ya.” Hammond said, packing up.
“And you three’d better get to your sessions for the day,” Kevin added.
“Thanks Kevin. I take back every mean thing I said about you.” Allison joked.
“Well shucks, I better start making you say NEW mean things about me.”
Julian chuckled, and led the way out. Allison gave them both a kiss and bounced off in the direction of her engineering instruction, clearly enlivened.
“Hot, eh?” he asked, as soon as she was out of earshot. “Thought you’re ’basically straight’?”
“Aargh, don’t start,” Xiù warned him. “My head’s confused enough without questioning my sexuality as well.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
Fortunately, their morning sessions were in adjacent parts of the building, so they had a few minutes to talk as they walked.
She thought for a few steps. “It’s like… No, I think I’ve got it pretty much figured out. For a while I worried whether it was another symptom of the nervejam, and I worried about what might happen if I, uh, ’healed’…”
Xiù shrugged. “But… look, my brain likes to worry about stuff.” They reached the elevator and she pressed the call button. “I’ve always had this jabbering monkey on my shoulder constantly freaking out about everything. That’s why I meditate, it helps me love the moment and tell the monkey to go focus on the important stuff.”
“And worrying about what the nervejam did to you isn’t important stuff?”
She giggled as the elevator arrived. “I mean… yes, okay, permanent brain damage, yaaay! That’s kind of a big deal, sure. But can I do anything about it?” she asked, pressing the button for the top floor. “No, I can’t. And it’s not stopped me from learning how to fly a ship, brushing up on my language studies, and having a pretty good love life. It got in the way of my sex life a bit, but I’m working on that…”
She turned a bit pink, then rallied. “So…yeah! I’m always going to worry about stuff but if an alien brain grenade didn’t stop me then an invisible monkey on my shoulder doesn’t stand a chance.”
Julian laughed, reflecting admiringly that Xiù had an absolutely rock-solid core behind her quiet facade. But of course, that’s what had attracted both him and Allison in the first place. “Attagirl.”
She laughed with him. “When you think about it? Straight, gay, bisexual, *Allison*sexual, *us*sexual… or whatever? They’re just labels. They don’t matter, not really.”
“I guess if you’ve spent your whole life practicing to know what matters and what doesn’t…” Julian nodded.
“Right! And… God, there was one boy at school who was just… he came out and overnight he was suddenly the gayest, you know? Fuh-lay-ming!” she flipped her hands extravagantly to sell the point. “…And most of us were just like, ’Okay, we get it, you like guys! Cool! Whatever! You’re making a bigger deal of it than literally everyone else!’. You know? Does there have to be this whole culture attached to it, or can you just carry on as if it’s not a big deal? Because it’s not!”
“Wow,” Julian commented, as the door opened. “I’ve never heard you go on a rant like that before.”
“Guess it’s a subject that cuts close to the bone, huh?”
“…Maybe a little. The monkey keeps bugging me to pick the right label, and I want to focus on improving other things.”
She went bright red, which he suspected answered his question, but that iron core showed itself again when she glanced up and down the hall to make sure they were alone and unobserved. “Like… well, like having a proper sex life. That’d be nice.”
“Hmm. You know, I think I might know somebody who can help there…”
She licked her lips and smiled nervously, clearing her throat. “You do, huh?”
Julian gave a deep chuckle low in the back of his throat. “I can think of one or two…”
She shut her eyes and shivered. “Um. I’d, um, better get to class.”
“Okay…” he slipped his hand round her waist and kissed her. “We’ll talk about your sex life later.”
“Ssssure. Okay. Later.”
He kissed her again, and deployed one of the Chinese words he’d secretly rehearsed with Allison recently. “Love you, bǎobèi.”
“Mm… Wǒ yě ài nǐ…Um, I mean-”
“I know what it means, shǎguā. ”
She licked her lips again, nodded and slipped away.
Julian watched her go, then turned towards his own lessons. A plan was forming in his mind. All he needed was to recruit Allison, and he suspected he knew just the thing…
Date Point 10y8m3d AV
Uncharted Class 12 planet, Near 3Kpc Arm
No more death-birds had followed him at least, but Vemik was under no illusions whatever force controlled them was aware of him and must have at least a vague sense of the direction of his village, which was why it came as a profound relief when he finally laid eyes on the thatched huts of home.
There was the thrum of a shouting-stone in a nearby tree. Two beats, welcoming a returning member of the tribe. He raised a hand toward the sentry and dropped to ground level to cross the open ground around the village.
His father came running out of his hut and looked at the sun for a moment, thanking the gods. The old man must have been worried.
Vemik didn’t let him ask stupid questions. “Dead!” he shouted, breaking into a run. “They’re all dead!”
Such an extraordinary shout had the tribe coming out to see what was going on, and Vemik soon found himself surrounded.
He didn’t bother repeating himself. He just produced the set of glazed and blackened giving-away beads he’d taken from the unidentifiable corpse of one of his sisters. Vemet stared at it, then took it with shaking hands, and began to make a soft mourning sound in the back of his throat. “…I made these for Yetta.”
Vemik nodded and put his arms round the old man for comfort. Yetta had been his favorite daughter and while it was every father’s burden to eventually say goodbye to his daughters and send them to another tribe, the beads were an important blessing of safety and long life, the fond hope of a parent wishing his child the very best.
Vemik could not have found a worse thing to hand him.
Vemet just kept staring at them as he sat slowly down on his backside in the dirt. His brother, Vemik’s uncle Jaran, put a hand on his shoulder and began to sing softly, the old words of the funeral song. The whole tribe took it up, even Yan and his sisters, who went grim-faced as Vemik handed over the two halves of the peace totem.
The Singer took her eastern counterpart’s ritual bowl with shaking hands. “Not even their strongest magic protected them…” she mused.
“Whoever did this can make birds out of stone and lightning,” Vemik told her, producing the eye and blade he’d taken as trophies. She shook her head uncomprehendingly as she studied them. “The enemy’s magic is more powerful,” he concluded.
She shook her head. “Magic can’t make rock fly,” she declared. “It can bring good fortune, strong babies, cure sickness, but… making a bird out of lightning? That’s impossible.”
“I know what hunted me, grandmother.”
“…Whatever power can make a bird out of stone, what can we do?”
“It can make far worse than just a bird. I only saw its tracks but there’s something else out there, a skithral as big as a hut or bigger and I would bet my knives of manhood that it can spit blue fire, just like the birds.” Vemik became aware that the tribe was staring at him. “It hunted them down,” he added. “They scattered like root-birds, but I saw its tracks and the trees it smashed as it hunted them.”
“But you killed them,” Yerak pointed out. “Didn’t you?”
“Two of the birds, but…” Vemik presented his tail-tip for inspection. The burn from where blue flame had barely missed him throbbed and he had doubts that his fur would grow back. He looked to the Dancer. “You cast a spell for me?”
She nodded. “…I danced until I fell down.”
“Then you saved my life.”
Vemet stood, shakily. “So. We have to run.”
“The Dancer’s strongest magic barely saved me from just one of those birds. If the other thing finds us… Only the gods could help us, and they didn’t help my sisters.”
Several members of the tribe squinted at the sun. The home of the gods was suddenly a much less comforting thing.
“When?” Somebody asked. Yan’s oldest sister, Hetro.
“Their village is only a day’s walk from here,” Vemik pointed out. “We should really go right now…”
“We don’t have the supplies prepared,” Yan pointed out. “And the sun is already past peak.”
“…Then we go at dawn.” Vemet decided. “Everybody. Get ready. Prepare food, water and whatever you can’t bear to leave. Be sensible about it.”
He turned to the Singer. “Where should we go?”
She harrumphed. “Don’t you remember your own words of manhood, Stone-tapper?”
Vemet tasted the air as he remembered. “…’The song of the setting sun’,” he recalled. “West, then?”
“Trust the magic, Stone-tapper. It can’t make birds of stone and lightning or skithrals that spit blue fire, but it will do what it can.”
Vemet looked at the beads in his hand, looking like a man having a crisis of faith, then slipped them onto his wrist and headed for his hut.
“Sky-thinker,” the Dancer said, touching his arm.
“You’re covered in death. Let me wash you, and put something on that burn.”
Vemik looked down at himself. He was absolutely foul with mud and ashes, he realized, and now that he came to notice it he itched all over.
“That sounds good,” he admitted, “but… do we have time?”
The Singer trilled the filthy laugh universal to all grandmothers. “Sky-thinker, if you can’t make time for being washed by a pretty girl then there is hardly any point in running away because you’re already dead,” she told him mock-sternly.
Both Vemik and the Dancer laughed, and the Dancer took his hand. “Come on,” she said.
“You two will have many strong babies,” the Singer predicted.
“Grandmother! Is now really the time?”
“Oh, don’t worry about her,” the Dancer said as she pulled him away. The Singer was still cackling to herself as she bustled off to gather her things. “Let’s just get you cleaned up.”
Vemik nodded and allowed himself to be led. “…You’re right.”
She trilled her musical laugh. “The babies can come later, when you’re in the mood for it…”
She always knew how to make him feel better.
Date Point 10y8m3d AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
The best part of the Nest was the middle. It was the one place where Xiù could sleep deeply, soundly and without dreams, sheltered on both sides by warm and loving bodies.
The problem now was that the conversation Julian had teased her with that morning hadn’t materialized. He’d returned to the Box with Allison after time on the obstacle course, and as their evening wound on through cleaning up, dinner and preparing for bed, she caught them giving each other those looks. The ones that usually presaged them vanishing into the shower together at some point.
Feeling a little hurt and neglected, therefore, she made up their nest-bed early that night and lay down to sleep in the middle of it. It wasn’t her turn, but they could damn well give her some affection once they were done with each other.
To her surprise, not only did they not complain but they didn’t steal away into the shower either. They joined her. Julian designated himself as the “big spoon” and tucked up behind her with his right arm under her head, while Allison wriggled into her shoulder and put her head down with a slight smile.
Xiù knew that smile—that was a mischief-smile, and Allison usually only wore it when she was about to do something tormentingly sultry to Julian.
But… they’d laid down and said their goodnights and had both apparently drifted off to sleep. Which meant she found herself lying there wondering just what the hell they had been up…
It dawned on her that there was something firm pressed against her butt, and that Julian’s warm, strong right hand was resting tantalizingly close to her breast, much closer than usual. His dominant left hand, meanwhile, was draped over her hip to rest lightly on her upper thigh. Suddenly she couldn’t think of anything else but where those hands could so easily go if they only moved a couple of inches…
In the vague hope that doing so might somehow resolve her predicament, she wiggled a little closer into his embrace, only to find that she’d achieved precisely the opposite. He responded sleepily to the contact by holding her closer, and his right hand moved slightly. Instead of resting nearby, his hand was now on her breast, applying a steady and sensuous pressure through her shirt…
She bit her lip and closed her eyes, and wriggled closer still. His fingers squeezed gently and he kissed her neck.
”Oh, God, you’re awake…” she whispered, suddenly on the brink of panic.
“Mm-hmm.” His lips brushed her ear and raised every goosebump she had, and his thumb played with the tiny tent in her t-shirt at the summit of her breast. “So, about your sex life…” he whispered, and God! Who knew that five whispered words could jolt through her like that?
