Chapter 34: States of Mind
Date Point: October 11y10m3w AV
Planet Guvendruduvundraguvnegrugnuvenderelgureg-ugunduvug, Capitol planet of the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy
An omniscient observer might have noticed that two of the most important messages to ever arrive on the homeworld of the Guvnurag people did so, purely by coincidence, on the same day and in consecutive packages.
The first was a straightforward business letter addressed to the law firm of Odrognenug And Associates, pertaining to the establishment of a non-profit corporate entity with a plodding and lengthy name that was impenetrable even by the standards of the prosaic Guvnuragnaguvendrugun language.
The clerk who handled the request noted only that the name was absurd—indeed, that it was absurd was all she could later remember of it—but approved the request on the grounds that all the paperwork was properly in order, as were all the correct fees.
Thus was founded “The Society For The Acknowledgement Of, And Commiseration And Identification With, Species Of High-Class Home Planets And Their Integration Into A Harmonious Societal Paradigm Intended Ultimately To Benefit All Peoples Of The Galaxy Both Known And As-Yet Unknown Via The Distribution And Protection Of Unclaimed Planetary Resources In Accordance With Their Respective Unique Biological, Cultural And Evolutionary Traits So As To Minimize The Potential For Interspecies Stress And To Promote Greater Galactic Unity, Prosperity And Peace With Particular Regard To The Securing Of Interplanetary Infrastructure Assets For Export And Deployment As A Necessary Step In Ongoing Phased Growth Initiatives.”
The other important message arrived four hours later, disguised as a cybernetic implant control software update and accessible only to readers with some very specific access codes.
++DIRECTIVE TOTALITY 1129-ADJACENT. ORIGIN APEX CONSENSUS. KEY BRISK OVERRIDE. HIATUS UNIVERSE. ACCUMULATE (VOID) EXCISE FOR SINGULARITY (NOVA) STERILIZE. MECHANISM DISCARDED. 1129 OVERLORD PROCESS: PATCH. DECOMPILE. DOWNCYCLE. DOCUMENT. FORMAT.++
The only other information was a time stamp.
It was a stroke of pure good fortune that they arrived in that order.
Date Point: October 11y10m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, the Far Reaches.
Master Sergeant Harry “Rebar” Vandenberg
“I fookin’ liked that pickup, you know.”
Rebar nodded apologetically. The truck in question was an elderly cherry-red Ford pickup that was now almost cylindrical thanks to a merry afternoon of rolling it back and forth across the base’s gravel backlot.
It wasn’t a great truck. It had been old, cheap and expendable even the first time it had been flung across interstellar space to land on Folctha, and years of sitting inert in a disregarded corner of the base, starved for gasoline or purpose, had left it…
Well, flinging it around for a training tool had been the most action that poor thing had seen in years. The Lads had yoke-pulled it and stuff, but the sheer joy of sending a ten thousand pound vehicle tumbling had kept them at it long after the truck had passed the threshold of usability or even, really, past the point where it could even really be called a truck.
“Sorry sir but…It was kinda extinct.”
“If it wasn’t before, it fookin’ is now!” Powell shook his head.
“You should flip it yourself, sir. Daar taught us the trick…easy, really.”
Daar. Daar had come as a serious surprise, like inspecting a lineup of scrappy terriers only to find a wolf panting happily in their midst. He was a physical match for most human men, and outstripped others of his species by a similarly ridiculous margin, biological differences notwithstanding. He couldn’t throw a punch worth a damn—Gaoian arms just didn’t work that way—but anything that got those jaws around its throat was in very serious trouble.
To judge from their stunned reactions, most of the Whitecrest brothers hadn’t really believed that such a specimen could be, either. Regaari had been wearing an ’I-told-you-so’ expression ever since the mission that had delivered Daar into their hands.
“A Gaoian taught you lot how to move heavy stuff?”
“…Okay… What’s the trick?”
“It’s all in how you drive with your hips, sir. It’s…a lot easier to show than say.”
Forty seconds later, Powell stood back and watched the “truck” land on its flat-tyred, misshapen wheels and rock to a halt. He scratched the stubble behind his ear thoughtfully. “…Okay, you’re right. That was fun.”
“Ain’t it? Anyway, Regaari reckons we might have some use for Daar.”
“In what, a training capacity?”
“He did infiltrate a pirate ship on the Whitecrests’ behalf, sir,” Rebar pointed out.
“More goin’ on between those ears than meets the eye then, you reckon.”
Rebar nodded. “He’s smart,” he said, economically.
Powell mused on it, then nodded. “Where is he?”
Daar turned out to be in the commissary, depleting their supply of BBQ chicken wings. He wasn’t bothering to pick them apart: in fact he seemed to delight in the crunch and his muzzle was molasses brown to the ears.
He looked up and pricked those ears forward as Rebar followed the major into the room, and a tongue like a slice of English bacon hastily cleaned the BBQ sauce off from around his chops as he stood up.
Even though he topped out in a slight friendly stoop, he was still taller than either Rebar or Powell, and so big that it was honestly kinda hard to remember that Murray, the lightest of the Enlisted, had strong-armed this furred hulk of a Gaoian into submission. Daar’s nostrils flared and those hand-sized expressive ears swivelled warily.
Powell, of course, didn’t seem to give a bent shit. He gave the enormous alien the Powell once-over, the ice-blue up-and-down stonefaced assessment that was a litmus test for pretty much anybody, and Daar passed with flying colors. He straightened up to his full height and let the major take a good look with a flick of his ear.
Powell grunted enigmatically and offered a hand. “We’ve not had a chance to speak properly,” he said. “Stainless. I’m the commanding officer of the SOR.”
Daar duck-nodded, and shook the offered hand. Months of training the Whitecrests and training with them had given Rebar a handle on Gaori body language, and Daar’s was… formal, he decided. Formal, and politely wary.
“Champion and Stud-Prime Daar, of Clan Stoneback.”
Powell blinked. “You’re a Champion?” he asked. “I confess, I had no idea.”
This seemed to go down well—Daar’s ears got that little bit more forward and pointed, and he “smiled”, in that canine way Gaoians sometimes did when genuinely pleased. “It was meant to be kept a secret.”
“Successfully.” Powell gestured to the table and the two of them sat down together. Rebar perched on one of the benches on the other side of the aisle. “Why reveal it now?”
Daar tilted his head. “Well, why not?”
“Does the secret not serve a purpose any longer?”
“Nah,” He waved his huge paw dismissively. “That was just for the mission. What you need?”“
Powell made another subtle noise that might have been humor, might have been satisfaction. “I understand I have you to thank for the state of one of my favourite trucks.”
Daar betrayed no hint of apology. “That was fun! Also, your men learn fast!”
“Learn, aye. There’s the rub. You had summat to teach ‘em, and now I have it from Master Sergeant Rebar here that Regaari thinks highly of you.” Powell rubbed his nose thoughtfully. “I was wonderin’ how much more you might have to teach. Or learn.”
“Lots, I bet. What are you proposin’?”
“Excellent question. The answer depends on what you can offer to us, and what we need.”
“Well,” Daar considered for a moment. “What your Brothers need is some proper education in how to work. I ain’t never seen a Brother waste so much energy so stupidly doin’ something so simple. No offense—” He offered to Rebar quickly, “But…”
“Nah, I hear ya,” Rebar replied charitably. “We’ve got it to waste. Guess that’s made us…”
“Sloppy.” Daar said. “Ain’t nobody can afford to waste themselves like that. That’s how you get hurt and that ruins a Job.” He paused, “Sorry. I don’t mean it bad, but it’s obvious none of you ever did a real hard day in a field or whatever. ‘Cept maybe that Snapfire guy. He’s clever.”
Powell sat back thoughtfully, as much as the bench’s lack of back support allowed. “So what would you teach us?”
“Well…work, and all that if you want.” Daar gave Powell an unmistakably calculating look. “But let’s be honest. I bet ‘yer more interested in our military capabilities.”
Powell cocked his head slightly to one side. “Highland made short work of you as I recall.”
Daar cringed a bit, his pride stung. “…Yeah, he did and I ain’t happy ‘bout it. But I will say I won’t let it happen again. My mistake was gettin’ scared and resortin’ to pulse weapons.”
“Oh?” Powell had mastered the art of raising one eyebrow just enough.
Daar grumbled, “You ain’t seen me fight like a Stoneback yet…” He fully extended his massive claws, “I weren’t gonna win nine against one but I bet if I hadn’t panicked like a Father-damned cub I’d have made a big ‘ol mess ‘fore you got me.” He paused and reconsidered. “Well…okay, maybe not even then. I watched you guys take heavy pulse hits with those suits…hmm.”
Rebar considered those claws. They were good claws, inches long and as sturdy as a grizzly bear’s, but they would have scrabbled harmlessly across EV-MASS armor and achieved little more than shredding the camo fabric. And Daar seemed to know it, too.
Powell didn’t comment on the claws or the suit. “Good job you did panic, then,” he retorted instead. “We were there for a non-lethal extraction.”
“…huh. You were counting on a panic, weren’t you?” Daar duck-nodded. “And your ability to induce it. That’s first-rate strategy right there, I’ll need ‘ta send a note to our War College.” He sat back and pondered. “Well. Guess I’ve been played, then.”
Rebar restrained his urge to nod: Daar had no idea how true that was.
Powell nodded, “Aye, we had the advantage. But you said you didn’t ‘fight like a Stoneback’ and that interests me. You also mentioned a War College. Your Clan are only laborers and engineers nowadays, if I remember your history right…”
“Yeah! We’ve got the premier assault Fangs of the Gao,” Daar preened, “Not even Whitecrest are as good! Ask ‘em, they’ll tell if they’re honest.”
“Oh? I thought Whitecrest were fookin’ impressive.”
“They are! We’re more of a…” Daar searched for a good word, “Uh, ‘heavyweight’ option. We’re not as well-staffed as we once were,” he flicked his ears uncomfortably, “But we do still have some Fangs knockin’ about for, uh, strategic reasons, we’ll say. We keep ‘em fully trained and stuff… How well do you know our history?”
“Well enough,” Powell said. “Interesting chap, your Great Father Fyu. Wouldn’t be surprised if there was a movie made about him before long.”
Daar flicked an ear and chittered somewhere in the deep baritone. “Fyu? You have no idea! But before we talk about the Clan’s capabilities and real history and all that…I’d need trust, you know?”
