Chapter 32: Deep Wounds
Date Point 10y9m AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Byron Group Advanced Aircraft Assembly Facility, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
A random visitor to the AAAF would have been forgiven for mistaking Doctor Clara Brown for some skinny geek who’d climbed the fence to get a look at the ship. Between her metal band T-shirts, torn jeans and huge buckle-encrusted black New Rock boots she didn’t look anything like a senior team member of a multi-billion-dollar corporate project, even when she put on her lab coat. Her glasses, piercings and pigtails weren’t exactly part of the professional corporate engineer look either.
If the random visitor had cared to look for five minutes, however, they would have seen the way she was the nexus of several ant-trails of busy men and women who came and went to get her opinion before scurrying off on errands. They would have seen that she checked, tapped on, wrote on and worked through her tablet and smartwatch almost constantly and, if they were smart, would have revised their first impression.
Allison thoroughly liked her. She knew *Misfit*’s systems better than Allison herself did which was hardly surprising considering that she had designed more than a few of them herself, and they had worked together closely with Clara’s father to fine-tune the control systems to the point where Misfit felt like a living boat rather than an inert apparatus. Their excursion around the solar system had felt oddly like sailing, despite the absence of surf and seagulls.
“Getting those guys from that VR game company on board for the WiTChES haptic feedback was a great idea,” she said. “It was almost like I could feel the solar wind.”
“Too bad we can’t have you hauling on ropes,” Clara smiled, tapping something thoughtfully as another crate was loaded onto the dumbwaiter and vanished up into *Misfit*’s body.
“Nah, I’d tire out. Besides, I never actually went sailing.” Allison shrugged.
“You should. It’s something I really miss about when we were living in New Hampshire. Dad and I had a keelboat called the Belle Starr, but we had to sell her when we moved out here, sadly. We still go out on Lake Michigan sometimes but… I dunno, it just doesn’t feel right when I can’t smell salt.”
“Mm-hmm. I think I remember you telling me about it.”
“Did I? Sorry.” Clara waggled her tablet. “Kinda distracted…Okay, that’s the last box of frozen kale…”
“Check…” Allison did her best to keep the relief out of her voice. *Misfit*’s food supply had been carefully thought-out to fit as much nutrition as possible into the available space without sacrificing on variety and interest. It was heavy on salmon, kale, brown rice and potatoes. There was also beef liver, garlic, plenty of onions, carrots and parsnips, celery, spinach, boxes of freeze-dried eggs, bouillon and milk powder, dried beans and lentils, dried apricots, cranberries and blueberries, Li hing mui, honey, black pepper, salt and sugar, tea and coffee, herbs and spices, one freezer full of the frozen cuts from a whole lamb, another full of a whole beef cow, half a dozen whole chickens and the cleverly-packaged ‘good bits’ of dozens more, bacon, chorizo and salumi, wheat flour, condensed soup, one enormous wheel of cheddar and another of parmesan… and the two stashes.
One stash was the emergency stash. It contained, in one crate, enough food to keep the three of them alive—not happy or thriving, but alive—for a year if they didn’t mind a diet composed mostly of baked insects supplemented by peanut butter, processed cheese and vitamin tablets with the occasional MRE thrown in for when they needed to actually do something active. The other was the luxury stash which was mostly just beer and chocolate.
Oh. And the crate with their supplements and Xiù’s Lactaid. That crate had been the first aboard, just in case the rest of the larder left them a little short somehow.
The storage rooms that had been so conspicuously empty during their jaunt around Sol were being filled pretty much from edge-to-edge and it was a little disconcerting. Allison hadn’t thought that any of them were particularly big eaters, but seeing just how much was being loaded on to serve just three people for an eighteen month mission with a resupply halfway through…
It drove home what all the ETs had always said about the human appetite. Seeing the beef alone go aboard had been an education. She was glad that the parade of food had finally reached its end.
“…aaand twenty tins of condensed mushroom soup.”
Clara put her tablet by her side and relaxed. “I guess that’s my job done,” she declared. “Wow.”
“Well, I’ve been working so hard on making this flight happen… and then, bam! There we go, that’s the last thing I had to do.”
“Oh yeah. I know that feeling,” Allison nodded. “ Like Wile E. Coyote.”
“You know, when he goes running off the cliff and he’s still trying to run in mid-air?”
“Oh! Yeah!” Clara smiled. “That’s how it feels alright.”
“So what next for you?”
“Dane and I are going on our honeymoon I guess.”
“Long overdue!” Allison raised an eyebrow.
“Hey, interstellar scout ships don’t build themselves…” Clara kicked the heel of her boot idly into the concrete floor, looking thoughtfully up at *Misfit*’s industrial lines. “…We did a good job though, right? I mean-”
“Clara, she’s amazing. I love her.”
“How does she compare to your old ship, though?”
Allison shrugged. “Sanctuary was a hell of a ship and she could move like nothing else. And sure, she was way bigger and more comfortable. But Misfit is human. She’s built for us, by us. By you. That makes her way more special.”
Clara nodded. She seemed buoyed by the reassurance, but still not entirely at ease and it wasn’t hard to guess why.
“We’ll be fine, I promise,” Allison told her. They glanced up as *Misfit*’s airlock cycled and disgorged the three men who had been helping load and pack the provisions, plus Julian. He gave them friendly shoulder-slaps and handshakes as they parted ways and trotted across the concrete wearing the happy perspiring smile he always wore after a session of good physical work.
“That’s the last of it, right?”
“Yuh-huh,” Allison nodded. “Xiù’s not back yet.”
“There’s no rush. We aren’t on a timetable any longer. She can take as long as she needs.”
“Well…” Clara wobbled her head. “You are on a timetable, it’s just a loose one.”
“We’ve got enough autonomy to let Xiù say goodbye to her family,” Julian replied.
“She didn’t get the chance last time,” Allison pointed out.
“I know. I know. And don’t forget, there’s whatever Kevin needed to talk about before you’re allowed to go.”
“Speak of the devil…”
It was strange how well Kevin Jenkins and Xiù got along these days, considering that the first time they met she had broken his nose. The experience seemed to have softened him and knocked some of the rust off his sense of empathy, or maybe he was just the kind of guy you had to punch sometimes to keep him on the straight and narrow. Either way while their relationship was never going to be a friendship, it was still positive. All of them knew that he’d fought their corner for months now and served as a buffer against the Group’s excesses. Allison reckoned that the fact they’d had any kind of privacy or autonomy at all since selection was probably his doing, though he had never claimed as much.
He was also the only guy in the whole Byron Group who was completely in on the real intel situation vis-a-vis the Hierarchy and the existential ’if we screw up we’re all dead’ crumbling ledge that was humanity’s real status in the galaxy. Even Moses Byron himself didn’t know the full story according to Kevin, though he’d also cautioned against writing off their billionaire patron’s ability to read between the lines. “He ain’t stupid,” had been the advice. “That man has literally sold oil to the Arabs. He knows what’s up even if he ain’t been told all the details.”
“All ready?” Clara asked as they approached. Allison noticed the hints of redness and puffiness around Xiù’s eyes and gave her a discreetly reassuring sideways hug, which was returned with a grateful squeeze.
“Nearly. Gonna hafta ask you to leave us though, doc. We got some stuff to discuss.”
“I figured.” Clara sighed, then gave all three of them big hugs. “I’ll see you guys in nine months.” she promised.
Kevin watched her go, all the way across the concrete until the door closed behind her, then pulled out an implant scanner and a data card, one of MBG’s forays into electronics that packed several terabytes of information onto something roughly the size and shape of a credit card and could communicate that data wirelessly with no battery of its own. “Heads.” he said.
They obeyed the formality without complaint, letting him ping their brains for hardware that shouldn’t be there. There was none, of course, and he sent a text message then handed over the card. “Those are your codes for the Cimbrean-Five jump beacon,” he said. “Keep that card safe. It’s got all kindsa copy-protection and lockouts on it so you can’t transfer its content to any other device, and it’ll wipe itself if you try and use it with a computer that ain’t *Misfit*’s brain. You lose it or wipe it, and you have to walk home the slow way.”
He handed it to Xiù. “Y’all got any questions, now’s the time to ask ‘em I guess.”
The three of them looked at each other.
“Hey, uh…” Julian unzipped his jacket pocket and handed him something quite large. “This isn’t much, but you’ve had our backs for months now so we wanted you to have something, and…”
Kevin accepted it with a blink. The gift was a palm-sized rock the rough shape and texture of an almond and the ruddy hue of a football, encased in a neat cuboid of clear resin. “…What is it?”
“Martian tephra,” Julian said.” That, my friend, is a blob of molten rock that one of the Martian volcanoes ejected fuck-knows-how-many years ago, and it musta flown a hell of a long way in the low gravity because somehow it fetched up at our landing site a thousand miles away from the nearest volcano.”
“This weighs like five pounds!”
“Yup. Reckon that little rock’s worth a couple’a million dollars if you were to sell it…” Allison grinned.
“Holy crap, guys…You call that ‘not much’?”
“It’s literally a rock I picked up off the ground,” Julian said with a self-effacing smile.
“Yeah, but what a rock and what a ground… Man…” Kevin cleared his throat. “Thank you. Really, this is… I’ll treasure it.”
Julian shook his hand, as did Allison. Xiù surprised them all by giving him a hug.
“Sorry for breaking your nose…” she said, not for the first time.
“Reckon it needed breaking,” Kevin replied, though he was obviously touched. “Look, uh… Be careful. I wanna see you all back here safe and sound and full’a stories.”
“Or at least bored and disappointed.” Allison had her private suspicion that she’d just listed the most likely outcome, despite Clara’s assurances that *Misfit*’s exoplanet telescope could reliably scan thousands of potential stars a second and would readily guide them toward planets with the right kind of oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. She trusted Clara, but the whole group could err a little too heavily on the side of optimism, and Clara was no exception.
“Nah,” Kevin predicted. “We learned too much from the earlier missions. You’re gonna come back with a hard drive full of useful planets, I know it.”
“See you ‘round, Kevin…” Allison offered. He smiled, turned and sauntered away with a jaunty wave over his shoulder.
“Sure. Go be legends.”
They were alone.
“…Kinda feels anticlimactic, huh?” Julian said, looking around. The hangar threw lonely tinny reflections of his words back at them. “Just like that, we’re all loaded up and ready to go.”
“I like anticlimactic,” Allison said. “This is…”
“Peaceful,” Xiù suggested.
“Yeah. We get to do things at our pace now. That’s so welcome.”
Allison watched him, feeling sly amusement creep across her face. “…Antsy to get going, Etsicitty?”
“So am I.”
Xiù nodded. “That makes three of us.”
An awkward several seconds unfolded as they stood there and stared at their ship, then at each other, then at the ship again. They were all waiting for one of the others to make the first move.
“…Okay for real?” Allison said eventually, breaking the silence, “I’m fucking scared.”
This time, they climbed the ladder.
Date Point 10y9m AV
Aldrin Avenue, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“And by ’bupkis’ you mean…?”
“Over the last five months, Ava Ríos has sent nearly two thousand emails and text messages in professional correspondence with her colleagues and contacts, all kosher. Personal messages with her friends and family, nothing untoward. On her personal devices she plays Slow Light Online about five hours a week and Click Wizards two or three times a day for an average of about five minutes per session. Her most visited websites are Instagram, Reddit, the Cimbrean government’s health and fitness portal, Pornhub, Wikipedia and a smattering of blogs and news sites. Long story short, since leaving Egypt she has done exactly nothing with any of her devices that would be a violation of her NDA. About the worst of her sins is she doesn’t change her passwords often enough, but then again who does?”
“And the message?”
The message. Darcy had… not been pleased to be woken at three in the morning a few days earlier and summoned to Cimbrean ASAP. She had spent most of the trip grinding her teeth in fact, especially upon learning who was at the heart of the urgent call.
She had staggered through the first eight hours of the investigation in a fog of caffeine, irritation and the manic energy of the sleep-deprived before finally allowing herself to crash.
The morning had brought with it clarity and calm, along with the welcome news that whatever had happened, her professional reputation seemed likely to remain undamaged, and with Ava now quite firmly exonerated she was feeling much more positive.
”It first appeared on a human device during the colony’s FTL relay’s routine synchronization. We know which foreign relay it was uploaded to: Observatory Station, at Neptune. The station’s staff confirmed they have no humans on board right now, which means that she wasn’t where the message came from, and in fact when it was uploaded she was on live TV being watched by thousands of people.”
“So she’s in the clear.”
“Pretty much, unless you care to lean on her about why there’s a dealer in her contacts.”
Darcy scowled. “…There is, is there?”
“Probably just one of her sources. A Gaoian botanist called Yeya. CCS have had their eye on him for a while, but they haven’t been able to bring a case. She may not even know about his sideline.”
“Gaoian drug dealers…” Darcy snorted, struck as she sometimes was by the world’s ever-deepening strangeness. “Do you think she’s using?”
“Alright, thanks. I’m happy to remove her from suspicion then. You make note of that and I’ll go give her the good news.”
Darcy hung up and thought for a minute or two, then gathered her handbag and headed inside the apartment building.
Ava had been commendably compliant with the spirit of her NDA. Darcy wasn’t exactly pleased to be dragged back into dealing with her again, but she had stuck her neck out for that young woman. Several of her colleagues would have been less than impressed if she had failed to step up and handle her own mess.
Ava had insisted on staying at her adoptive family’s apartment until the investigation was complete, despite Darcy’s reassurances that it was unnecessary. Darcy was quietly grateful—she was entirely certain that the girl was too constructively self-centered to even think of doing something stupid, but having her under the watchful eye of Chief Arés was a useful way to smooth some ruffled feathers.
Gabriel Arés had plainly chosen the building for its disability access, which included a large and comfortable elevator directly opposite the front doors. She checked herself in its wide mirrors on the way up, massaging ruefully at the ever-deepening lines around her eyes and mouth, and neatened up her suit.
Appropriately neat, she rang the doorbell rather than knocking as was the Cimbrean custom. There was an answering call and thumping from inside, and after a half-minute Ava opened the door looking the complete opposite of her usual clean and groomed self in sweats, a T-shirt, no bra and no makeup. Darcy didn’t envy her the pain that would come when she finally took her hair down out of its impromptu lazy bun and reintroduced it to a brush, either.
“Hello Ava. May I come in?”
Ava stepped aside and gestured to the nice Cimbrean Nutwood dining table and chair set, where she sat down, warily. “I, uh… Sure! I’m sorry you had to-”
Darcy settled opposite her. “You’re in the clear,” she said without preamble.
“Oh thank God…” Ava sagged then sat back and covered her face, stress visibly flooding out of her. When she lowered her hands again she looked exhausted. “…Thank you. I’m so sorry about all this, I don’t have any idea what-”
She trailed off as Darcy raised her hand a reassuring inch off the tabletop. “I won’t lie, I wasn’t thrilled to be woken up at three in the morning, flown halfway across North America and sent over here,” she said, “and I just know my in tray will be a jungle when I’m finally back in Chicago…But we’re happy there was no wrongdoing on your part: You have nothing to apologize to me for.”
“…Can you tell me what happened?”
Darcy cleared her throat. To her knowledge, a situation like this was completely unheard-of, and it posed new and challenging questions about need-to-know, not to mention the security and soundness of every intel asset ever. “I don’t know,” she replied truthfully. “We’ve not really decided what happened yet, nor how much you need to know about…”
Ava blinked slowly at her. “…I read the message, you know.”
Darcy nodded sympathetically. “And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to please be discreet about its…”
“Discreet?!” Ava’s jaw dropped. “Oh, I’ll be discreet, sure, but there’s someone or something out there that claims to be a… a copy of me,” her voice crawled with nausea “…and I don’t have need-to-know?”
“That’s not what I mean. We haven’t verified that-”
“It has my memories, Darcy!”
It was the first time Darcy had seen her so fired up. In all their previous interactions, Ava had been quiet, deferential and nervous. Now she was up, she was animated and she was interrupting.
Worse, she was crying. “They wrote about… things I’ve never told anybody. Feelings I’ve never shared, memories that I… That are way too…” She trailed off and took a shuddering breath. “They know things that only I knew.”
Darcy cleared her throat. She’d read the message too. It had been intensely and painfully personal. “I know you feel violated-”
“I feel raped.” Ava corrected her. She slumped back in her chair and wrestled her face into something resembling a miserable kind of composure. “I don’t give a fuck about, about the Hierarchy, or the Cabal, or what-the-fuck-ever. I’m done. I want out. But for fuck sake are you going to look me in the eye and tell me that I don’t have need-to-know on my own soul?”
“Would it help you?”
“It’s not about helping me. If… if there’s even an ounce of truth to what they said, then I need to know, Darcy. I have to.”
Darcy held eye contact as she thought long and hard, before finally taking off her glasses to clean them. “…During the after-action cleanup of Operation EMPTY BELL, the intel team recovered a… device from the top drawer of Six’s desk,” she said. “SCERF are still picking it over, but according to them it’s a scanner of some kind. A very sensitive one, plugged into a tiny but mighty quantum computing core.”
Ava said nothing: she watched, and listened.
“We… don’t know what it was for. But I have my suspicions.”
“They were physical once. Like us,” Ava said. “And now they’re not.”
“Could it be a… some kind of a brain digitizing thingy?”
“…It could be, yes.”
“So he could have copied me.”
Darcy sighed and steepled her fingers together. She touched them to her nose as she drew a thoughtful breath, and rubbed her palms. “Professionally? Officially? We don’t know and we’re keeping an open mind. But… yes. If what you say about your memories is true then that seems plausible.”
Ava deflated. Her hands came up and rubbed her brow as she shook her head. “*Joder todo sobre mi vida…*” she whispered.
Darcy could hardly blame her. “Look…” she said. “If you need to talk to somebody about this, I can arrange-”
“No. Just… just leave me alone. Just go. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I pray to God we never see each other again. Please.”
“Ava, I read the message too. If what it said is true…”
Ava looked away.
“Please,” she said, quietly. “Just… Just leave me alone. I want to forget all this. I want it all to go away.”
“And I’m offering to help,” Darcy told her. “I get it, I wouldn’t want to talk to me either. But you need to talk to somebody, and there are people right here on Cimbrean who could be helpful…”
“You get it? Do you?” Ava shook her head. “Okay. Do you know why I don’t want to talk to you?”
Ava sighed. “…You’re everything I wish I could be,” she said. “You’re not the problem, you’re the solution. You’re in charge, you’re involved. You’re fighting. Me? …I’m just a burden. I drag people down, I hurt them, and I get them killed. You’re a success and I’m…” She shook her head. “I’m a complete fuckup. And the worst part is I’m too much of a fucking coward to just kill myself so they can stop wasting-”
“Stop.” Darcy said. It was a soft word, but she poured every drop of command she had into it, and it worked—Ava’s self-hating tirade came to an abrupt halt. “That’s not cowardice, Ava. Taking your own life would the worst burden you could possibly lay on them. I know right now, you’re in a place so deep and so dark that you can’t see the light, but I promise, I promise you the light is there. And there are people who care about you and who want to help you find it. Please.”
“…Why do you care?” Ava asked. It wasn’t a sullen accusation, but a genuine query.
The honest answer was ’There but for the grace of God…’ but there was no way to say as much. It was too much, too intimate, too blunt. Saying so out loud could potentially ruin the rapport she’d worked hard to build with Ava, and that was far too valuable a thing to throw away on sentiment.
She elected instead for a more roundabout answer. “…When Six was captured years ago, the results of his interrogation came straight to me. Then as now, I was the one in charge of hunting down the Hierarchy on Earth. The assault on their safehouse in San Diego was… the president may have authorized it, but it was on my advice.”
Ava blinked at her, and Darcy straightened her glasses before forcing herself to look the younger woman in the eye. “I made the call that got your parents, your friends, your entire city and millions more besides, killed. And I blame myself for every single one.”
Ava seemed to be bereft of ideas for how to respond to that. She just gawped at Darcy, who cleared her throat. It was the first time she’d ever had the chance to apologize to a survivor of her mistake, and while she’d always hoped it would be cathartic, the moment now that it had arrived was… nauseous. “I’m so sorry,” she added quietly, and swallowed down the lump in her throat. “I… should have been better.”
“You…?” That lone word seemed to exhaust Ava’s faculties for discussion and her hand fluttered around as if hoping to alight on something intelligent to say.
Darcy just nodded.
Ava stared at her for a long silent time punctuated only by the hum of the refrigerator, the ticking of the wall clock, and the distant thump of somebody in another apartment moving around.
Finally, at long last, she bothered to wipe the tears off her face. “…Back in Egypt, you told me that if the safe-house hadn’t been destroyed, we might already all be dead,” she said. “Do you really believe that?”
“If I didn’t… I don’t think I could live with myself,” Darcy answered, honestly.