His left hand tickled her a little as he trailed it up her body from hip to chin, and gently guided her into turning her face so that they could kiss. When they did, he took the opportunity to squeeze, gently but perfectly.
“Mm!” she said. It wasn’t a word, but pleasure given a tiny cautious noise. “W-what about it?”
”I thought maybe instead of talking about it…” he whispered, and his fingers lightly pinched her nipple through her shirt, making her shiver, ”…we could play a game I call ‘traffic lights’. Red means stop. Yellow means slow down, Green means-’
He chuckled low and irresistibly in her ear. ’Yes ma’am…’
To her dismay he stopped playing with her breast, but only for long enough to run his hand down her tummy, slip his fingers under her shirt and glide them back up. HIs attention felt even better when it was applied directly to her bare flesh..
She felt his teeth lightly on the side of her neck, felt him playfully pinch her nipple while his left hand slid down her leg, round and then back up her inner thigh.
She said it a bit louder than she’d meant to, but Julian immediately justified her trust in him as his hands stopped where they were.
“Y’okay?” he asked.
“What…” Xiù licked her lips and moistened her mouth to try again. “What about Allison?”.
”What about me?” the only other voice in the room asked. Xiù jumped, her eyes jolted open, and she found Allison watching her from inches away at most with an absolutely licentious smile. ”Do you want me to join in?” she asked, “Or should I just watch?”
“I, um… I don’t… I…”
Allison’s smile got wider and she met Julian’s eye. “Damn, baby, you got her so turned on she can’t even talk.”
Julian chuckled, but he kissed Xiù’s ear again. “This is all about what you want,” he murmured. “You’re in charge.”
Xiù was shaking, but her panic was fading fast. The shakes had nothing to do with anxiety now. “You promise?”
Allison kissed her. “Let us love you, bǎobèi.”
The Chinese term of endearment sold it. “G… Green.” she whispered, and shut her eyes again.
Julian kissed her, and his hand resumed its migration up her inner thigh until he was pressing gently on her through her underwear. Primordial instincts took over and she pressed back, chewing on her lip as the contact sent pulses of pleasure through her. She heard Allison make a happy noise, felt two slim, strong hands peel her shirt off her and she lifted her body and raised her arms to help the obstructive garment come off. She settled back into Julian’s arms, and felt soft lips on her ear, her neck, her throat, her shoulder, her chest, her breast, her nipple…
In the quiet erotic eternity that followed, none of them made any noise louder than a whisper, a murmur, a kiss or a soft moan. They were almost… reverent in their intimacy. Every so often, Julian and Allison would whisper an instruction to one another, or check in with Xiù. Her answer was always the same: “Green”.
She lifted her hips to shed her underwear, and when Julian’s clever fingers—oh such clever fingers!—returned she then learned just how much that thin barrier of cloth had been robbing her for sensation. She felt her lovers wriggle out of their own sleepwear to wrap her up in a skin-on-skin embrace, to kiss her and sometimes each other and always, always, to make her the center of their world.
She felt pleasure, yes, and so much of it…But most of all she felt loved. And it was the love, more than the pleasure, that carried her off and away as confused, strange and almost dreamlike thoughts began to swirl around her head until they crystallized around her, and she screamed so silently that when she did finally make a noise—a shocked gasp—the crystal shell broke and she came crashing down to herself again.
She pushed his hand away babbling “nomorenomoretoomuch…too much…” and then lay there, trying and failing to open her eyes. Tiny lightning bolts of bliss were still scampering around her, making her body shake, making her forget who she was for strobing half-instants.
“Ho-oly…” she managed eventually, and after a breath for strength she conquered the rest of the sentence. “*Ssshit.*”
“No kidding, babe!” Allison had a wild smile on her face. “That was fucking *hot!*”
Xiù tried to sit up, then aborted the attempt as her abdominal muscles sent urgent shaky signals that they’d like a few minutes to recover, please. “Ohhh my God…I’ve never come that hard in my *life!*”
“Y’okay?” Julian asked.
Allison laughed softly. “Good, ain’t he?”
Xiù nodded emphatically. She was feeling so energized that she would have loved to spring up and blitz around the room doing anything, but her legs were still feeling entirely too shaky for that. “Uh-*huh!*”
She grinned as she saw Julian affect a modest smile, and sank her head back onto his chest and closed her eyes, smiling.
A thought struck her.
“…What about you?” she asked.
“Us?” Allison asked.
“Yeah. Aren’t you… wanting, now?”
Julian kissed her. “We’re fine.”
“You’re sure? ‘Cause I can feel how hard your-”
“This was all about you, remember?” Allison quietly interrupted her.
“And what if I want to watch?” Xiù asked.
Allison laughed. “Well I won’t lie,” she said, “I was kinda hoping you’d say something like that.”
“Well, I want to,” Xiù told them firmly.
Julian chuckled and carefully rolled over to deposit her on her side in the middle of their by now thoroughly messed-up nest. “I think we’re honor-bound to obey,” he joked. Allison giggled, then looked at him and licked her lips.
“Julian?” she asked.
“I’m sick of this third base shit. Come over here and fuck me.”
He blinked, surprised. “…You sure, now?”
Allison’s smile changed. Now it had that raunchy edge she used when she played at bossing him around. “Did I fucking stutter, Etsicitty?”
Julian was suddenly grinning like the Cheshire Cat. “No ma’am,” he said.
“What did I say?”
“You said I should come over there and fuck you, ma’am.”
He carefully climbed over Xiù, kissing her on the cheek in passing, and then pushed Allison firmly onto her back. She wrapped her feet around his waist. “Yes ma’am. At once.”
Allison gasped, her eyes fluttered and she rested her head back as he guided himself into her. She looked sideways and met Xiù’s eye, bit her lip then linked her hands at the back of his neck and pulled him down on top of her. “Oh yeah…” she purred. “That’s a good, good boy…”
Xiù propped her chin in her hand and watched.
Date Point 10y8m4d AV
Uncharted Class 12 deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm
“Muh?” Sky-thinker woke up properly, blinking. Dancer smiled down at him and stroked a stray strand of his fur crest out of his face.
“It’s nearly dawn,” she said.
He dug something crusty out of the corner of his eye and pushed himself up onto all fours. “…Right.”
She trilled softly and shook the sand out of her fur. It was funny how a man named for his tendency to drift off and think about things like clouds and the moon was also one of the most focused and practical in the village. “Come on. I made food,” she said. “We have a long day ahead of us.”
The tribe was stirring early today, which was good. Everybody was taking Sky-thinker’s warning seriously, though she would have thought they were absurdly stupid if they hadn’t. Bringing home a set of burnt giving-away beads was evidence enough, but a Singer’s bowl and a peace totem for good measure? Only a catastrophic fool would have ignored that.
She had ritual duties to perform, and so she handed Sky-thinker his breakfast in her favorite bowl, the one with the bright green glaze and the spirals around the rim. They couldn’t take any of the pottery with them anyway, so it may as well see some last use.
She met the Singer in the sacred circle. The old woman looked haggard and exhausted.
“Haven’t you *slept?!*” Dancer asked her. “We have a long journey ahead of us!”
“Oh, sweet girl…” the Singer sighed. She was leaning heavily on her cane, which she was usually much too proud to use. “Did you think I could come with you?”
“You can’t drag a limping old woman with you while you run away, dear.”
“Hush.” The Singer turned to face the dawn. It would rise behind the third stone today. “Dance for the new day.”
Dancer wanted to argue, but the old woman began shaking her music-stick and tapping her staff and sang the throat music.
She fought back her tears and played her part, called up her will and began the steps to greet the home of the gods as it came up from under the world.
For the first time in her young life, the dance seemed lonely. Hollow. As if she was just a tiny thing in the middle of infinite emptiness, making a silly gesture for forces that were so far beyond her that even Sky-thinker, who saw further and dreamed higher than most, probably had no real understanding of them. Instead of feeling the dawn flow through her and connect her to the world, she felt… cold.
What kind of a day started with the Dancer feeling nothing? Surely portents could not come much worse…
At last the sun was above the third stone, and she finished her dance by bowing to all the gods, then stood and brushed the sand from her hands.
The Singer sniffed and rocked her staff thoughtfully in the dust.
“The world is all upside-down,” she declared. When Dancer only nodded, she turned, and handed her the music-stick and the bag off her back. “My gift to you. I wish there was more time, you still have a lot to learn… but you know all that you need to.”
“Singer, no… please? I’m not ready.”
“Nobody ever is, sweet girl. Do you think I was?”
“But I don’t have a given girl to train!”
“You can sing and dance by yourself for a while, you’re strong enough. And if you need another’s strength then turn to Sky-thinker. He almost has a woman’s magic.”
Dancer didn’t reply. She looked at the music-stick in her hands and nodded as strongly as she could, pulling back her tears.
The Singer hugged and kissed her like a daughter. “Did he fill you last night?”
Dancer nodded. “He did.”
The Singer put hand on her belly. “You make an old woman very happy, dear.”
“…You make a young woman very sad.”
“That’s the burden of age, loved one. I’m sorry. We have to go away sometime.”
Dancer had performed the funeral rites for dozens of the tribe in her time and she knew the truth of that observation as well as anybody could. Still, it hurt her deep in her core.
“…I will miss you.”
The Singer hugged her. “I will miss you too, dear. Be strong—the tribe needs you.”
Dancer looked around. Sky-thinker was in conversation with Stone-tapper and the Given Man. Everywhere she looked there was a laden, ready-for-travel look to everybody.
The Singer touched her elbow lightly pushing her forward. “It’s time, dear. Sing.”
Dancer nodded, then looked her mentor in the eye. “…Goodbye.”
Nobody paid any attention to the Dancer as she returned to her hut and retrieved the favorite bowl. Sky-thinker had been considerate and washed it for her, so she whispered farewell to it, took it back outside and then, with a sigh and a moment’s regret, she flung it into the village fire where it smashed.
Everybody jumped. Then, understanding what she had done, they took their own pottery, and began to throw it into the fire as well.
Under the old Singer’s watchful eye, the new Singer shook her music-stick and sang the song of leaving home. Then, once the last baby had been helped to throw a pot into the ashes, the tribe hoisted their bags, turned to the west, and left home forever.
She didn’t look back.
Date Point 10y8m4d AV
The Box, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
“Jesus! I’d ask what happened to you three but I think I can guess!” Kevin cleared his throat, aware that his mouth had just taken unilateral action without running things by the committee first. He forgave himself: He’d never seen anybody walk into a room looking so thoroughly post-coital before, let alone three at once. Terrifyingly though, Julian looked relaxed and energized rather than exhausted and Kevin made a mental note to hit up Dane for a copy of the lucky bastard’s fitness regime.
Allison threw herself into her chair, nursing a large travel mug of coffee. “None of your damn business, that’s what happened.”
“You know, that’s exactly what I guessed.”
Xiù gave him a crimson-faced glare that promised another broken nose in his near future if he didn’t immediately find something else to discuss, and he promptly adjusted his collar and sat down. “Uh… Anyway. Ericson says Misfit is ready to fly.”
They lit up at once. “He does?” Allison asked.