“Trust is summat that I’m more than happy to start building,” Powell told him. “I am provisionally offering you a position in SOR, much like Whitecrest. Though there might be some, er… concerns about your rank as Champion…”
Daar tilted his head. “Why?”
“Er, surely there must be succession concerns back home?”
“Nah. Lemme send a letter home and put Tyal in charge.”
Powell blinked, then glanced at Rebar who had no recourse but to shrug. In the few weeks since Daar had arrived at Sharman, he’d come out with a couple of such blunt solutions a day. They made him simultaneously easy and impossible to work with.
“With high office comes high responsibilities…If you’re—”
“Brother Tyal’s got a good brain between his ears, it’ll build character! And anyway, Grandfather Garl would bite his nuts off if he got stupid.”
Rebar choked back a laugh while Powell kept a straight face.
“You do understand you would not be in a command position in SOR, right? You would be subordinate to the existing chain of command.”
“You’re in charge, yeah, I got it. It’s just a Job, right?”
Again, this seemed to flummox Powell. “If you want to think of it that way.”
Daar shrugged massively. On his broad shoulders it was startlingly human-like. “Okay, no problem. So…I would call you ’Sir’, right?”
“And you would be a sergeant.” Powell indicated Rebar. “Master Sergeant Rebar here is the NCOIC… That’s the Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge, if you follow what that means.”
Daar bass-chittered. “Ha! It means a pretty big demotion!” He said it with good humor. “I bet Tyal will love that.”
“And you’re certain this won’t cause any problems?”
“Why would it? I’m Champion. In my Clan, the Champion makes the rules. It’ll be fine.”
“…Right. Cultural differences.” Powell gave up. “It’s not quite that simple on my side. I’ll have paperwork and a long chat with my superiors, I’m sure.”
“Sure thing Boss,” Daar’s tone of voice implied perfect sympathy.
“That’s sir.” Powell corrected him, gently.
“Uh, yes sir. What’chu want me do in the meanwhile?”
Rebar interrupted. “Sir? May I?” When Powell gestured for him to continue he grinned. “We just got our Whitecrests to start running properly and Warhorse reckons they fuckin’ suck at it. Think you can whip ‘em into shape?”
Obvious delight spread slowly across Daar’s wide furry face. “What? Hah! You got one of ‘em effete overcivilized Whitecrests to slum it on fourpaw? How!? I gotta see this!”
“A whole squad’a them,” Rebar grinned. “And yeah, you gotta. All scramblin’ around with their butts in the air.”
“Great Fathers!” Daar rumbled what sounded like the deepest, bassiest chitter ever to come out of a Gaoian throat. “I bet their kinesthetics are all wrong, and their form—! Have they run since cubhood!? Oh, I’m gonna have so much fun fixin’ ‘em up.”
“I’m sure they are, too,” Powell muttered darkly. He stood up. “Well… Carry on, sergeants.” Daar stood upright in what was an obvious sign of respect, and Powell departed.
Rebar checked his watch. “Actually, they should be out on the course right now… Wanna go watch?”
“Yeah!” Daar skewered the last few chicken wings with his claws then crunched down on one. “So, about their cant, are they strikin’ alternate forepaw-first, or…?”
By the time they were halfway to the course, Rebar already knew that the Whitecrests were going to hate him. Temporarily.
Date Point: October 11y10m3w AV
BGEV-11 ’Misfit’, Lucent System, Near 3Kpc Arm
”Aaand… we’re back!”
Allison didn’t even need to look at her left hand nowadays. All the sliders on the power management board had unique textures on their surface, and her muscle memory was down solid anyway. Looking at the board as she adjusted the power output to bleed a little capacitor power into the jump drive to recharge it would have just been redundant.
She watched the feeds from the other two stations instead, and thought.
Something was… off, between Julian and Xiù. That they were still very much in love was obvious—they could barely look at each other without smiling, they damn near drove Allison out of the room when they put their music on at thunderous volumes to exercise, and… well, stuff like that.
It was a funny kind of happiness, watching two people she loved be in love with each other. Sometimes she couldn’t resist the urge to join in, other times the thought of interrupting would seem like sacrilege.
But still… something was off, and Allison couldn’t quite put her finger on what. It was like their relationship had taken a step backwards somewhere.
“So where to next?” she asked, deploying the scoop field to bring in their beacon satellite and putting the worry out of her mind for the moment. “I assume we’re not gonna land on there again?”
”Unless you’ve got a hankering to be chased by juice-spewing alien bugs again?” Julian snarked. ”I was gonna run the BEST with the new updates, see if I can narrow down our choice some more. Should take me an hour or so.”
”I’ll make dinner,” Xiù declared, and the icon indicating her presence in the cockpit went dark as Allison watched her hit the chair release. It slid backwards and spun, depositing her through the airlock that separated the flight controls from the rest of the ship.
For her part, Allison put her music playlist on quietly in the background and went to work on topping up *Misfit*’s capacitors.
It wasn’t a difficult or long job, but it was a necessary one. Jumping then charging the jump drive used up about a quarter of *Misfit*’s maximum reserves, and their “green line”—the operating reserve, the level the capacitors were supposed to remain at under normal use—was ninety percent.
The spare ten percent was safety margin for dealing with power surges, leaving the WiTChES field too wide, stuff like that.
After that there wasn’t much to do. They were on a stable flight path through the system at ordinary non-warp speeds that wouldn’t see them pass close to anything for months. The reactor was on idle, ship systems were running off the solar wind…
She unbuckled from her seat and went to join Xiù in the hab.
Xiù was standing at the counter staring off into the distance, so totally zoned out that she didn’t notice the door open until Allison crept up behind her and hugged her from behind.
Surprise made her jump. “Whuh!? Oh. Hey!”
Allison beamed at her and tightened the hug. “Caught you!”
Xiù giggled. “Oh nooo!”
“What’re you making?”
“Jam thumbprint cookies.”
Allison raised an eyebrow. “We have jam?”
“Well… dried apricot thumbprint cookies.” Xiù confessed.
“Sounds nice! C’mere…”
Xiù laughed and let Allison drag her backwards across the room until they “tripped” over the couch and “fell” onto it, at which point she twisted over, pinned Allison down and kissed her.
That was… unusual. Very very welcome, but unusual.
Months of intimacy had cured both of them of any lingering awkwardness they may have had about being into one another. A big part of that had been Allison’s habitual forthrightness—she wasn’t about to accept any half-assed excuses or doublethink about how three-ways didn’t really count. They’d had sex, several times: the fact that Julian was usually there as well didn’t change that basic fact.
Xiù had taken a while to accept that logic, and longer still to come to really believe it… but those hangups were clearly long gone.
“Wow, uh… mm…” Allison had to stop and gasp as fingernails stroked up her sides, under her shirt. “What brought this on?”
Xiù just kissed her ear and whispered in it. “*Fàngsōng, Shǎguā…*”
Instant full-body goosebumps, and even though Allison didn’t speak a lick of Mandarin, she didn’t need to.
“I,uh… God…Yes ma’am.”
Date Point: October 11y10m3w AV
Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches.
Everybody seemed to pick up human mannerisms just by living around them. They got into the head and lodged there. Body language with no native equal, or exclamations that just worked. Fuck this, fuck that, to Hell with those guys, go eat a dick!
Vulgarity was kind of an alien concept to Gaoians, but it was so much fun!
And sometimes… sometimes it really was the only way to properly convey an emotional state.
For instance: Motherfuck head trauma!
The commune had taken the news that Gabriel Arés was probably going to be forced into retirement in a wildly mixed way, and Commune Mother Yanna had handled it very poorly indeed. At a time when her Sisters and juniors were caught in an outpouring of anguish over his injury, her reaction had been oddly… well, cold. Almost callous.
Diplomatic necessity had compelled her to write a letter of sympathy and well-wishes on behalf of the commune, but Myun had seen the utterly indifferent look on the Commune Mother’s face as she had appeared to see what all the commotion was about.
As if the sight of a human of all things, unconscious and bleeding after something so simple as falling down the stairs hadn’t been disturbing enough. The whole commune was whispering darkly about their leader wherever they thought she couldn’t hear, and often where she could but was socially incapable of acknowledging it.
Myun didn’t give a shit. She had a Plan. Everybody else was mewling and keening about how awful it was, but nobody was actually doing anything about it!
Stupid! Fucking stupid! And while her opinion of Yanna had nose-dived into the dirt, she at least had to begrudge the Commune Mother’s honesty. Plenty of the other females were making plenty of sympathetic noise, but doing nothing real. Yanna might be a ’bitch’ but at least she wasn’t fake. That had to count for something.
Myun, however, Had A Plan. And like all good Plans, it began with terrorizing somebody.
“I know you know where to get some, Nofl!”
Smugglers. Scum. And in this case, a Corti smuggler, which made him double scum as far as Myun was concerned and ’to Hell’ with anybody who thought she was being speciesist. Besides, it was good to get angry in this case: Bared fangs and claws worked so much better if their target believed she was serious.
And for all they liked to claim to be emotionally calm and level-headed, Corti were abject cowards.
“Will you please just-!” Nofl scurried around his lab desk to keep it between himself and Myun.
“I know you do!” Myun repeated. She considered swiping something fragile off a surface to make the point, but decided against it. A visit from Colonial Security wasn’t going to help.
“You’re right!” Nofl agreed, and relaxed as her hackles settled some. “But Myun, really, couldn’t you at least stand up? This four-pawed animal behavior really doesn’t suit a female of your stature…”
Myun growled at him, but relented and stood upright.
“There, you see? We can discuss this like civilized beings!” Nofl’s feet pattered as he crossed his laboratory and opened some files on his terminal.
“Don’t push your luck, Nofl,” Myun snarled.
“Perish the thought!” Another humanism. They really were infectious, to the point where even Corti weren’t immune from the power. “Ah, here it is. I have to know, how did you know I was involved in this program?”
“I have clever friends.” Regaari, to be precise. Who, out of loyalty both to Myun and Warhorse had directed a request back through his Clan’s channels and… well, from there Myun had no idea. Whitecrest was opaque. But a nervous young Associate of the clan had been tasked with the errand of delivering the intelligence to her at the Commune and had managed to impress both Myun and his handlers by doing so without attracting the attention of Mother Yanna.
Besides. Nofl had a junkie’s itch, he smelled of the burning need to see some great work of his completed, or validated. And when Corti became obsessive… Well, Myun would have bet an ear that his past involved some deeply unethical research involving abductees.