“And you… talked to people?”
“I did. I didn’t want to, but I did… and it helped.”
“I…” Ava stared through the table then shut her eyes, gulped and nodded. “…Fine. I’ll… talk to somebody. I’ll talk to Dad.”
Darcy heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
She decided not to comment on the fact that Ava’s expression had more than a hint of gratitude in it too.
Ava for her part got up and padded through barefoot into the kitchen. “Coffee?”
“No, thank you.” Darcy stood up. “If you think you’ll be okay, I have quite a lot of work to do. This… incident is going to lead to some interesting places.”
“If…” Ava paused, holding a mug. “If there IS a copy of me out there…”
“Then we’ll have to figure out what to do about it as we go,” Darcy told her. “This is unprecedented territory we’re in, Ava. I don’t think anybody knows how to proceed.”
“…Just… do for her.. Or, uh, it… Do what you did for me, okay? I don’t think I could handle meeting…”
“I understand.” Darcy paused at the door. “Good luck, Ava. I hope if we ever meet again it’s outside of a professional context.”
“Yeah. I… thank you, Darcy. For everything.”
Darcy nodded and let herself out. Finding herself alone in the hallway outside she took a moment to express her emotions where nobody could see them, then pulled herself together.
She still had a lot of important work to do.
Date Point 10y9m AV
BGEV-11 ’Misfit’, Byron Group AAAF, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth.
Allison’s work station, Engineering, was the largest room of the three but also the most cramped. It was a crowded orderly maze of computer racks, capacitor banks, the two huge deuterium fuel tanks that fed into the fusion reactor, the solid structural plates for the aft engine arrays, the coolant pump and its bouquet of pipes, the transformer, the fuse box…
Her control station was in front of all that in a neat semicircle of display and buttons. She’d queried why they weren’t touchscreens instead and the explanation had been quite an education. It had nothing to do with technological reliability, but was all instead about human fallibility—people needed the haptic feedback of a button to assist their muscle memory. With it, they could reach out and hit exactly the right control; Without it, they couldn’t.
So, the station looked oddly low-tech despite being anything but. There was the power-balance board to her left that looked like something a sound engineer might be parked behind, the pleasantly noisy mechanical keyboard front and center, and the WiTChES field controller which was literally a videogame controller on a kind of stiff swivelling tentacle that she could grab or push out of her way as needed. It had been daunting to look at the first time she’d laid eyes on it, but months of intense daily training later she was pretty sure she could have done a good chunk of her job blindfolded and deaf.
And then there was her chair. She loved that chair. It was her chair, a bespoke bucket seat built to her measurements that folded her up comfortably and securely and in bored moments she could spin it so hard it threw her against the four-point seatbelt. She could have sat in that chair all day it was so comfortable, and thanks to its heating and massage rumble she could do so without fear of soreness or stiffness.
But that was Misfit through-and-through. She’d been refined even as she was being built, and the little customizations that fit her to her crew were everywhere, right down to a drawer handle that was in easy reach from her chair that hadn’t been back in the Box’s mock-up. The attention to detail was humbling.
“Okay baby girl, time to wake up…” she crooned as she sat down and buckled herself in. *Misfit*’s master power button was prominently placed in the middle at the back, right under her main monitor, which flickered through the usual wall of rapid-fire plain text as the ship booted up. Misfit yawned and stretched, bringing up her power from the most basic level subsistence to something more awake. She was still lazy and dozing but she was actually alert to commands now. Fans whirred up quietly, LEDs danced, relays and circuit breakers clicked and Allison watched all the important power bars on her left-hand monitor settle comfortably in their green zones.
She adjusted their balance slightly. Misfit liked to provide gravity throughout the whole ship by default but Allison had quickly discovered that she could turn off the G in the hab, storage, central transit, the staging room and the airlock while they were at station and save herself a lot of watts that way. They didn’t have anything on board that would suffer from a little microgravity anyway and it was all strapped down or securely stowed.
She put her headset on. “Okay. Checklist?”
”Ready when you are,” Julian replied.
“Deuterium flow control on. Check.”
“Virus scan, and priming fusion power.”
“Running CapBank diagnostic…All green.”
“Environmental diagnostic… green.”
“Main power…” She ran a well-educated eye over the information in front of her. The GUI wasn’t exactly pretty, but it laid out all the information she needed so clearly that she could assess whether Misfit was good to go at a glance. Satisfied, she reached out to her right and slid up the cover on the fusion reactor controls. “Primed and pressurized, containment field online… start.”
Several bars shifted on her monitors as Misfit went from idling on her stored power to producing enough to run on her own. The inevitable power spike as the reaction stabilized was handily dealt with by dumping it back into the reactor’s own on-board capacitors as seed energy for the next time they turned it on.
”Check. Purring like a kitten.”
“Aaand final pre-flight diagnostic…” Text scrolled on her top-left screen and informed her that all was well. “Green.”
”Check. Okay Xiù, ready?”
Allison grinned to herself as she listened to them work through the pilot’s checklist, and micro-adjusted the power to give as much of it as she could to the warp engine’s inertia compensation circuits. They were about to jump from Earth gravity to orbit over an exoplanet, that was a jolt she could do without.
That was ninety percent of her job, in fact: Predicting what was coming up next and tinkering with the power balance in anticipation. It sounded simple and even dull on paper, but in practice there was a lot of brain involved. Misfit had dozens of different systems all thirsty for power, and only a finite ability to replenish her reserves. Those reserves in turn were best kept at about eighty-five percent to give her a buffer to dump into in case of a surge, which sometimes meant starving the systems, and other times meant letting them drink their fill.
Of course, any actual flight or use of the warp drive inevitably drank energy faster than they could generate it on board, which was where the WiTChES came in, and so on and so forth et cetera.
She loved it.
”Okay!” Xiù finished. ”Goodbye, Earth. See you in a year…”
The only thing that let Allison even know they’d jumped was the dance of information on her displays and the dip in reserve power as Misfit recharged the jump engine. Back on Earth, the hangar they’d just jumped out of must still be reverberating from the bang as the air rushed into where the ship had just been, but here and now…
She switched her top-right screen to the view from behind Xiù, who was rolling them gently so that a dismal grey ball of a planet was ‘above’ them as she smoothed out their elliptical orbit into something a little less eccentric. Watching the pilot cam was enormously useful, to Allison. By watching where Xiù’s hands went as she worked, she was able to predict, pre-empt and provide her power needs with a good deal less latency. Xiù detected the extra help and raised a hand and gave her a backwards thumbs-up through the camera in thanks, then sat back, waved her finger searchingly at her instruments, and nodded satisfaction.
“That easy?” Allison asked. She grabbed the WiTChES controller and tacked the fields against the sunlight, anticipating that they’d be waiting a while and she could afford to charge slowly.
”Yup! Welcome to Cimbrean-five.”
”Dang. Kinda feels like we oughta celebrate.”
”Seconded.” Julian agreed. ”I’ll break out the hot chocolate and marshmallows.”
“Nice.” Allison restored gravity to the rest of the ship. “Let’s take a load off.”
They sat and talked and hung out in the hab’s cupola window as they waited for the system border patrol to find time for them. Julian spent most of that time playing around with an app that let him explore the alien star background.
With no existing Cimbrean zodiac to draw on, the astronomers at Folctha’s observatory had drawn creatively from more modern sources to name the patterns in the Cimbrean sky, hence the presence of constellations like Isambard the Engineer (so named because it looked like a stick figure wearing a tall stovepipe hat), The Fourteen Valar, and everybody’s favorite: Bruce the Bat, which was an alarmingly good match for the Bat-Signal.
It took three hours for the border patrol to finally get around to them in the form of a Dominion-made shuttle that rolled up on their port side. For some stupid reason the shuttles weren’t designed to dock with anything, so two men in familiar EVA suits space walked over, one of whom was built to a distinctive scale that made *Misfit*’s staging room seem much too small as the pair of them squeezed inside.
Sergeant Arés had a huge loveable smile as he took his helmet off. “Well, lookit you! Y’know, you guys are kinda my heroes?”
Julian shook his hand and let him scan for implants while his comrade—a much smaller man they didn’t recognize—scanned Allison’s head. “Us? Nah, come on-”
“Dead serious, bro.” Arés said, diplomatically ignoring the way Julian had to massage his hand after the shake. “Last time I saw you and Miss Buehler—hi ma’am—we were pulling your busted asses out of an escape pod. Ain’t even been a year and here you are, back in the saddle. That’s fuckin’ impressive, ain’t that right bro?”
The other operator nodded and offered a tight smile and an “Aye,” in a Scottish accent. He was sweeping the ship with some kind of scanner.
“Don’t mind him, he’s always that quiet. Hell, the fact he spoke at all means he likes you,” Arés said with a grin, waggling his implant scanner at Xiù. “Hi, Miss Chang.”
She tilted her head for the inspection. “Hello sergeant. How are you? How’s Baseball?”
“Pretty damn good, all told. We’ve been workin’ with Regaari some more. When he heard you were comin’ he told me to pass on a message.”
“Yeah. He’s back on Gao right now, but he said to look up a mutual friend, uh… what was her name, Murray?”
“Myun.” The Gaori name sounded very odd in a Scottish accent.
Xiù gasped. “Myun’s on Cimbrean?” she asked. She seemed delighted.
“Apparently. I don’t know her myself. Anyway, we’d better get this inspection done. D’you have anything to declare?”
“Fifteen jump beacons.” Allison said, and indicated the black crate full of them that they’d pulled out of storage for exactly that reason.
“Gonna need to confiscate them, then. They’ll be returned when you’re back outside the shield.”
“That’s fine. Uh, look, guys it’s kinda cramped back there… I’m not sure you’ll be able to search everything.”
Adam glanced at Murray, who opened the Engineering door, glanced inside, and then shook his head with a ‘she’s right’ gesture toward Allison.
“Yeah, uh… Hmm. Can’t get in there at all, huh?”
“No’ even in my undies,” Murray said. “‘S bloody tight in there.”
“Yeah, it’s kinda crowded for me too…” Allison said apologetically.
“Dude. The sooner we hand this shit off onto the fuckin’ marines the better…” Arés grumbled. He hit the cockpit button and scratched his head at the Xiù-sized workspace. There was no way in hell either of them were going to get in there. “‘Kay, I’ll go get the drone while you inspect what you can bro.”
The drone turned out to be a bright red thing the same size and general shape as a cantaloupe. At Murray’s request, Allison turned off gravity everywhere except for the hab and Murray guided the ball drone through the ship on puffs of compressed air, guiding it into crawlspaces and all the other spaces where they couldn’t fit.
Allison, Julian and Xiù got out of the way and let them work. They did their exercises and Allison practiced her Tai Chi under Xiù’s tutelage before the three of them settled down to watch a movie.
Allison didn’t notice falling asleep. She just found herself with her head on Julian’s shoulder and Xiù curled up on his lap when Arés folded himself carefully halfway through the door to inform them that the inspection was complete.
It had taken them nearly three hours to finally declare that, yes, Misfit was clean and safe to proceed. The beacons were secured in a stasis crate for transfer to a safe impound outside the system shield and the end result was that they were finally slave-jumped to the orbit of the planet Cimbrean nearly seven hours after their arrival.
Arés and Murray rode in the ship with them.
“So, what actually brings you to Cimbrean anyway?” Arés asked a Xiù flew them down. “I thought you were heading out into way deep space?”
“MBG News interview,” Julian said, with a shrug. “They want us to spend a day or two being celebrities before they let us actually do our job.”
”Being celebrities is our job!” Xiù called via the speakers.
“Part of it,” Allison agreed, trying to keep the sigh out of her voice. From the sympathetic look Arés gave her, she failed.
“I can relate,” he said. “The whole ’beef brothers’ thing? It’s fun but it kinda gets in the way too. I didn’t really see myself doing Public Relations stuff. Pretty cool though, I’m being tutored by Major Rylee Jackson.”
“Yeah, Rylee’s a sweetheart. She gave us some pointers too,” Allison nodded. Arés chuckled.
“Don’t think I’d get away with calling her a sweetheart…” he said.
“What, ‘cause she’s Air Force too?”
“‘Cause she’s going steady with our CO.” He glanced at Murray when the Scot cleared his throat pointedly. “…according to rumor.”
“Rumor my ass,” Julian grinned. Both the SOR men made very similar complicated shrug-and-smiles that said he was right, but…
“So, what’re you doing with today?” Arés asked.
“Playing tourist, I guess…” Allison said. “Guess you wanna catch up with Myun, huh Xiù?”
“Well hey, if you want I can show you the best spots…”
Allison glanced at Julian and saw immediately that he liked the idea. “Sure! Sounds good,” she agreed.
“Awesome.” Arés had an endearing little quirk of bouncing slightly on his toes when pleased. He stopped instantly when the deck under his feet creaked in protest. “…Sorry.”
“Jesus, how heavy ARE you?” Allison asked.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“You really wouldn’t,” Murray agreed. “I canny believe it myself an’ I work wi’ the big bastard.”
”Hitting atmo in five minutes,” Xiù called.
“Gotcha.” Allison aimed her thumb back to engineering. “I better go do my thing.”
“Don’t mind us, we’re just cargo. Ain’t that right Murray?”
Allison laughed and slipped back into engineering, glad that the day’s work was almost done. She was looking forward to Cimbrean. After all those months in Nebraska, a bit of socializing and sightseeing, even if it was only for a day or two, was going to feel like a well-earned vacation.
Xiù opened a private channel as soon as she was settled. ”Julian seems to really like those guys…”
“That’s good,” Allison said. “He’s not had a proper male friend the whole time I’ve known him.”
”What about Lewis and Amir?”
“He more kinda got along with them. Same goes for Kevin, Dane, Doctor Ericsson…”
”So this could be good for him.”
“I hope so.” She gave the EARS field and inertial compensation as much juice as she could spare. “Let’s get down there and find out.”
Date Point 10y9m AV
Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada
General Martin Tremblay
“Messier Twenty-Four again…”
“Technically, it’s the same intel source. BLOWN ASH version two point oh, if you will.”
Tremblay chuckled grimly, but it was the kind of black humor that lurked at the bottom of a very deep pit of worries and alarms. Senior staff from every single little twig and branch of every allied intelligence service were writing to each other and cc-ing their correspondence to him in response to the revelation that a person’s brain could be scanned and their knowledge extracted from that scan.
It wasn’t panic, but it was certainly a storm of concern. They’d known that the Hierarchy were digitized intelligence, of course, but finding out that the scanner necessary to perform that digitization process was so small, so portable and could work at range from inside a desk…
The only silver lining he could see was that if the Hierarchy had compromised anything truly sensitive, they didn’t appear to be acting on that intelligence.
Really, there was nothing for it but to carry on as if they hadn’t. He just thanked his lucky stars that it was the brain of a well-compartmentalized girl that had been scanned, rather than somebody more informed like Darcy.
“No,” he shook his head. “Not the same. It knows things she didn’t and couldn’t. It’s clearly gathering intel, wherever it is and, um, *what*ever it is.”
He glanced at the message again. He wasn’t quite sure why it made his skin crawl - it was methodically laid out, concise, thorough and enlightening. Its claims, if substantiated, laid to rest some long-standing questions about not just the Hierarchy but also about Igraen civilization as a whole and the civil war with Six’s ’Cabal’, and it included detailed means by which those claims could be proven. It was, in short, as perfect an intel resource as a message could be.
There was just something… autistic about it. The word selection, the pacing, the painstaking utilitarian accuracy of it, all of it reminded him of the talented young corporal who oversaw the mass and power balance down in the jump array. There was nothing wrong with the guy at all, in fact he was excellent at his job, but he wrote in the exact same conscientious way. He would painstakingly assemble just the bare facts and expect the reader to derive the exact same narrative from them as had the author.
This was not a trait shared by Ava Ríos herself who seemed, like most journalists, to fall into the opposite trap of hunting for a narrative among all the data to feed to the reader. Or better yet, of having a narrative she wanted to feed the reader and then hunting among the data for anything that might support it.
Lt. Col. Miller had for once turned out to be on the right planet when he was wanted which was a minor miracle in its own right. As the liaison officer between the US Air Force and the SOR he practically had an interstellar commute through the Jump Array. He was even better-placed to offer certain kinds of insight on the SOR than Powell.
“Messier Twenty-Four is a long way outside of our yard,” he commented. “Without HMS Caledonia, I don’t see how the SOR can reach it and even with Caledonia, they’re best at smash-and-run ops.”
Tremblay nodded. “They’re not appropriate. Not even remotely. We need somebody who can spend months in the field undetected.”
“Yeah, the beef trio would starve to death.”
Tremblay’s counterpart in the Pentagon, General Homer Mayfair, tapped his pen thoughtfully on the desk. He was the kind of guy who liked to listen and then interject by fast-forwarding through several minutes of conversation. “We need to resurrect the JETS team program,” he declared.
Tremblay glanced at the wall screen where his colleague’s face was projected. “JETS didn’t go so well last time,” he recalled.
“‘Cause we had no idea what we were doing,” Mayfair summarized. “We’ve got new expertise and experience now. There’s a couple of seasoned men who’re already mixed up in this from Egypt, they have experience in nonhuman situations. I’d say they’re prime candidates for pinning together a new shot at JETS.”
Tremblay rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. JETS had been Mayfair’s pet project and he’d been both embarrassed and upset when it fell through. There was always the possibility that he was sticking to his guns out of stubborn pride… but even if he was, he was right. The conception of JETS teams as special operators who were trained and capable of working in exosolar conditions was an excellent one. The execution had been… less impressive.
Tepid interest from eligible operators had been caused and exacerbated by inadequate incentives and no clear advertisement of how the JETS teams would differ from the SOR. Even when Major Jackson had gone on a late-night talk show and laid it out, interest had barely rippled. The few men who had taken the introductory stages of extraterrestrial operations training had gone on to apply those skills in the war on extremism instead.
Tremblay couldn’t blame them. It was a lot easier to take suicide bombers and hijackers seriously than it was to feel threatened by aliens whose most infamous public appearance involved being dismembered by men with hockey sticks. Especially when those aliens were up against a high-visibility force of nature like the SOR.
He scowled as he searched is memory for the details of EMPTY BELL. The intervening months hadn’t helped his memory any, and he was sooner or later going to have to admit to himself that, yes, he was an old man now. His memory really wasn’t as reliable as it had once been.
“…These would be… Coombes and Walsh?” he recalled.
“Right. I looked ‘em up just before this meeting, and Walsh is trying to get himself on the SOR highway right now. Coombes was wounded but he’s back in training. There’s a couple of other likely candidates but the problem we run into is they see JETS as just a second-rate SOR and ask why the hell they should settle for less.”
“If we can just get one team established and working, that’ll help. Especially if it’s made up of guys the community respects.”
Miller nodded. “We need to sell JETS as being… not better, but certainly as good as the SOR,” he suggested. “Stress the SOR’s weaknesses, their limitations, their logistical dependency…“
“Yeah. That’s the only way they’ll go for it,” Mayfair agreed. “It needs to be seen as a viable alternative.”
“We don’t want that to happen at the SOR’s expense,” Tremblay cautioned. “Those men are a rare breed anyway, we really don’t want to drive away candidates who could actually make the cut.”
Mayfair nodded. “Sure. It’s a fine balancing act, but we need JETS, this new intel proves that. Maybe instead of treating it as a qualification, we should take a note out of the SOR’s book and just form it as its own unit.”
“And attach them to who?”
“…Well… to the SOR.” Mayfair suggested.
“But then what do we call the current Spaceborne Operators?” Miller asked. “And how do we avoid muddying the sales pitch?”
“They already differentiate between Operators and Techs,” Mayfair pointed out.
“Gentlemen…” Tremblay gently interrupted them. “We’re in that awkward stage of a paradigm shift where we have to make shit up as we go along. So let’s focus on assembling and training one team who can go to Messier Twenty-Four. It’ll be chaos and we’ll have to work out solutions as we go but that was true of the SOR as well and if we do it right we’ll have a framework for the future. Right now I care less about how it gets done than that it gets done, eh?”
“I’ll talk it over with Powell,” Miller said. “If he were to weigh in and tell these guys what the SOR can and can’t do, it’d carry more weight.”
“Good. We’ll have Walsh, Coombes and any other strong contenders invited to Cimbrean for a training week. If nothing else it’ll be a good opportunity for the SOR to practice working with other Operators…”
“Can do,” Miller nodded.
“Alright.” Tremblay ticked that one off on his mental checklist. “On to the next thing, then… Let’s talk about this transport ship that Hephaestus want to show us…”
Date Point 10y9m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Ava was curled up on the couch when Gabe got home, and for the first time since her arrest she was looking something like herself again. She’d brushed her hair, put on some clean clothes and was lying there hugging a hot water bottle, staring distantly through the steam rising off a cup of hot chocolate on the coffee table.