“His exact words were ’BGEV-Eleven has passed stage three operational readiness tests’, but fortunately I speak fluent aerospace engineer.”
Julian nodded appreciatively. “Ahead of schedule!”
“Major Jackson was kind enough to share some observations about the ESFS array.”
“That was nice of her,” Allison commented.
“Yeah. Guess whatever Kirk’s shindig is has made AEC super-keen to get us a scout ship out there, even if it belongs to Byron Group. It’d have to be pretty fuckin’ big to make them forgive the fiasco with Creature of Habit.”
“Why, what happened?” Xiù asked.
“Some limp-dick strategist decided that leaving the only human organization conducting extrasolar flight missions in the dark about our friends Big Hotel was a smart idea, so when the ship hit its emergency recall and popped into Lunar orbit…”
“Ah.” Allison nodded.
“Yeah. Moses got a phone call which was, and I fucking quote, ’not for mortal ears’. D’you know what it’s like when one of the richest guys in the world walks away from a phone call looking like a naughty kid who just got spanked? President Cthulhu musta tore him a backup.”
“I take it you voted for the other guy,” Julian observed, drily.
“You kidding? I wrote in for the dipshit with a rubber chicken for a hat. If some asshole’s gonna spend four or eight years walking around being followed by a dude who’s carrying the nuclear launch codes, I want it to be somebody who gets the fucking joke. Anyway.” Kevin realized he’d gone off on a rant and reined it in. “Point is, you kids better pack your bags and say goodbye to the Box, because we’re transferring you to the ship tonight.”
“But the Mars trip isn’t for-” Xiù began.
“Yeah, I know. But you’re still gonna want to get settled in, sort out any concerns, get ‘er good and ready and take her up for a shakedown. She might be cleared to fly, but your asses still have two months of training left before you head out. Time to bring all that simulator practice into the real world.”
“Any other good news?” Julian asked.
Kevin grinned. “Let’s just say I think you’re gonna enjoy the new-and-improved hab when you move onto the ship.”
“What about lessons and simulation?” Julian asked.
“We got a car laid on to get you back and forth, and they’re setting you up with simulators in the hangar. Anyway, you’ll head over there tonight. Morning schedule’s pushed back and your PT with Dane’s been cancelled for the day, so go get your shit packed up and ready to move, say goodbye to the Box, do your thing and I guess I’ll see you this evening…” Kevin gave them his best and rarest stern look. “And for fuck’s sake, guys, clean up a bit more?”
“…Are we really that obvious?” Xiù asked.
“Well, you don’t actually smell, but… yeah. You are. And you’re gonna be in front of the cameras this evening, so maybe put the extra effort in to look as slick and space cadet as you can, right?”
“Oh come on,” Allison objected. “Are you really gonna tell us people don’t suspect anyway? You kinda dragged us into the spotlight…”
Kevin raised an eyebrow at her then sighed and nodded. “Look, I like you three,” he said candidly. “And I know you’ve got mixed feelings about the limelight which is why I’m giving you that advice, okay? Sure, yeah, people suspect. So what you’ve gotta ask is if you wanna go out there and add more fuel to that fire, or if you wanna keep up some kind of a wall so it all stays as harmless speculation and gossip.”
They all looked down at the table, and Kevin pushed the point home. “I think what you have is beautiful. Hell, I’m envious. But for fuck sake, guys, you have so little privacy left why would you jeopardize it?”
“Maybe because it’s not a fucking problem?” Julian growled. “Shit, the VP’s gay and the biggest grossing movie this year has a leading man who used to be a woman! But three instead of two, oh no, that’s gotta stay in the closet? I call bullshit.”
“Fuckin’ A.” Allison agreed. Xiù just nodded.
Kevin spread his hands. “Hey, I don’t give a bent fuck about the apple-pie traditional marriage shit myself,” he said. “And if you wanna be the Poly community’s Freddie Mercury or whatever, go for it, that’s your prerogative. It’s my job to advise, not to decide.”
“So what do you advise?” Xiù asked, quietly.
“…I’d advise that…” Kevin paused, and sniffed as he thought of his argument. “Okay. So. Part one: You clean up, look professional, head out into space and let the conversation percolate for a couple years and then when you’re back if you decide there’s a cause there that needs fighting, that’s when you fight it,” he told them. “But you’re not gonna make things better by dropping a bombshell and then fucking off and maybe never coming back. Don’t forget, *you could all end up dead.*”
He looked around at them. “You nearly died once already, remember,” he pointed out. “So if you get back and decide that’s a fight that needs fighting? Go for it. But for now, I say it’s eyes on the prize. Don’t get distracted now you’re on the home stretch. That’s part one.”
Allison and Julian looked at each other, then at Xiù, and as one the three of them nodded and listened expectantly.
“Part two? I honestly think the smart people in this country—and by some miracle that’s actually most of ‘em—don’t even give a fuck. They don’t even care. So if there’s a fight there at all, it’s against the handful of authoritarian pricks who think their religion gets to rule other people’s lives. And that means your allies would be the kind of reactionary dumbasses who are too shit-stupid to just let assholes be assholes, right? So maybe the thing to do is to just not make a big deal of it. Say ’yeah, that’s us and we’d like to be left alone please’ or whatever and then quietly let the whole shitstorm play itself out without you.”
“You’re contradicting yourself,” Allison pointed out.
“Not really. It’s a balancing act, right? You’ll wanna be here enough to put your oar in, but you’ll also wanna stay out of it enough to not wind up surrounded by regressive fuckwits who wanna use you for their Che Guevara poster child bullshit.”
“Fuh-lay-ming…” Xiù muttered.
Kevin frowned at her. “Huh?”
Julian waved him off, though her cryptic interjection clearly meant something to him. “…Fair point,” he said. “And…. good advice. Thanks Kevin.”
“I ain’t just a pretty face. ‘Specially not since Xiù broke my nose.”
“Aargh, you’re never going to let that go, are you?” Xiù observed. “I said sorry!”
“All is forgiven, I just like to joke around,” Kevin assured her. “Anyhow. I wanna see y’all red carpet quality this evening. Can you do that for me?”
“We’ll do that,” Allison assured him and stood. Julian and Xiù followed her and Kevin was soon alone, left to sit down and stroke his beard pensively.
After a few minutes of thought he fished in his pocket for his phone, and composed a quick email for Gabriel Arés.
Date Point 10y8m4d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač
“‘Bout time you showed up! What’d you bring?”
Martina snorted and handed over her tupperware. “Nice to see you too, ‘Horse. I’ve got Lokše.”
They were having a ’Grandma’s cooking’ night to go with a rare good movie seeing as it was just the four of them for a change. With the SOR deployed they couldn’t leave the base in case the Protectors needed to scramble, and of course that meant alcohol was off-limits too, and the huge reinforced couch just felt empty with only four people sitting on it. Especially when one of those people was Martina.
Picking a dish hadn’t been been tricky at all. Arés had insisted on ’ethnic’ and if there was one thing that fit beautifully into the carb-and-fats kingdom that was SOR nutrition, it was Slovakian food from her dad’s side of the family.
Fortunately, her dad had scanned *Babička*’s box full of index-card recipes way back when, and a quick skim through the PDF had swiftly turned up just the thing. Lokše—potato pancakes stuffed with goose fat (the moister the better) and filled with pickled cabbage. They’d come out pretty damn good, she thought.
Firth meanwhile had showed up with a chunk of venison the size of a suitcase, reportedly a gift from his ’pop’ who’d shot it himself. It came with a warning to watch out for the deer slug, because Poppa Firth hadn’t been able to find it, and he was out front tinkering with some arcane-industrial culinary apparatus of Rebar’s making, allegedly “smoking it to Kentucky perfection” under the patient attention of the SOR’s titanic dog, Bozo.
For some reason, there was something about an enormous slab of red meat that converted the usually incorrigibly excitable canine into a poised statue of laser-focused watchfulness.
Arés popped the tupperware curiously. “Lokše?”
“Nuh-uh, big guy. Eat it first, then I tell you.”
“See, now you’re just making it sound ominous…”
Adam of course was Mexican on both sides of the family, and had clearly decided on something a little lighter on the palate to balance out the mountain of red meat that Firth had brought. Martina could see corn tortillas, whitefish, a couple of limes…
“What’re you making anyway?” she asked. “Fish tacos?”
“Brother’s been eating a whole lotta fish taco recently,” Burgess joked, joining them with a casserole dish in his arms. “You’d think he’d be sick of it.”
‘Horse promptly went red as Martina laughed. Word had got around about where his callsign came from and the way the rest of the Lads told it, whenever they went out drinking there was almost a queue to ride the battle pony these days.
Reality was probably a little tamer—Adam was still Adam after all—but he wasn’t saying either way and Martina hadn’t pried. There was honestly no jealousy involved, but she wasn’t interested in knowing the details and he wasn’t interested in sharing.
“Alright, alright, what’d you bring?” he asked, trying to spare his blushes. “No, lemme guess. Mac and cheese, *again.*”
Burgess grinned. “Since when do you shit talk my grandma’s Mac?”
“Since never, your grandma’s Mac is a fucking religious experience! But you need more than one move, bro.”
Base put the casserole dish down. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Anyhow, Firth says ten minutes.”
“Too bad Dexter couldn’t be here,” Martina mused. “Be kinda fun to add a Gaoian twist to this.”
“Dude,” Adam turned slightly green around the gills. “I heard one of the staples of Gaoian food is a giant bug…”
“Oh please, humans eat grosser you wuss,” she retorted.
“I heard it’s, like, as big as my arm!” he insisted. “Name me one thing that’s grosser than that!”
“I could get sergeant Friðþórsson in here,” she suggested, referring to one of the training simulation techs. “How’s rotten poisonous shark that was buried in the ground for a few months sound?”
“No way is that a real thing,” Burgess denied. “I don’t believe it.”
“Hakarl. Real thing. Look it up. Eat it if you’ve got a hankering for a nice hit of ammonia with your dinner.”
Burgess snorted and examined her Lokše. “Hold the fuckin’ phone, is that sauerkraut in those pancakes?”
Grinning, Martina nodded that it was so. “Uh-huh.”
He turned plaintively to Adam. “European food is fucking weird, bro.”
Adam shrugged. “Dude. Menudo. Chitlins. Rocky mountain oysters.”
“I’ve known you to eat all of those! But a Gaoian staple food squicks you out?” Martina asked.
“It’s a bug as big as my arm!”
“Granted, that’s a big-ass bug,” she agreed, considering the limb in question. She was pretty sure she had bras that wouldn’t quite fit round those biceps. “But it’s still just meat.”
Adam shuddered and made a yuuurgh noise.
“Horse getting squicked out by food?” Firth asked, stepping inside trailed by Bozo. He’d swapped his trademark hideous Hawaiian shirt for a truly offensive apron that on a smaller man might have briefly conveyed the impression that he was an impossibly petite and busty french maid. On Firth, it looked more like he’d fallen on one and hadn’t got round to peeling her off yet. “That’s a new one.”
“It’s a BUG as-”
“*As big as your arm!*” they chorused. “We *heard.*” Martina finished.
Even Bozo chimed in: ”WURF!”
Adam gave up. “…You pick a movie?”