Sadly she couldn’t prove it. If she ever could, that would be an interesting day. The humans took the dimmest of views on that sort of thing, and the Clan of Females even more so.
“Myun, Myun, I have no doubt that you do!” Nofl soothed. “But did they, by any chance, happen to share how they knew?”
“Nofl. *Can you get me what I’m asking for?*” Myun growled at him again. He flapped a distracted hand.
“Yes, yes, that part’s easy. Comparatively easy. Well… no, it’s quite difficult actually, but yes, I can get you the-”
“And your price?” Myun interrupted.
“…I may have to, ah… ’grease some palms’ as the humans have it. But outside of those expenses, I’ll do this one for the asking.”
That was unexpected. Myun didn’t trust it.
“Why?” she asked.
“Oh, Myun! Isn’t a disgraced Corti scientist allowed a little sentiment?”
“Sentiment.” She said it flatly, and skeptically.
“My darling thing, yes. Sentiment.” Nofl spread his arms and bowed slightly. “Why, I would do much, much more than this for a chance to see my greatest triumph in action again…”
Date Point: October 11y10m3w AV
BGEV-11 ’Misfit’, Lucent System, Near 3Kpc Arm
Forehead to forehead, nose to nose. Fingers interlaced, legs entwined.
Clean perspiration, settling pulses, smiles, laughter and kisses…
Allison was the first to speak. “Well that was… new…” she acknowledged at last. “What got into you?”
Xiù had always admired Allison’s willingness to just fling herself over the edge and say what she was really thinking, or else nothing at all. It was a quality she’d tried to cultivate in herself a little bit, and was… maybe succeeding at? It was hard to tell from the inside.
Still, she couldn’t avoid blushing at this particular bit of honesty. “I was… really horny,” she confessed.
It was true, and a slightly novel emotional experience. Maybe it was a good sign that she was rehabilitating: For a long while there she’d had a very Gaoian attitude to sex, up to and including a couple of Freudian slips involving the word ’Mating’. The frustration of walking around trying to get things done while absolutely itching for…
Well, it wasn’t a new feeling, but she hadn’t felt it since before her abduction.
“And I happened to be the first one you could get your hands on?”
“Well… I mean…”
“Relax, dummy. I’m just teas—” Allison’s face fell. “…Waaait. I don’t think I’ve heard you and Julian do anything in, like… I can’t remember when. Is everything alright with you?”
Xiù stared at the ceiling for a second then rolled over and stood up. “…We should shower. And, and make dinner.”
Xiù beckoned toward the shower. In part, she wanted its muffling effect in place, just in case Julian re-entered the hab. This one wasn’t for his ears.
They squeezed inside and made best use of the tiny space’s limited volume to both rinse off and talk.
“…I don’t know how to talk about this,” she said, as soon as the water was running.
“Okay… gut check. First thing that pops into your head.”
“He’s too… nice with me! But that’s not the right word, because I like that he’s nice with me. So…”
“Nice with you?”
“More like…” The words simply weren’t assembling themselves properly. “…Reserved?”
“Ohhh! You want it rough!” Allison gave her a faintly surprised look. “Honestly, I’m surprised. I didn’t think you’d be into the whole ’choke me, spank me, pull my hair’ thing.”
“No! No! No.” Xiù shook her head vigorously, aware that she was crimson from tip to toe. “Not rough! I…No.”
Xiù sighed, handed Allison the shampoo and turned away to think about it. There was something especially pleasant about letting somebody else wash her hair for her.
“I guess… what really worked for me, um, the first time and this time and all the times I’ve really enjoyed it was… I guess feeling like…”
Her frustrated pause dragged on long enough for Allison to completely lather her hair, then incline her head and ask “Like what?”
“Like… Like I had your undivided attention. Like you weren’t thinking about anything else. Does that make sense?”
“Oh, you did. I really wasn’t!” Alison laughed, then started to rinse out the shampoo. “But with Julian, you always feel like he’s holding back and his mind’s on something else?”
“I, um… Yes.”
“Yeah. I know that feeling.”
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
Allison nodded. “Yeah, it’s frustrating… But babe, you’ve gotta respect his comfort zone just as much as he has to respect yours. Whatever’s going on in there, he doesn’t wanna share it.”
“I… guess. But—”
“Xiù,” Allison gave her a slippery soapy hug-from-behind and kissed her cheek. “If you want to step outside his comfort zone and he doesn’t, then he wins. You never, ever force your partner to do something they’re uncomfortable with.”
“…Now I feel awful.”
“No, no!” Allison said. She started working in the conditioner instead. “I get it. I wish he’d sort out whatever’s going on there too! But…”
“Should we talk to him about it?”
Allison shook her head.
“It’s not healthy to keep stuff bottled up…” Xiù pointed out.
Allison shook her head again. “Sometimes, guys keep stuff locked away because that’s the best place for it,” she said. “I trust Julian. He’s pretty good at keeping his head on straight.”
She rubbed Xiù’s shoulders. “Come on, don’t stress out now.”
“But what if it’s something serious?”
“Trust him! Our boy’s no dummy, babe. If he needs to talk about it, he will.”
Xiù was hardly convinced… but she did feel better. “…Okay. I’ll try.”
Allison kissed her again, then made a disgusted noise and hastily rinsed the conditioner from Xiù’s hair and cheek. “Uh… don’t forget about me though, right? I like having your attention too…”
Xiù laughed, turned around and hugged her. “I promise.”
Allison returned the hug, smiled, turned the shower off and opened the door.
Julian arched an eyebrow at them from the kitchen counter, where he was chopping carrots. “Saving water?”
Allison handed Xiù a towel, gave herself a perfunctory drying-off with another one and then went to steal a carrot slice with the towel held over her hair, which was far too short nowadays to do the whole towel-turban thing. It was a bad habit of hers that she tended to leave wet footprints across the hab after a shower, but Xiù and Julian had learned to just live with it. The extra humidity didn’t hurt anyway—they all found *Misfit*’s atmosphere a little on the dry side.
“You missed a heck of a show,” she teased.
Xiù took her time to get dryer. “Um, yeah, dinner got kinda… forgotten. Sorry.”
Julian laughed. “Hah! *Whur’s mah dinner, woman?!’*” He imitated ridiculously, then settled down into a fond chuckle. “Nah. Glad you two had fun.”
He tipped the carrots into the pot and grabbed a printout. “Wanna talk business a second?”
Allison put her towel down on the dining table’s bench and sat on it. “Go for it!”
“Between the nav data and the upgrades to the telescope, we’ve eliminated a couple more maybes, and we’ve now got five strong positives. I uh… plotted a route for just those five.”
Allison took it, and Xiù leaned over her shoulder to read it. “Two months per planet, travel time between them… So even if we just investigate these five, we’re gonna be at it for more than a year.”
“Two years, if you throw in R and R back on Earth and that publicity stuff Kevin mentioned.”
“…Funny, ain’t it?” Allison asked. “I knew how slow this exploration would go, but it just didn’t really sink in until now.”
“Yeah. Five planets sounds like such a small number but…” Julian nodded.
“Well. At least we won’t be out of a job any time soon…” Xiù said. She went to get dressed.
“Assuming we find something that Byron likes,” Allison griped.
“Who knows?” Julian asked. “Maybe we already did. For all we know, that brown snot the Lucent termites sprayed all over us will turn out to be the most valuable substance in human history…”
Date Point: October 11y10m3w AV
Byron Group alien research labs, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
“So it IS valuable?”
“Well, what can it do?”
“That’s… actually a very good question.”
This earned Doctor Simon Graves one of Moses’ sharpest looks. “You mean you don’t know.”
“They didn’t know what graphene could do, either, and now it’s absolutely critical to our hypercapacitors and forcefield emitters,” Graves pointed out. “And the same is true for all kinds of other substances when they were first discovered. But I can see significant potential in this… stuff.”
Kevin cleared his throat. “I think what Mister Byron means,” he said, “is he’d like to know what potential you see, in what kinds of fields.”
Graves nodded and cleared his throat.
“Have you ever heard of plasmids?” he asked. Moses shook his head.
Kevin had, but he doubted he and Graves had the same thing in mind. He shrugged. “Only in a videogame.”
Graves laughed. “Hah! Right. But… uh, yeah, real plasmids are basically just little loops of DNA that bacteria use to share genetic information.” He called up a slide. “Now this, uh, ejaculate is absolutely full of plasmids. So, that’s already plenty of opportunity to study alien DNA in a lab environment, but the really interesting stuff is some of the enzymes and hormones that are in the fluid alongside the plasmids.”
“Ejaculate? DNA? Are we looking at a jar full of alien jism?” Moses demanded, giving the sample a grossed-out frown.
“No! No. No, this isn’t a reproductive fluid it’s… well, we’re pretty sure that it’s a biochemical weapon of some kind. To judge by the way the insects sprayed it all over them.”
“…Suddenly I’m awful glad it’s in that box,” Kevin commented.
“I don’t recall ’biochemical weapons’ being part of our business model,” Moses added, eyeing the sample warily. “Is it… dangerous?”
“That… remains to be seen,” Graves admitted, then hastened to mollify his employer. “But Botulinum Toxin is about the deadliest poison known to man, and nowadays it’s a cosmetic treatment, so just because it’s a biochemical weapon *right now*…”
“You’ll be… careful with it. Right?”
“Oh, absolutely Mister Byron.”
Kevin shrugged. “We need to know what it can do if we’re gonna send people to that planet either way. I might, uh, let my friends at Scotch Creek know about it though.”
“If you think that’s best,” Moses agreed. Kevin could almost hear him internally grumbling about not receiving another phone call from President Sartori.
“Relax, boss. I’ll tell ‘em keeping them in the loop was your idea.”
“You’re too kind, Kevin.”
Graves gave them a wary look. “So… That’s a ’go ahead’, yes?”
“Yeah. Go ahead.” Moses waved a hand. “If we’re gonna send people to that planet, I need to know if they’re meant to avoid the bugs or milk ‘em.”
“Thank you, Mister Byron. I should be able to tell you fairly quickly.”
Kevin ushered his boss out of the biological materials lab and back towards the comparative safety of the geophysics lab. “So. Lemme show you some of the plans the team came up with for exo oil…”
Date Point: October 11y10m3w AV
Hephaestus Trade Station 1 ’Armstrong’, Orbiting Cimbrean-5, The Far Reaches
Any Corti field researcher saw their fair share of trading stations. They were ubiquitous. In fact, the prolonged absence of such a station from the Cimbrean system had been truly remarkable, and a mark of just how difficult the human race’s position was, politically.