He knelt—not an easy maneuver with his bad leg—to give her a fatherly kiss on her forehead, which earned him the tiniest smile.
She nodded. “And… everything.”
“*Pobrecita…*” Gabe sat down next to her. “But, I hear you’re off the hook.”
She nodded again, although she couldn’t possibly have looked less enthused.
“*Entiendo,*” he said softly, and put a hand on her head. “*Tuviste una mala semana.*”
She nodded and curled up on herself some more, and they sat in silence for several minutes until she took a deep breath. “Papá… Promise you won’t… can you keep a secret?”
“Por supuesto! Of course!”
“Have you… I, uh…” Gabe stroked her hair and waited. “Have I been…Am I a burden?”
“No.” Gabe shook his head emphatically. “You worry me sometimes though. You drift off and…Jess and I, we’ve been worried about you. It’s obvious something’s been eating at you for months…”
Ava shut her eyes. “…I, uh… I’ve been thinking of killing myself.”
“…Oh no.” Gabe ignored the agony in his side to gather her up into a huge protective hug “Dios mío, mija, no. Please.”
She buried her face in his shirt. “It’s not… I don’t want to and…”
“Do you… how often does…?” Gabe didn’t even know how to ask. “How long-?”
“…Since… I dunno. My second year at UCL? I think I’d just… Yeah. Just after Valentine’s day. That was the first time I thought about…” she swallowed and didn’t finish the sentence. “It’s gotten worse though. Just, like… in the last few months, since Egypt. I don’t want to have those thoughts, but sometimes when things get tough…”
“Like right now?”
She nodded, then slowly turned and hugged him round the chest, burrowing her face into his shirt. Gabe quickly became aware of spreading moisture against his ribs.
“You need me to watch out for you,” he said.
She nodded again. “I’m so sorry, Dad. I just… I feel like such a burden sometimes…”
“Burden? Eres mi hija, you know that, right? I love you like you’re my own blood.”
She nodded again. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I fucked everything up and I keep trying to make it right and I just fuck up worse, and-!”
“Sh, shh, sshhh…” Gabe hugged her close with his hand protectively around her head.
There was a long and very damp wait as she got it out of her system.
Eventually, she sat up and wiped her face off. “I saw two guys die.”
Gabe turned painfully and listened.
“I can’t talk about, like, the details, but it was in Egypt. Just, one minute they were alive, and the next…” she trailed off, and stared through the coffee table. “It took a while to sink in, but now… Now I’ll smell something, or hear a noise or see, like, just the right shade of red, and…”
“And you’re back there.”
“…Yeah…” she nodded and stared down at her fingers. “And I blame myself. Stupid little girl wanted to save the fucking world, and I got two good guys killed. And I thought…I don’t know what I thought. But after this shit with the email as well, I guess… I guess, like, I just feel useless and, and selfish! ‘Cause even when I’m not getting people killed I’m taking up other people’s valuable time, and for what?! So I can feel better about myself? Is that who I am? Just a spoiled bitch who gets in everyone’s way and hurts them? I… If that’s who I am, I don’t think I can live with myself.”
Gabe put his hand on her back. “Ava…”
“…I don’t know what to do.” She finally turned to give him the most profound look of misery Gabe had ever seen. “What do I do, Dad?”
Gabe kissed her forehead. “There are four types of people in the world who want to help you deal with your problems,” he told her,rubbing her arms. “Parents, friends, priests and therapists. Parents and friends you’ve got… What about the other two?”
“Therapist? I… is there a therapist I can talk to? I’d have to tell them about everything, and it’s all classified!”
“I can sort that out for you,” Gabe promised. “The SOR should have somebody.”
“And they’d see me? The SOR kind of… hates me.”
“Trust me. Let me sort that out. In the meantime…What about church?”
“…Uh…I haven’t been to church in…” she paused, plainly drawing a blank. “…It’s been too long.”
“It’s never too long, *mija.*” Gabe reassured her. “And it’ll help.”
Ava sighed, but nodded. “I guess it can’t hurt.”
She blinked at him. “…Now?”
“*Now,*” Gabe nodded, gently but firmly. “Because while you’re gone, I’m gonna make this house safe for you. I’m gonna lock up the knives, the pills, everything. And you’re gonna stay here a little while, okay? Until you feel safe. I’m gonna have to tell Jess…” Ava nodded, “…and we’ll take it one day at a time, okay?”
Ava nodded again, and hauled herself upright. “…I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too. Don’t you ever forget it.”
“I won’t,” she promised. “Ever.”
Date Point 10y9m AV
The Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“It’s been years. The last time I saw her she was a tiny cub, and I had to run away and leave her. I keep worrying she’ll be mad at me.”
“Or she could be real glad to see you,” Allison proposed.
“Or both,” Julian added, unhelpfully.
Xiù nodded and took a nervous breath to steel herself. The Folctha commune was so new that it was still under construction but it was already a very different edifice to the one she’d lived at all those years ago. That one had been sprawling and open, airy but bustling.
With such a tiny budget of space, the commune on Folctha was a very different thing. It wasn’t quite a skyscraper, but it was still remarkably tall for a building that looked like it was built of wood. It must have been assembled around a concrete and steel core, and to judge from the dump trucks parked around its south side the builders were excavating a warren of basements. It contrived to look much smaller and more modest than it probably was.
“You’re sure you’ll be okay without us?” Allison asked.
“I’ll introduce you, I promise,” Xiù replied. “I just…” she shrugged helplessly.
“It’s okay. You don’t need to explain.” Julian looked around. “The guidebook said there’s a microbrewery in the Quarter, a couple blocks over. ET-made beer sounds like one of those things we just have to try…”
“Mm.” Allison nodded in agreement, then gave Xiù a hug. “Good luck, bǎobèi.
Xiù hugged her back, and Julian too, then squared her shoulders and started the long walk.
Part of her knew that she was being needlessly anxious, but there was no point in knowing that—it didn’t change anything. She just had to focus and the next breath, and the one after that. Keep breathing, that was the key.
The Sister serving as the commune’s front gate guard was a small one, smaller even than Xiù herself, and welcomed her with her ears up and friendly. She was barely an adult, in fact, and her fur still had that cub-like downy softness to it.
“Good evening!” she called cheerily, in English.
“*Mi o!*” Xiù replied, causing the sister’s ears to flick in surprise. “*Ya si bäyo bì kan ushu na tò?*”
“[Your accent is very good!]” the Sister observed, in delighted Gaori.
“[Thank you!]” That was uplifting news. Xiù had spent so long pretending to be a Gaoian outside of their actual company that she’d feared her accent and pronunciation were awful. Ayma hadn’t commented on it, but Ayma could be tactful to a fault. “[Is there a Sister Myun here?]”
“[Myun? Yes, she normally guards this gate, but she had her first cub last week and mother Semya is being like she always is with… well, you don’t know mother Semya, do you? I’m sorry, your Gaori is so good it’s uncanny.]”
Xiù giggled, and touched her hands together and duck-bowed, which was how she recalled a polite-but-friendly gesture of greeting between strangers. “[I’m sorry, I should introduce myself. I’m Shoo. Sister Shoo.]”
Some gestures were nigh-identical between humans and Gaoians. The guard-sister’s jaw dropped.
“[…Are you? Really?! I… that is, you do look like her, I mean you look like you, I mean…]”
Flustered young Gaoians were just too cute.
“[I was the last time I checked,]” Xiù joked, borrowing a leaf from Allison’s book. “[What’s your name?]”
“[Oh! I’m Sister Nenna. It’s… really a pleasure to meet you, I never thought I would!]”
Xiù laughed, falling easily into her best approximation of a Gaoian chitter. Somewhere in the back of her brain, a nervous little voice noted that she was finding it all too natural, but she ignored it. She was enjoying herself far too much.
“[It’s a pleasure to meet you too, Nenna. Myun and I are old friends, but I was hoping to make my visit a surprise…]” Xiù had long ago mastered the trick of suggesting the set of ears she didn’t have by inclining her head instead, and on this occasion she did her best to convey harmless mischief. There was something about harmless mischief that Gaoians, especially young Gaoians, just couldn’t resist.
“[…It has been a week…]” the Sister mused. “[And Mother Semya can’t keep her in bed forever. Knowing Myun she’ll be clawing the walls soon…]”
“[Just as full of energy as ever, then. I haven’t seen her since she was a cub…]”
“[Very full of energy…]” Nenna duck-nodded. The set of her ears suggested both exasperation and fondness. Clearly she liked Myun. Then her ears came back up into mischief mode. “[I’ll call for her, but I won’t say who her guest is…]”
Sister Nenna backed away and raised her paw to the communicator clipped to her ear. Xiù fidgeted and adjusted her clothes as she waited. She was feeling much less anxious now, or rather she was now anxious about different things. Myun had a cub for goodness’ sake! With Regaari! The reality of that hadn’t properly sunk in past the anxiety over the possibility that Myun would be furious with her and refuse to see her, or some equally unlikely scenario.
She wandered over onto a grassy landscape feature away from Sister Nenna and focused on her breathing. She shut her eyes and began the painstaking process of focusing her attention on each part of her body from the top of her scalp right down to the tips of her toes. With each step she tried to notice how that part of her body felt at that moment then let it be and move. It was a good technique for getting the jabbering monkey on her shoulder that wanted something to focus on to turn its manic energy towards constructive, calming ends.
She was in the middle of contemplating her knees when she became conscious of a kind of galloping, thumping noise from behind her. She had just enough time to open her eyes and start turning around, which gave her the chance to see the battering ram of excited brown fur that ploughed into her at a dead run.
Anybody who spent time around Gaoian cubs was used to being pounced on: it was their most favouritest game. Adults—especially adult females—were typically more reserved but that didn’t seem to stop this particular female who compounded her overenthusiastic high-speed tackle with being absurdly large.
The result was painful. Xiù was knocked off her feet and tumbled in a dizzying tangle down the small slope of the landscaping engulfed in soft brown fur. She fetched up flat on her back and a touch winded, being hugged furiously and keened at by a Gaoian female who was at least as tall as Julian, and nearly as heavy.
Since when did Gaoians get so big?!
“Shoo! Shoo! [You came back!]”
The Sister backed away and sniffed her vigorously, keening delight: a human would have been weeping tears of joy. “[It is you!] Shoo!”
Xiù’s impact-addled brain finally managed to see the markings around the eyes and the muzzle, but even though she recognized them it took several stunned breaths before what they meant finally settled in and she realized who she was pinned under.
“…Oh my God,” she half-laughed, incredulously. “*Myun?!*”
Myun duck-nodded, still keening a little. “Surprised?” she asked in remarkably unaccented English.
Xiù put her arms around her old friend and hugged her close. “…you got big!” she said.
She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Date Point 10y9m AV
Quarterside Park, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Folctha’s Multi-Faith Center was the oldest human-built permanent structure on Cimbrean, unless you counted the repairs to the alien palace. Nearly everything else from the original colony days had been steadily replaced, demolished, paved over or moved, but the Faith Center’s unassuming wooden rotunda remained a landmark, standing in the middle of Quarterside Park.
Ava hadn’t been inside in years but the building was plainly in regular use, to judge from the worn bald tracks in the grass where people ignored the concrete path and took shortcuts over the turf.
It seemed to be silent for now, though. Sunset was coming up, the nightly rainclouds were sweeping in, and there was surprisingly little light visible through the center’s windows.
She dithered on the path outside for nearly five minutes before finally stepping up to the automatic doors, which swung open with a businesslike hum.
There were a couple of human children sitting on the beanbags in the central area with its bookshelves and vending machines, chatting with a Gaoian in monastic robes. They glanced up at her as she entered but didn’t pay much attention beyond that.
She headed for the double doors with the cross-shaped window inserts. The church was supposed to be pan-denominational but that was difficult to the point of being almost impossibility. Among other things, it was tended by the Reverend Sian Scaife, who reported to the Bishop of Cimbrean Doctor Joanne White. It was a Church of England arrangement from top to bottom which didn’t quite gel with Ava’s Catholic upbringing. The Vatican still maintained that only celibate men could be priests, so for the Christian presence on Folctha to be headed up by two married women…
Ava realized she was stressing over something that inherently didn’t matter. She was there for help, not for Papally sanctioned theology.
But the church seemed empty.
She cleared her throat. “…Hello?”
The room had good acoustics which made her voice ring for a second, but that was about it.
She was still wondering what to do with herself when the door opened behind her and the robed Gaoian poked his nose through.
“All okay?” he asked.
“I was… is anybody here?”
“Reverend Scaife had to go home early. Sick daughter. Nobody usually come for her this time.” he explained, in the slightly broken English that seemed to plague Gaoians above a certain age no matter how long they’d been around humans. “Doctor White on Earth for a seminary.”
“Not seen you for a long time, Ava.”
Ava turned and studied him. “…I’m sorry, have we-? Oh! Uh… Gohan? Goten?”
“Gyotin.” he flicked an ear and chittered slightly, amused.
“I’m sorry, I-”
“Is okay. Been years for both of us…Hot chocolate?”
“You look like you need talk.”
Feeling transparent, Ava nodded, but shrugged as well. “No offense Gyotin, but I’m not a Buddhist…” she glanced back at the front of the church. At some point a donor had paid for the big cruciform window to be filled with a stained glass summary of the Bible from the swirling gas and planets representing Genesis to the Gospel as shown in a panoramic view of the crucifixion on Golgotha and above that, angels. It was beautiful.
“Then not a Buddhist talk. Just old friends, catch up. Maybe scratch whatever itching you.”
Ava softened. “…Okay. Sure. I’d like that”
He duck-nodded and led the way back into the hub, where he busied himself with preparing a couple of hot drinks. Unbidden, Ava selected a beanbag and sank into it with a sigh and ran her fingers through her hair.
Gyotin settled in opposite her a couple of minutes later. He kept a small square cup of tea for himself, and handed Ava a large mug of hot chocolate, decorated with a fat pink marshmallow that was already starting to melt and spread out.
“So!” he said. “How you been?”
Ava psyched herself up with a deep breath. “…Not great, really…” she confessed. “I, uh… things are difficult right now. That’s why I came here.”
“I guessed,” he said, kindly. “You were troubled last time you were in here too…”
Ava sipped her hot chocolate just once, and then a mad rush swept her up and compelled her to set the drink down and tell him everything.
She left out the classified stuff, obviously, but he was spared nothing else—the words were just overflowing and relentless like a year’s worth of rainfall and the dam had just given way. There was no crying or stammering or self-pity this time, just a steady litany of the facts. What happened, when, how she felt about it… everything she could share was shared, and Gyotin listened to every word with his ears up and forward..
Reaching the present moment felt like running off a cliff. She wanted to keep going, but there was nothing there to draw on, and she covered for the strange floating feeling of having run out of story to tell by picking up her mug and sipping it.
It was lukewarm at best, and she instinctively pulled a face.
Gyotin made a chirruping noise that might have been something like a short laugh, and took it off her to run it through the microwave.
“I’m sorry…” she said. “I didn’t mean to-…I just…”
“No sorry,” he said. “You sorry for being burden? No burden.” He handed her the freshly reheated chocolate and sat down when she took it. “Question is, why come here? What do you want, what do you need?”
“…Advice? Help? Direction?” Ava shrugged. “Something.”
“Hmm…” Gyotin duck-nodded solemnly while his ears pricked and angled themselves thoughtfully.
“Honestly, you’ve helped just by-” Ava began. He held up a paw.
“You think you’re selfish?” he asked.
“You want to not be selfish?”
“Then you’re not selfish.” He bared his teeth in what was definitely a cheeky grin.
Ava frowned at him. “I… but-?”
“Think. What is selfish, hmm? Is… just doing for me, yes? But you think, that’s making you unhappy, is hurting you. Why?” He chirruped again when Ava just shook her head uncomprehendingly. “Truly selfish person? Not even care. Just take take take take and never feel guilty, never feel hurt by it. So problem is not that you’re selfish, is that you’re not meeting standard you set yourself. Is that you’re confused.”
Ava blinked as she considered that. “If… you say so?”
“Okay, simpler,” Gyotin said. “When was the last time you did something just because it make somebody else happy?”
She thought about it while drinking from her reheated mug. When had she done something just for the sake of brightening somebody else’s day? Try as she might, in ransacking her memory she couldn’t recall even one occasion.
“I… don’t think I ever have,” she confessed.
“Well, there was time you pointed a confused Gao at a bookshelf…” Gyotin chittered, waving his paw between himself and the bookshelf in question. “That made me very happy, in the long race. So, you see? That’s something you can do. You just don’t do it enough, I think. You got your… what’s that word? Your priorities all muddled up. Focus too much on trying to be happy for yourself that you forget, best way to be happy is to make other people happy!”
“So I should… what, do my good deed for the day?” Ava asked, trying not to sound like a skeptical brat. “Help an old lady across the road?”
“Why not? If you get a smile out of it, good! Positive reinforcement! You keep getting it wrong when you try big gesture? Okay! So practice on small gesture!”
“But if I’m doing it just because I think it’ll make me feel better then I’m still being selfish, aren’t I?” Ava pointed out.
“So there’s bad selfish and good selfish,” Gyotin suggested. “’I want to be a better person’ is selfish, yes, but is good kind of selfish! See?” He twitched his ears self-effacingly. “Besides: By that standard then everybody is selfish.”
“If you’re going to be a selfish person, at least be the right kind of selfish,” Ava summarized.
“Exactly! Selfishly want to feel good about yourself by helping people! Selfishly want to be the best thing that happen to them all day! Selfishly want to see them smile because of you!” Gyotin chittered again. “Bite-sized pieces. You can’t go from selfish to perfect altruism in one go, so try and get the effect first and worry about enlightened motive second, yes? Crawl, walk, run.”
“I… guess that makes sense.”
“So! Who could you make happy, right now?” Gyotin asked. “Doesn’t have to be big thing! You’ve got a phone?”
“What, right now?”
“Yeah!” Gyotin duck-nodded emphatically. “Right now! Make somebody happy right now! Is going to feel silly, but do it anyway.”
Ava opened her mouth to object, and then drew a blank on any remotely credible objection. She stared slack-jawed and stupidly at him for a stretched second, and then finally fished her phone out of her bag.
She swiped across to her favorites and sat there staring at them, completely lost for what she could say to any of them that might put a shine on their day.
“…I don’t know what to say,” she told Gyotin.
“So just call. Say hi.”
Ava blinked at the phone some more, then made a call. Charlotte picked up on the third ring. “Darling! Are you okay?”
“Uh… Honestly? I wasn’t. But, I’m feeling better now.”
”Do you want me to come over?”
“No, no. You enjoy your evening. I’m at Dad’s anyway. Are you guys okay?”
”We’re fine! Ben’s washing up and I’m watching Covenant…are you sure you don’t need me?”
To her surprise, Ava felt grateful tears spring up along with a heartfelt emotional smile. “I’m sure, Darling,” she said, echoing Charlotte’s term of endearment, “but thank you. It… means a lot.”
“…Okay, darling. If you’re sure.”
“Madre de dios, Charlotte!” Ava laughed. She caught Gyotin’s eye—he was making an urgent encouraging gesture. “…Look, seriously?” she said, “I love you. You’re my very best friend and I’m grateful for everything you do for me. That’s what I wanted to tell you.”
There was a long silence and then a familiar kind of watery laugh. ”Oh, Ava… thank you. I actually really needed to hear that.”
“Go have fun with Ben. Can I come over tomorrow? I have some, uh, important things I need to tell you.”
“Darling, of course you can.”
Ava hung up, and Gyotin applauded as best a Gaoian could considering that neither his paws nor his shoulders were entirely the right shape. “First step,” he said. “Well done.”
Ava smiled for him and examined the warm little glow that the gesture had lit in her. Even though she still felt a little fraudulent for having an entirely self-centered motive for calling Charlotte, the authentic strength of her friend’s happiness was doing an excellent job of declawing that sense of nagging shame.
Maybe Gyotin was right.
“First step,” she agreed.
Date Point 10y9m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“Oh. Oh no. No no no, this just won’t do at all.”
With Xiù away visiting the Female commune, Julian and Allison had been left to make their own entertainment. Fortunately, according to the Folctha guidebook there was a craft brewery just outside the Alien Quarter with an utterly unpronounceable name whose Vzk’tk proprietor produced truly excellent craft beer.
The guidebook had not been lying. It was highly, highly alcoholic because if ETs brewed booze at all they did so because they enjoyed the taste rather than for the intoxicants, but below the ethanol hit was a refreshing, light and fruity wheat ale that wanted nothing to do with the bitter craze for hops that seemed to have driven every brewer on Earth insane over the last twenty years.
Their Panzanella alla Cqcq was pretty spectacular too. As ways to relax on a warm summer afternoon went, it was perfect.