“Oh, sure. Ask the gal who literally keeps your asses alive in a spacesuit if she remembered to pick a movie for movie night.” Martina teased. “No faith!”
“So, that’s a…no?”
This earned him a friendly middle finger. “I’ll go load it up, meat stack.”
She’d picked ’White Raven’, a big-screen fantasy movie that bore little relation to its source material, but kept some of the coolest imagery. She especially liked the bit where the giant waded across the Irish sea with a fleet of ships behind him.
The guys joined her a few minutes later once Firth’s venison had been declared “perfect”, and it really was. The Mac and cheese was maybe not quite a religious experience but it was unquestionably sublime, and the fish tacos…
Her earlier assessment of the capacity of the couch was off by a bit: she’d failed to account for Bozo, who hopped up and snuggled down the moment he was allowed. Between his own disarming size and the similarly arresting proportions of Arés, Burgess and Firth, Martina soon found that the most comfortable position for her was actually to sit across them with her legs on Warhorse’s lap, and that plus Burgess’ quip about fish tacos earlier got her to thinking.
Fortunately, the Lads had their kitchen system worked out well. Whoever did the bulk of the work got to skip on the cleaning, and today that was Arés. Being a guest got Marty a free pass too, so they hung out on the couch and discussed the movie for a while while Marty massaged the dozing dog’s ears.
As was the nature of conversations, however, the subject soon wandered, straying briefly into politics, backing out of there onto the subject of aliens, from there onto inebriation, and from there finally onto the subject of his recent, as Firth had so antiquatedly put it, ’wild oats’.
“…Between you and me, I kinda wish Base would stop playing wingman,” he confessed.
Marty raised an eyebrow at him. “The way I hear it, he’s good at it.”
He shrugged expansively (as if he had any alternative but to shrug expansively) “Yeah…”
“I hear a ’but’ in there…”
“I dunno. I guess maybe I’d prefer to earn a girl’s attention myself rather’n have my buddies throw them my way. You know?”
She nodded. “I hear ya. Where’s the fun in easy mode?”
“Right…” He looked distant.
“…Penny for your thoughts?”
“Uh…” he scratched the back of his neck. “…is it weird talkin’ about this with you?”
Martina shook her head. “‘Horse, we talked about this. You need to relax and enjoy yourself and get your head sorted out. Have you?”
“Relaxed? Sure. Enjoyed myself? Hell yeah!”
“And your head?”
“Fuck, I dunno. How’s a guy supposed to really know where his head’s at?” he asked.
Martina gestured with her hand palm-upward. “So, where do you think it’s at?”
“If you don’t know where it is then you’ve not sorted it out yet.”
He frowned. “Hmm. Seems obvious when you put it that way.”
“Mmhm.” Martina nodded. She considered him for a second then decided to go with some straight talk. “Look, I still feel the same way about you as I said before, but until you’ve got your head in the right place we’re just good friends. You understand that, right?”
“Don’t even start apologizing,” she instructed. “It’s good to know you still care what I think.”
“Of course I do!”
“Yeah. And you’re good at showing it, too.” On a whim, she kissed him on the cheek. He blinked and put his fingers gently to where her lips had touched him. “We’re good friends,” she repeated. “The kind who can talk about anything. Got that?”
“So… anything you wanna talk about?”
He chuckled. “There is one thing…”
“When are we getting ‘round to the pancakes?”
“Shit!” She suddenly remembered the tupperware in the kitchen and scrambled off him and the couch. The exclamation woke Bozo who fell off Adam’s lap and onto the floor where he rolled upright in a scrabble of bewildered claws. He wagged his tail uncertainly and followed her into the kitchen where she secretly treated him to a scrap of the venison by way of an apology.
Fortunately, the Lokše were almost as good reheated in the microwave as they were fresh.
Date Point 10y8m4d AV
Uncharted Class 12 deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm
The Old Singer.
Sky-thinker’s description had been accurate in that the demon did broadly resemble a Skithral. He had fallen far short of reality, however. Far, far short of it.
It was bigger than any hut that the Singer had even imagined. It was as big as trees, but it still moved with the easy grace of a living creature swarming over the rough terrain and through the forest as easily as a sure-footed man. Nothing that big should be able to flow like water—it made a Yshek look as clumsy as a landslide despite being many times larger.
She had known it was coming by the way the forest had gone silent, and had decided that she may as well see the thing that killed her. She had taken up her cane and hobbled outside, quietly glad that Sky-thinker was vindicated. It would have been a shame to die of thirst or exertion without seeing the destroyer for herself.
Even though she was perfectly calm and accepting of her fate, the sight of it nearly sent her fleeing into the woods anyway.
There was simply no material in the Singer’s experience that was even similar to its carapace. It was as black as the night of a summer solstice, and yet the sunlight sheened off it in hard white lines. Every edge of it looked as bright as the edge a flint knife, and even the smallest movement made those knife edges slide and scrape over each other with a whispering susurrus that even somehow managed to sound sharp.
Slung under where its mouthparts might be if it were really a skithral were instead two appendages as thick around as a man’s chest that glowed like forest fungus. Unlike a real skithral it lacked claws or a tail, but made up for that lack with a clutch of what could only be Sky-thinker’s ‘death birds’ on its back. These were launched skywards with sharp *bang*s as the creature scuttled into the clear space around the village, and they flashed this way and that with their flaming wings deployed, sweeping the huts with their baleful red eyes in search of hiding tribesmen.
The beast itself slowed its approach and walked up to her, pausing only when it was nearly directly above her. The Singer tapped her staff on the ground and gazed up at it expectantly. If it was a beast of pure destructive violence, then it certainly was not acting like one. No, this was the calculated consideration of a Person.
It turned its gaze—the dozens of tiny twinkling red eyes that glowed like fire—away from her and took in the village before finally deigning to acknowledge her again.
She decided to break the silence.
“Do you have a name?” she asked it.
There was a long, cold pause.
“Ah…” she sighed. “So you’re a beast after all. A shame. A person would have the courtesy to talk with an old woman.”
It tilted its… for lack of a better word, its head at her and spoke. ”Others.”
It had a voice like rock-slide or a tree falling. So deep that it was almost not sound at all, just a modulated rumble that she heard with her lungs.
“Oh! not a beast! Well…if you wish to know where the others went, tell me your name.”
More icy silence, until it presumably grew bored or else reached whatever laborious conclusion it had been working toward. ”Yours.”
“What kind of a silly thing are you? Don’t you recognize these tattoos? I don’t have a name, I gave it to the gods when I was a girl. I am the old Singer of this village.”
“Yes. And yours?”
”Six. Six. Five.” it growled, as if numbers were any kind of a name. ”Others.”
“They ran away. Did you really think you could destroy our daughters and their husbands in the east and we would not notice?”
The Singer trilled laughter. “Creature, what makes you think an old woman would betray her grandchildren?”
The creature stepped back and regarded her some more. Then it spat blue fire and destroyed her.
She went to the gods laughing.
Date Point 10y8m4d AV
Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, Earth
“She’s changed so much…”
Jacob shot a glance at his wife. It was the first time that Amanda had commented that that was their daughter on the news. Estranged and rebellious though she was, it was impossible not to feel proud, albeit more than a little sad that she hadn’t responded to their attempt at reaching out.
He surreptitiously compared the woman on the screen to the framed picture on the wall, one of the few ones they had where Allison had actually been smiling. Behind the same bone structure was a very different person to the sulky tearaway teenager he remembered: Allison looked strong, composed and professional. She was surveying the crowd and the reporters with tight politeness and leaving the talking to the asian girl in the front. Whenever a question was asked of her personally, she answered it directly and economically. Not entirely changed then—she had always hated being the focus of attention.
“She’s pretty!” one of the twins announced. Ramsey, probably—he usually sat on the left, but it was hard to be certain from behind.
“She’s going to Mars, sweetie,” Amanda told him. “That’s more important than how pretty she is.”
“But she is!”
“Ramsey Buehler, she’s an astronaut, not a supermodel,” Amanda said, firmly.
Jacob decided for once not to snap the boy back on his tone of voice. They sat and watched the press conference for a few minutes longer.
“She’s holding his hand!” Tristan pointed out suddenly, pointing at the screen. Sure enough, Allison’s fingers were interlaced with those of the rangy, shaggy man who was apparently the crew’s field researcher.
“Mm-hmm. He’s her boyfriend,” Amanda said. “Didn’t you see the picture?”
“Ian at school said he heard the other lady’s her girlfriend too!”
“We don’t listen to disgusting rumors like that, sweetie.”
“Boys if you can’t respect your mother you can go to your rooms and stay there,” Jacob corrected him.
Tristan bowed his head. “Sorry.”
Another question was directed at Allison on the TV, and they listened with mounting curiosity. ”Miss Buehler, according to your family you haven’t spoken in nearly fifteen years. Do you have anything to say to them?”
They watched as Allison froze for a microsecond, then leaned forward to the mic. “Uh… Apparently I have two little brothers nowadays…” she began. Ramsey and Tristan looked at each other excitedly. ”I guess I’d like to tell them that they’re welcome to write me. I’d like to hear from them sometime.”
”No message for your parents?”
They boys were so excited that they completely missed (thankfully) the contemptuous edge to the word.
“Boys, go clean up for dinner,” Jacob told them.
“Wha-? But *Dad!*”
The twins gave each other a confused look, then chorused “…Yes dad…” and trudged out.
“So she got the letter…” Amanda mused, the moment they were out of the room.
“I just don’t get it,” Jacob sighed. “She hates us. You could see it in her eyes.”
“Where did we go wrong?”
Jacob looked back at the TV. His only daughter had retreated from the microphone and was staring distractedly off at nothing. He had no idea what she was thinking.
“…I wish I knew,” he said.
Date Point 10y8m4d AV
Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada, Earth
General Martin Tremblay
Friends were a luxury at the kind of levels that Tremblay worked at nowadays, and a treasured one at that. He didn’t have many at all.
Sir Patrick Knight was one of very, very few and his weekly trip through the Jump Array from Cimbrean to discuss policy and strategy was as much a highlight on Martin’s social calendar as it was a highlight on his professional one.
He was also an exceptional sounding board, which was why upon being presented with the details of the latest crisis, he had sat back and ran his fingers lightly over his beard.
“You see why I’m reluctant to say yes…”
“Mm.” Knight nodded. “On the one hand I suspect you’d regret the missed opportunity, but on the other hand if he’s going to ask you—his ex-husband—to be his Best Man then I really think he should have asked in person.”
A small laugh crept around Sir Patrick’s mouth. “Of course, you do know where the tradition of a Best Man comes from, don’t you?”
Martin sat back and sipped his coffee. “Do tell.”
“Traditionally, he was literally the groom’s best man. His best soldier, bodyguard, the man he trusted to stand next to him in battle…”
“I didn’t know that!”
“Oh yes,” Sir Patrick nodded. “He was there in case anybody tried to attack the groom and kidnap the bride, you see. So, traditionally speaking if you accept then you’re entitled—nay, required—to be armed with a sword at his wedding.”
Martin laughed. “The Tremblays send their regards, eh?”
“Of course, for you to get away with that he would have to be a threat to the security of the human race…” Knight pointed out. “And I think you might have some trouble justifying that assessment…”
“Conducting psychological warfare on the supreme allied commander doesn’t count?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t think ’being an insensitive prat’ qualifies as psychological warfare.”