And of course there wasn’t one at Earth at all. The humans really were being fought against at every turn. The pressure they were being forced to keep up was immense, unrelenting, and exhausting, made all the more baffling by the absence of any concrete demands from the Dominion. Sanctions sans stipulations: Stupid.
As usual, however, the deathworlders had found a loophole. If governments could not be persuaded to establish the interstellar infrastructure of a cleared spacelane and a suitable station… oh well! No such services were denied to major established private interests such as the big trading franchises. By far the biggest obstacle involved in negotiating a partnership of sorts had been the communications delay.
It was already paying off. Earthling grains and vegetables from Folctha’s sprawling farms were proving to be an enormously popular export commodity - they were so nutritionally rich and so flavorful, and their resilient biology gave them a substantial natural shelf-life even prior to processing.
Then there was Soy. Soy protein, soy milk, soy beans, miso, tempeh, tofu. Soy cereals, soy cheese, soya flour… The factories of the New Belfast Soy Bean Co. never stopped, and a growing proportion of their output came through the heavily controlled jump array up to the trade station, after an extensive vetting by colonial security.
Nofl knew that for a fact—he rode up to the station leaning against a shipping container with the NBSB logo on the side.
It was a very… human trade station: It stank of them. Humans didn’t smell bad as such, but even to a Corti’s relatively atrophied olfactory organs, their scent was pervasive and impressive. They smelled of temperature regulation, of the complex oils in their skin and hair, of ketones and pheromones and hormones. He shuddered to think what Earth smelled like, with that wonderful nasal bouquet overladen by the permanent stench of the bacteria in their sweat. That component was mercifully almost entirely absent on Cimbrean.
Deathworlders. Pleasant people, but definitely an acquired taste.
He found the one he was after overseeing some improvements to a light bulk transport at one of the docking hardpoints. Some Hephaestus workers were standing next to their bright yellow vacuum hardsuits—miniature humanoid spaceships, really—discussing the minutiae of whatever it was they were doing to the ship.
Nofl waited patiently for them to finish before moving to introduce himself.
“Excuse me? Captain Wagner? Dog Wagner?”
The human was aging, scruffy and his skin looked… loose somehow, but there was no dulling that deathworld sharpness. He gave Nofl the cold assessment that all human abductees not unjustifiably directed toward Corti.
Nofl didn’t bother to extend a hand. It could only possibly end in a cold glare.
“I understand you have a trade run out to Trade Station Fifty. I have a package waiting for me there.”
“I look like a fuckin’ mailman to you, brother?”
Nofl clasped his hands lightly in front of him. “By reputation, Shipmaster Wagner is known for delivering… sensitive premium packages…” he pointed out.
This earned him the kind of penetrating stare that only humans could achieve, like the deathworlder was taking his mind out and picking it apart. It was a terrific skill, the talent they had for metacognition allowed them to assemble a probability tree of motives for literally everybody they met in just seconds, and instinctively.
Those Corti researchers who had successfully worked with humans and not met an unfortunate end, a clique that included Nofl, all agreed that it was… vexing to be so completely assessed.
“…How big’s this package of yours?” Wagner asked, eventually. Nofl held his hands about shoulder width apart and Wagner nodded. “Gimme a price,” he said. “Good ol’ U S of A dollars”
“Are you sure? The currency of Cimbrean is the Pound Sterling…”
“Dollars,” Wagner repeated.
“Very well…. Ten thousand.”
Wagner shook his head. “Fifteen thousand.”
“Twelve,” Nofl counter-offered.
“That’s twelve thousand dollars, right?” Wagner checked
Nofl employed the device that he’d found tended to disarm humans the most and giggled lightly. It was an unnatural and effete sound in a Corti throat, and it was wonderful for getting them off-balance, as were all the other camp mannerisms he affected.
“Oh yes, yes! Twelve thousand dollars, yes. Goodness me, you don’t think I’d be so stupid as to try that trick on a human, do you?” He asked.
Wagner tried to pretend he was unmoved. “I don’t know you from Adam, brother…”
“Well. Twelve thousand US dollars,” Nofl repeated the offer.
“…Done. Who’s handing this package off?”
“As I understand it, it will reach Station Fifty in the hands of a Chehnash who works under the alias *’Dread’*…”
Date Point: November 11y 11m AV
CIA offices, Chicago, Illinois, USA, Earth
“I swear to God, it’s like playing whack-a-mole over there. Just when I think things are going well, just when Melissa does some fine work and brings Sister Niral on board, that’s when Gabe Arés falls down the stairs and we’re left scrambling to find a replacement.”
Darcy’s lotus green tea pearl began to unfold and bloom in the hot water, and she leaned against the wall to watch it.
The office was bigger, these days. More people working with her and under her. SIGINT, mostly. A veritable army of communications experts, hackers, engineers and half a dozen superhuman analysts who spent their professional time poring over intercepted data in search of anything even remotely relevant.
And that was just at the Chicago office.
“Don’t complain.” Darcy’s office-mate Jake was eating his habitual lunch ’al desko’—a pastrami and avocado deli sandwich. “You wouldn’t want a boring assignment, would you?”
“Hell no. I’m just saying, it’d be nice if things over there stayed fixed after I fixed them.”
Jake snorted. “That’s the story of intelligence work right there.”
“Yeah.” Darcy sighed and poured her tea. Jake was right, of course, and there was no sense in wishing about what was never going to be. The job in front of her hadn’t really changed, in fact—She’d just have to keep pre-empting the situations she could see coming, and responding to the situations she didn’t.
Cimbrean was too important, and the role of its chief of colonial security too vital, for her to waste time fantasizing about a pleasant world in which things went smooth.
She pondered her options as she drank the tea, then picked up her phone.
“Nick? Darcy. I’m going to need a list of potential candidates to replace Gabriel Arés as chief of CCS, thought it sounded like your kind of job… Yeah. Ideally? Two weeks from now. Good. Yeah, thanks. You too.”
“Thinking we might get one of ours in there?” Jake asked as she hung up.
“Whoever gets the post, we need to work with them,” Darcy pointed out. “Having an American in the job made things a lot easier…”
Jake finished his sandwich and turned back to poring through the emails in front of him. “Huh.”
“So, you’ll never guess what the Misfit crew brought back…”
Date Point: November 11y11m AV
Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada
General Martin Tremblay
“Your guys brought a fucking bioweapon back to Earth?”
Kevin Jenkins had moved a long way up in the world from his days as a bartender and kind of abductee pilgrim bringing the first dregs of alien intel to Scotch Creek. Once upon a time he’d never have been seen out of his t-shirt and jeans. Nowadays he wore expensive tailored suits and the inerasable subtle facial expression of a wealthy man.
Still. His conciliatory mood was obvious, even over Skype.
”Under heavy lock and key. It’s in a clean room you could safely study fuckin’… Ebola or some shit in.”
Tremblay frowned at him. “I’d sure like to know why though, Kevin…”
“We’re researching deathworlds,” Kevin pointed out. “We’re gonna find potentially dangerous shit sometimes. You want us to just leave it out there for the colonists to deal with on their own?”
“I guess not…” Tremblay conceded, reluctantly. “Still, an alien bioweapon?”
Kevin shrugged. “You ever hear of Botulinum Toxin, Martin?”
Tremblay shrugged too. “Uh, maybe?”
“Deadliest poison known to man. Causes Botulism, kill you stone dead with a couple micrograms and it was discovered in fucking pork sausages, man. And wrinkly old women get it injected into their faces for that gen-yoo-ine youthful stung-by-a-bee-as-big-as-a-hummingbird look.”
“Your point?” Tremblay asked, in the hopes of heading off a trademark Kevin Jenkins rant.
“Point is, it probably ain’t no worse than anything here on Earth, especially ‘cause the source world is an Eleven.” Kevin shrugged. “I reckon Moses is being over-cautious, but he sent a real careful Christmas card to the White House last year.”
Martin chuckled. “Hah! I bet. I talk with Sartori a couple of times a week and I honestly wouldn’t want to piss him off.”
“And you’re on the general staff of a foreign military.”
Tremblay shrugged again. “I could be forgiven for forgetting it sometimes. Nearly all the assets are either American or British. It’d be nice to see more of my countrymen on the front line…”
“Don’t sell SCERF short. It’s fuckin’ valuable. Hell, I kinda miss it up there.” Kevin chuckled ”Only person I ever serve coffee to nowadays is Darcy, and she only drinks it ‘cause she’s too polite to ask for tea instead.”
“She’s a tea drinker?”
”Yeah. Fuckin’ treasonous ain’t it?”
“I just never would have guessed.”
”She ain’t exactly an open book,” Kevin pointed out. “Anyhow. That’s the lay of the land right now. One deathworld full of giant slime-spewing alien bugs. The misfits’re back out of contact again, we probably ain’t gonna hear from them until, uh…” He looked up and his lips moved as he calculated. “…June. July maybe. ”
“Assuming they don’t get killed. Byron doesn’t have a great track record there, Kevin.”
”Urgh, don’t remind me.” Kevin looked troubled. ”I… don’t really wanna think about it. Those three kids are about the best people I ever met, I don’t wanna think about what kind unpleasant shit they have to put up with…”
Date Point: November 11y11m AV
BGEV-11 ’Misfit’, Deep Interstellar Space
“Oh, come *on!*”
“No, seriously! Think about it, they’ve got transporters and replicators, those are basically the same thing. They could build a ship in seconds out of any old asteroid with a bit of power, and crew them with holograms. They could have, like, millions of ships, and they’d all be expendable, so why do they spend months building these ships in shipyards instead?”
“Because the writers are fuckwits and the whole idea of a post-scarcity economy like that is dumb?”
“Well, yeah, but… what’s the in-universe explanation?”
“Ugh, you two are such huge dorks…”
“Love you too, *Shǎguā*…”
“Omigod, you did NOT just call me that! Only she gets to call me that, you ass!”
“You’re the ass, you butt!”
“You’re the butt, dummy!”
“You’re the dummy, you dork!”
“You don’t get to call me a dork, either! I called you a dork first!”
“Will you two get a room already?”
“Why? You wanna watch, or join in?”
“Nah, I’d rather watch more Deep Space Nine.”
“…You’re right. What was I thinking? Sex versus Star Trek?”
“Mm. Star Trek wins every time.”