Almost perfect. Being accosted by a Corti who had stopped literally on the other side of the street and then sashayed across it to glare accusingly at his prosthetic foot was an intriguing condiment to the experience.
The Corti in question had stuffed his hands onto his narrow—nonexistent, really—hips and was studying Julian’s foot as if it had personally offended him.
“Uh…can we help you?” Allison asked. She sipped her beer and set it down while Julian tried to navigate his foot away out of sight under the table. The Corti moved to keep it in view.
“Oh dear, what happened? No, this just isn’t acceptable at all, no no.”
A large part of Julian wanted to laugh. It was patiently waiting its turn in line behind the larger part of him that was just confused as hell. “Uh…?”
The Corti looked up at him. “What unskilled barbaric hack did this to your leg?!”
He was speaking English, Julian realized. It was hard to tell because the natural cadences of the Directorate language weren’t far from English anyway, but this particular Corti seemed to be unusually bereft of cybernetics—there were none of the usual surface features, no delicate lines of subcutaneous circuitry, not so much as a hardline port—and while he was festooned in the usual assortment of bags and carrying pouches that were an ET’s answer to clothing he didn’t seem to be carrying a translator.
He sounded like a fashion designer. Being small and slender and narrow-chested drove his speaking voice up well into soprano territory, which combined with the characteristically clipped and precise Corti manner of speaking to give him the general air of an English hipster. Though, with mercifully less ’swish’.
“…Did… what, now?” Julian asked. “Blew it off, or-?”
“No no no,” The Corti flapped a hand irritably. “What savage bolted this… this crime onto you?! Oh, dear…”
Allison laugh-coughed around her beer and came up with a white foam mustache. Julian felt the need to stick up for his foot. “Y’know, that thing’s about the most sophisticated prosthetic ever given to a human being…” he pointed out.
“You poor thing.”
Julian cleared his throat. “Well,” he commented laconically, “When the original was blown half-open, then crushed, then sawed off the rest of the way without anaesthetic, I wasn’t in much of a position to complain about the replacement.”
“Ugh, how horrid.”
No. Not a hipster. Like Anthony Daniels playing C-3PO, and with just as much distracted disingenuousness.
“Look, do you want something, or…?”
“Or do you just have a foot fetish?” Allison asked.
“Well, not for this foot!” the Corti exclaimed. “Oh goodness me, no.”
Allison and Julian quirked their eyebrows in unison.
“What. Do. You. Want?” Julian asked.
The Corti straightened up and looked him in the eye for the first time. “Did you know that the human genome contains a number of latent DNA sequences which enable the regeneration of amputated limbs?”
“I did, actually. And they’re latent, which suggests it’s probably best they stay that way.”
“Thinking like that just gets in the way of progress. Surely you’d rather have a nice healthy human foot rather than this-?”
“Lemme stop you right there.” Julian gave the little grey irritant his best annoyed look. “I ain’t your guinea pig, pal.”
“You were somebody’s-” the Corti gestured at the foot, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was treading on some sore mental ground.
“Yeah, I was. Six years. Planet Nightmare.”
“…Oh. Oh my.” Difficult though it was for pale grey skin to blanch, the Corti somehow managed it.
“Yeah.” Julian growled. “So take yer Doctor Freakshow science bullshit and shove it.”
“Oh, very well.” The Corti made to leave, breaking visual contact with the foot as if it physically pained him to do so. “But if you ever reconsider my office is just-”
“Are you bothering my friend, Nofl?”
It was news to Julian that he was friends with the new arrival—she was by a wide margin the biggest Gaoian he’d ever seen and absurdly she was carrying a sword, as if she needed one. She flexed a paw at ’Nofl’, flashing a set of claws that would have done a Harpy Eagle proud. She was such an impressive sight that it was easy to miss Xiù standing in her shadow for a second.
“Ah. Sister Myun. No, I was just, ah…”
Xiù’s not-so-tiny ‘tiny cub friend’ bared her teeth at him, and Nofl cleared his throat. “Yes! Well! Best of luck in your future endeavors mister, um… Anyway.”
He mumbled something and made himself scarce with all the catlike dignity that Corti mustered when they didn’t want to look like they were running away.
The moment he was gone, Myun ceased to be a looming barge of shaggy fur and fangs and instantly became something much less threatening. She practically bounced at the opportunity to sit down next to Allison as if they were the oldest and bestest friends ever. “Hi!”
Allison gave her a wary look “Uh… hi? Wow, uh… from Xiù’s description I was kinda expecting you to be, uh… Less, uh…”
“Huge?” Myun chittered, which was an oddly high-pitched sound to come out of such a massive creature. “I grew up. It’s a thing that happens.”
Xiù sat down with an embarrassed smile. “I didn’t even recognize her.”
Julian gave her a sidelong hug. “Five years in stasis. I guess it’s- you okay?”
Xiù had winced, but she waved his concern off with a goodnatured smile. “She tackled me like she was still a cub!”
“I waited years to finally be good enough to knock you on your butt!” Myun chittered again. “Sister Shoo taught me how to fight,” she added with superfluous enthusiasm.
“I never imagined you’d get so big though!” Xiù shook her head. Myun duck-nodded enthusiastically, though if Julian was any judge the set of her ears was a smug one.
“Mama Ayma used to tell me off for eating so much,” she crowed.
“And Mother Yulna would sneak you second helpings when she wasn’t looking,” Xiù recalled. “I remember. I guess I should have seen this coming, but… wow!”
“Well, it’s, uh… nice to meet you.” Julian cleared his throat. He hadn’t met many Gaoians before, and the few he had were all dark silver brindle specimens about Xiù’s size. Myun was a chocolate hulk with a luxuriant tuft of fluffy white fur in the middle of her chest. Xiù had never mentioned that they came in such variety.
To judge from her slightly stunned expression, Xiù hadn’t known either. Then again, she had been an honored guest, living a fairly cloistered life in just one commune and moving in fairly select circles. There were two whole planets full of billions of Gaoians out there, and millions of expatriates. If an alien visitor to Earth had spent their whole time confined to Washington DC and visiting the White House, they could probably never have inferred the existence of, say, Māori rugby players, the Maasai people or even just an average American redneck.
“Its nice to meet you too,” Myun replied, making a kind of low trilling noise in her chest that was probably an expression of happiness. It wasn’t quite a purr, but it was close. She wriggled closer to Allison. “Shoo said you both make her very happy!”
Julian saw Xiù go a little pink, but she nodded. “And she makes us happy,” he replied, which made Xiù’s happy glow deepen a few shades.
Allison nodded, though she was looking a little crowded by the huge Gaoian.
Myun’s almost-purr intensified and she downright snuggled into Allison. It was a heck of a reminder that Gaoian concepts of personal space were different.
“Thank you,” she said, surprisingly softly considering how bullishly affectionate she was being.
“It’s… uh, there’s nothing to thank us for…”
Xiù said something in Gaori and Myun distinctly whined, but she relented when she saw the expression being levelled at her and backed down. Julian reflected that Xiù seemed to have slightly different body language when interacting with Gaoians. She moved her head in slightly strange ways, angled her body differently. It was identical to Gaoian body language if you ignored her shortcomings in the ear department.
For her part Myun grumbled something in a strangely high-pitched tone and gave Allison some space again. Xiù laughed.
“I’m not a mother, Myun,” she said. “Not yet, anyway.”
“Yet?” Myun asked, looking suddenly eager. She leaned over and snuffled Julian with her impressive nose. “You smell of each other… have you been mating?”
It was Julian’s turn to feel a little overwhelmed. “I, ah…uh, sorta. But-”
“I knew it!” several heads turned as Myun sat up and chittered triumphantly.
“It’s not mating, Myun-” Xiù had gone crimson as she hastily batted her friend’s arm to try and get her to quiet down. Several nearby human diners hastily covered their mouths and looked away.
“Oh, right. You told me about this. Humans just have sex without the babies, don’t you?”
“Myun, for *fuck’s sake-!*” Xiù rarely swore, but Julian couldn’t blame her. A nearby diner had outright hidden his whole face behind a napkin and his shoulders were heaving. Fortunately, it got through Myun’s enthusiasm enough to make her look around and take stock.
“…Did I say something wrong?”
Allison sighed. “I’ll go pay the bill,” she said, and stood up abruptly.
Myun watched her go with her ears at an uncertain angle and whined quietly. “…I upset her?”
“Allison likes her privacy,” Julian explained. “Most humans do.”
“Myun, how long have you been living here? You really should know by now that there’s some things we don’t just… shout about in public.”
“Why not? A lot of the people here had sex recently, I can smell it. Why are you so… what?!”
Every human in earshot had gone very still and awkward, and Xiù was giving her a full-blown glare.
Julian cleared his throat. “Maybe you two should go have this conversation in Gaori somewhere less, uh…”
“Less here,” Xiù finished. “Come on, Myun.”
The enormous Gaoian whimpered again and got up hang-headed. “Yes, Mother…”
They vanished toward the commune with Xiù somehow managing by body language alone to manage the neat trick of looking much larger than her old friend. Julian was left alone at their table with his beer and several people pointedly not looking at him.
Fuck it. Refuge in audacity time. He drained the last of the beer. “Well that was an education…”
It wasn’t great, but it broke the ice enough. Several of the nearby people laughed and relaxed, and there was a sudden sense that, having all shared the same moment of mortification, everybody got a little bit more open.
The man who’d hidden his face behind the napkin leaned over. “So… Erm, are you really Julian Etsicitty?”
Julian nodded self-effacingly. “For my sins. I’m sorry about our friend, there…”
“No, no, not at all. Erm… look, I’m sorry to ask but would it be okay if I could take a picture or something?”
“Sure!” Julian scooted over to their table and caught Allison’s eye as he did so. She hesitated, then joined him. A few other people drifted over from nearby groups and pretty soon tables were rearranged, beers purchased and a surprisingly natural and normal impromptu party took shape. By the time Xiù returned a few hours later without Myun, somebody had fetched a guitar and that led to Julian, well lubricated with the beers that people were buying him, being pressed into doing some impromptu karaoke.
His version of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” went down a storm. Somebody else sang “Star of the County Down”, Allison apologetically explained that she was entirely tone-deaf especially when drunk, Xiù was eventually coaxed into a passable rendition of Sixpence None The Richer’s “Kiss Me”…
Eventually, Cimbrean’s predictable nocturnal rain came along to break them up but by the time it did they were happily drunk, had scrawled their signatures on lots of things including a photo to go up behind the bar, had chatted, laughed and sang themselves hoarse and probably created a town legend that would make people who weren’t there jealous for years to come.
The quiet of the cab back to the starport was a shock to the system.
Allison was the first to break it. “Wow…” she murmured
Julian put his arm around her waist. “Y’okay?”
“Yeah!” there was a definite tipsy slur in Allison’s voice. “I actually enjoyed that!”
“You didn’t sing!” Xiù mock-pouted, barely holding back a laugh. She was a happy drunk and had enthusiastically dived into every selfie she could reach.
“Pff.” Allison waved an uneven hand. “Y’really don’ wan’ me to.”
“Come oooon, bad Karaoke is th’best Karaoke!”
“It was a guy with a guitar, no’ Karaoke!”
“He was great!” Julian enthused. “How does one guy know all those songs?”
“Magic…” Allison rested her head back and sighed happily. “…I really enjoyed that.”
They drunkenly enthused about their night all the way back to the starport, all the way back into the hangar, up *Misfit*’s ladder and fell into a happy tipsy triple cuddle on the bed with an unsteady “wu-ah!” from Julian as the girls dragged him down.
“Whooah, we haven’ bin drunk in… ‘ow long?” he asked, wriggling comfortably into place between them.
“Months,” Allison reckoned. “Not since, uh…. back at your grampa’s place? Izzat right?”
“Feels like years… right Xiù? …Xiù?”
Xiù woke up enough to mumble something affirmative and nod, then fell asleep again, burrowing a little more into his chest. He chuckled softly and turned his head to point her out to Allison, but Allison too had put her head down and looked to be already out of contact with the waking world.
He chuckled to himself, kissed them both fondly and then put his head back and joined them in closing his eyes on a very good day.
Date Point 10y9m AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm
Children screamed. It was a fact of life—babies screamed when they wanted a teat, the older children’s games regularly inspired ear-stabbing shrill squeals for no reason that adults could determine and either way the tribe knew the cadences of those screams as background noise and largely ignored them.
This scream was neither of those. This one was a chorus of terrified children in mortal peril, and it coincided with a horrible roar unlike anything Vemik had ever heard. As soon as it rang out the men stopped what they were doing and ran with their spears and axes ready to descend like living murder on whatever had made the mistake of threatening the young ones.
They found the three who had made that scream all still alive and well, thank the gods, huddled together a short distance outside of the village. All three were soaked and trembling, and the air was still heavy with a steamy drizzle of strangely hot water that was thick enough to plaster Vemik’s crest to his scalp and spine as he looked around for a threat.
The only thing out of the ordinary was the water, though, and when nothing more dangerous than an impromptu rain on a clear sunny day showed its head, the men slowly relaxed. Spears were lowered and leaned on, hand axes were put back in pouches, and quiet jokes and trills of amusement flitted around the group, dispelling the tension.
The oldest of the three was Vemik’s nephew Yatak, who was soaking wet and still wide-eyed, but had calmed down now that the tribe’s men were around. He stood up and tried to scrub the water out of his crest, and several of the men chewed down their smiles as the boy made an elaborate show of having never really been scared. Yatak was old enough to want to be a man, but still young enough to think that men were never scared of anything.
Vemik decided to let him have his dignity and sat down next to him. “What happened?” he asked.
“The water roared and jumped in the air!” Yatak claimed, pointing at the offending pool.
They had already discovered that the standing pools of water in the High Forest were hot, some of them hot enough that when Yamma had dipped her hand in to drink she had yelped and leapt away shaking her hand from the pain, and the blisters had taken a few days to heal.
This one was usually cool enough that the adults didn’t mind for the children to play near it. Right now it was rough on the surface and turbid where usually it was serene, still and clear.
Vemik had absolutely no idea how to reply to the accusation though. “That’s… I see. Hmm.”
He got up and took his time in approaching it, alert for any grumblings or burps in the ground that might herald a repeat of what Yatak described. He licked a finger and dabbed experimentally at the surface of the water, then winced and backed off. It was much hotter than usual, nearly hot enough to cook in.
“Do you believe him, Sky-Thinker?” Yan asked.
“You said just yesterday this mountain is strange enough to baffle the gods,” Vemik replied, pondering the lake. The middle of it was bubbling, just like the water in a pot did when hot rocks from the fire were dropped in.
“Fire that flows like water, water that’s hot like fire, stinking air from the lakes, and now the lakes try and jump into the sky,” Yan grumbled. “Everything about this place wants to be something else.”
“Don’t ’mm’ me, Sky-Thinker. You can see why nobody lived here.”
Vemik looked at the big Given Man and twitched his ear slightly in a gesture that was both apologetic and not.
“…Sorry,” Yan relented after a second. “I’m just not like you, Sky-Thinker. I don’t like what I don’t know.”
“You don’t like pretty much everything then, Yan,” Vemik said, then realized that what he’d said could be taken as an insult and held up his hands straight away as Yan scowled at him. “Not… You know plenty. You know more than me! But I think the number of things we don’t know is so large that even the man who knows more than anybody else still knows almost nothing.”
“Sky thoughts,” Yan spat, and sighed. He came to stand by Vemik on the lakeside. “No fish in these waters,” he grumbled.
“No Yshek, either.”
“Must you always have a reply like that ready? Let a man complain in peace!”
Vemik trilled and scrubbed some more water out of his crest. Yatak and the men were heading back toward the village. “…I have a question,” he asked, as soon as they were alone.
“I gave some thought to how long we can hide up here.”
“Two or three hands of years maybe,” Yan estimated, flexing the three thick fingers on his left hand for emphasis. “Four at most, before we must find another tribe and trade daughters.”
“One at most,” Vemik corrected him.
“Don’t be silly, Sky-Thinker, we can last more than one hand…”
“Not one hand. One year. We may have escaped the death-birds, maybe. But what about all the other tribes? When they and whatever it is that follows them wipe out the other tribes, who will we swap daughters with then?”
Yan punched his own head. “Stupid,” he chastised himself.
“No, you’re not stupid. But you don’t sky-think, Yan.”
Yan sighed. “…this is why the men are looking to you, you know,” he said in grumbling tones. “You see further than most. Even your father lets you lead these days.”
Vemik slipped around that uncomfortable observation. “The Singer needs an apprentice, too. Sooner rather than later,” he said.
“Then why even wait a year?”
“Because the cold season is coming and we have a village to build, and maybe other villages to start building ready for other tribes. And I want to train a boy to make bird-spear throwers. And we need to find where the Werne are around here and mark the trails and-”
“Yes, yes. I see.” Yan grumbled again. He stooped, picked up a rock and tossed it into the water where it made a thick slap-BLOUNK noise. “…These are strange times. Birds of rock and lightning, lakes that leap into the air, young men leading the old. What next?”
There was a kind of burping noise from deep under their feet and the bubbling out in the middle of the lake stopped. With their instincts humming danger at them, both men took several careful steps back and Vemik watched as the water out in the middle actually dipped and sloshed.
He became conscious of an increasingly loud noise coming from the earth below them that he couldn’t quite describe. It was like rain on a hut roof, but… fiercer, somehow. Angrier. They backed away some more and Vemik was about to propose they shelter behind a tree when the water bulged, surged upwards and a white plume thrust high into the air with an enormous roaring hiss. Hot mist dropped on them and soaked them both, and the high forest’s distinctive taste intensified hugely as the cloud swept over them.
Yan spat and scraped water off his arms. “…What,” he demanded, “was that?!”
“…I don’t think you should throw rocks in there any more,” Vemik decided as he shook himself off. “There must be something living in there that doesn’t like to be disturbed…”
Yan cast an alarmed look at the water. “We angered something?”
“Maybe. It’s probably harmless if we stay out of the water, but…” Vemik began.
“Maybe we should leave some food for it,” Yan finished.
“Good idea. Though… hmm. Perhaps it’s-”
“Sky-thinker…!” Yan protested, in charitably tolerant but exhausted tones.
Come on. We have a village to build.”
Vemik cast a longing glance back at the jumping lake and followed him.
Their campsite—it was much too early to start calling it a village, yet—was abustle with people listening to Yatak’s increasingly outlandish account of what they had just heard. They looked to Vemik and Yan as they returned and Vemik had to spend several minutes diplomatically scaling back the boy’s exaggerations before he finally got the chance to catch up with the Singer and get her insight.
She was carefully packing a pot full of hot ashes and poisonous Talo roots. After a few days she would hang the roots in her hut, and sometimes she would give one to a young woman to chew on. She had declined to share why, insisting that it was women’s magic, and had trilled laughter when he’d asked if he could chew one.
“No, no. Trust me Sky-Thinker, it wouldn’t do anything for you,” she’d said.
Vemik had dropped it. He knew his burning need to understand everything had its limits in that there was so much everything, and it was common knowledge that men didn’t really understand women’s magic anyway.
Then again, very few women understood male magic.
“All safe?” she asked on his approach. She gave him that smile, the one that did funny things in his chest. The one that seemed to be only for him.
“Safe enough, I think.” He sat down next to her. “The mountain is so strange…”
“So how much truth is there in little Yatak’s claim that the lake tried to fly?”
“Some.” He mimicked the eruption he’d seen with his hands. “It went ‘SPLOORSH-SSSSS!’ and spat water as high as the treetops after Yan threw a stone in.”
They paused and listened as the noise of the angry lake swept across their campsite again.
“Have you looked at the rocks?” The Singer asked.
“I have! They’re very strange. They’re sort of… folded up aren’t they?”
“They look like guts,” she said, bluntly.
“I wasn’t going to say it.”
“I’m not a wet-eyed girl, Sky-Thinker. I know you remember the day of my trial of manhood.”
Vemik nodded. She’d taken the trial of manhood a few moons before him. It had been an important part of her training as the Dancer, to spend some time living as a man, hunting like a man. The tattoos around and between her eyes permanently marked where she had anointed herself with the blood of her prey, just like Vemik and all the other men did whenever they made a kill. They were a lifelong reminder that she stood as the bridge between male and female and had practiced the magic of both, as were the two Werne-blade knives she wore over her heart just like Vemik’s.
“I remember you brought back a bigger Werne than Yafek’s. I don’t think he’ll ever quite forgive you.”
“It’s not my fault he’s less of a man than I am,” she said, with a smile that was equal parts evil and smug.
“Even if that’s true, he isn’t as pretty.”
The Singer stifled a high trill and finished wrapping the pot in hides. She put it in the hole she had dug and started scooping earth back on top of it, obviously pleased at the compliment. Vemik awarded himself a victory.
“…Where were we?” she asked as she pressed the dirt firmly down.