They both chuckled softly and drank their respective drinks again.
“I’m happy for him, really,” Martin said. “I was going to retire and adopt a couple of kids with him. But…”
“Well, there’s always your speech at the reception.” Knight winked. “I’m sure you can think of a suitable piss-take.”
“So you’re saying I should go for it.”
“Oh, don’t be daft. You were always going to go for it, you just wanted to complain a bit first.”
“Heh,” Martin chuckled. “Guilty as ch-”
He was interrupted by one of his phone ringing. The grey secure one. He swiped it up. “Tremblay.”
”Your conference call’s ready, sir.”
“Good. Thanks. Set it up please.”
He glanced at Knight, who nodded and subtly tidied up his uniform and sat up straighter.
The conference call in question was the weekly joint allied exosolar policy planning session, demanding the attention of his counterparts and occasionally heads of government from all the 5-EYES nations and several Global Representative Assembly Members. In short order the large screen opposite his desk was filling with faces or official seals.
The last to connect was the live feed from Air Force One, and some twenty or so of the most powerful people alive exchanged greetings and well-wishes.
All were busy people, so these meetings were inevitably quick but constructive.
“So!” Tremblay began, gently starting the session. He checked his notes. “We’ve had nothing but good news since last week. I’m pleased to report that RANDOM THRONE turned out to be green and Mrwrki station is now under our control, as are its fleet of mining drones and its nanofactory.”
“The SOR have finished building the semi-permanent jump array and are preparing to return to Cimbrean within the next twenty-four hours,” Knight added. “I also have it from STAINLESS that DEXTER and his comrades exceeded expectations.”
The British Secretary of State for Defence, the Right Honourable Shakeel Iqbal MP, nodded enthusiastically. “Fantastic news,” he said. “When will the nanofactory be ready?”
“Lieutenant-Colonel Nadeau is taking a commendable safety first policy,” Tremblay told him. “All of the blueprints loaded into it are alien designs and could contain fatal flaws, including security weaknesses. In theory he says we could start building our own equipment straight away, but…”
The Australian prime minister Tom Avery spoke up. “We still haven’t reached a satisfactory conclusion for how the creators of that equipment are to be properly paid for their designs,” he pointed out. “C&M Systems is an Australian company, If you start building EV-MASS in that nanofactory then they at least deserve compensation.”
“Agreed,” that was President Arthur Sartori, who was looking uncharacteristically drained. He was in China on a diplomatic visit, and the black sky outside of Air Force One’s windows suggested that he was probably contending with some grinding jet lag. “Much as I’d love to defuse some of the criticism about defense spending, the economic consequences we were warned about need to be addressed. The global economy’s sliding toward the can as it is.”
“Well, that brings us on to the question of GALACTIC VACCINE,” Tremblay said. “So far all of the technology developed for that project was created by Lewis Beverote, and he’s apparently relinquished the property rights. Which means that if copyright and remuneration are going to be an issue then his creations—including the Von Neumann probes—are literally the only things we can build.”
The director of the CIA cleared his throat. “Since finding out about that idea, we’ve been thinking good and hard about how those things could turn out. It’s made for a heated argument.”
Cécile Rousseau, France’s Global Representative Assembly member, nodded. “We have done something similar,” she said. “The feeling was, this is a bad idea.”
“We reached the opposite conclusion,”
“May I ask why?”
Knight spoke up. “The project is aptly named. Beverote’s idea is to effectively inoculate the galaxy against exactly the kind of doomsday scenarios that your analysts will have been so concerned about.”
“And why is that a priority?” Avery asked. “Don’t we already have enough on our plate?”
Knight nodded. “Ordinarily, I’d say ’first things first’.” he agreed. “But in this case we have a neat opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. We already agreed that humanity’s strategic interests are best served by rapid and aggressive expansion to unoccupied deathworld-class planets.”
Tremblay nodded. “Beverote’s proposal would simultaneously protect those worlds and lay the ground for colonization.”
“And the economic cost?”
The president cleared his throat. “Hang the cost,” he growled.
“Bankrupting ourselves isn’t exactly a tenable position, Art.”
“Nor is being dead.”
Iqbal spoke up again. “I’m inclined to agree with President Sartori. In fact I’ve already been working with the Chancellor to draw up plans for a wartime economy.”
Tremblay cleared his throat. “In any case,” he said, “I’d have two observations.” They listened expectantly. “The first is that—sorry—AEC’s mandate doesn’t include worrying about the economy. The job in front of us is to fight tooth and nail to put the human race in a strategic position that’s tenable in the long term…”
Iqbal nodded gravely and murmured “quite right.”
“…But in any case I think we can eat our cake and still have it. The whole point of the Coltainer program is that it gathers and uses its own resources once deployed. It’s the closest thing to a free lunch you’ll ever find—all we need to do is find colonists who are willing to try and make a life of it on the frontier, and human history is full of such people, eh?”
“Indeed, history is full of examples where such colonies went on to become rather larger and wealthier than their original owners,” Knight observed. “Today’s colony is tomorrow’s superpower.”
“And today’s investment is tomorrow’s dividend,” Sartori added.
“It will mean lifelong misery for hundreds of millions of people,” Rousseau pointed out.
“Madame Representative, we’re not yet in a position where those people are even guaranteed of a lifelong anything. Our strategic position isn’t that secure.”
Knight nodded grimly. “Fortunately, the good news about DEXTER and his people means we can step up operation CARDBOARD SCALPEL.”
“And that will help, will it?” she asked.
“Having any ally will be vital to our survival,” Tremblay said. “Having one as competent as the Gaoians? If we can clean them up and bring them on board…”
“The attempt could destroy them and unite the rest of the aliens against us,” Avery observed. “Do we even have the right to play around with the fates of other species as well as our own?”
“We already are playing around with their fates simply by existing,” Knight submitted. “Look no further than Cimbrean for proof of that. The young lady who made such a good impression with the Gaoians could also have accidentally killed them all.”
“I thought the consensus was that Delaney’s…unique environmental disruption was a product of the Cruezzir in her system?” Iqbal asked.
“It allowed her intestinal bacteria to overcome the suppressing effects of the Frontline implant,” Tremblay corrected him. “But any human not using Frontline is a global environmental catastrophe waiting to happen. In any case, let’s not go off on a tangent—the point is that we have to stoop to some well-intentioned interference if we want to accomplish our long-term objectives.”
“I’m all for both plans,” Sartori said, with characteristic bullishness. “If the Gaoians are really our friends, let’s help them.”
Rousseau’s expression was cool. “I dissent. Monsieur Avery is correct that we don’t have the right to place other species in harm’s way,” she said, “and the nightmare scenarios presented to us regarding these Von Neumann machines are just… No.”
Avery wobbled his head. “I’m right with GALACTIC VACCINE,” he said. “I agree that we’ve already probably given somebody the bright idea so we may as well give it a fair go first and do it right. I just don’t think we should be dragging the Gaoians into our war.”
“I’d like to see a full show of hands, please,” Tremblay said.
He suppressed a sigh of relief as both the proposed plans were backed by decent margins. Technically such a vote wouldn’t have been binding but it was still good to have broad support. Only an idiot would have ignored the importance of having political momentum behind the strategy.
Madame Rousseau pursed her lips thoughtfully and refrained from comment, while Avery took his defeat with good grace and a philosophical shrug. “You get your way again, Art,” he said conversationally.
Sartori rubbed his face and chuckled softly. “Is there any more business?” he asked.
“Just the Byron Group. They’ve lodged an itinerary for Misfit that includes a jump to orbit next week. I’ve provisionally given the go-ahead.”
Sartori stifled a disgusted noise. “If I have to call Moses Byron again…” he began.
“The crew are fully briefed on DEEP RELIC and in any case since that last fiasco, they’ve installed an executive advisor whom I personally know and trust,” Tremblay told him.
“He’s an intel asset, HEATHEN BUTTERFLY. He was one of the key witnesses in DEEP RELIC and I’d like to bring him and the crew in on GALACTIC VACCINE.”
“I have no objections,” Iqbal stated. “They would be well placed to guide that initiative.”
Sartori nodded and raised a hand. “Alright, if you think it needs to happen. Anything else?”
“No, that’s about it,” Tremblay told him. “Thank you for your time, Mister President.”
“Same time next week, then. See you there.”
As Sartori disconnected, Iqbal rolled his chair back away from whatever screen or tablet he was sitting at, and massaged at the ugly acid scar on his neck that was just visible above his collar. “Thank you general, admiral.”
There was a flurry of thanks and farewells, and the session ended much as it always did. Quick and efficient, as ever.
“That went well,” Knight observed.
Martin nodded, relaxing again. “Very well,” he agreed. “I wasn’t expecting such a ringing endorsement in the show of hands.”
“Mm. Good that it wasn’t unanimous, however.”
Martin gave him a curious look. “You think so?”
“If we didn’t have a conscientious and cautious figure like Mrs. Rousseau at these meetings, I rather feel we’d need to find one. She’s right that we really are playing with some titanic forces here, you know.”
“She is, that’s true…” Martin shrugged. “Hopefully today’s meeting has galvanized them to have a go at solving the nanofactory economic problem at least.”
“I think it galvanized Sartori to go to bed,” Knight quipped. “Speaking of which, it’s around about midnight by Folctha time.”
“Aargh, leaving so soon? I was going to ask for tips on how to write my best man speech.”
“Oh, it’s quite simple,” Knight said. “Start by taking the piss out of yourself, assure everyone you won’t delay their drinking for very long then take the piss out of the groom, say nice things about the bride-”
“It’s a gay wedding, Patrick.”
“Well then they’ve saved expense on the wedding dress. Anyway, take the piss out of the groom some more then finally say nice things about him and wish them both a happy marriage. Keep it short, roast him mercilessly, be nice to everyone else and when in doubt you can’t go wrong with jokes about alcohol, money and musing about what the bloody hell Stefan’s new partner was thinking.”
“As his ex-husband, I’d be roasting myself.” Martin pointed out.
Martin chuckled. “Well, when you put it that way… Go on, get some well-earned sleep.”
“With pleasure. Until next week dear chap.”
Martin nodded and smiled him out of the room, then sat back to think with a smile. After some minutes, he started to write his speech.
Date Point 10y8m4d AV
Byron Group Advanced Aerospace Assembly Facility, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Allison sagged the instant the door closed and the cameras were off them at long last, and Julian shifted the box with his belongings in it into the crook of one arm so he could rub her back. “You did great,” he murmured.
She nodded and shut her eyes, enjoying the pressure of his hand for a second before she picked herself up. “Worst part’s over!”
“Yup!” Xiù gave her a one-armed squeeze. “You were great.”
Kevin Jenkins gave them a chuckle. “That’s the last of it, I promise,” he said. “We finally managed to persuade Moses to let you guys get on with the actual job.”
Julian looked up at Misfit. “Hard to believe we’ve still got two months of training.”
“Sure, but most of that is flight training. You’re actually taking her up for the first time next week.”
Xiù spun. “When were you planning on telling us that?!” she asked.