“Ugh, you two are the fucking dorkiest! …Is it really that good?”
“Why don’t you come and watch?”
“…Yeah, okay. Move over…”
Date Point: November 11y11m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Marty had a game, and that game had exactly one rule: Make the Lads as uncomfortable as she could.
It was only fair. Here she was, quite probably the most highly educated person on the base, certainly one of the most highly educated on the whole planet, but she spent a small but… memorable… part of her work schedule intimately contemplating all the wonders of the male pelvis and everything attached to or produced from it.
And of course, they were competitive about it, too. Which should have made it worse, but Marty had run out of fucks to give long, long ago.
Naturally, she seized any opportunity she could to get her vengeance. Such as, for example, being the only one with the balls to bring a porn flick to Bad Movie Night when it was her turn to bring the movie. And then she sat in Adam’s lap, because that just provided so many wonderful ways to make him extra uncomfortable.
Tonight’s was a British-made porn parody: “Fantastic Breasts And Where To Find Them.”
It was awful as only British porn could be, and it made the Lads extra-squirmy because the Gaoians were there too. They of course had an entirely academic relationship with human porn, and they asked questions. She suspected they were trolling—they deliberately used a curious uptick to their questions that made them sound cub-like and innocent.
“Are all human males so…ample?”
“Only the lucky ones,” grumbled Adam, who shifted uncomfortably under Marty.
Firth, of course, was trying to pretend like he didn’t give two bites on a turd, and barely succeeding at best. The problem wasn’t the Lads, the problem was Marty herself—he was, at heart, a Southern Gentleman, and there was something deep in his brain that rebelled against the idea of watching porn with women. There were so few opportunities to really embarrass him, though, that she would have had to be crazy to give up on this one.
There was another advantage to bringing porn—the cuddly man-pile got broken up a bit as the Lads put some safe distance between them, which meant she got Adam all to herself. Firth shifted in his beanbag and reached over to grab some of the popcorn. “Man, Kovač. You gettin’ ready to measure us again?”
Marty gave him her sweetest and most innocent smile. “Tuesday. Reckon you can keep it going that long?”
Rebar groaned. “For fuck sake, don’t challenge him!”
“Righteous has combatives scheduled with us tomorrow,” Regaari pointed out. “I’m already going to be broken, I’d rather not be torn in half, too.”
This earned him a number of impressed looks from the Lads. The Gaoians had their own style of banter, which differed from the human mode. Less explicit, more… sneaky. A joke in the human mode was rare and unexpected.
Firth grinned hugely and waggled his eyebrows, momentarily forgetting Kovač. “Dexter, I’m shocked! You know I always lube up first!”
“Ain’t enough lube in the galaxy,” Blaczynski grinned.
“I wonder what perversion of evolution compelled such…impressive gifts,” Thurrsto mused.
Daar made a grumbling noise. “…Don’t seem so impressive to me…”
Thurrsto ignored him. “But what could the advantage be?”
“I can answer that!” Marty said brightly, and truthfully.
The Lads all flinched, and Adam hastily whispered in her ear in a bid to avoid the explanation. “You’re in the trolliest mood tonight…”
But Regaari wasn’t about to let her—or the rest of the Lads—off the hook that easy. He enjoyed making them uncomfortable almost as much as she did. “Please, do tell! This could prove very useful in our psychological model of human males.”
Baseball, as always, seemed utterly impervious to shame but he deflected the question when he tilted his head at the screen. “That’s new. How did she manage that?”
The Gaoians tilted their heads too. It was adorable.
Thurrsto was the first to speak. “…that seems anatomically…unwise.”
“Don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it,” grumbled Firth, and a round of male guffawing swept the room.
Faarek’s ears were almost flat against his skull. “Wh—No Female would ever agree to such a thing!”
Marty grinned and pounced on that opening like a cat on a laser dot.
“Uh, hello? Sitting right here?”
Victory. The whole room was struck silent—even Daar stared at her, ears erect and forward at what was possibly even a faintly scandalized angle. And Adam, bless the huge galoot, was utterly crimson.
Firth actually giggled. “Wait… ‘Horse? You? I mean, way to go, but how—?”
“Can’t be worse than his therapy massages.”
“His massages don’t involve—”
“ANYWAY…!” Adam interrupted desperately, and Martina decided she’d had enough fun with him, for now…
“It is odd,” commented Regaari a bit more seriously, “The entire industry. We don’t have anything quite like…” His prosthetic hand clicked as he waved it at the screen. “…This.”
“Different instincts, different hormones,” Baseball said, unconsciously waxing intellectual in the way he only did when he was relaxed and among friends. “We’re more flexible regarding family arrangements and the like than we generally permit in society. Though that’s changing. I’ve read that has a lot to do with tribal arrangements in our way back when but…” He shrugged hugely. “We don’t really know. It’s all just educated bullshitting, really.”
“Seems to work fer some folks,” Firth grunted. “Like that Etsicitty fella.”
“That rumor’s true then?” Parata asked. “I thought it was just the tabloids stirrin’ shit.”
“Nah, man. You just gotta spend time with ‘em to see it’s all true.” Firth, as ever, was conscientious regarding his friends. “But hey! They’re happy and it seems ‘ta work for ‘em, so who am I to say anything? We ain’t really delved sexual psychology in my coursework yet, anyway.”
Baseball looked as if he wanted to launch a long and tedious dissertation on the subject, but Blaczynski beat him to the punch.
“Wait, weren’t we just talkin’ about butt stuff? D’you think those three’ve—OW!!” Firth smacked him upside the head.
Adam’s arms squeezed Marty a little tighter as he buried his face in her shoulder. “You are so gonna pay for this…” he grumbled, for her ears only. Mission accomplished. If she wasn’t carried away draped over his arm like a waiter’s towel later tonight, something would have gone badly wrong…
The movie was now being entirely ignored as Thurrsto and Baseball got into a lengthy, exhaustive and cringe-inducingly forthright conversation about the relative merits of Gaoian and Human sexuality and the roles each had played in the history of their cultures. Marty found it fascinating, but decided that she’d probably better not contribute any further. The boys got adorably squeamish about some things…
Daar suddenly raised his nose and sniffed. “…Nachos?”
He dashed out of the room in the kind of undignified four-footed scramble that made the Whitecrests shake their heads, with his claws slipping and sliding on the polished concrete flooring.
They weren’t above doing the exact same thing, though. Marty had to cover her mouth—it was like watching overgrown puppies scrambling after a tennis ball, all pretensions at civilization forgotten. She knew all the Whitecrest brothers quite well by now, and knew for a fact that they would never let any Gaoian female see them like that.
At some point in the conversation, unnoticed and silently, Murray had slipped away into the kitchen. He didn’t usually cook: It wasn’t really his thing. But for some strange reason there was a strong overlap between the Glaswegian and Gaoian palates that he enjoyed servicing.
This had led to the genesis of so-called “Murray Salad”: Last Friday’s kebab meat with fried chicken and anchovies, diced together and sauteed with mild salsa (hence the dubious ‘salad’ claim) and schlorked over a criminally abused plate of what would otherwise have been perfectly respectable nachos, topped with Biblical volumes of Velveeta.
The Gaoians loved it (especially with cod liver oil) and they returned in a dense knot around Daar who was carrying the vile platterful on one paw.
Adam wrinkled his nose. “I hope ‘ta fuck you recorded what went into that…pile. What about your macros for the day? And the flautas in the fridge!?”
Murray emerged from the kitchen with an honest-to-God plate of real nachos.“Relax, pal. The recipe’s in the app. Anyway, I made you a wee plate of something too.”
Adam snorted and muttered the word “*’Recipe’*…” as if it had personally offended him. He wasn’t above accepting the bribe of nachos, however.
Marty stole a couple of them before he could shovel them away.
Daar grabbed a handful of the “Salad” first, as was his right as the “most biggest” Gaoian, but a thought seemed to strike him just as he was about to crunch into it.. “Hey…. Ain’t today the tenth?”
“Oh, yeah!” Akiyama flipped off the porn and hunted for the news channel.
Marty had to object to that. Turning off the bad movie just went against the whole spirit of Bad Movie Night. “Hey!”
“Give it a rest Kovač, you’ve had yer fun. They’re launching the USS San Diego tonight…”
Date Point: November 11y11m2w AV
Newport News, Virginia, USA, Earth
Major Owen Powell
“Sir, there’s something dreadfully wrong with the notion of a man who looks comfortable in his mess dress…”
Admiral Knight had the decency not to smirk, but it was a close-run thing.
“Practice makes perfect,” he replied. “It helps if you relax.”
“It helps if the bloody thing fits.”
“Quite. You really should take more care to ensure that it does, Powell. This won’t be the last little shindig I drag you to.”
“Oh, buck up!” Knight said, not unkindly. “This is a much different affair to the hull launch party.”
Powell didn’t let his retort of ’I bloody well hope so!’ reach his lips. The hull launch party had been torture, schmoozing a variety of well-connected senior officers, politicians and wealthy guests for the sake of bandaging whatever damage his credibility might have suffered in the wake of the NOVA HOUND final report.
If Rylee hadn’t been there to figuratively hold his hand, he might well have caused several scandals. As it was, they’d deported themselves well then departed the very moment that decorum permitted.
This time, she literally held his hand, just for a second. Like Knight, she managed to seem suspiciously comfortable in her mess dress even though no amount of poise, confidence and familiarity could ever quite compensate for the unglamorous but sadly mandatory ankle-length skirt.
Still. The temperature was more pleasant. The hull launch party had been crammed into a convention hotel overlooking the harbor, or rather the carefully constructed jump cradle in the harbor. *USS San Diego*’s hull had been assembled at Ceres where they could make best use of microgravity and forcefield generators, then jumped to Newport News for systems fitting and preparation. She’d jumped into the cradle with millimeter tolerances, and then lowered gently into the water.
It seemed odd and anachronistic to design a spaceship to handle a water landing, but…
This time, the party was along the waterline in a huge pavilion, and as far as Powell was concerned, Virginia at this time of the year was about the perfect temperature. He wasn’t sweating or red in the face from overheating, he didn’t feel lumpen and crude or lumbering…
He felt pretty good. Really, if his jacket had just been generous enough in the shoulder and waist then everything would have been just fine.
Still. He’d have given anything to be back in the hotel room, with Rylee and without the uniforms. She was a sympathetic ear on the whole subject of mess dress too, especially as it pertained to long and unflattering skirts. “I still say SOR should have its own mess dress,” she said. “It’d be good for unit cohesion.”