“Yes. Hmm…. the rocks near the old village were like a pile of hides,” the Singer said, gesturing with her hands to suggest layers stacked on top of one another.
“And these ones look like guts. And the water is hot, and it smells, and the ground moves sometimes and makes noises and my father said one of the caves further up the slope had wind coming out of it. I think this whole mountain is alive.”
“It’s the only hiding place we have…” the Singer pointed out.
“Then we had better be respectful and hope that it likes us.”
“The moon will be balanced in three nights…” she pointed out. “If you could hunt a really big Werne and bring it back by then…”
“An offering.” He nodded understanding. “I can do that. We need to mark the trails anyway, this is a good chance to do two useful things at once.”
“Thank you. I’d come with you, but…” she waved a hand to indicate the whole campsite and all the people who needed her.
“It’s okay. Is there anything else I can do?”
“No, no. Well… I’m thirsty?”
He handed her his waterskin with an amused noise. It was nice and full and cool and she drank almost half of it, and gave him an apologetic look once she was sated.
He took it back off her. “You’ll be no use to the tribe if you fall down dead from working too hard…” he cautioned.
“I know… But you help. Thank you.”
Vemik put an arm around her and they touched foreheads. “Call for me if you need me,” he promised. She nodded and smiled, and let him go.
Vemet was waiting outside her tent as he stepped outside. Something about the air on the mountain wasn’t agreeing with him and he had been constantly nursing a headache ever since they arrived, for which the only thing that seemed to work was her infusion of Nafi leaves and Ketta sap. He gave his son a welcoming clap on the shoulder.
“Don’t keep her all to yourself,” he teased.
Vemik made an amused noise, but didn’t bite. Vemet had been dropping hints about a grandchild ever since they reached the high forest, and Vemik was deriving some small enjoyment from keeping him guessing.
Besides, they had more important things to do right now. “I’m going on a hunt,” he said.
“We need an offering for the mountain and we need to scout the trails. Would you come with me?”
“Hmm. It might do my head some good…” Vemet mused. “Yes, I’ll come. Just let me get my…”
The Singer threw open her tent flap and handed him an aromatic steaming beaker with a patient look. “Go,” she ordered.
Vemet trilled softly, knocked back his medicine in a single eager slurp and went to fetch his spear and knives. Vemik handed the beaker back to the Singer.
“I’ll see you when we get back,” he promised.
He fidgeted with one of the pouches on his belt as he turned away. He had all the beads he needed, the only thing he was missing was two matched trophies to hang with them and once he had those he’d have a finished pair of pledge necklaces.
He could hardly wait.
Date Point 10y9m1d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Major Owen Powell
“Mister Arés to see you, sir.”
Powell stood as Gabriel Arés limped through the door. The poor bloke’s disability was getting worse with time despite Gabe’s best efforts at rehabilitation, and he had to wonder when the day would eventually come when it finally beat him.
If his son was anything to go by, that day was most likely still far off. Still, he sank gratefully into the seat opposite Powell’s desk as soon as hands had been shaken and pleasantries exchanged.
“It’s not often you pay me a personal visit,” Powell noted.
“Your office is a son of a bitch for a crippled ancíano to even reach,” Gabe replied, with a self-effacing chuckle. “That’s why. But this is important.”
“Summat to do with your son?”
“My daughter, actually.” Gabe’s body might have been slowly giving up but there was nothing wrong with his wits, or his shrewd dark eyes. “I know, I know, you don’t like her much, but hear me out.”
Powell cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I’m sorry if I-”
Gabriel tapped his cane once, dismissively. “If the day ever comes when I try to police what you’re allowed to think about people, please lead the armed uprising,” he interrupted. “But she needs help.”
“And what help can I give that she needs?”
“I’m guessing you either have a therapist here on base, or have access to one, who’s in on DEEP RELIC?”
“…Aye, we do. Lieutenant Mears, Royal Navy. His office is four doors down thataway.” Powell aimed his thumb at the wall.
“Good. I want her to have access to him.”
“Done.” Powell nodded.
This seemed to surprise Gabriel, who blinked at him. “I was… expecting some resistance.”
Powell chewed his cheek thoughtfully for a second as he thought. “Look… If she needs to see Mears, I can fookin’ sympathize,” he said. “I don’t mind admitting that I go an’ see him pretty often myself. I’m not some pig-headed bastard who’ll block her getting needed treatment out of spite. If you say she needs it… well, I trust you. ”
Gabriel sighed. “Es justo. That’s fair.”
“Sorry if it’s not exactly a glowing sentiment, but… well, I look out for my Lads.”
Gabriel stretched his wounded side slightly and nodded. “Adam’s lucky. He’s got two father figures.”
“I, er… can’t exactly get that close with ‘em…” Powell demurred.
“There’s fathers and fathers.” Gabriel shrugged. “It’s a shame you’re not a parent yourself—I think you’d be a good one.”
“We all make our choices, mate,” Powell told him. “An’ we have to live wi’ the consequences.”
“There’s nothing wrong with regret, you know.”
“Sure there is. Means you went wrong in the first place.”
“Don’t you believe in redemption?”
“No.” Powell shook his head. “I believe in healing, an’ in movin’ on older an’ wiser. But redemption? Absolutely bloody not. If you make the bed then you have to fookin’ well sleep in it, and you don’t get to pretend you never did.”
Gabriel nodded sadly, and then heaved himself upright with a groan. “Thank you,” he said.
“I’ll let Mears know to arrange that appointment,” Powell replied, rising to shake his hand. Gabe nodded, patted him on the upper arm, and limped out in a more sombre mood than he’d arrived.
Once he was gone, Powell sat back down and ran his palm down his face. He liked Gabriel and respected him on the whole. They’d had a good professional relationship for… about six years? Something like that. And it was hard not to sympathize with a man who had so much love for his children, even if one of those children wasn’t actually his own flesh and blood. He hated to sadden him.
He fired off a quick email to Mears, who was on Earth for the week attending some kind of certification course, then checked his diary. He had PT with Warhorse in an hour, a meeting with Lt. Col. Miller after that, and then a fitting and measuring session with Kovač and the suit techs.
Time to catch up on his messages. And if some of those messages were accurate, his job was soon to become much more complicated…
Date Point 10y9m1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Adam—he’d point-blank refused to let them call him ’Sergeant Arés’—was managing to make Xiù feel very lucky indeed for her own relationship with Allison and Julian. He was exhausting.
They’d been invited on a kind of triple-date. It wasn’t anything formal, just dinner and drinks at a nice apartment south of the river, and already she was feeling overwhelmed by him and she wasn’t even his date. One of his buddies, a walking mountain called Christian who was pure charm and friendliness once you got past the aura of visceral threat he had no choice but to project, was taking him under his wing and teaching him some life skills.
From the look of things, Adam was a tricky student. It wasn’t just that he paid excruciating attention to every detail of the excursion, it was that he paid excruciating attention to the wrong details and managed to somehow miss some important ones like, say, his date.
Fortunately, Natalie—a bubbling British chick with what must have been about the thickest skin in the cosmos—was indulging his micromanagement with a wry smile, but she privately admitted while he was absent tending to some thoughtful detail that she considered Adam to be “lots of fun, in small doses.”
“I mean it’s nice, but I’ve been to weddings where the place settings were less, erm…” she waved a hand to indicate the immaculately arranged table. There were napkins, which had been folded into clean little pockets in which the cutlery was nested. The music was a selection of good songs, at the perfect volume to not interfere with conversation. There was a condensation-beaded jug of cold water with a couple of lemon slices in it. It wasn’t extravagant, but it did feel painstakingly conscientious. There was a spark of spontaneity that was noticeably lacking.
Fortunately, Julian had found the perfect way to bring some warm disruption to the table—he’d removed his foot and was busy repairing it. It had suffered badly from his game of soccer with Adam and Christian earlier in the day, and the little island of chaos he’d made as he maintained the prosthesis was quite welcome.
“Weddings, Christ. Not been to a wedding since I was yea high,” he commented, waving a hand at about tabletop-height.
“I was even smaller at the last one I went to…” Xiù mused.
“Oh God, you must have been the cutest child…” Allison realized.
“No comment,” Xiù teased, and sipped her water. Her presiding childhood memories were actually of skinned knees, perpetual bruises, and that one time she’d tried to do twenty back handsprings down the school hall, lost her bearings and suffered a greenstick fracture when she slammed into a wall. She had cleaned up quite well for the wedding, though.
Christian’s date, Freya, was pretty much a human Myun with much better-developed social graces and the broadest streak of pleasant confidence Xiù had ever met. Where Natalie had danced around the issue of just who she was sitting down to dinner with and had basically done everything in her power to pretend she wasn’t fangirling out, Freya hadn’t bothered to hide it. She’d shown up with a sharpie and a photo frame for them to sign, taken a selfie and then left it at that. It was a simple, uncomplicated and straightforward approach that had immediately won her a friend in Allison.
“Last wedding I went to, the drinks were in an old bathtub full of salt water and ice cubes,” she chuckled. “This is way fancier.”
This earned more laughter, and they made small talk like that for several minutes until a sizzling from the kitchen suggested that the salt slab had warmed up and was now in use. Sure enough, only minutes later the two enormous chefs emerged bearing smiles and plated rib-eye steaks with spiced sweet potato wedges and an avocado green salad.
It was all divine, and the evening was generally pretty relaxed even if they were treated to spectating some more of Adam’s attempts to be the most perfect date. He got better as the night went on and even managed to relax and get out of the mindset of making everything as super perfect as he possibly could.
Sadly, they had to wrap it up early and relatively sober. *Misfit*’s itinerary called for a jump back to the Cimbrean-5 customs beacon to recover their impounded stuff in the morning but it was a pleasant way to round off what had effectively been a brief vacation.
Naturally, the topic of choice in the cab back to the spaceport was their host’s prospects.
“Poor guy,” was Allison’s opinion. “I kinda get the impression he’s new to dating.”
“Lot of fun, though. I had a great time today,” Julian said.
“You spent most of it getting thrown around like a football,” Allison pointed out. She’d been on edge the whole time as they watched him kick a ball around and wrestle (or rather, be wrestled by) men who were so much larger than him it had been like watching a labrador merrily chase a couple of tanks. Xiù, whose lifetime of practising Gung Fu, Taiji, gymnastics and ballet had given her slightly more insight into how people moved had instantly spotted Adam and Christian’s incredible poise. Both men were so utterly in control that Julian had been perfectly safe to roughhouse with them, and he knew it as well.
Worrying about something less than Allison did had been an interesting experience.
Julian grinned, a little apologetically. “Been a long time since I hung out with guys my age,” he said.
“…Shit, yeah. I guess it has,” Allison conceded. “And you didn’t really do stuff like that with Lewis or Amir, did you?”
“They weren’t exactly the physical type…” Julian sighed. “It’s weird, you don’t really appreciate something simple like just playing ball with a couple guys until you haven’t done it in years.”
“Glad you got the chance?”
The conversation ended there as they arrived at the spaceport, and they lingered in the hangar doorway to look out across the concrete and take in the town’s lights around them.
“…I’m going to miss Cimbrean.” Xiù decided. There was something so different about it compared to Earth, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
“We’ll be back. Resupply in nine months, remember?”
“I’m still going to miss it.”
They stood in silence then shook themselves, headed indoors, and went to bed.
They had a long job ahead of them.
Date Point 10y9m1d AV
Celzi Alliance command facility, Crzlrfek System, The Freedom Stars
Warmaster Trez Ekrat
There was still far too much yellow in the volumetric strategy map, but that was why seeing one important marker blink and turn blue felt so… satisfying.
That marker represented a class six temperate world so newly colonized that the Dominion’s supine bureaucracy hadn’t even approved a formal name for it, yet. It still appeared on the Dominion’s star charts as ’DTC-whitesquare-44170-T6’.
On Alliance star charts, its name translated to something equivalent to ’Fertile Flood’, a name that sounded strong in Celz’ (Zrefn Delc’) and poetic in Qininis (Nisiqithathe). In most regards it was an unremarkable planet with nothing much going for it, other than one valuable feature: An enormous flood plain network where several river deltas met and crawled across thousands of square kilometers of incomparably fertile soil under warm temperate sunlight with predictable weekly rains.
Upon taking receipt of the planet, its owners had promptly stripped that biome every scrap of native flora and introduced alien feed crops like Cqcq and Rhwk. From the mountains to the ocean, every square meter of an area the size of a moderate country was farmland, tended by ten million drones.
The Alliance needed that food. Their existing agricultural infrastructure only barely met the demands of a swelling population that had bred in expectation of a war of expansion onto the fertile unclaimed worlds around them, and had instead found themselves confined to a dense knot of planets when the arrival of humans had compelled a ceasefire.
A ceasefire that had finally ended, thanks to the baffling decision by a Dominion fleetmaster to plunge suicidally deep into Alliance territory and blow up a communications relay station.
Warmaster Ekrat didn’t know the term ’straining at the leash’, but he had been doing it nonetheless. By the time the Alliance council realized that they could postpone their unpopular plans for rationing and instead had the chance to annex an already established farming colony, Ekrat’s plans had been drawn up, his troop carriers loaded, his patrol ships recalled and his assault poised.
He’d even completed the lengthy process of preparing a space station for transit, and the anchorage ’Light Spike’ had jumped into orbit around Fertile Flood three days after the order was given to invade, punctuating a swift and utterly effective annexation. With its firepower, long-range defensive shields and repair facilities in place the Alliance fleet had a new base of operations so strong that the Dominion would have almost had a better prospect of evicting them from Crzlrfek.
The question before him now was…
Ekrat turned. His Qinis logistics-master, Vasi Thal, was pondering the strategic map with a finger resting lightly on his lips and his ears twitching this way and that as he thought. Despite being as thin as a grass stalk he cut an impressive figure wearing an ornate black uniform with sombre steel trim and a dozen tiny iridescent chains that clipped to his ears and whispered like a silver breeze at the slightest movement.
“That’s for me to decide,” Ekrat told him.
“Our first objective should be to consolidate our hold on Nisiqithathe. We need to secure the access to that system so that the colony’s food products can be delivered back to the core worlds.”
“An objective that will most easily be achieved by threatening other Dominion colonies and bases in this region,” Ekrat agreed. He brought up his long, dextrous tail and gestured into the heart of the map display, picking out the markers that indicated Dominion facilities in and near the border stars. “We can keep them on the defensive.”
Thal looked uncomfortable. “When you say ’threatening’…?”
“Ah. So you have heard my reputation.”
Thal cleared his long throat. “Is there any truth to it?”
Ekrat snuffed a hint of contemptuous amusement. “Thal, never tell your subordinates how accurate your reputation is. A little mystery is good for a commander.”
“Even if the reputation is for unnecessarily ruthless violence?”
Ethrak had had this conversation or some variant of it many times before, and he had learned with effort to suppress his irritation at the word ’unnecessary’. He had never done anything unnecessary. Ruthlessly violent, yes, but never unnecessary.
“Especially then,” he replied instead.
“So… when you say ’threaten’…?” Thal pressed.
“If your conscience makes you squeamish, Thal, then don’t ask. The threat will be credible: if it was not, it wouldn’t be effective.”
“I… see, Warmaster. I withdraw my question.”
“Sensible. Make your preparations to take over the colony farm and export the food. Leave the dirty work of securing your space lanes to me.”
“…Yes, Warmaster.” Thal bowed stiffly, and made himself scarce.
Ethrak made a satisfied gesture to himself, and planned how best to terrorize the Dominion into defending the wrong things…
Date Point 10y9m2w AV
Gabriel was waiting for Ava when she checked her bags with the HMS Sharman gate guards and was allowed to leave, but her heart sank the moment she laid eyes on him.
He was in his wheelchair. He hated using his wheelchair.
She gave him a kiss on the cheek and a hug. “Hey! *¿Estás bien?*”
Gabe grumbled unhappily. “My fucking leg’s not working at all today…” He groused. “Enough about me. How did it go?”
“He’s put me on, uh…” Ava dug in her handbag and read the prescription. “…Paroxetine.”
Gabe gestured back toward town and turned his chair. There was nothing wrong with his arms at least. “*¿Qué pasa?*” he asked, softly.
“I… this is gonna sound stupid…” Ava sighed, falling in alongside him.
“Go ahead and say it anyway.”
“I just really don’t want to have to take these.”
He looked up at her. “Why not?”
“I don’t know. I just… I know it’ll help me feel better and I know I need it, but…”
“You know?” Ava finished, lamely.
“I do, yeah.” Gabe slapped his wheelchair. “I know I need this thing, but…”
“But you hate it.”
“Yeah. I’ll use it when I have to, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s…” Gabe paused to select his words. “…It’s a reminder that I’m not whole.”
That was maybe a little too blunt of a description for Ava’s taste, but under the discomfort she had to admit that he’d hit the mark for her too. She felt like she’d been walking around with a piece missing that she’d managed to hide for so long, and now it was out in the open for everybody to see. She felt exposed.
Gabriel sighed as they stopped at the pedestrian crossing. “It’s human nature to avoid the hard stuff in our life if we can,” he said. “I remember when I was your age, I never wanted to look at my bank balance even though I needed to know how much I had so I could spend it sensibly. Everybody’s like that. It’s why people don’t exercise or stick to diets, because that’s hard and we all prefer the easy way.”
“And then you get obese diabetics complaining about how hard their life is when it’d have been way less harder if they just put in some effort,” Ava observed as he pressed the button..
“You’re in a cynical mood today, *mija*…”
“I don’t blame you, though…” The light changed to let them across, and Gabe rolled his chair off the sidewalk. “You are gonna take the pills, right?”
“Charlotte’s promised to nag me if I don’t,” Ava told him, with a weak but genuine smile. Finally opening up to her best friend had been difficult and tearful, but had rewarded her with the kind of emotional and practical support that only a midwife could provide.
“You’re lucky to have friends like- *¡Me cago en todo lo que se menea!*”
Heads turned at that last virulent outburst as Gabe inexpertly turned his chair a little too soon after making it up onto the sidewalk and managed to get himself stuck straddling the kerb. He wrenched furiously at the wheels to try and get it back onto the sidewalk then went limp and defeated.
Ava hauled him back up safely onto the sidewalk. He sighed and rubbed at his temples then threw his hands down in frustration.
“Swearing in English for a change, Dad?” Ava teased, trying to lighten the mood. It worked, and Gabriel chuckled a little.
“Sometimes I think ’fuck’ might just be the best word ever invented,” he confessed.
She put a hand on his back. “*Entiendo.*”
He rubbed the wheel ruefully. “Let’s go for a walk. I need the practice and the doctor says I should use this thing more anyway…”
“You should. It’s supposed to increase your mobility, Dad.”
“Weren’t you the one saying you didn’t want to take your pills?”
“I don’t want to, but I will,” Ava said firmly.
Gabe paused, then nodded. “Right. *Es justo.*”
“There’s that nice gelato place on Parkside and Peake…” Ava suggested.
“Sounds good.” He turned his chair in the right direction and headed out with a determined expression. Ava watched after him for a second feeling a complicated mix of emotions that she couldn’t quite pick apart, then adjusted her handbag and followed.
It was nice not to feel completely alone.
Date Point 10y9m3w AV
Fort Bragg, North Carolina, USA, Earth
Master Sergeant Derek Coombes
The problem with doing PT alongside Staff Sergeant Walsh was that his nickname—”Tiny”—was a completely ironic one. The guy had tried out for SOR for crap’s sake, he was as big as a barn and lived in the kind of performance athlete territory that meant he was constantly “failing” physicals and having to get a waiver from the doctors to say that, yes, he was perfectly healthy and that “excess” weight was all muscle.
Coombes was a different creature, from a different philosophy of training that had fallen out of fashion in the modern army. He was lighter and more wiry, more average in build and well-suited to blending into a crowd exactly like he’d been doing in Egypt.
This naturally meant that when it came to the gym, anything Coombes could do Walsh could do better. Much better. And that shit was not about to be accepted, no matter how much his muscles and joints got angry at him. He couldn’t match the big fucker on weight but he would damn well match him pace-for-pace and rep-for-rep, his pride demanded nothing less.
Fortunately, Tiny was diplomatic enough not to comment on how Coombes spent a bit longer massaging his aching limbs under the shower afterwards.
They talked about other things instead, while they did their boots up. “So you’re taking a second shot?”
Tiny nodded. “Dude, the only reason I’m not wearing that spacesuit already is because I fucked my arm up. I’m gonna be SOR.”
“Too bad for me they don’t take guys my size,” Coombes mused. Ever since Allied Extrasolar Command had tentatively declared that the Hierarchy threat on Earth was neutralized, he’d been at something of a loose end. There was plenty of shit still to do on Earth, but somehow the global war on extremism seemed much less important than the extraterrestrial stuff nowadays.