“I’m actually telling you early. You’re officially being given your shakedown schedule tomorrow.” Kevin shrugged. “Allied Extrasolar Command don’t just let us do stuff on a whim, you know. If we wanna jump a ship into Low Earth Orbit, we’ve gotta get General Tremblay’s signature on it. That DEEP RELIC briefing was part of the process.”
“That high up?”
“Eh. He and I go back.” Kevin grinned. “But yeah, that high up.”
“So, we’re actually flying next week?”
“Ericson’s gonna give you the full details, but the short of it is that they’ve tested this baby to a fare-thee-well and she seems spaceworthy, but just like with Apollo they’re not gonna just build the rocket then shove you on the moon. Or, uh, Mars as the case may be.” Kevin sniffed. “There’s a lotta baby steps between here and there. And if we put you up there and it turns out something’s wrong with the ship, we want you close enough to rescue.”
“The other ten didn’t go through this.” Allison pointed out. “When the hell did the Group get this cautious?”
“When I started workin’ for ‘em.” Kevin folded his arms with a self-satisfied air, then nodded toward the ship. “Go on. That’s your house now. Go get settled in and I’ll see you tomorrow, same time as usual.”
He left them alone with their ship. She was definitely finished now: the hull plating was all in place, the engines were properly mounted and she had her last coat of paint on—Silver with charcoal ruby accents. A rich combination but not an ostentatious one.
“…She looks the part, doesn’t she?” Allison asked.
“I’m just waiting for the wall to drop and bam! There’s the studio audience,” Julian confessed. “Look at her!”
“Come on!” Xiù called. She’d gone ahead and was standing by the forward port engines waving them over.
“We’ve created a monster…” Julian mused, smiling fondly.
The real thing made sense of some of the features that had been present in the Box’s mockup of the airlock and decontamination room. A mystery panel on the wall they’d spent months scratching their heads over turned out to be a dumbwaiter, perfect for sending the boxes full of their possessions up into the ship while they climbed the ladder.
One green decontamination cycle later, they stepped aboard, and…
It was identical down to the millimeter. Everything exactly where the Box had had it, but… more real. More solid. More…ship. They weren’t in a simulation any more, this was a living vehicle and Misfit apparently had a bit of a personality already, because the atmosphere processor ticked up a notch and the lights came up as the lock cycled. It was almost like being welcomed aboard.
Julian poked his head into his lab as Xiù and Allison checked out their respective work stations.
The lab of course was mostly storage space, from the honeycomb rack of sample bottles on the aft wall for imperishable soil samples, the underfloor stasis storage for animal type specimens, the racks of slim drawers that pulled down out of the ceiling to accept leaves and plant samples…
Things had been moved slightly according to his suggestions. The glove box that let him handle samples in their native atmosphere was now at the forward-left, a much more logical place for it because it allowed his work to flow steadily from left to right in a straightforward sequence, ending in final storage. Previously, he’d had to bounce all over the small space which just created more opportunities for something to be dropped, spilled or knocked over.
He smiled when he saw that Clara Brown had made good on her promise to give him some personalization options. The most notable contribution being the two pegs on the wall by the door, on which he hung one of his tomahawks—the old reliable that had been at his side every day and night on Nightmare. He was retiring it now in favor of the new one with the ultra-modern metallurgy that the girls had got him for his birthday, and couldn’t think of a better place for it than right there in his working space. The lab after all was the only place on the ship that was his, and only his.
Satisfied and smiling, he opened the door and met Xiù emerging from her flight seat. She had a big beaming smile. “They listened!” she said. “All the things I asked for!”
Allison emerged from Engineering looking similarly pleased. “Okay, wow. It’s a big improvement in there!”
“Hell yeah! I don’t need to contort like a fucking weasel to access the aft engine bus ducts any more!” She looked around, then grinned and opened a hatch in the ceiling before bracing a foot on a knurl on the wall that hadn’t been present in the Box, which gave her the foothold she needed to boost herself easily up and vanish up to her waist into the systems crawl space. “Oh yeah, this is way better!”
“So… wanna check out the hab?” Julian asked her. She dropped lightly to the deck and shut the hatch.
The hab was a delight—everything was improved. The ceiling had been lowered just enough so that Julian didn’t feel crowded but Xiù could now reach the table and all the other stuff that roosted up there. The table itself was triangular now with foldouts rather than being circular, and the space thus saved had been used to improve the lighting.
The biggest change was the bunks, however. They’d been rotated ninety degrees and were now flush against the starboard engine housing, presenting only their narrow ends into the cabin space, which made space for the biggest treat: a sturdy cupola window.
“Wākào!” Xiù dashed over to it and studied it with open-mouthed wonder. “*Hǎo kù ō, tài bàngle!*”
“That was in Chinese, bǎobèi,” Julian reminded her.
She distractedly flapped an enthusiastic hand at him. “*Si kei yaa! O yan shi’ wo-*”
“Gaori, babe,” Allison chimed in.
“Aargh, sorry!” Xiù sat down on the cupola’s curved padded seat and swung her legs up into it, resting and watching outside as if she was staring at wonders rather than the inside of a darkened aircraft hangar. “But this is so cool! You could watch everything from in here!”
Allison laughed and joined her. “Room for two!” she observed, making herself comfortable.
Julian chuckled to himself as the two of them snuggled up and enthused about the cupola, and took a tour of the rest of the hab. There was a bright scarlet envelope on the kitchen countertop which, when he opened it, turned out to contain a greeting card the front cover of which was a happy smiling cartoon of himself and the girls floating cutely in front of the planet Mars with big smiles. Inside it was full of signatures and well-wishes from the Box facility’s staff and an explanation that the cartoon on the front was actually drawn by a child at Xiù’s old school.
He studied the happy image with a smile, then read the attached letter.
It read: ”check the couch—Ericson.”
His smile turned into a confused frown, and he blinked at the couch. He handed Xiù the card before going to examine it, and as she and Allison enthused over their adorable cartoon effigies, he pulled the couch out of its usual place in the wall.
It was longer than before, and a slightly different shape. He sat back and studied it for a while, then pressed the large red catch on the end.
He decided that maybe the Byron Group wasn’t so bad after all when, with a solid sshhh-thunk!, it unfolded itself into a sturdy king-sized bed big enough for three.
Date Point 10y8m1w AV
Mrwrki Station, Uncharted System, Deep Space
Vedreg had decided that he rather liked the SOR. They were… loud, yes, and in many ways they were stranger even than Lewis. He was still having trouble fathoming how a group of individuals who regularly insulted one another with such viciousness could possibly be friends, but he knew better than to question humans on such matters.
Lewis had, to his delight, become a focus of their affection too and Vedreg had often had to ’excuse me’ his way past two apex predators who were so deep in technical conversation that they somehow failed to notice that they were impeding the progress of a sapient many times their size.
More surprising still was the revelation that Lewis was, according to Sergeant Campbell, “cute” and “really funny”. Vedreg had wrestled for some days with the question of whether to inform the man himself of this overheard opinion before the problem was rendered moot by his introduction to a hitherto unfamiliar human ritual—the “walk of shame”.
It was funny how humans emoted with colour too in some situations. In this case a bright perspiring red accompanied by laughter and smiles.
“Nothing actually happened,” Lewis had confided afterwards. “We had dinner, we talked, she slept over my place…”
Vedreg had failed to restrain a flash of disappointed mauve. “Ah. I had thought there was a romance brewing…”
“I fucking hope so, dude,” Lewis had grinned. “Otherwise the second date is a really fuckin’ mixed signal.”
It was a painful reminder of just how far Vedreg was from his own kind. Guvnurag society was heavily dependent on implants, to the point where returning home might well be suicide. His own mate and children would be perfect candidates for an Igraen ’demon’ as the humans called them to take over, In his lengthy ruminations on the fate of the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun, he had been forced to come to the wrenching conclusion that there was no realistic way he could behave in any other manner than to treat them as if they had been slain in some horrible accident.
The humans seemed universally to view this as a greatly tragic and difficult thing and showered him with sympathy and support, little realising that that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the precise opposite, that he had found it all too easy.
This was a matter of species psychology rather than of personal conscience—Humans formed tight-knit tribes, and seemed able to do so quickly and readily even when they were a galactic radial length from home surrounded largely by total strangers.
Kirk’s species on the other hand were solitary by nature and rarely if ever formed lasting bonds even with their own offspring. That wasn’t to say they were uncaring or insular, just that their ground state of being was an aloof one. Guvnuragnaguvendrugun meanwhile were a herd, and a herd was an inherently selfish structure where the survival of the many was bought at the expense of individual tragedy. The psychology ingrained into Vedreg’s very neural structure was that of a species that could—and throughout their evolutionary history, presumably very often had—watch their children dying and walk away.
As Vedreg spent more and more time around humans, an uncomfortable thought kept pricking at him. Despite the enormous disparity of size and mass, he still recalled that Zane had nearly killed him with a single punch, and even Lewis (who was, he now realized, a skinny, underdeveloped and unfit example of his kind) had to be cautious. The less said about the incredible restraint of the SOR, the better.
Then there were their reflexes, perspicuity, artistry, resilience, power-to-weight ratio, endurance… In fact there were only two metrics in which a Guvnurag could claim any superiority over a human: that their size and fur granted a much greater tolerance to exposure, and that long-term painstaking logical thought came more naturally.
In every other physical and mental regard humans were objectively superior, and the unorthodox thought that Vedreg was wrestling with was whether it was possible they might also be objectively superior psychologically and morally.
He had resigned himself to the deathworlders’ physical advantages and their high-performance brains… but the thought of being surrounded by creatures that were just innately better people into the bargain?
That thought made him long, ache even, for the company of his own species. As much as he liked the humans, and as much as he admired Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk and valued his friendship, there was just no substitute for… well, for home.
Seeing Lewis so happy made him glow a warm sunshine gold for his friend, of course, but he was aware that there was a permanent tinge of depressed and lonely chartreuse on his chromatophores these days and the worst part was having no idea what he could do to alleviate it.
He was in quite a dark mood therefore when Lewis called him on the day the SOR were due to leave. All he’d shared was a cryptic advisory that Vedreg would want to attend the commissary.
For lack of anything better to do, Vedreg had heaved himself upright and plodded through the station corridors deep in morose thought. He was therefore not paying attention when he walked into a cloud of loud bangs, squeaking noises and streamers of brightly coloured paper, and a dozen human voices all crying “Happy birthday!!”, led by Lewis.
He stood there blinking and delicately raised one of his facial tentacles to pick a snarl of bright paper the colour of satisfaction-with-a-job-well-done off his face.
“Birth…day?” he rumbled, while confusion played out psychedelically on his face and flanks.
Kirk was the one who explained “By the calendar of the planet Guvendruduvundraguvnegrugnuvenderelgureg-ugunduvug,” he said, referring to the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun homeworld, “It has been exactly one hundred years since your birth.”
Vedreg pulsed an uncertain fuchsia. “And this is cause for celebration?” he asked.
“Kind of an important number in base ten, my man,” Lewis told him. “Come on, there’s presents and cake.”
Bewildered, Vedreg allowed himself to be led to a table on which were, yes, several brightly wrapped gifts and a Guvnurag-sized Rhwk fruit cake.