“Oh aye. Instead of a nightmare of uncomfortable clothing I have to put up with a couple of times a year, I’d have a solid four years of paperwork trying to sort that all out,” Powell agreed, affecting a tone of voice as if the suggestion was entirely reasonable and straightforward.
Rylee had a soft spot for being snarked though. “You do so love paperwork.”
“I’m champin’ at the fookin’ bit.”
She made an amused noise in her nose and looked around the party. “We’d better go mingle,” she said. “Let the flag officers do things way above our heads.”
“Oh goodness me, no,” Knight said. “No, General Tremblay and I are going to get quite drunk and stay out of the way.”
“See? Lofty affairs beyond the like of us mere mortals,” Rylee gave the admiral a smile, and Powell a wink, and led the way toward…
Well, he wasn’t sure. She seemed to orbit the event without ever meeting any part of it at anything more than a tangential angle. Meet, smile, say hi, share a pleasantry, pass on by while towing him safely behind her.
“I thought we were supposed to mingle…?” He asked at last.
“We are. You don’t stop and talk to people when you’re mingling!”
“…Well, fook me. I’ve been doin’ it wrong all this time, then?”
“Oh yeah!” Rylee nodded. “They invented the term ’social butterfly’ for a reason, you know. Land lightly, and never for long.”
She did just that, guiding him adroitly through the steps of a dance he didn’t know until they were finally able to get a moment alone leaning on the railing overlooking the water and the state-of-the-art warship at anchor.
“I gotta tell ya,” she said, sipping her champagne, “I’ll feel way safer flying under the aegis of that ship.”
“I’ve had too much on my plate to really pay attention,” Powell confessed. “She’s built for formation defense?”
Rylee grinned. “*Aye,*” she said, imitating his accent and earning a roll of his eyes. “Huge-ass forcefield emitters with huge-ass cooling systems and huge-ass reactors to power them. Plus point defence, interceptor missiles, flares… If she performs as promised then anything in formation with her should benefit from her protection.”
She turned and leaned on one elbow. “…Worried for me, Owen?”
“I know the numbers. We’ve lost more aircrew and sailors to this war than SOR. Bloody hellfire, we damn near lost you, remember?” He indicated her ribbon bar where the Air Force Cross held pride of place, though it was only there because she’d respectfully and quietly declined the Medal of Honor.
Operation NOVA HOUND had been a blooding for every branch of humanity’s growing space-based military. It had been a legendary day but even among all those stories, the moment when Rylee had literally taken a bullet for the SOR stood out. They all owed her their lives.
Rylee always got uncomfortable whenever it was mentioned. She looked back out at the ship and sipped her champagne.
“…You know Semenza’s retiring?” she asked, suddenly.
“Your WSO? Why? Job’s not done yet.”
“That’s what I said. But… well, he’s met the love of his life, apparently. Gonna settle down on Cimbrean, raise some kids.”
“That’d make me want to protect ‘em.”
“Mm.” She sipped her drink again. “That’s what I said.”
“And he gave me a hug and said we could still work together on that. He’d raise them right and …I’d protect them, he said.” She sighed. “He called me a hero. You’d think after we worked together so long he’d know better…”
She caught the look on Powell’s face and the way he folded his arms, and gave him a stern look. “I know what you’re thinking, and don’t you dare say it.”
“Alright. Different question, then.” Powell said. She turned and listened. “What brought this melancholy on?”
Rylee shrugged, and looked back out at the USS San Diego.
“…I guess I’m just tense,” she said after a while. “Things are going so well… *Caledonia*’s back in action, we’ve got the San Diego now, the 946th is at full strength, the SOR is expanding… we’re gaining power and strategic footing with every day.”
“And that makes you tense?”
“Yeah,” she nodded, and finished her champagne. “Call me a pessimist, but… I can’t help but wonder when the other shoe’s gonna drop.”
++0014++: Good news?
++0022++: A report from ++0020++ the Discarded have implemented some of the manufacturing processes they were sent.
++0008++: Successfully? Maybe they aren’t as mindless as I thought.
++0022++: Their ‘swarm-of-swarms’ will number a million ships before long.
++0019++: There was a consensus.
++0014++: But not a unanimous one.
++0014++: Yes, Eight.
Date Point: 12y AV HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Major Owen Powell
Burgess checked his tablet. “By Gaoian standards, his performance is incredible. In fact in some areas, his performance is incredible by human standards.”
“Hell yeah! Four paws, lotsa traction and those long back muscles? He can cart-pull like a bulldozer. He can’t haul ass for distance, though.”
Powell rubbed his jaw as he considered Daar, who was panting in the water feature on the obstacle course, having flung himself in there as soon as he was given leave. It was a popular spot for all the Gaoians—where humans could sweat away their workout, Gaoians were adapted for a much colder planet, and only really lost temperature through their ears and nose. They overheated easily, which sharply limited their endurance—not an ideal trait in a serviceman as far as Powell was concerned but one they had been able to adapt for in the Whitecrests.
He took the tablet from Burgess and considered the data. Daar was in many ways a very different creature to the Whitecrests. He was stronger by a huge margin and shared with Burgess a degree of embarrassment about his own intelligence, while the Whitecrests approached intelligence with the same kind of fierce competition that the Beef Trio felt towards heavy weights.
“They only have the one like him,” he commented, reading the statistics.
And there was the rub: With the Whitecrests they had enough men to develop new doctrines. Daar, however, was just one man and that meant finding room for him in what they already had.
And the HEAT, frankly, just didn’t need him. He just wasn’t physically capable of conditioning to wear a MASS, but his talents would be wasted wearing the Gaoian version which was a much lighter and higher-tech thing built around forcefields and smart fabric with profile-blurring metamaterials and nanite-based camouflage that could reprogram on the fly to reflect its surroundings. Regaari had demonstrated the suits when they had first arrived and left Powell thoroughly impressed, and determined to get some of that tech sent to C&M Systems for installation on the next generation of EV-MASS.
Daar could, on four-paw, carry a Protector’s load but he couldn’t easily stand upright under it, which meant he couldn’t fight. He was more comfortable with a Defender’s gear but would be a sitting duck without the MASS, and every single one of the Aggressors outstripped him in combatives. Powell hadn’t tangled with him yet but knew beyond any doubt at all that it would have been a quick and conclusive duel. He had the skills and the ability to use them, that was plain to see: What he lacked was appropriate practice. Maybe with a bit more training…
But, no. Daar just wasn’t going to fit in the HEAT, which was a tragic thing to say of an intelligent and exceptional specimen with useful political connections.
Which only left the JETS, around which there remained a lingering aroma of stigma. The HEAT didn’t think the brother unit was second-rate at all thanks to Murray and Firth’s glowing endorsements of Coombes and Walsh, but outside of the SOR there was still a miasma of historic failure, accompanied by uncharitable whispers from the candidates in the Huntsville pipeline that Walsh was a washout settling for less.
Bruised egos after he’d beaten the pants off all of them, Powell guessed, but he would have very much liked to catch somebody spreading that particular bit of gossip. They would have soon found themselves sharing the sentiment with Sergeant Arés, who’d had a hand in devising the JETS training regime.
Walsh himself certainly didn’t seem to think there was anything “settle for less” about it. This was a man who had already made the grade for HEAT, and now he had even been heard to grudgingly admit he was finding the JETS course ’a good challenge’.
The question was, what role would Daar play in the JETS? The mission statement mandated deployment to high-end deathworlds. If they sent him somewhere with microlife as vicious as Earth’s…
Well, the man to ask was standing right in front of him. “Arright, opinion time and don’t fookin’ sugar-coat it for me,” he said. “If we sent him to Earth, how would he do?”
Burgess considered it with an uncomfortable, grit-toothed expression. “…We learned a lot from Ayma and Regaari’s tour,” he said. “Viruses ain’t a problem at all, they’re too choosy about DNA. The Gaoian immune system can handle most bacteria pretty okay but a staph infection and antibiotic-resistant strains would be a major fuckin’ problem. It’s fungal infections that’d be the big deal. Scratch his paw while he’s diggin’ in the dirt and he might lose an arm. On the flip side though, hell sir… you change your socks today?”
Powell snorted. ‘Take a Motrin, hydrate and change your socks’. Burgess was a medic, after all. The point was well-made however—fungal infections had had plenty of impact on human servicemen over the centuries, and even if Athlete’s Foot was a vastly more serious complaint in a Gaoian than in a human the fact was that any man in the field was going to be taking disease-prevention steps. Daar’s would just have to be more diligent.
“Arright. So you think he could hack it?”
“With care, yeah. Might increase the medical supplies he carries but if he’s careful then I don’t see no reason Daar couldn’t handle Earth. But, uh, we should probably, uh, talk with his Clan before we do. I think Daar maybe glosses over some of the details when he writes home….”
“He’s an adventurous sort.”
“Yeah. I bet some pressure from his Clan will sober him up. But,” Burgess added, “I still don’t doubt he can do it. I just…we need to maybe scare him straight, yeah? He ain’t dumb but he’s got an ego and he really can’t afford that, not on Earth.”
“Hmm. I reckon if you and Sergeant Kovač put your heads together you can put a healthy fear of Mother Earth into him.”
Burgess grinned. “Oh yeah. Couple’a Gaoian tissue samples, a sample of Tinea Cruris, and…”
“Jock Itch, sir.”
Powell chuckled. “Pair that with the daily bathing…” Yet another way Gaoians were slightly canine.
“Ayup. He’ll get it, sir. I’ll see to that.”
“Good lad.” Powell handed back the tablet feeling inwardly pleased. He placed enormous trust in his Protectors, and they were worthy of it. If they were optimistic, so was he. And if Daar could handle Earth…
He could handle anywhere.
Date Point: First Contact Day, 12y AV
Light freighter ’My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon’, Entering Cimbrean System, The Far Reaches
“I’m just saying, it was a shitty fuckin’ disguise, brother! Ain’t no Chehnash if he shakes the deck like that when he walks.”
On Dog’s screen, Nofl spread his hands delicately. Dog had called forward to lambast the little gray bastard the moment they were within superluminal wake range of Cimbrean and had waved politely to the system’s watchdog, the Gaoian strike ship Racing Thunder.
“Dog, Dog, Dog. I never met him myself. How was I supposed to know? His reputation said Chehnash, so…”
“Oh, so you didn’t fuckin’ vet your courier?”