It was kinda hard to accept that the war he’d literally been shot through the lung while fighting had sorta… fizzled out after Operation EMPTY BELL. The enemy was still out there, the war was still on, but suddenly it didn’t need guys like him any more. That stuck in the craw.
They were both surprised to find a man in air force blues with silver oak leaves on his shoulders waiting for them outside the fitness center. He looked up the second they stepped outside and stood.
“Uh… good afternoon, sir,” Coombes said and saluted.
“Afternoon, as you were, gentlemen.,” the officer replied and returned the salute. He had a friendly, informal manner and a pleasant smile. “Master Sergeant Coombes, right? And Staff Sergeant Walsh?”
“That’s us,” Tiny agreed. Both men assumed a loose parade rest.
“As you were, gentlemen. Lt. Col. Miller, 946th Operations Support Squadron,” Miller introduced himself and shook their hands. “I’m the DoD’s maintenance officer for the Spaceborne Operations Regiment. Got a career opportunity for you boys if you’re interested…”
Naturally, both of them jumped at the chance. There was the usual rigmarole of finding somewhere private to have the conversation and all the other stuff that went with a classified briefing, but none of that took long. They wound up seated at the corner table at Quiznos where Miller treated them to their pick off the menu and produced the kind of sound-suppressing and air-opaquing security gizmo that only people who worked closely with Scotch Creek seemed to play with.
The air around them fuzzed and became… hazy. Not opaque, but certainly impossible to discern any detail from outside their little gray bubble of privacy. The noise and bustle around them vanished under a blanket of white noise, which in turn stopped their own words from leaving the immediate vicinity of their table.
“Allied Extrasolar Command want to reincarnate JETS teams,” Miller said, as soon as they were settled. “But not as a certification this time. As the real deal—a working, full-time part of the SOR. Given that the reasons why have to do with your mission in Egypt, you were the obvious guys to offer first refusal.”
Coombes brightened immediately. This was already sounding exactly like what he’d been hankering for but when he glanced over, Tiny’s expression was interested but unenthusiastic at best.
“JETS already fell through once,” he pointed out.
“It’s a different beast this time. Very different,” Miller promised. “We have a definite mission and need, a clearer idea of the requirements and, importantly, JETS team members will be a critical counterpart to the guys in the spacesuits, the HEAT teams as we’re calling them now.”
“I kinda have my sights set on being one of those guys in the spacesuit…” Walsh said. “Hell, I already got selected and then busted my arm…”
“Well, hear me out.” Miller selected a file on his tablet and handed it over. “How old are you, Walsh? Twenty-eight?”
“You were briefed on the built-in declining efficiency of Cruezzir-D, right?”
Tiny nodded reluctantly.
“So even if you head down to Huntsville today you’re never really going to feel the full benefit of Crue-D enhanced training…” Miller said.
“Begging your pardon sir, but bullshit. Firth’s was about my age when he started the Crude. A little older even, and look at the guy.”
“I thought you might bring that up.” Miller fished out an e-paper photograph. He laid it down on the table and swiped through the images loaded onto it. “Here. Firth was kind enough to share some photos to drive home the point. Here he is at thirteen…and fifteen…and seventeen, when he enlisted….”
Coombes and Walsh both boggled. The allegedly thirteen-year old boy in the first photo was unbelievably fit and only marginally smaller than Walsh was right now. The young man in the second image was legitimately enormous, and the photos after that…
Miller nodded. “Mm-hmm. Now imagine if he’d started on Crue-D early in life, like Warhorse did. Honestly, the fact that he’ll maybe never hit his theoretical maximum is probably a blessing in disguise for him.”
The way Tiny scowled slightly at the photo told Coombes that Miller had scored a hit.
“I think what Tiny’s saying is he doesn’t want to settle for second-best, sir,” he observed. Walsh nodded.
Miller sat back and tapped the tabletop thoughtfully. “…What do you mean by ’best’?” he asked. “Biggest? Strongest? Deadliest? Let’s face it, Firth and Warhorse already have those wrapped up tight, but you should talk to them sometime. What they both focus on is all the ways their buddies are better than them at other stuff. So… best at what?”
He smiled winningly. “This is still the SOR. Same unit, same standards, same stakes, same mission, everything. I’m still offering you the chance to be the best: the only difference is focus. As a Joint Extra-Terrestrial Scout, you would infiltrate hostile worlds and live there for months at a time, never seen, never detected, and you’d generate absolutely priceless first-take intel. Intel without which the big guys in the suits would be useless.”
“That doesn’t sound second-rate to me, Tiny,” Coombes said.
Walsh gave him the slightly askance look of a man whose friend was siding with the other guy. “Dude.”
“What? I like the idea and I want you with me!”
Coombes nodded. “Come on, you saw the suit-jockeys in action. How big’s the fucking logistics tail behind those guys?”
“They may as well have a power cable running out the back,” Miller nodded.
“That’s true of any advanced unit, sir. That’s true of an F-16, or an infantry platoon.”
“But not of a scout.”
“Never thought of myself as a scout before…” Tiny rumbled, thoughtfully rather than reluctantly.
“Why not, though? Hell, you’re CCT for fuck sake, how’re you gonna drop a bomb on stuff if you don’t know where it is?”
Tiny smiled, “I’m usually there with a laser designator, but…yeah. I mean, in a way, I guess a combat controller is like a raider, or short-term recon. Hell, recon is a big part of the mission. It’s just…we’re only equipped for days, not weeks or even months, and the equipment load is already…”
He trailed off thoughtfully, and his lips moved silently as he did some mental arithmetic for a handful of seconds. “Armor, equipment, food as dense as we can package it, garbage…tablets for water, tablets to clean up latrines… Shit, you really do need a guy my size for this, don’t you?”
“We really do,” Miller said. “Though, none of this means you can’t still take a swing at HEAT if you want to. But you’ll be blazing new trails, developing tactics and doctrine, you’ll be collaborating with people from all across the special operations communities of the world, finding what makes sense, what doesn’t… You might just find it rewarding, if you’ve got the chops for it.”
He sat back and gave them both a daring stare. “Do you?”
Date Point: Halloween, 10y10m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“You know, those fatigues aren’t really part of the costume…”
Martina Kovač folded her arms. “Oh, sure, just ‘cause Cammy hangs her ass and cameltoe out for everyone to stare at, that means I have to as well?”
“Well… you are dressed as her.” Adam pointed out.
“It’s creative license.” She saw his expression and softened. “Plus, I’ve got that giant burn scar on my butt cheek. Let me have this, okay? I already feel half-naked in this thing…” she plucked awkwardly at her costume’s skin-tight green leotard.
Adam remembered some of the stuff Firth had taught him and stopped himself from pointing out that he, having had the role of Zangief thrust on him, was technically wearing less than she was.
That was their theme for the night. The SOR was throwing a barbecue and party on the green at Quarterside park for the sake of some good PR, and had collectively decided to dress up as an assortment of Street Fighter characters.
She shot him a warm look. “Thanks. It’s kinda dumb isn’t it? I’m so used to seeing all of you naked I don’t bat an eyelid, but ask me to dress up like this…”
“We’re in a public park. I don’t think it’s the same.”
“True… but the fatigues work, right? They don’t ruin the costume?”
“Nah, it looks like some kinda DLC alternative outfit or something. You’re fine.”
“Good…” Marty tucked some stray hair up into her long blonde pigtails wig. “…Shall we?”
Adam grinned and got into character. “Da! The Red Cyclone will put on show for little children!”
“That’s… a terrifyingly good impression.”
“Thanks! I practised.”
He took the way she smiled and shook her head as a good sign and got out of the car.
Kids pointed and made awed noises as the two of them approached and Adam took delight in flexing extravagantly for them.
Cimbrean didn’t really have trick-or-treat, though that wasn’t down to any lack of enthusiasm for the holiday. It was just that in the early days of the colony Adam had been one of only about a dozen young people below the age of twenty on the whole planet, and the adults had decided to go with a big themed party instead, a tradition that had stuck especially hard when somebody had hit on the idea that you had to perform some kind of minor forfeit to get your food if you weren’t in costume.
As a result, Quarterside Park was a sea of people of all ages in costume, from the traditional little girls in pointy-hatted witch costumes, through videogame characters and superheroes, and of course there was the Cimbrean franchise of the Ghostbusters with their brown boiler suits and their intricate and expensively realistic proton packs. Akiyama was a member, though today he was playing his role in the SOR’s Street Fighter ensemble.
The aliens mostly treated it all with bemusement though the Gaoians were getting into the swing of things, led by their cubs. While they occasionally had slightly odd ideas for what constituted a costume, as evidenced by the burly Straightshield brother who was walking around dressed as a boiled lobster, nobody could argue they hadn’t enthusiastically grabbed the spirit of the day with both paws.
They made a meandering line for the horseshoe of barbecues in the middle of the park where Sagat (Firth), Balrog (Burgess) and Ken (Sikes) were expertly tending two grills apiece in a confident bustle of activity and keeping up some banter with the happy eaters as they went.
Then there were the snack tables where Blanka (Vandenberg) and Dan Hibiki (Murray) were keeping everyone supplied with all the snacks, sweets and soda they could ask for. On the grass, Guile (Blaczynski) and Ryu (Akiyama) were having a push-up contest with several children sitting on their backs and cheering them on..
“So where do we fit in?” Marty asked.
“Meet and greet, amuse the kids, make the adults happy…” Adam replied. They’d all gone over their roles earlier in the week while assembling their costumes, and the consensus had been that Adam was best placed doing their strongman show while Marty could take some of the masculine edge off. Already kids were pointing and nudging each other, and the adults were gawping, including some whom he recognized. On any other day it might have made him self-conscious but today he was in-character.
Marty stifled a giggle as he hammed it up for the crowd and put on his outrageous Russian accent. They made a good double-act, especially when she wound up sitting primly on his shoulder while half a dozen children and a couple of cubs tried their best to drag his arms down while he roared with massively exaggerated laughter.
Then there were the selfies, the handshakes, posing for photos and hour after hour of being as friendly as he could muster which finally came to a blessed end with the fireworks display.
It was a massive relief when the last of the children was finally ushered home and literally every adult in the park heaved a sigh of relief and relaxed. The beers appeared from nowhere, the music got a little more raw, the jokes edgier and the smiles (and language) were less guarded.
The only potential tripwire in fact was the friction between Ava and the Lads. She was present in her role as an ESNN photojournalist and had spent the day recording the festivities for the network’s local news website. Once the children and their parents were gone there was no reasonable way for her to avoid the SOR without shirking her duties, nor indeed for them to avoid her without shirking theirs.
The Lads weren’t being rude exactly—all of them knew that actively snubbing Ava was a good way to irritate the man responsible for their exercise schedule—but even for the camera they were being decidedly cool, and it was dragging out the shoot longer than needed as she tried to capture some merriment from them.
In the end, Marty took her gently by the elbow and led her away from the group where they settled into a quiet conversation while the Lads shrugged at each other and unwound. Adam sidled over to try and listen in.
“…don’t like me, I know why they don’t like me and… I mean, I accept that,” Ava was saying, when he could finally hear her. “But I don’t want to mess this up for you. This is important, isn’t it?”
“Good PR is kinda vital for us, yeah…”
“Right. Well, I wanna deliver good PR. I just… I don’t know how right now. It’s hard when you can’t build a rapport.”
She sounded so despondent that Adam would have stepped in and given her a hug right then and there if Marty hadn’t caught his eye and, very subtly, shaken her head so instead he backed off a little to the discreet distance he’d found where he could still make out what they were saying while seemingly be far enough away that they’d think he couldn’t.
“I think… part of the problem is you’re going with this heroic angle,” Marty suggested to Ava. “You’re trying to show us in a positive light rather than just, uh, point the camera at what’s there. Right?”
Ava cocked her head thoughtfully. “…I guess so,” she conceded, after a few seconds.
“So, maybe the thing to do is just…”
“Let them be themselves,” Ava finished. “Stop trying to tell a story.”
“Well, I can’t blame you for wanting to tell a story,” Marty said warmly, “but yeah. I guess that’s the gist of what I’m saying.”
“And you’re right… thank you.”
“No problem.” Marty stood up. “You gonna be okay?”
“Uh… actually, can I ask you a personal question? Like, as me, not as the reporter.”
Marty gave her a curious look, but gestured for her to ask.
“Why are you being nice to me?”
Marty glanced at Adam, scratched thoughtfully at the line of her wig and then sat back down again. “…Counter-question. Why are you being nice to them?” she asked. “You’re being surprisingly loyal considering how hard they’re snubbing you.”
“It’s nothing I don’t deserve.”
“You think? Well… I guess they think so. But I know ‘Horse doesn’t and I trust his instincts, even if he is hella naive sometimes.”
Ava laughed at that. “That makes two of us.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, do you mean you’re naive too, or do you mean you trust his instincts too?” Marty clarified.
It was Marty’s turn to laugh, and that drew out one of Ava’s real smiles. She had so many flavors of fake, tired, weak and polite smile that seeing some genuine happiness dawn on her face was like witnessing a small miracle of nature.
“He is naive, though,” Marty added, and Adam felt his ears burn pink a little.
“Can you blame him?”
“Hell no. He’s been stuck in this hyper-masculine bubble for his whole adult life and… I mean, I know you two had a pretty rough time of it, losing your home and everything…”
“Yeah.” It was Ava’s turn to glance in Adam’s direction, and he did his best to pretend not to notice. “We both learned some really hard lessons and… I guess there were some other lessons where, like, we didn’t get the chance.”
Adam had heard enough. He got up and joined them, causing both girls to first look up curiously and then make very similar squeaks as he drew the pair of them into his trademark huge full-body-workout hug.
Marty, being stronger than Ava, was the first to work her way free. “Dude, what-?”
“I’m just glad you two are getting along!” Adam explained, easing off.
Ava straightened her hair and tugged on the pink sports jacket that was part of her costume, then took a step back. “Thanks, uh… Look, why don’t you go mingle? I’ll just sorta… snap whatever I see,” she suggested.
Adam looked to Marty, got an almost imperceptible nod, and gave an amplified nod of his own. “Okay! Get yourself a steak sandwich off Firth though, ‘kay? He does the best steak sandwiches.”
“I’ll…do that, sure.”
“Come on, Zangief,” Marty said, and led him away with an eye-roll and a smack on the arm.
He checked they were out of earshot—really out of earshot—before he said anything. “Uh… Thanks. For helping her.”
That seemed to be all that needed saying.
Date Point 10y10m2w AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Cruising on spacelane CSR-orangepentagon-92034-L, The Border Stars.
Regency-period English balls with their fancy gowns and choreographed dances have always fascinated Xiù, and she’s delighted to find herself attending one. And Julian looks so fetching in a high-necked frock coat and cravat too…
Of course there’s still the question of justifying their presence to the hostess. They bluffed their way in by pretending to be a standup comedy act but the time is soon coming when they’ll have to actually deliver on their bluff, so the three of them sit down with her brother Wei at a table in McDonald’s to discuss their routine, where Allison starts telling jokes.
The first two are funny enough but the third… She can’t hear the joke properly but it has something to do with a jar of pickled beets and is so funny that she woke up giggling with the real Julian and Allison sitting up in bed beside her and giving her strange looks.
“Uh, babe? You sound really creepy when you laugh in your sleep…” Allison declared, wiping an eye.
Xiù descended into a fit of the giggles that just wouldn’t go away, especially when Julian and Allison exchanged a bemused look and he shrugged, got up, stretched and vanished into the shower for his morning rinse.
Eventually, the laughter died down enough for her to apologize. “Sorry, sorry…In my dream, you were very funny.”
Allison snorted and shook her head. “I was, huh?”
“Yeah. Did I really sound creepy?”
“You laughed like *’hurrr hurrr hurrr…’*” Allison imitated a slow, low and gormless laugh.
“Oh *God*…” Xiù buried her face in her pillow, feeling her cheeks burn red.
“Hey, at least your dreams are funny…” Allison beamed.
Xiù threw the pillow at her. The pillow came back with interest and they quickly got into a happy twisting wrestling match that Xiù, being shorter and stronger, won easily. Allison quickly found herself pinned by the wrists and helpless with Xiù grinning down at her inside a private curtain of hair.
Of course, Allison was far too competitive to take defeat gracefully. She wriggled and squirmed and tried to fight loose, but her longer limbs were no use at all. Xiù had all the advantages. “Agh… nooo! Get-!”
“Give u-up!” Xiù tightened her grip slightly.
Xiù relented again. “Give,” she repeated slowly, lowering her face for emphasis “U-*Mm!*”
Allison had surged up and kissed her.
Oh. Well. If that was the game she wanted to play…
Julian was treated to quite the show a few minutes later when he finished his shower. He paused in the doorway and watched until Xiù noticed him.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he replied. “Uh… Do, uh… do I get to join in?”
“You can make breakfast?”
“Yeff she iff!” Allison managed to call, in a muffled voice. She was face-down in a pillow with her hands held inextricably behind her back and Xiù sitting astride her legs.
“Hush, *Shǎguā*…” Xiù grinned down at her.
At long last, Allison finally gave up and went limp. “…Yeff m’m…”
Julian muttered something to himself that sounded like ”Fuck, that’s hot…” and wiped his face on his towel before going to find something to make for breakfast.
“Where were we?” Xiù asked. Allison managed to turn her head enough that she was no longer breathing pillow.
“You are evil, you know that right? We’ve created a monster.”
Xiù bent forward and nibbled her ear, which she’d found was a sure-fire way to get Allison flustered. “Mm-hmm…”
Allison gasped and shivered. “*Fuck*…!”
“Relax, Shǎguā. You brought this on yoursel-”
Either the world or Misfit had an awful sense of timing, or perhaps a sadistic one. Whatever the reason, the general alarm made all three of them pause for a second before Xiù rolled off the bed cursing colorfully in three languages and performed some high-speed gymnastics as she flung on her clothes as fast as she ever had.
This wasn’t just modesty. Their clothing was comfortable, breathable, easily cleaned and practical but it was also protective equipment that was both flame retardant and cut-proof. Even in an emergency, the protocol they’d had drilled into them was to dress first. Quickly, of course.
They bolted for their stations and Xiù was in the pilot’s seat and buckled up inside thirty seconds of the alarm sounding. She jammed her headset on as she surveyed what the ship was telling her.
Misfit herself was fine, which came as a relief. The alarm had been thrown up by the sophisticated decision-making algorithm that monitored the FTL sensors for them when they were asleep or off-duty. It had seen something, something massive where nothing should be, and promptly called for a human takeover.
”Bad news,” Julian called within seconds. His voice sounded grim. ”It’s a gravity spike.”
Xiù’s breath caught in her throat and Allison said what they were all thinking. ”Jesus…”
“But we’re not caught in it…” Xiù pointed out.
”No, it’s a couple of light-months ahead of us on the spacelane… Misfit says we’d have hit it in four minutes.”
”Thank you Clara…” Allison muttered. ”We’d have run right into it without her…”
“Nah, they’re not just set up and left waiting…” Julian said. ”That thing got fired to catch somebody.”
Xiù checked the sensor logs. “We were cruising about a quarter of a lightyear behind a cargo ship…”
”I’m going dark.” Allison declared. Xiù watched with a chilly feeling in her spine as available power dropped down to standby levels.
“…Hunters?” she asked.
“Or pirates. Or Alliance. Whatever the answer…” Allison left the thought unfinished. They all knew that they were unarmed, and that their best bet for safety lay in silence first and speed second. Space was vaster than anybody could comprehend, and Misfit was very very tiny. Without power to her warp drive there was no practical likelihood of discovery and even the infrared radiation they were putting out was so faint and so short-ranged that anybody placed to see it would already have effectively found them.
”Can’t we do anything?” Julian asked. ”Jump back to Cimbrean, inform the Royal Navy?”
There was a long, unhappy pause on the line, and Xiù knew what the answer was. She sat helplessly and watched the stars in the long seconds before Allison confirmed what the sensors were already telling her.
”It’s already too late. Whoever those poor bastards were… All we can do is pray for them.”
Xiù sighed and pulled her feet up into her chair, hugging her knees. Suddenly, she was feeling very small, very frail, and very helpless. It was a horrible reminder that their mission was a dangerous one.
And the day had started out so well, too…
She sat, and she meditated, and she watched until the spike was taken down. Even then they waited a further two hours before they finally decided to brave the road ahead again.
None of them left their posts until the incident was six hours and twenty lightyears behind them.
Date Point 10y10m2w AV
Command Station 1053 ’Linchpin Of Infinity’, The Orin Line
Garal disliked chaos.
This was a shame, because chaos seemed to love her, especially since she had been thrust up through the ranks so abruptly after the eleventh patrol fleet’s sudden suicidal jaunt into enemy territory. Now she was having to rebuild the destroyed fleet from scratch and it was anarchy. All of the shipmasters were still sorting out their place in the pecking order relative to one another, their undershipmasters and junior officers were doing the same, new ships were arriving that had barely cooled down from the nanofactories before having an entirely novice crew stuffed into them and sent Garal’s way to sort out.