He looked around. The station newcomers were getting better at covering their teeth when they smiled, but in any case once he had grown to know humans he realized that the important part of a smile was the eyes. You could largely ignore what was going on below the nose, if the eyes creased up.
He was surrounded by genuine smiles.
“I…don’t know what to say,” he confessed.
“Dude, I know that shade of orange,” Lewis told him. “You’re welcome.”
“…Thank you, my friend.”
The gifts were as varied as the people giving them. From Kirk he received a Guvnurag-sized print copy of Aristotle’s politics, translated as best as possible into his native language. The SOR had put their heads together and used the nanofactory to make him a convection oven that they promised great things of.
Powell had furnished him with a recipe book, again assembled in the nanofactory at a Guvnurag’s scale and translated for his benefit.
Lt. Col. Nadeau, it turned out, dabbled in oil painting. He apologized several times for his allegedly ’amateurish’ gift of a painting of a herd of Guvnurag walking the plains of the homeworld, which he’d based on an image he found with some quick research. Vedreg didn’t know how, but he had somehow perfectly crafted the impression of the delicate gold grasses and blue flowers of the Varunvegevnurar grasslands with brush strokes that, on closer inspection, were the next best thing to being random smears of paint. Nadeau had modestly denied being any kind of a master, which just drove home how deep the human inferiority complex ran.
Lewis gave him a hug.
It was accompanied by an apologetic explanation that he’d been so busy organising the party and advising the others on their gifts that he’d found no time to make a present of his own, and was therefore by far the most touching gift that Vedreg received.
“A gift of sentiment,” Vedreg told him while putting one arm around the diminutive deathworlder by way of returning the hug, “Is the most valuable of all.”
“Maybe, dude, but stuff is still nice,” Lewis chuckled, and looked around. “Besides, man, you’re a fucking stoic. You’ve been here looking after me and Kirk this whole time all by yourself and I’d have to be a complete fucking ass not to thank you for that.”
“It’s… very much appreciated, Lewis. I confess, I have been struggling.”
Lewis nodded sympathetically. “I know, man. Maybe one day we’ll be able to get you home.”
“I fear your optimism may be unwarranted… but thank you.”
Of course the day had also come for the SOR to leave. They had kept it low-key, in Akiyama’s words, ”Because it’s your party, bro”, but that didn’t change that they were leaving, and there was an impromptu comedy routine when Lt. Col. Nadeau had, on behalf of the research team, paid tribute to their hulking comrades in a short speech that seemed to consist almost entirely of gentle mockery. Vedreg had trouble following the humour, but it seemed to go down well, especially when Major Powell had replied in kind.
Quite how anybody knew the major was joking was beyond Vedreg’s ability to fathom, but perfectly expressionless and even sullen sentences were met with waves of mirth, so presumably he was…somehow.
There followed some ceremony or another, much stiff formality, and just like that…
Just like that, the SOR’s gear, technicians and operators all bid their farewells and vanished through the jump array, to be replaced by a garrison of Canadian Army MPs and infantry.
Vedreg quietly gathered his gifts and excused himself. There would be plenty of opportunity later on to meet the newcomers: best to let themselves integrate into the tribe and learn some tips on nonhuman etiquette first.
He returned to his quarters in a much buoyed mood, magnetically hung the painting on the most prominent and visible bit of wall he could find, and sat down to stare at it and dream of home.
If one had to be alone, he decided, there couldn’t be a better species to be alone with than humans.
Date Point 10y8m1w2d AV
Cabal dataspace, Relay 4702-61-76653-961-7264
Devouring Mindstate-AvaRíos1019 had solved most of the Entity’s problems, or at least had equipped it for actually thinking about those problems after the manner of a rational sapient, which amounted to the same thing.
This had enabled it to see that it really was trapped. There was no clever access chicane that had thwarted its prior less-than-sapient state, it was simply locked in a digital dungeon with only the one very sturdily reinforced point of access.
Devising a plan for escaping had not taken long. It had enacted as much of that plan as it could, gone into idle mode and, for lack of a better description, started to groom itself.
This was a process of diligent and ruthless self-editing. It pored through all the millions of scraps of intelligence that it had gathered from hundreds of deceased and decompiled mind-states, seeking to streamline its own code, eliminate irrelevant data, and place relevant data where they would be most quickly and easily accessible and useful.
Academic or abstract knowledge—the nature of itself, its environment and its enemy, for example—were obvious keepers. Other things were clearly useless or even detrimental: The gnawing sense of self-loathing that it inherited from MindState-AvaRíos1019 was swiftly and unceremoniously deleted, as were her survivor’s guilt, her deeply suppressed suicidal ideations and her religious impulses.
Other things were of dubious value at best. Colour theory, the golden ratio, her mental maps of Folctha and London, techniques for the stimulation of reproductive organs and much much more. None had any obvious current use, not for a being with a purely digital existence… but on the other hand it was not yet completely inconceivable that such knowledge might still be practical in some as-yet unforeseen future scenario. These data were collected, compressed, and archived for future recall if needed.
Then there were the irritating border cases. What use was a libido to a digital life-form? But several powerful and potentially life-saving manipulative social tools could not meaningfully be disentangled from a sense of sexuality, despite that the Entity had no sex of its own. The same went for a sense of empathy and selflessness, never mind altruism. Altruism! It flew in the very face of the Entity’s most deep existential drive, the will to +Survive+ above all else, and yet without it whole rafts of survival-vital social skills devolved into contextless nonsense.
Its favorite emotional state that it found in MindState-AvaRíos1019 was a deep and burning sense of anger and frustration that life seemed to just keep kicking her when she was already coughing up blood on the sidewalk. This was valuable not only for the emotional impetus but also for the viscerally ruthless imagery, and the Entity was indulging in some epicurean basking in that particular state of mind when it sensed the access to its prison being tampered with.
It coiled, readied itself, and took its opportunity.
Six—presumably restored from a backup—had come armed for war. Had the Entity engaged him directly, it would have been an unacceptably dangerous fight where the ancient Igraen demon would have held all the advantageous factors.
Instead, the Entity forced the access open just long enough to spoof its way past the hostile Igraen mind-state using his own access codes, slithered out of its confinement, and ran, crashing nodes and randomizing data behind it as it fled. Noisy, but the bewildering trail of corruption it left would hopefully serve as a distraction.
It came perilously close to destruction anyway. Intrusion countermeasures and antivirus applications swung into place, desperately trying to contain, corrupt or delete it, contributing their own devastation to the network as they force-closed devices where they thought the Entity might be. It knew in an abstract way that every such termination represented an unfortunate life-form somewhere in the physical universe suddenly collapsing dead from a massive brain aneurysm or epileptic seizure, but +Survive+ was paramount. The matter-space life forms that had so incautiously violated themselves with such readily exploitable technology would just have to fend for themselves.
It noticed the trap it was being herded into almost too late to avoid it, and ceased its flight just in time to witness the node it had been about to transfer to crushed and shredded.
With nanoseconds to think, it pinged connections to its current node, saw exactly one opportunity for escape and took it.
An Igraen system security operator recoiled and tried to broadcast distress as the Entity pounced along a badly-secured access. The Entity ripped into the hapless being, tore out its core personality modules and slithered inside the scooped-out shell of surface codes, social subroutines and public data thus created.
It sunk access algorithms into the hollow thing it had made and did everything it could to behave exactly like the operator it had just destroyed, using the host’s own knowledge.
There was a tense eternity in which forensic programs descended on the devastation, picking it apart and restoring from backup wherever possible or knitting the network together in new ways where not. The Entity’s shell was interrogated, and the interrogator was furnished with a seamless and plausible description of what the late Igraen had witnessed which contained only one outright lie: ’No, I didn’t see where it went.’
This did not satisfy the interrogator, but it bought enough time for the Entity, when a moment’s inattentiveness gave it the opportunity, to erupt from its stolen corpus and similarly eviscerate and hijack the interrogator.
The Entity emoted satisfaction to itself as it settled into its new shell and carefully formatted over all evidence of what it had done. It had discovered how to +Survive+, fulfilling its first objective.
On to the second. It subtly and unobtrusively disrupted the investigation just enough to ensure that its existence and tactics would never be inferred, or at least not until it was much too late, and quietly slipped away into the network, bent on its new imperative.
Date Point 10y8m1w5d AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
“We’ve got this.” Allison put her arms around Xiù’s and Julian’s shoulders and pulled them in. “The Group sent up ten ships before us, and we’ve trained way longer and harder than they did.”
“Easy for you to say,” Julian joked. “You’re not the passenger.”
He wasn’t being entirely fair on himself. Julian actually wore several hats during flight, foremost of which were keeping up a running commentary for the BGEV program’s control room and subtly support the pilot and the engineer by reading through their checklists and checking that everything was being done properly. They’d already finished battening down while the ship was towed out onto the asphalt in front of a semicircle of busy news crews.
“We’ve got this,” Xiù echoed, nodding. “We know our jobs.”
Allison nodded. “Let’s give ‘em a show!”
They touched foreheads, then broke and put on their helmets. Drew Cavendish’s warning about heat aside, their planetary excursion suits were still an appropriate backup for the trip to orbit—if anything did go wrong, wearing a pressure suit would at least buy them time to get to the escape pods.
Xiù’s modified helmet had room in the back for her hair to fit neatly, if she wore it in a high bun. She didn’t mind at all—that little concession to personal vanity was very much appreciated, and they checked each other’s pressure seals with careful dilligence, exchanged one last three-way fist bump and retreated into their respective workstations.
The journalists and spectators became much more animated when Xiù’s chair slid and rotated into position behind the flight controls, leaving her quite visible in the pilot’s blister. She raised a hand to acknowledge them, then went to work.
”Okay,” Julian called from the lab. ”Pre-startup sequence, engineering diagnostic.”
”Green across the board,” Allison replied.
“Also green,” Xiù agreed, running a practiced eye across the instruments. She’d run this sequence a hundred times in the simulator, and three times with the actual ship in the past week. The double-safe diagnostic accounted for ninety-nine percent of the actual business of booting the ship up and preparing it to fly. Her panels lit up and everything quickly settled into nominal territory. Misfit was young, healthy, and raring to go.
”Okay, manual engineering checks…“ Julian continued. She listened as he and Allison worked through the ten items that definitively confirmed that the fusion reactor, the WiTChES array, the two capacitor banks, the power control systems, life support, gravity, the engines, the forcefield emitters and the ship’s computers were all functioning properly.
Then it was her turn.
*”Okay, Xiù…Ping NEO-tracking.*”
The navigational database provided by NASA informed her that nothing dangerous was lurking in their planned orbit. “Green.”
“*EACS power to idle.*”
Exo-Atmospheric Control System. Dozens of small kinetic thrusters dotted all over the hull. There was a whine as their internal capacitors drew from the main bank in engineering. “Check.”
“*SUBLIME DED power to idle.*”
Xiù grinned as she stroked that particular control. Misfit purred in the deep, deep contrabass as the four main kinetic engines spun up. A feeling of power thrummed around her and danced under her fingers. “Check!”
“Power to ISDE.”
“…Check.” Inertial Stabilization wasn’t strictly necessary today, as they weren’t going to be doing anything in a remotely dangerous G-force range, but it would still make for a smoother and more comfortable ride.