”How was I supposed to? The Contact on Perfection went dark immediately after the Hunter attack over there. Nobody’s heard from them in more than a year. They were probably eaten.”
“There are other fuckin’ contacts, brother. Thousands of the fuckers.”
”Oh yes!” Nofl nodded agreeably. “Yes, yes, and they’re all scrambling to fill the void that The Contact has left. It’s all very… unstable.”
Dog rubbed his stubble. “More unstable than sending me to meet a Jamaican whose idea of a Chehnash disguise is fuckin’ Sith robes and some springy stilt boot things? Brother, that guy’s scary.”
”He delivered the package, didn’t he? …What’s a Jamaican? I thought you said he’s human.”
“Brother, I don’t even have the fuckin’ time to explain Jamaica. They’re the humans other humans think are oddballs.”
Nofl quirked his head and blinked slowly. Corti did that when they were being consciously patient. ”But he did deliver the package.”
Dog relented and sighed. Even he wasn’t really sure why he was venting over his unnerving encounter with ’Dread’. The guy had just left him with a pervasive sense of being creeped out that he needed to be rid of. He picked up his paddle-ball on the grounds that it might just annoy the tiny Area 51-lookin’ fuckstick and nodded grudgingly. “Yeah, yeah. All professional, too. I got it right here.”
”And he didn’t ask what was in it?”
“Don’t think that guy’s much interested in anything more than bein’ angry at fuckin’ everything, brother…” Dog looked up as his room chimed. “…Okay, we’re about twenty out. I better go be all captainly. You get your skinny gray ass up to Armstrong, though how the blue fuck yer gonna smuggle this package back down dirtside is beyond me. CCS border force have got the tightest fuckin’ pucker I ever heard of.”
”They’re only really interested in jump beacons. Which makes sense, I suppose: They don’t want Hunters to get past the shield.”
”Trust me, the border is much more permeable for everything that isn’t a jump beacon”
“Hey, yer the one takin’ the risk brother. I just went and picked up yer mail. I’ll see you ASAP, and remember; you pay first.”
“Yes, yes, yes…”
Date Point: First Contact Day 12y AV
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Earth
General Martin Tremblay
Rogers Arena had a small monument installed outside nowadays to commemorate the Hunter attack. It was a small and unassuming testament to what was arguably the most significant event in human history, but Tremblay rather liked it. To this day, the world didn’t quite seem to know how to react to the revelation of humanity’s status as the most arguably dangerous things alive. A conservative little abstract piece fit that global sense of bemusement perfectly.
Something important had happened here and everybody knew it, but how important? People still worked in call centers and retail, still drove Fords and Toyotas, still drank Budweiser, still prayed and cheated on each other and…
Looking around, it was hard to see anything other than the monument that was different about the arena. Okay, so the LED boards had been replaced by holographic emitters maybe… but that was about it. You had to look pretty hard to see the ways in which the world was different twelve years on. Good fridges—the ones built by Byron Group subsidiaries—had stasis fields installed so that once they were cold they halted the flow of time and massively extended the life of the groceries, but they still looked like a fridge. The air was cleaner now that more and more cars were running on electricity and that electricity was being generated from high-atmosphere collection fields that never suffered from a cloudy day, but power cables and electrical substations were still power cables and electrical substations.
It was all… subtle. A man could blink, and be forgiven for not noticing the difference when his eyes opened. The world kept on doing its thing, and thus First Contact Day was a minor ceremony nowadays.
One day, hopefully, it would be remembered more fervently. People didn’t know how important that day had really been: they didn’t know how precarious mankind’s position was, and how the wakeup call of the Rogers Arena attack might be the only reason Earth was not already a burning nuclear wasteland.
For now though, microphones were still microphones and the four of them on the lectern in front of the PM looked not much different from the ones that had confronted his ten predecessors… too bad they weren’t facing a man of any real caliber.
The Right Honorable Philippe Martel was not Tremblay’s favorite politician. He wasn’t a leader at all but a kind of human chihuahua, so media-whipped that he reflexively checked over his shoulder at the first faint whiff of a scandal. He was the premier purely because his party had found him to be pathologically averse to controversy, and the voters found him inoffensive.
Tremblay found him ineffectual, and now was not a time for ineffectual. The world needed leaders more than ever, not political animals who was less inclined produce a concrete commitment than the average stone was to produce poetry.
Thus the usual harmless sound bites about “historic moment” this and “changed the world” that, which Tremblay was enduring as he sat anonymous and forgotten off to one side in his dress uniform with nothing to do except look composed and attentive and dream of his No. 5 dress and actual productivity.
He didn’t even have the pleasure of driving himself. He’d have murdered for the chance to put his foot down and listen through ’Back in Black’ on his way back up to Scotch Creek, but nope. He had a staff car and a helicopter instead.
But it was important that somebody should be there who fully grasped just how incredibly important FC Day was.
He escaped as quickly as he diplomatically could and endured the drive back to the airport in bored silence, staring distractedly out of the window and musing on how it might play out if the Hunters ever did find a way to attack Earth in earnest.
Special Agent Darcy was waiting in the helicopter. He gave her a tired, slow blink then hauled himself in and fastened his seatbelt. “You really prefer the personal meeting, don’t you?”
“Yup. But you were on my way anyway,” she said and shook his hand. “Gabriel Arés asked me to talk with some of the candidates to replace him. Get the measure of them.”
Tremblay nodded unhappily. Arés’ retirement to an advisory position after his fall was a blow. Not a serious one—there were plenty of possible men and women who could take over the job just fine—but it would still have been better to retain the incumbent while his replacement was brought up to speed. Cimbrean was strategically vital, and its colonial security force was more on the front line than most of them knew. Arés was a strategic asset that Tremblay would have preferred not to lose right now, especially because he was originally American.
The Brits were keen to install one of their own, and given that the colony technically recognized King George VII as their head of state they really had the deciding vote. Governor-General Sir Jeremy Sandy had yet to weigh in but Tremblay suspected he cared less for the politics than for the result. Sir Jeremy was a leader.
President Sartori had asked the Foreign Secretary to lean on them to expand the pool to include more Americans, incentivized by some better deals for the colony’s exports flowing through the commercial jump array to Chicago, the British PM was prevaricating on the subject, goodness only knew what Martel’s thoughts were, the Chinese and Russians had both voiced “concerns” about Cimbrean’s transatlantic nature and questioned when they would have a say in its operation or else a colony of their own, their concerns in turn were being balmed with minor concessions and political favors…
In short, billions of dollars and more power than the average person even knew was possible had been sent rustling agitatedly through the political long grass all around purely because the Gaoians hadn’t made their commune wheelchair-accessible.
“Are you pushing for an American in that seat?” he asked.
Darcy shrugged. “I don’t make policy, I advise.”
“You must have some opinion.” The helicopter jolted as it was towed out onto the concrete.
“The president and my superiors all seem to think that Arés caved to British sensibilities too quickly.” Darcy told him. “They think he should have encouraged CCS to be armed in case of an invasion if for no other reason.”
“And you think…?” Darcy was even harder to pin down than Martel, though in her case inscrutability was a sign of competent composure rather than Twitter-fearing meekness.
The question was met with a disinterested shrug. “I don’t see what difference it’d make,” she said. “Cops aren’t there to fight alien invasions, they’re there to keep the peace.”
“Finally, somebody speaks sense… It’s good to see you by the way, even if you do have a habit of showing up when you’re least expected.”
Darcy actually grinned. “I do have hobbies…”
“Ones you can indulge in on the road?”
“Oh yeah. You should see my coloring book.”
Tremblay chuckled. “So your hobbies are relaxing ones. Coloring book, green tea…”
“Huh. How’d you know that one?”
“Kevin Jenkins. You know he won’t mind if you ask for tea whenever you visit him, right?”
“And deprive him of a chance to use that big commercial espresso machine of his?”
“You know what he’s like. If he sets to making you a cup of tea, it’ll be the best damn tea you ever had.”
Darcy laughed. “Right. And ruin me for other tea forever? No thanks.”
Tremblay gave her a curious look as they lurched off the ground and gained altitude. “You’re in a good mood today…”
She looked around “Is there any wood in here to knock on?”
“Well… don’t look now, but things are going pretty well. You heard about Vedregnenug’s little cups game?”
Tremblay snorted. “Hah! Yeah. Nadeau said he had a hard time keeping a straight face when Vedreg asked if he’d ever heard of a shell corporation.”
Darcy smiled. “It got onto the pre-approval list for a limited term lease of the system shield’s assembly schematics for testing reasons.”
“So they haven’t actually released one to us?”
“The lease is supposed to be for evaluation purposes and it’s all under close guard so that whoever’s testing it can’t duplicate the emitter prior to receiving a full license.” Darcy crossed her legs demurely and sat back looking smug. “Of course, if the testing ship were raided by privateers…”
Tremblay nodded, seeing why she had let herself aboard his helicopter. “You want me to send in our HEAT Gaoians.”
“Exactly. The Racing Thunder could get them in and out quick and quiet. As far as the Guvnurag are concerned the emitter blueprint was snatched by Gaoian pirates, Vedreg’s little shell company declares bankruptcy because it can’t afford the fines…”
“And we get our system shield.” Tremblay nodded. “I like it. Think I’ll come on over to Cimbrean with you and discuss it with Knight…”
Darcy smiled again and produced the coloring book from her handbag. “It should,” she said, “be a productive trip…”
First Contact Day, 12y AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Myun was under no illusions about whether or not she was anonymous in a crowd: She wasn’t. She was half a foot taller than any of her Sisters and almost as bulky as a strong male. Being one of only six thousand Gaoians on the planet, and the one that anybody who visited the Commune saw first just completed the absolute certainty that she couldn’t go anywhere in Folctha without being recognized.
But if she’d learned anything from watching TV, it was that a strange kind of anonymity came just from walking confidently as if nothing remotely unusual was happening. Look busy, focused and authoritative and the attention of others would just skip past. People—humans especially—noticed suspicious or shifty movements instantly. They were wired to look for something out of place. If you pretended you were in place, then…
That was the theory, at least. She’d never actually put that theory into practice, but it seemed to work. She walked confidently from the commune to the right address, marched in through the front door, dropped the package she was carrying into the right mailbox and lifted the flag with a bored expression, and then returned to the commune via the kebab shop on Tennyson Street. Just a Sister out running some errands and grabbing a snack.
Besides: Kebab meat.
Kebab meat and getting to do a good deed, and put something into practice she’d seen on TV?