She wished she could go back to her old role as a military foreman. She would have bid away her twin, if she’d had one, for the comforting simplicity of mathematics, forces and loads. She knew where she stood with concrete, which was usually looking up at several thousand tonnes of the stuff poised and solidified overhead into a defensive structure whose tolerances she knew to a fraction.
Marshalling people of two dozen alien species of varying rarity, temperament and ability was something else entirely. The world had not built Locayl to be diplomats and commanders.
It had certainly not built them to try and lift that baton when Celzi warships accompanied by legions of Qinisi fighter drones were stabbing here and there in the border worlds. With a more seasoned fleet she might have felt comfortable drawing some of her ships back and compiling them into a response force that could strike back into Alliance territory and take the pressure off.
As it was…
Her requests for reinforcements had been met with a quiet inconsequential reprimand that made it quite clear she was on her own, and confirmed several dark suspicions she’d held about Dominion high command for some years. Whatever their priorities were, the actual protection of colonies and vulnerable civilians seemed to be far down on the list.
It could be no coincidence that all the best ships, all the most seasoned crews and all the most decorated commanders were bodyguarding the wealthy corporate fiefdoms of the core worlds while the border stars were being tended by overstretched rookies under the command of a fleetmaster who would have given three of her arms to not be in command.
From what she knew, the territories abutting Hunter space (or at least, what everybody presumed was Hunter space—that whole swathe of the galaxy had for obvious reasons never been scouted) had it just as bad.
It was enough to grind down even the most hardened and jaded commander, and Garal was still young and idealistic enough to feel like there had to be a better way. To an engineer’s mind the whole idea of wasting strong materials—and materiel—on reinforcing the places that were already strongest while the weaker supplies were frittered away on the corroding edge of civilization was not only backwards, it was frustratingly, infuriatingly, obviously backwards. And anybody who hadn’t actually been lobotomized couldn’t fail to see it as well.
Which meant that the whole military structure of the Interspecies Dominion was corrupt, perhaps irredeemably so.
So when she was left swiping listlessly through the latest reports on what new carnage her opposite number, Warmaster Ekrat, was inflicting on the colonies and civilian shipping in the region, it was enough to make her want to quit. The morning’s tally included a freighter with a crew of two hundred: Alliance strike craft had pounced on it, ripped it in two and left bodies and crates to drift unclaimed in deep space. They hadn’t even taken any of the cargo.
Break her bones, but it was enough to drive her to the edge of despair. If the Alliance weren’t the very enemy whose successes were going un-countered and if they had been less ruthless about it all then she might almost have considered defecting. Whatever accusations of callous and casual violence might be directed against the Celzi, they at least did things with intelligence and, more importantly, with integrity.
Unfortunately, their intelligent and integral campaign was arrayed against her sector, her ships and the colonies under her watch, and there were no right answers. If she spread the fleet wide enough to have a patrol in every vulnerable volume, then those patrols would be too pathetic to do more than run away at the first sign of Celzi. If she concentrated her forces enough to be effective, then the Celzi just struck wherever her ships weren’t. There was no balance point.
Which meant, as any engineer knew, that an alternative approach was called for. Infuriatingly, she couldn’t think of one.
But she could think of somebody who might.
She called the station’s communications center.
”Station comms… Ah, Fleetmaster. What can I do for you?”
The *Linchpin*’s commsmaster was a Ruibal by the name of Thlenth. Ruibal were fellow four-arms, but with knobbled orange skin and an odd number of legs—she’d read once that their fifth leg was actually an evolved tail, though she had no idea what kind of habitat or stimuli might have induced such an evolution—and unsettlingly large mouths. They were one of the rarer species in the wider galaxy, given their fondness for parochial bickering on their homeworld…
She folded the thought up and put it away. Different species had different priorities and she would respect that: unconscious bigotry had no place in the mind of a commander.
”We have a line to the humans, do we not?” she asked, without preamble. Thlenth went a little paler.
”A direct line? Well… yes, Fleetmaster. You have the authority to directly contact their ambassador in fact…”
“Good. I think it’s time for them to start living up to their promises…”
Date Point 10y10m2w AV
Uncharted Class 12 deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm
They weren’t dead.
Nobody had found their bones or anything of theirs, therefore they were not dead. Until she had proof, until she had a better reason than that they hadn’t come back…
Even if they’d been gone for more than a moon cycle. Even if-
No. Better not to think about it. Better to just throw herself into her work.
The old Singer had given her an insight early in her apprenticeship, into the difference between the magic of men and the magic of women and why one was not better than the other. She had said “We both know that men take and women give. They take lives, we give birth. They take their time, we give our time… but we can give them our pain and they will take it off us.”
And Sky-Thinker was so good at that. So good that when he was away on a hunt, she felt like her arm was steadily falling asleep—she could still do everything, but not as freely and it was all more of an effort that only got worse as time went on.
Which was why she almost collapsed from the relief when she heard the thrum of a sentry’s shouting-stone welcoming home a successful hunt. On any other day it would have only been a hope, but today there were only two men not accounted for.
She burst from her tent.
Sky-Thinker and Stone-Tapper both looked awful. They were caked in mud, emaciated, and had the dead look in their eyes of men who hadn’t slept properly in far too long… but they were smiling, and they were dragging a litter with a prize of some kind on it.
The Singer considered the gravitas of her position for a moment and then discarded it. She bounded across the village clearing and crashed into Sky-Thinker’s chest in an enormous flying hug. He did quite a good job of weathering the impact considering he looked half-dead already.
He stank, and was filthy with dried mud, but he was back.
They both ignored the amused trills from the villagers as he ran his hand through her hair crest and sighed happily. “By the gods, I missed you…”
“What happened?!” she asked. “It was only a hunt, you’ve been gone for…what’s *this?*”
She had seen the… object on their litter. It didn’t quite look real, somehow: its edges were too straight and clean and its surface was as flat as still water. It was made of the same strange material as the sharp death-bird wing that Sky-Thinker now used as a knife, apart from a tangle of four strange dark flexible tubes like thick black guts that sprouted from one end.
Sky-Thinker and his father exchanged the proud looks of men who had brought back a truly legendary prize.
“…This is the heart of the beast that destroyed our village.”
Date Point 10y10m2w2d AV
Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada
General Martin Tremblay
Mid-week strategic meetings were sometimes sprawling affairs where dozens of the most powerful people in the world were at loggerheads, and sometimes they were smaller and more intimate. Today’s was tiny—the only person other than Tremblay and Admiral Knight to have called in was President Arthur Sartori, who had never missed a meeting and probably never would unless he was unconscious in a hospital bed.
He especially wasn’t going to miss this one. With the Dominion-Alliance war rekindling itself in fitful bursts of alarming violence, the Global Representative Assembly’s ambassador to the Dominion had been flooded with increasingly strident calls for humanity to step in and honor its default status as a Dominion member, the most recent coming directly from the Dominion’s fleetmaster on the front lines who had painted a grim picture of civilian casualties.
The GRA’s policy for the time being was that humanity officially resented being considered a Dominion member by default and would have preferred to be invited and negotiated into the fold rather than being effectively conscripted.
Unfortunately, while the membership may have been unsolicited it was also beneficial to humanity’s interests. The Interspecies Dominion was compelled by its own charter to furnish newly interstellar species with a supply of “Dominion Development Credits” that could be used to introduce the technological and logistical fruits of interstellar culture into the new member’s society at a controlled and manageable rate. Among the many things they did for the human race, including the purchase of new technologies, they were the only currency that the Corti Directorate would accept in trade for Cruezzir-D.
This was valuable, but as President Sartori was explaining, it was also leverage.
”The Dominion is getting impatient with us. They’re even talking about cutting off our DDC allowance.”
Tremblay grimaced. “If we lose those funds, it’d kill the SOR,” he said. “And our hopes of a customs and trade station at Cimbrean.”
Sartori nodded grimly, and not for the first time Tremblay counted his lucky stars that he was working with this POTUS rather than his predecessors. Sartori liked to present himself as hard-nosed but calculating and thoughtful, and by and large he walked that talk.
His election campaign had played to the fears, anger and grief of a country reeling from the aftermath of San Diego, and of a public who were no longer interested in hearing sound-bites and platitudes from their political caste. Far from the headline-grabbing shenanigans that had characterized previous Republican candidacies, Sartori had marched boldly onto the public stage armed with solid, concrete and realistic plans for revitalizing America’s staggering agricultural and technology sectors via a policy of aggressive for-profit investment.
With the slogan ’Eyes On The Prize’ he’d contemptuously demolished his fellow Republicans whom he’d characterized as irrelevant, out of touch and misfocused, and he had successfully wielded constitutional rhetoric to attack his Democrat counterpart, who had been unable to convincingly repulse the accusation that their platform was in conflict with the first Amendment.
He hadn’t exactly swept into the White House, but he had taken it with a convincing majority. His response to being briefed on DEEP RELIC and all the other information he, as leader of the free world, had need-to-know on about humanity’s status in the galaxy had been to quietly go and sit in a secluded room for several hours and then come out swinging.
Without his clout, the mountain that Allied Extrasolar Command had to climb would have been much steeper and higher.
”I think we need to put our money where our mouth is,” he said firmly. ”We were hinting this whole time that whichever side decided to break the ceasefire would answer to us… well, the Celzi have broken the ceasefire. I don’t think we can afford to have a reputation for bluffing on an empty hand.”
Tremblay nodded. “Agreed. But we can’t afford to be the Dominion’s plaything either.”
“Fortunately,” Admiral Knight interjected from his usual spot in a chair next to Tremblay’s desk, “We can probably have our cake and eat it. Neither side is any good at concealing their movements and we’ve identified a target of opportunity… This fellow.”
Sartori scrutinized the file as it was called up. “Trez Ekrat. What is he, a Celzi general?”
“The equivalent. And he’s exposed. Last week the Alliance annexed an agricultural colony in the border territory. The colonists have been fighting back and so this Ekrat chap committed a few more of his troop carriers to the fight, along with their escorts. He’s badly overextended himself and now his command post in, erm… this system…”
Tremblay stifled a chuckle. No wonder Knight hadn’t tried to pronounce the star’s name, even the pronunciation guide in parentheses next to its name was a mouth-mangler.
“…is vulnerable,” Knight finished. “He’s a vicious cad too, this one. Ruthlessly imperialistic, unflinching in the face of appalling casualties, and with the rumours of how POWs and civilians get treated by his forces, he’d be up in the Hague if he were human.”
“Capture or kill, then,” Tremblay said.
“Exactly. Either one would badly disrupt the Alliance’s plans for the region and most likely save civilian lives. I’m inclined to suggest an overwhelming show of strength, scare the bastards straight.”
“Overwhelming strength is the SOR’s forte,” Tremblay commented.
”Break everything,” Sartori advised. ”We wanna scare the Dominion a bit as well. Make it clear just how hot of a fire they’re playing with here, otherwise they’ll call on us every time they spot a Celzi scout.”
“I daresay Major Powell will enjoy that suggestion…” Knight smirked.
“I daresay you’ll enjoy giving it,” Tremblay told his friend, smiling as he imitated Knight’s violently English mannerisms.
“I daresay you’re right.”
Sartori grunted and directed an amused look at his camera while raising his hand reassuringly at somebody outside of its field of view. ”Any other business?” he asked.
“Not right now. Thank you Mister President.”
“Same time next week, then.” Sartori touched a finger to his eyebrow and ended the call. Somebody must have been figuratively tugging on his sleeve for attention.
“D’you get the impression he enjoys our meetings?” Tremblay mused.
Knight chuckled. “I wouldn’t be surprised. Interstellar war has to be refreshingly straightforward compared to Congress.”
“Don’t say that. The moment words like ’straightforward’ creep in…”
“Perish the thought. I’ll go tell Powell to expect Hell and give it back twice as hard.”
“Yeah. Let’s show them what war really looks like.”
Date Point 10y10m2w2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Adam tried to avoid bad moods. It wasn’t that they weren’t a normal and understandable thing, but he’d had some truly awful days in his life, and knew just how black his own moods could get if he let them. He cultivated good moods as best he could, tried to think the best of everybody and generally played the role of a happy hulk.
Some days, however, conspired against him.
The first sign that he was having such a day was when his sandal broke. Those hiking sandals had been with him since Alabama, and had survived what lesser footwear had not. He’d rucked, jogged, run and trekked hundreds of miles in them and they were among the few items in his life whose reliability he’d been able to take for granted. Everything else needed to be treated with care.
The creak, snap and sudden sensation of looseness on his right foot as he shifted his weight to strap on the second sandal, therefore, gave him the same sinking feeling as he’d felt when he was twelve and had gone to pet his neighbor’s cat only for the idiot feline to hiss at him, scratch his hand and bolt out into the road straight under the wheel of a Prius.
He’d preferred dogs ever since.
He sighed and assessed the damage, wondering if it was something he could repair himself and quickly decided that it wasn’t worth it - the whole sandal was on the verge of collapse, as was its counterpart. He considered putting them up on his wall out of sentiment and then realized he was being, as Major Powell would put it, “daft” and threw them away. He’d gone caveman-barefoot plenty of times anyway.
Sign number two—or number one, really—was that he’d struck out last night. For some reason, the girls were being… not chilly, but a lot less warm than they had been before. So he’d been forced to spend the night alone, cleaning his rifle one-handed.
These two facts combined to put a small thundercloud over his head as he tromped down the stairs barefoot and out into the street.
Today was as close as SOR got to an off day, and it was kind of a party. Major Powell had finally bowed to the inevitable and had taken his homesteading money both from the military and from the Folctha colonization program and had finally made his permanent home on Cimbrean: a comfortably large and well-appointed place on Persephone Lane. He and Murray insisted on calling it a bungalow, but to the rest of the Lads it was unquestionably a rambler.
He’d reluctantly accepted some input and contribution from the Lads too. Adam had crafted for him a compact but well-appointed gym perfect for his specific training regimen. Vandenberg and Sikes had assembled a deck and barbecue pit with surprising speed, and thanks to Akiyama and Blaczynski the house’s home electronics were absolutely state-of-the art. The house was almost a butler despite the teething troubles with the voice recognition software.
Persephone Lane was a short walk over from the little complex of properties that the Lads had assembled on Demeter Way. It would have been shorter still to cut across the broad green space between them that they were keeping as a kind of rough grassy park for anybody who wanted a nice open space for a soccer game or something. About a dozen guys in white were playing cricket on it, a game that Adam had finally got his head around enough to decide that he wasn’t interested.
Disinterest was no reason to disrupt a game though, so he took the long way on the sidewalk, which was where he ran into the third sign as a young mom ushered her kids across the road to get out of his way.
This was something that he usually managed to avoid. He smiled, he kept a light bounce in his step, he did his best to avoid swaggering, stomping or looming… it wasn’t perfect, but there were some pretty simple ways to downplay his immense size. Ever since his dad had taught him about watching how people moved, he’d realized that it really was movement that made people react. He could be as big as a shipping container and strong enough to crush a man’s skull with one hand, but when he moved like a carefree ray of sunshine then his presence actually seemed to delight people if they noticed at all.
He must have been moving like a thundercloud this morning because a wave of people getting out of his way rolled up the street at fifty yards which just depressed and upset him even more and when he tried to force some jollity into his step he failed miserably and instead managed something that was at best an alpha-male swagger.
Which led to the fourth sign. He got to Powell’s new house ready for the moving-in barbecue and party they were throwing for him, heard movement and voices on the deck ‘round the back and jogged round eager to be around his buddies. There were three steps up onto the deck and he was so distracted with waving and calling out greetings that he forgot to put his foot on one of the structural beams and it crunched right through the wood like the deck was made of saltine crackers.
Vandenberg helped him extract himself with some affectionate smack-talk.
“I just got this shit built an’ yer already busting it…” he grinned as Adam wiped splinters and blood off his shin.
“Every fuckin’ thing is breaking today…” Adam grumbled as he straightened up. He ignored the graze—he’d already endured far worse pain during that morning’s light PT routine.
“Yeah, my bad bro. Shoulda built it Warhorse-proof.”
“Beginning to think there’s no such thing…” Adam grumbled, adding a muttered “*¡La madre que me parió…!*” as he examined the damage. “…Sorry, man.”
“Don’t even worry about it. ‘S a quick fix and I can make it stronger’n before.” Rebar smacked him on the shoulder. “Firth’s got the barbecue going, there’s iced tea and football indoors and maybe something for that leg. And, y’know, the floor is made’a concrete.”
“Tch!” Adam laughed for the first time that day, flipped Rebar the bird then turned it into a fist bump and headed indoors.
Blaczynski laughed them moment he saw him. “Jeez. So that crash from outside was you, huh?”
“Don’t even.” Adam shook his head and hit up the pitcher of iced tea. He had to reach over Bozo to do it, and the SOR’s mammoth dog whined uncertainly in response to his bad mood, which earned him a reassuring scratch behind the ears.
“Bloody typical. Nice new house wi’ a nice new carpet an’ a nice new deck an’ he’s already smashin’ stuff and bleedin’ all over it,” Major Powell commented. He was sitting at his ease in a huge and enveloping recliner looking relaxed and happy with a drink in one hand and a drumstick in the other. He even had a rare faint smile around the eyes and mouth and he was not a man who smiled naturally. It wasn’t that he was actually bad-tempered, but something about his face was much better suited to deadpan humor and a resting expression of mild hostility. You had to know him quite well to know that he was rarely actually angry even though he looked it all the time.
“Ever had those days where it’s like you managed to piss off God and he’s getting back at you?” Adam asked. His CO huffed a one-beat silent laugh.
“Aye, I think I have,” he nodded. “Do us a favour though mate, clean up that leg before it drips.”
“I swear, your fookin’ pain tolerance…” Powell chuckled as Adam ambled easily through into the kitchen. Powell’s house had more double-width arches than door and was built to an SOR scale. For once he didn’t have to turn slightly to fit through the frame.
The kitchen turned out to be full of Burgess and Firth. Adam rounded off what had become known as the ’Beef Trio’ and suddenly the huge and spacious kitchen space was not so huge and spacious any more.
“‘Bout fuckin’ time you showed,” Base knocked knuckles with him. “What was her name?”
“I wish. Got anything for this?”
“That little ant bite? Man, I’m not wasting a Crude shot on your fuckin’ boo-boo. Paper towel, water, go. Nut up.”
“You’re all heart, Doctor Burgess.”
Baseball snorted. “Man, get your wimpy ass cleaned up.”
It wasn’t exactly a bedside manner, but it put a smile on Adam’s face and he soon had the scratches on his legs cleaned up and disinfected. Disinfectant was kind of a redundant gesture on Cimbrean, where by and large the ambient microbe count was in the same order as might be found in a good private hospital, but old habits died hard, and it helped turn the slow oozing graze into a dry scuff.
Murray and Akiyama showed up just as he returned to the sitting room and poured himself a cold drink. There was happy chatter about how well the house had turned out, the usual brotherly banter, some commentary on the Steelers defense as they lost another forty yards to the Panthers, and when Sikes—always the last to arrive to anything casual—finally showed up with the housewarming gift they’d all pitched in to pay for, Adam was starting to feel a little more positive about his day. Especially the imminent promise of one of Firth’s steak sandwiches.
The housewarming present was a painting. Sikes had found an artist on the Internet who had produced an absolutely stunning watercolor of the Yorkshire dales at sunset that swept from autumnal peaches and purples in the sky to war golden grass and loose stone walls in the foreground, via a meandering river valley dotted with trees.
It was easy to tell that Powell was moved by the gift—his face locked down completely, and he took the first chance he got to take refuge in bringing up some work-related matters.
“So, seein’ as we’re all here, I thought I’d share two bits o’ news with you…” he said, leaning the painting against the wall on his end table with a fond look.
The Lads all quietened down and listened, more out of ingrained habit than anything. Today was a relaxed day. No booze, because they were all on call, but still a party.
“So, the good news is I got a message from Hunstville yesterday that our four newbies have all passed the first leg of their Crue-D assisted training and they’ll be joinin’ us next month ready to start really becomin’ SOR. I gave Sergeant Kovač the go-ahead this morning to start preppin’ their EV-MASS suits, and we’ve taken on some new suit techs to work with ‘em. There’s another ten young men in the pipeline just startin’ their indoc, we’ll see how many of ‘em make it to Huntsville, but all told it looks like we’ll finally start fillin’ up our MTOE.”
He met Adam’s eye. “I don’t need to tell you not to go easy on ‘em, right?” he said.
Adam grinned. “Hell no.”
“That’s what I like to hear. Anyway, this next bit’s, er, officially unofficial, like. Keep this quiet ‘cause it’s not actually rubber-stamped yet, but the stamp’s bloody well inked up and raised, right?”