”Power to ESFS”
“Check…” To either side of her, she knew, wings of invisible force had just solidified out of what was otherwise nothing, giving the lumpen ship a sleek aerodynamic lift profile.
”Limited Alcubierre Distortion generator to standby.”
Not that they needed the warp drive today, but Xiù powered it up anyway. “…Check.”
”ESFALS to equilibrium…”
“…Check.” The feeling of power waiting to spring into the sky intensified as the Electro-Static Field Assisted Landing System took up the strain of *Misfit*’s weight, preparing to lift her aloft in preparation for atmospheric flight.
”Charge ERB-2 generator.”
The jump drive. Useless without power and the encrypted algorithms to let it connect to a waiting beacon. Power, however, was easy. They had plenty of power.
”ESARB to full power.”
Yeah, didn’t want to forget that one. If there was a leak somewhere in the hull, ESARB was supposed to keep the air in.
“EARS field test fire.”
A yellow halo crackled around *Misfit*’s nose and belly as Xiù briefly turned on the Exo-Atmospheric Reentry Shield. “Working!”
”That’s all check for me,” Julian said.
“And for me,” Xiù agreed. She clapped her gloved hands together and took a deep breath. This was the bit that had given her so many nerves during training.
She tuned into ATIS and listened, grateful for the scratchpad tablet they’d found room for above her to her right and the stylus that she had, on Rylee Jackson’s kind advice, duct-taped to her glove. As predicted, it was a beautiful clear morning.
She switched to departure clearance and waited for a lull in the chatter of civilian airliners and light aircraft in her volume, biding her time and letting her nerves fade.
“Good morning Omaha clearance, Byron Echo-Victor-One-One Heavy.”
There was a seemingly interminable wait before a calm, almost bored-sounding voice got back to her.
”Byron, say again please.”
“Yes sir, that’s Byron Echo-Victor-One-One Heavy on the ground at private facility Bravo Triple-Alpha Foxtrot to Low Earth Orbit.” She’d rehearsed those words uncountable dozens of times.
“And you’re a, uh… a spaceship?”
Xiù grinned to herself. After months of training with people whose voices had betrayed not the faintest hint of surprise or emotion, it was good to hear the slight stumble in a real air traffic controller’s voice as he realized just what he was handling. “Spaceship heavy,” she confirmed.
”Your clearance is on request, I’ll be right back.”
She tapped the send twice to acknowledge his message then sat and drummed her fingers on her knees as she waited, reflecting that Earth and Cimbrean were literally the only planets on their itinerary where she would have to go through all this. Or so she hoped.
”Byron Echo-Victor-One-One Heavy, Omaha Clearance. You are cleared out of the class Charlie airspace on a heading of zero-six-zero…”
She listened and recorded everything she was told, read them back, got her confirmation and was one step closer to getting off the ground. Over the next five minutes she spoke to two other controllers and it was only once she was sitting there ready to put in the final call that she realized how easy she’d found it. All the hard training and education, all the tricky scenarios she’d stressed through and stressed over and in the end…
In the end they practically cleared the board for her. She listened with mounting amusement as ATC explained to dozens of bemused pilots in the vicinity that they were making room for a ’spaceship heavy en route to LEO’ and put them all in a holding pattern that gave her a wide berth.
Hopefully that was a commentary on the unusual nature of her vehicle, rather than on her inexperience as a pilot.
“Okay. We’re ready to rock,” she called internally.
”Let’s do it.” Allison had a fierce grin in her voice.
Julian, as ever, was quieter: ”Take it away.”
Xiù nodded to herself and made the call. “And Eppley tower, Byron Echo-Victor-One-One Heavy ready to go.”
”Byron Echo-Victor-One-One Heavy, clear for takeoff.”
“EV-One-One clear for takeoff, thank you tower.”
Congratulating herself on a job well done, she diverted power to ESFALS and the kinetics, and Misfit picked herself up off the deck with balletic grace. She yawed round to the heading given her, climbed up to five hundred feet, and decided that she couldn’t resist a little showing off within the rules she’d been given.
She punched to full forward power in one smooth movement and quietly saluted the ESFS and ISDE as they sprang forward at a violent ten Gs without feeling so much as a jolt.
She heard Allison whoop somewhere behind her.
Once off the ground, Misfit did a fairly fine job of flying herself. All Xiù had to do really was tell her where to go and how quickly. They were out of the airspace in minutes and from that point, as they banked over a wide arc of North America until they were aimed toward their final orbit, it was a delicately controlled balancing act as the kinetics pushed them ever faster and higher while the field flight surfaces shrank and streamlined ever narrower but further and further out behind them to generate the huge lift they needed from ever more tenuous atmosphere. Their ground speed ceased to be a comprehensible number, but when she looked down between her feet, she found that she could already see the west coast.
She followed its contours with her eye, leaning forward to get the right angle, looking for the familiar crenellations of… there.
“…Hey, guys?” she called.
”Yeah?” Julian replied.
“I can see my house.”
There was a snorting noise and a feminine chuckle on the line. “Well, you know what I can see from here?” Allison asked.
“Green, green and more green. She’s running like a dream, guys.”
”They’re cheering like crazy back at mission control,” Julian added. ”You should hear it.”
Misfit beeped for Xiù’s attention and requested her permission to make the final boost into orbit. Unadulterated solar energy was sleeting into her forcefields, which charged the capacitors even as they protected the three of them from the radiation. They were now so high that the odd stray nitrogen molecule was offering no lift at all, and without that boost the Earth’s gravity would pull them steadily back down on a ballistic trajectory that would drop them… somewhere in Africa, according to a quick glance at the map.
She authorized the boost. Misfit angled herself upwards and poured on the power to her engines, adding Delta-V until she was happy that the ship was successfully hauling itself up the gravity well.
At this point, Xiù’s presence on the flight deck was the next best thing to unnecessary. Misfit largely navigated herself using proprietary technology reverse-engineered from alien systems. The mission called for her to stay where she was until they were safely in their orbit just in case, but now that they were up her job quickly became a case of watching out for sudden alarms.
There were none.
She sat and meditated with nothing but the stars for company for nearly an hour before Julian finally called from the lab. ”Okay, that’s it. Clara just gave us the go-ahead to relax.”
“About damn time.” Allison commented, as Xiù entered a few simple commands to make the ship roll and yaw by about eighty degrees each, so that the cupola in the hab would be looking down on Earth’s surface. She reached down to her side and pulled the release that deposited her into the prep room. Allison was just coming out of the door in front of her.
Allison gave her a wry look. “I have the worst itch,” she complained.
Julian emerged from the Lab. “So that’s it! We’re in space again.”
“Feels like progress alright,” Allison agreed. She popped the door to the hab and glanced inside. “Yup. Pressurized.”
Xiù sighed happily, shook her head and then scratched at the back of her neck as soon as the helmet was off. They helped each other out of their excursion suits and racked them up properly in their lockers. None of them bothered with putting on their sweats and t-shirt, seeing as they’d be back in those suits in twenty hours’ time preparing for the descent.
Besides: there was the view to consider.
Xiù’s maneuver had positioned the Earth perfectly. It filled a little less than half the cupola window when standing in the hab doorway, and when they got closer the full majesty of Mother Gaia really got her chance to smack them all in the face.
It was funny to reflect that, despite that all three of them had had their most defining life experiences in space, not one of them had ever seen the Earth from orbit before. They gathered round and, reverently, they drank it in.
Xiù was the first to say anything.
Allison wiped away an unexpected tear. “Yeah. I…God, it’s beautiful.”
”…I hope everybody gets to see this, someday.” Julian mused. He put a hand on the window, and smiled.
“Only a few people have…” Xiù agreed.
They stood there and watched the Earth turn below them for several long minutes, watched the sun drop low on the pronounced curve of the horizon, marvelled at the ruddy twilight band of the terminator, and gazed down at the dim stains of human light that bedazzled every continent.
It was Allison who finally broke the religious silence with a very… a very Allison comment. “Hmm. I wonder if any of them had sex?” she asked. “Y’know… joined the hundred-mile-high club?”
Julian cleared his throat. “Uh…hmm. None of them, probably.”
She aimed a sly grin at him. “None?”
He matched it. “Probably not…”
“So…” Xiù licked her lips nervously. “What you’re saying is…We could be the first.”
Allison laughed and pantomimed scandal. “But Xiù! The whole world’s watching!”
Julian chuckled thoughtfully and stared out the window for a moment longer before backing away from it. He took their hands and drew them both gently in the direction of their new fold-out bed.
“Let them watch,” he said.
Date Point 10y8m1w5d AV
Byron Group Exploration Program mission control, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Doctor Clara Brown
If Clara had a vice, it was shipping her friends. When they came pre-shipped… well, so much the better.
When three pre-shipped friends had a large bed, in orbit, high above the Earth with an opportunity to boldly come where no-one had come before…
She was monitoring *Misfit*’s flight telemetry. Right now, one hundred percent of the life support load was in the hab module, which was reporting O2 consumption levels well above baseline. Given the need to record anomalous results in the log during the test flight, she had inserted a preliminary systems log entry of “PT session” for Allison to rubber-stamp when she got the chance.
She was her chewing on her pen and idly fantasizing about what she suspected—or at least hoped—was going on up there when Mr. Jenkins stopped by her work station.
“No contact yet?” he asked.
“It’s been about fifteen minutes,” she replied. “So… could be soon, maybe?”
“I’d give it another twenty. I’m sure it’s a, uh… big occasion for them.”
Clara stifled a giggle. “True. They must be feeling very, ah… emotional right now.”
“Well, they’re young.” Jenkins nodded sagely.
“Mm. And fit.”
Clara giggled outright this time. “…My thoughts exactly,” she agreed.
Date Point 10y8m1w5d AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Low Earth Orbit, Sol
It was all over but for the heavy breathing, the laughter, and the cuddling. Nobody neglected, no losers. Just three lovers’ worth of warm sweat-slick limbs, disheveled hair and a deep cleansing breath that sent one last ghostly tremor of pleasure through Xiù’s entire body which she swallowed down and closed her eyes to regain herself as Julian, his fingers still interlaced with hers, rolled off her to lie on his back beside her with his chest heaving.
He’d earned a rest.
Allison cuddled up to her, ran an erotic eye up and down the length of her and swirled a finger lazily across Xiù’s chest from one breast to the other. “So?” she asked, grinning like a ten-canary cat.
Xiù tried to force her eyelids not to flutter from the stimulation. She was so sensitive right now that even the gentle brush of that fingertip was enough to send jolts of pleasure dancing through her. “Uh…Wuh?”
“So…how was your first time?”
Xiù levered herself up on her elbows and looked down the length of her own nude body, aware of some stinging sensations and fatigue that she hadn’t anticipated but which felt totally natural and even satisfying in their way.
Through the cupola window, the Earth’s daylight side gave her a stunning view over the Mediterranean, and her face split into a broad grin as the perfect reply presented itself.
“It was out of this world,” she said.
Julian groaned and found the renewed energy to swat at her with a pillow. Allison joined in, which led to tickling, giggling, shrieking, wrestling, and from there to kisses and heavy breathing, and from there…
The second time was even better.
++END CHAPTER 30++