He pantomimed raising a stamp and preparing to bring it down hard, and there was a general affirmative muttering.
“We’re bein’ reshuffled a bit,” he said. The Lads made dismayed noises and grumbled until he waved them down. “It’s nowt that’s serious. Probably for the good in fact,” he assured them.
“Ain’t no such thing as a good reshuffle, sir,” Akiyama commented.
Powell half-shrugged. “Allied Extrasolar Command thinks there’s still a strategic need for JETS operators an’ they want to resurrect ‘em. This time the plan is that it’ll be more’n just a cert, they’ll be part of the SOR. They’re rebranding us lot-” he waved an arm to indicate every man in the room, “-as HEAT. Hazardous Environment Assault Teams. Then there’s the techs as the third component. Bit fookin’ messy but that’s what we get for makin’ shit up as we go along.”
“They found guys who’re willing to lead the way on this?” Vandenberg asked.
“Aye, they did. You never met ‘em, but everyone who was in Egypt remembers Coombes and Walsh, right?”
“Great guys,” Firth nodded. “I thought Tiny was fixin’ to take the Crude and wear the Mass?”
“Miller persuaded them to be our first JETS instead. Them and a SEAL called Hoeff.”
“Think I know Hoeff,” Firth nodded again. He knew everybody. “Didn’t he get the original JETS cert an’ then have his ass parked in Germany teaching the Krauts how to murder terrorists?”
“Aye, that sounds right.”
“So we’re gonna have a fuckin’ German babysitter in the regiment now?” Sikes almost laughed.
“Don’t knock it,” Powell warned. “Counter-terrorism experience in Germany counts for a lot nowadays.”
“Yeah, ‘cause they let all the fuckin’ terrorists in!” Blaczynski grunted. Powell held up his hand.
“Ours not to worry about the politics, mate. Besides, that’s all ancient history now. Baseball an’ Horse were still suckin’ tit an’ shittin’ themselves back then.”
“Last week?” Murray joked. There was brotherly jeering and laughter, which Adam rolled his eyes and tolerated, though he reached over and pulled the much smaller man into an affectionate crushing hug. Even Powell chuckled along.
“Anyhow, that’s the potted summary,” he finished. “I’m sure AEC’ll be sendin’ us a fookin’ tome to pore over once the idea’s got Tremblay’s scribble on the bottom, and we’ll have to somehow find room to squeeze ‘em in on the base, but I reckon it’s a sign that the Powers That Be think we’re doin’ summat right-…” he turned and frowned as the phone in his newly-set-up office rang.
“…‘Course, there’s never a dull moment is there? Save me a steak, lads…” He put his drink down and vanished.
Among his many, many talents, Christian Firth was the undisputed grandmaster of cooking the perfect steak. He had it down to something that was equal parts science and art. Several arts—he was the symphonic sultan of searing, the baron of browning, the Maharaja of Medium Rare. Firth could cook a steak that made every vegan in a thousand meter radius have a crisis of faith.
Of course, like everything he was good at, he knew he was good at it and took pride in being not merely good, but the best. He also promised to smash any bottles of steak sauce he laid eyes on.
He vanished outside with promises to excel himself and confident declarations about how the steaks were prepared and ready, how the grill was perfect, and so on. Adam—whose stomach ranked second or third on his list of his favorite organs—had to resist the urge to drool. He joined in the chatter and banter half-heartedly, keeping an eye out the glass doors as he watched the master work and vowed that one day, one day he would complete his studies under the sensei of sizzle.
In short order the meat was seared, flipped, seared, probed, whipped out of the fire and rested. The Knife—and it was always The Knife, with capital letters—was produced, whisked briskly across the steel, and the rested beef was efficiently sliced into juicy glistening pinkish strips and laid out in a row like the croupier in a James Bond movie dealing the flop.
Beaming the fearsome grin of a man who knew he’d outdone himself, Firth reverently delivered his creation to his waiting comrades, and it was at that precise moment that the day decided to really kick Adam solidly in the balls.
“Okay lads, party’s over! We’ve got a fookin’ mission…”
Date Point 10y10m2w3d AV
HMS Valiant, En route to Crzlrfek System, The Freedom Stars
Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač
“…But you still got to eat the steak, right?”
“Well yeah, but by the time Stainless had finished briefing us it had gone cold!”
“It was still good though, right?”
“But it wasn’t as good!”
Marty gave him a stern look as she closed up Titan’s life support pack and handed it to one of the suit techs. “Well gee wiz, I’m so sorry about the pea in your fifty mattresses, princess.”
Adam’s eyebrows came down in the specific frown he used whenever a reference went over his head. “Huh?”
“…Fuck a duck,” Marty grunted, feeling a little disgusted in him. “You don’t even know that story?”
“Is this that Kipling guy again?”
“Is it-? No! No it’s not! Jesus!”
Now came his other expression, which was much the same as might be worn by a scolded puppy that wasn’t sure what it had done wrong but was very sorry nevertheless. Marty knew that it was completely guileless and un-malicious but with nine suit life support units to prep and sign off on, she was not in the mood right now.
“I should read that stuff, huh?” he asked.
“What you should do is let me concentrate, or do you have a sudden fetish for breathing CO2 that you never told me about?”
Scolded-puppy turned into kicked-puppy and he muttered something affirmative and went to check his mission gear again, leaving Martina to feel a touch guilty. Only a touch though—he really should know better than to distract her during the most critical phase of suit assembly.
For fuck’s sake, he was an intelligent guy, too! In fact when he was in his element, he was a genius. She wouldn’t have looked at him twice if he’d been genuinely as dumb as he sometimes acted, but when he was being dumb, he was dumb.
It wasn’t just the literature thing. Honestly, she could forgive him for not knowing his Rudyard Kipling from his Hans Christian Andersen: Something about his life story suggested that bedtime stories had not featured in the daily routine of little Adam Arés, whereas Martina’s father had first read ’Rikki Tikki Tavi’ to her at the age of four.
It was the sheer number and size of his blind spots that bothered her. She’d once seen him deliberately but with seeming innocence change course and tap an apparently random guy on the shoulder. He’d shaken his head and the guy had gone pale and made himself scarce. She’d asked him why, and Adam had stated with perfect confidence that the guy was stalking an ex-girlfriend, and had pointed out the oblivious gal in question.
He had a strange kind of interpersonal hyperopia that he seemed chronically unable to diagnose. He could spot somebody else’s creepy stalker ex from thirty yards away on a crowded street and yet still be completely blind to his own faulty behaviour. It was a conundrum. One that a degree of academic education that shamed most physicians had done absolutely nothing to equip her for solving.
Speaking of which…
She forced him out of her thoughts and directed her attention fully onto what she was doing. Nine valuable lives were in her hands, this was no time to allow herself to be distracted. What they were going into could plausibly become dangerous enough anyway, they damn well weren’t going to get hurt because of her.
The job was not being helped by the cramped confines of HMS *Valiant*’s tiny flight deck where the Techs were working butt-to-butt, elbow-to-elbow and by leaning around one another. If ‘Horse hadn’t needed to be present so Hargreaves and Doyle could sew him into his undersuit, in fact, she’d have told him to get the hell off the deck and make some room.
The crowding problem got even more acute when Major Powell bustled in from the direction of the CIC.
“Fall in, lads.” He lifted his voice above the hubbub without shouting, a neat trick that Martina wished she could do. She listened with half an ear as she checked the catalyst baffles in the next pack.
He looked strangely happy about something as the operators gathered round. “So. AEC’s worried that if we just grab the HVT clean and pleasant-like, we’ll have the Dominion callin’ on us every time they smell Celzi. So, we’ve been authorised, nay encouraged, to go full ham on this one.”
Feral grins all round welcomed this pronouncement.
“Now obviously we’re not monsters, and we’ll damn well remember the Law of Armed Combat, but we’re settin’ out to completely fookin’ terrify the leadership on both sides. If we do it right we might just persuade the Celzi to settle the fook down, and the Dominion to think twice before they call us. That means the officers get no mercy. Spare the conscripts if you can so long as they don’t try an’ be a stupid bloody hero, but today’s our day to give the Dominion and the Alliance a demonstration in just how dangerous we really are. Understood?”
There were “Yes sir!”s from the Lads, and several of the techs traded knowing looks and got out of their way as best they could in the crowded space to let them really get in the warrior headspace.
Marty had… got used to seeing them like this. When the adrenaline started pounding and the testosterone started flowing, they let themselves fall into an older, more sanguine place where the killers lived.
The first time she’d seen it, she’d learned of a new and hitherto unsuspected kind of machismo. A strangely silent one that had nothing to do with noise or posturing, and everything to do with contact. Body contact, eye contact, contact between brother souls. It was quiet, and intimate in a way that she knew she would never experience but was entirely certain she never wanted to.
She could watch their eyes harden and cool as they committed to their professional personas. Like watching a knife emerge from its soft leather sheath, something cold and deadly emerged from under the kind barriers they put up both to protect it and to protect from it.
She was used to seeing them this way… but when The Lads, whom she cared for both personally and professionally, stepped back from themselves and became weapons instead then it was hard not to be a little scared for them.
And hard not to feel sorry for the ETs they were about to unleash themselves on.
Date Point 10y10m2w3d AV
Hyperbolic trajectory, Crzlrfek System, The Freedom Stars
”Valiant says T minus two mikes.”
Ten percent of lightspeed was a useful balance point. It was slow enough to be feasibly reached by a ship using some tricky warp field manipulations, and yet by the standards of any physical system it was absurdly fast, far too fast for any realistic interception that wasn’t warp-based in its own right. It was slow enough that the gamma-t was so tiny as to only matter to the computers, which could compensate, and far above the escape velocity of the Crzlrfek system’s obese orange star.
Most importantly, however, it was enough to give absolutely any object no matter how light an incredible amount of kinetic energy… and the General Electric GAU-8/S Equalizer mounted on a Firebird could fire seventy “objects” a second.
Dominion and Alliance naval doctrine both stressed the value of directed energy-on-target. In this regard, a Firebird coasting on a hyperbolic orbit at a tenth of lightspeed was the indisputable king.
But of course, from several light-hours away, all of that firepower was worthless.
Of course, this particular maneuver had never been attempted for real. For all they knew they were about to run smack into some kind of overpowered alien forcefield gizmo with much the same consequences as were felt by insects that strayed onto a highway.
It would all happen so fast that the pilots and their WSOs on HUGINNs one and two, and their comrades providing eyes over on MUNINN ONE and MUNINN TWO, would get only the swiftest impression of the incredible energies they were about to unleash. Everything had been calculated down to the millisecond.
”Ten seconds. Til Valhal!”
Silence before the violence.
Date Point 10y10m2w3d AV
Crzlrfek System, The Freedom Stars
Alpha of the Brood Of A Million Teeth
The Alpha was forced to replay the sensor data in extreme slow motion to make sense of what it had witnessed, and on doing so it utterly forgot to guard its thoughts.
<Stunned awe; disbelief>
It rewound the data and played it again, even slower. There was the knot of defensive batteries that had frustrated it for several days. Four space stations spread out in a line, placed so that when the prize they guarded was not beneath them, it was beneath some other bodyguard of orbital batteries. Any ship that decloaked near them was inviting immediate obliteration.
Hunters hated to abandon a Hunt, but the Alpha was old and wily and knew better than to let pride get it killed. So it had sat, and watched, and waited for a window of opportunity. It had been on the verge of deciding that there would never be such a window.
And then the batteries had been destroyed.
The timing of it was what stunned the Alpha the most. There was a strong ping on the FTL wake sensors far out in the system’s outer halo, as of a few small ship approaching at incredible apparent speeds.
So fast, in fact, that their FTL transit lasted for less than a second. They had landed doing a respectable proportion of the universal causality limit, and had departed again at those same savage FTL speeds… but in their wake they had left a cloud of dumb kinetic projectiles that flashed through the defense satellites’ orbit with enough fierce energy that each one that struck home released the kind of energy normally only seen in fission warheads. The four defense stations ceased to exist before they even properly knew that they were under attack.
For any Hunter, witnessing violence on such an overwhelming scale was practically a religious experience, but the attackers had only made their first opening move. The strike craft must have dropped jump beacons as they came in, because the sky was suddenly full of ships.
And what ships! Small, dark, so sleek that the probing radiation of the ground batteries as they tried to get a lock just slid off like water on oiled steel. The tormented and rippling fabric of space twisted some more and disgorged metal rods that were already falling on precise re-entry trajectories that would drill them hard into the reinforced fabric of the ground facility that the Alpha had pondered for so long. Anything unfortunate enough to be caught beneath that tungsten rain was doomed.
It spun around and began to issue commands with all the fervour it had. <Exultation; Glee> +Humans! The humans are here! This is our chance! Ready the brood for battle!+
The Brood Of A Million Fangs did not fear defeat, nor death. They existed for violence, and violence had come to them and exposed its throat.
They would bite, they would fight, and even if they all died, they would live.
+MEAT TO THE MAW!!!+
Date Point 10y10m2w3d AV
Falling towards the ground, planet Crzlrfek, Crzlrfek System, The Freedom Stars
EV-MASS was a spacesuit, and that meant glare protection to guard the eyes from maybe having to look toward the sun without even the meager protection of atmosphere. That meant that when a dozen bright flares lit up below them as the RFG strikes hit, Stainless didn’t even blink.
Nor did Starfall. ”VALIANT, STARFALL. Orbital strike on target, well hit.”
Plummeting toward the ground with no parachute, and he still managed to make the report with perfect ice coolness. It was no less than Stainless expected of him, but he still couldn’t help but feel impressed. The HELLNO jump—Baseball’s nickname for it had stuck even though none of them could come up with a suitable backronym—wasn’t exactly a stress-free situation, especially when they hit the tropopause and fell into boiling air.
That was Rebar, watching their altitude. They could all see it, but Exo-Atmospheric Reentry jumps had a protocol now. They all remembered what had happened to Sergeant Stevenson.
The dust was clearing, and Stainless had a good view of the compound below. A lot of it was collapsed, on fire or both but he could see what looked like two breaches into the tunnels and basements that were the bulk of the facility.
“REBAR, HIGHLAND, STARFALL, TITAN and WARHORSE will land north east corner of the courtyard,” he declared. “RIGHTEOUS, SNAPFIRE, BASEBALL and STAINLESS will land south side. Remember, spare the conscripts if you can.”
*”Angels Three, pop ‘em!*”
They hit their EAR field emitter controls and the protective cocoon of forcefields that had shielded them from the searing plasma of re-entry found a new shape. Wide invisible wings of nothing but electrostatic wizardry zipped out around them and arrested their fall until they were coming in no harder than an ordinary parachute descent and without the awkward flapping mass of a ‘chute to control and shed once they were on the ground.
They hit the ground running with their weapons up and leading the way. It seemed nobody who had been unfortunate enough to stand outdoors during the bombardment was left alive: The overpressure had pulped them. Thank God for their helmets, because the smell must have been incredible.
Righteous led the way through the southern breach into the complex’s basements, his gun spoke a rhyming triplet, and they followed in after him.
If the target thought he’d seen overwhelming force already, he was sorely mistaken.
Date Point 10y10m2w3d AV
Celzi Alliance command facility, Crzlrfek System, The Freedom Stars
Warmaster Trez Ekrat
Ekrat had always thought the stories about humans were exaggerations. The stories of them bounding across the battlefield and slaying Vulza single-handedly were exaggerations. They had to be. Didn’t they?
But those stories were nothing next to the reality. There were nine humans loose in his compound, and they were death. They ignored the wounded, the dying and the cowardly but if any of Ekrat’s soldiers raised a weapon then that soldier died with neither mercy nor cruelty. Kinetic pulse fire fluttered harmlessly against them like paper on the wind.
A force of nature was coming for him and he had no idea how to stop it. He had no idea how it had even happened. His orbital defenses had simply vanished, scoured out of the sky with a contemptuous swipe of some unknowably powerful weapon. His ground fortifications had been smashed flat and now annihilation was sweeping through his facility and there was nothing he could do about it.
Nothing except gather his dignity and wait. He watched on the screen as his best Celzi commandos sprang an ambush on the humans that achieved exactly nothing. The thickly armored deathworlder whom they targeted just ignored five heavy pulse guns smacking into him, and pounced.
Ekrat had to look away. It was sickening to know that something was coming for him that could do that so easily.
He spared a last despairing once-over for his instruments and froze.
If what his instruments were telling him was accurate, then the humans suddenly didn’t seem so bad.
Date Point 10y10m2w3d AV
HMS Violent, orbiting planet Crzlrfek, Crzlrfek System, The Freedom Stars
Commodore William Caruthers
“…Now just where in the bloody hell did they come from?”
It was a strangely calm question to ask of a hunter Broodship, and Caruthers had asked it in an almost distracted way.
“They were tailing the defense platforms, cloaked… It looks like they’re ignoring us and going for the ground facility.”
“Smart. They must know by now that they can’t catch our ships so they’ve chosen the easier prey… Send a couple of Firebirds over there to kill the bastards, would you?”
“Yes sir…They’ve already launched their raiding shuttles.”
“Hmm. Is there any hope of intercepting all of them?”
“Not likely, sir. The Broodship is screening for them. I think they’re sacrificing it.”
Caruthers stood up and considered. The problem that the larger ship presented by screening the smaller ones was that it had sown gravity spikes around it which rendered the superluminal guns effectively useless. At those ranges the rounds were so impossibly slow that the slightest powered deflection by the Hunter ship would result in an outright miss. The Firebirds were going to have to attack from a circuitous angle, too. The master of that particular ship was a wily one.
And either fearless or suicidal. The Hunters had to know what they were up against here, surely?
He got on comms. “STAINLESS, RED SHIELD. We just had a Hunter broodship decloak up here and it’s already sending shuttles your way. What’s your status?”
Powell’s reply was about ten seconds in coming, and when it did he sounded terse. More so than usual. ”RED SHIELD, STAINLESS. Copy that. HVT secured alive. Request Hearthstone.”
For whatever reason, that particular brevity code always generated some amusement even in tense situations. Hearthstone was the quick way home for the Operators: deploy their portable jump array, set it to self-destruct once they were all through, and ride a wormhole to their preprogrammed destination.
Caruthers wasn’t sure what was so funny about it.
In any case, it was a sensible call. The fleet had orbital superiority but that was going to be of precious little use when all those Hunter shuttles touched down and disgorged their passengers, and there were a lot of shuttles. The SOR were more than a match for any Hunter, but numbers could provide all the mass the cannibalistic alien freaks needed to overwhelm them.
“Copy, STAINLESS. Hearthstone authorized.”
And that was that. A tense and humming kind of quiet suffused the CIC, broken only by precise updates and the susurrus that fell on any ship during a calm interlude in the fighting.
They had done all they could: everything was out of their hands now.
Date Point 10y10m2w3d AV
Celzi Alliance command facility, Crzlrfek System, The Freedom Stars
Hunters could be shockingly fast. In the minutes since the freakshow had landed on them, the greasy alien fucks had flooded through the base like water.
To which the appropriate response was to flood back. You didn’t try and dam the tide or stand in front of it like a rock, because that just got you washed away. You applied firepower, and you moved.
‘Horse’s armor had already stopped one hit. Some big fat heavy Hunter round had skipped off the concrete wall he’d been using for cover and struck his arm at a shallow angle. He had some ammo left, he had some grenades left. He knew exactly how many, but numbers didn’t enter into it. Thought didn’t enter into it: the knowledge was just there.
Reality was simple: Aggression versus aggression. Move. Kill. Get target. Move. Find team. Leave. Warhorse was not a thinking man at that moment: He was a Brother, among Brothers, grappling with evil in the dark.
Muscle memory, animal impulse, Mission: get target. Move. Hunters in the way? Kill. Clear the obstacle. Secure the flank. The thought was there, but the words only came when needed. Otherwise, he lived in a place of blood and rocks and splintered bones that men had known long before fire or the wheel had come along to paint them with a brittle veneer of civilization.
Warhorse was a killer, Hunters were weak. Puny. Red Hunter, ambush. Too close, teeth and claws. Tackle, stomp, check target. Target secure, keep moving.
Dizzy for a moment. Roll to cover, check limbs, check weapon, check brothers. Check target.
The Celzi was a crumpled mess. Off-color alien blood was oozing out of at least three of his eyes, and he really wasn’t supposed to bend that way. He was still trying to breathe, but…
Warhorse stepped back and Adam, the medic, stepped into his place. This was a moment for the rational human brain to step in, the bit that was more than intuition and trained operant conditioning.
But he was still assessing for triage when a white disk the size of a poker chip landed in front of him, flashing yellow. Both he and Murray were in the nervejam’s lethal radius.
Warhorse took over again.
++END CHAPTER 32++