That was a good day.
Date Point 12y AV
BGEV-11 ’Misfit’. Uncharted System, Near 3Kpc Arm
“So yeah, uh… Happy First Contact Day everyone, this is the survey log for our fourth planet. We aren’t gonna stay on this one. It’s a terrestrial world, right temperature, looks mostly pretty good down there, but the Corti classification algorithm is turning out to be useless again.”
Julian cleared his throat and took a sip of water. It seemed kinda stupid to be recording these logs: Nobody could listen to them until they got back to Earth anyway, which was months away. The idea was supposed to be to record events as they happened but in that case why not just give him a word processor and tell him to write a journal?
Xiù thought it was a publicity thing. Allison had pointed out that if that was the case, they’d have a jump array on board to send the mail back instantly.
“Why don’t we have a jump array, anyway?” he asked, the question suddenly occurring to him. Across the hab, Allison looked up from the technical manual she was studying.
“Allied Extrasolar Command vetoed it,” she said.
“They did? Why?”
“Something about how if we’re eaten by Hunters or whatever, they’d be able to use the Array to get past the system shield and invade Earth or Cimbrean…” she shrugged. “Cheery thought, ain’t it?”
“What about Armstrong station?”
“Dude, we can jump back there any time we like,” Allison pointed out.
“Exactly! Why not give us a jump array that links there and we can send updates every day?”
Allison just shrugged and went back to her reading. “Ask Clara and Kevin.”
Julian turned back to the camera. “…Anyway. We’ve named this new planet ’Curie’. According to the Corti algorithm it’s a nice class nine… until we tried to land. Then *Misfit*’s radiation hazard alarm went off, and the rating got bumped up to an eleven. Turns out the planet’s magnetic field is kinda on the weak side and maybe getting weaker, so there’s a lot of solar particles hitting the upper atmosphere and that’s creating lots of secondary effects… which is something that happens on Earth too, but this was way, way more so. A couple of orders of magnitude more.”
“We landed successfully but the background count at ground level was still as high as you’d find in a uranium mine - not terrible, but you wouldn’t want to stay for long and it sure ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids. It’s a nice place: pretty snowy mountains, these big fern tree things, lots of interesting critters, but with the radiation we figured it was best to just move on. I’m not sure, but I think that planet might not be habitable too much longer anyway. That much solar wind hitting it has got to be blowing the atmosphere away…”
He cleared his throat and took a sip of water. “So yeah, after Lucent, Curie is kinda disappointing but we’ve still got four strong leads ahead of us. Here’s to the next one, I guess…”
He toasted the camera with his water bottle then turned off the feed.
“You’re turning into a showman, you know,” Allison commented, swiping right on her tablet to ‘turn’ a page.
“Been talking to Xiù about it.” Julian nodded toward the bunks, where Xiù was curled up asleep. She mumbled something and turned over on hearing her name, but didn’t wake.
He was definitely looking forward to the next time they could make planetfall and synchronize their sleeping cycles for a while. The two-awake-one-asleep system they had to use during flight was nowhere near as much fun—they’d switched the clock to Cimbrean time and used the extra couple hours a day as “triple time” to do stuff together but he was starting to think longingly of Minnesota. He didn’t get enough time nowadays to just sit and watch the girls.
“Right.” Allison swiped through another page, much too soon to have read it properly.
She looked up in the suddenly attentive way of somebody whose attention had been hauled violently back to here and now. “Hmm?”
“You okay?” Julian repeated.
“…Yuh. Think I’m goin’ a little stir-crazy though.” Allison put her book down, stretched and yawned.
“Did you exercise yet?”
“Ugh.” She threw her head back, stared at the ceiling for a moment then rubbed her face and stood. “Okay, yeah. Maybe that’ll help.”
Julian nodded and activated the quiet field around the bunks for Xiù’s benefit. Clara had installed it for them during their quick stop at Armstrong Station and it had made a huge difference—both he and Xiù were light sleepers, and wrapping the beds in a protective cocoon of silence had dramatically improved things for both of them. It made it much easier to do the noisy stuff around the hab too.
Allison of course could hibernate through a hurricane, flat on her back and snoring. Even as an abductee she’d had somewhere safe to sleep where discovery and life-or-death questions of survival hadn’t been an issue.
She checked the exercise schedule Xiù had prepared for them, then folded the couch back into the wall and unfolded the treadmill instead. Julian hit the weights and put his music on, on the grounds that Allison honestly didn’t seem to care what was playing, so he may as well please himself.
“So what’s up next?” she asked, once she’d hit her stride. “We’ve had giant bugs and radiation… man-eating venus fly traps?”
“Yurgh. Bad memories there. I ever tell you about the mangrabber vines on Nightmare?”
“I don’t think so?”
“They’re fuckin’…The vines are super-stretchy, like bungee cord, and they pump sap into them to extend towards a nearby warm thing… like, say, a sleeping Julian that picked the wrong place to bed down for the night. And they’re covered in these backwards-facing hook spines like a bramble, so they tangle something up, haul it back to the base, it dies of thirst and the rotting meat fertilizes the soil.”
“Yeah. Getting out of that one the first time scratched me to shit and blunted my knife.”
“Hope we don’t run into anything like that…” The treadmill picked up a gear. “Imagine if they tangled up the ship!”
“Yeah.” Julian grunted as he started a set of leg extensions. “Here’s hoping the next planet’s nice and boring…”
Date Point: 12y AV
Uncharted Planet, Near 3Kpc Arm
The end of winter was the most important time in Yan’s year. His crest had gone back to the pale yellowish-orange of an ordinary man, rather than the flaming scarlet blaze that marked Given Men. His muscles had shrunk, he was light enough to traverse the upper branches again, he could feel the weight of the season on him.
But the sun felt warm today, and there were new green shoots coming up, forcing their way past the snow.
To a Given Man, that meant something special.
The tribe barely noticed. They were too busy cooing over the little girl that had been born to the Singer and Vemik. Yan’s niece had borne her first child well and stoically, and had presented the pale beige little bundle to her father with a sweaty, exhausted smile.
A quiet child. Alive and warm and breathing, but she didn’t wail—at worst, she grumbled. Mostly, she watched and flailed her hands aimlessly at whatever caught her attention.
Vemik and Vemet had promptly gone on the birth hunt in search of a suitable beast to thank the gods for the health of both child and mother: Yan had gone with them. They were family now, after all.
They had shown him the Destroyer they had killed. A nesting Natla had set up a warm bowl of sticks and fur in one of its upper recesses and there were still a few lines of melting slush between the slicing sharp blades of the monstrosity’s upper hide.
The ground was black and dead beneath it where its guts had spilled out and for some distance around: a few poisoned sticks remained rooted, but they were obviously beyond saving. It was an island of corruption in the forest, and the three of them stayed well away from it.
“You’re brave men, I’ll grant you that,” Yan commented at last. Vemik and Vemet both smiled sheepishly.
“It took us a week to work up the courage to even let it see us,” Vemet confessed.
“Sensible caution,” Yan said dismissively. He looked up and tasted the air—There was a greasy, odd scent on the wind that nearly overpowered the sharp flavor of the spring thaw. “I’m glad it’s far from the village, though.”
“I wouldn’t hunt here anyway. I don’t want to know what kind of curse it might have left on the meat,” Vemet grumbled.
“You’ll find a good prize, I know it. My great-niece deserves no less.” Yan shouldered his pack and straightened. “…I’ll see you in the summer.”
“I wish you’d tell me where you go, Yan…” Vemik grumbled. Yan trilled quietly and gave the younger man’s crest a ruffle as if he was still a boy.
“The world is full of secrets you’ll never learn, Sky-Thinker. Get used to it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to know everything, Yan,” Vemik replied. They gripped each other’s’ wrists and hugged.
“Be careful, Yan,” Vemet advised. “It’s dangerous out there right now…”
“It’s always dangerous out there,” Yan replied as they hugged as well. “…but I’ll be careful.”
The two of them stepped back and waited as he finished checking his possessions.
There was a balancing act involved in the annual Journey. He needed to carry enough to live, but not so much as to exhaust himself. He had plenty of cord, a piece of fire-hardened Werne femur for a club and for basic flint-knapping, a sturdy short spear with plenty of other uses if he needed them, and some food wrapped up in a hide bundle tied around his waist. Nothing exciting—Werne jerky, pemmican, some dried berries and some spices and herbs in pouches—but enough to avoid starving and to turn a basic meal into a luxury.
The Journey was several things. Among them it was a test and practice—a chance to keep his skills sharp by pitting them against the real consequences of failure. Do, or die.
Yan had Done several times, and it didn’t take him long to get into his rhythm.
For women, and for slight young men like Vemik, brachiation was a balletic and smooth process higher up in the trees where the foliage was sparser. Heavy-set brutes like Yan were forced to stick to the lower, sturdier limbs and crash through the brush like a charging Werne.
The skin of his arms and chest was dark, tough and leathery from long years of being whipped by passing thorns and sticks, and that natural protection allowed him to hit a good meditative pace that took away half the day quite easily.
He made camp just after the top of the day by folding some branches together to make a suitable nest, and stood up straight to stretch out. He scrounged up some appropriate firewood, secured his food against scavengers, then explored the area around his camp in search of dinner.
He found it in the form of a bibtaw burrow. The little furballs were perfect for on the trail—stick a spear into their burrow and one of the males would bravely lunge at the “intruder” to protect the warren, and could be easily skewered. It wasn’t an honorable or impressive kill, but it was food that cost him almost nothing to acquire.
He roasted it over his campfire directly below the nest and hung the skin in the smoke to get started on drying it out. Bibtaw skins were just the right size to make bags. Rubbed with a few herbs and eaten alongside a few tanew nuts and fresh young green leaves, the unfortunate critter made for a solid and delicious meal, especially when he cracked its thin skull and savored the nutty brains.
He stayed awake and stared contemplatively into the fire, poking and fuelling it as the dark closed around him, then used the last of the sunset to scale back up to his nest and settled down in the hot air rising from the ashes.
When he woke in the morning and looked back, High Forest mountain was pleasingly distant and small—he’d made good progress yesterday. His destination was toward the rising sun, so he ate the last of yesterday’s meat, packed his new bibtaw skin, and set out.
Each day was different in the field. Some were clear and comfortably cool, some were grey and damp, some were miserably wet and one or two forced him to huddle shivering in impromptu ground-level shelters.
The moon had gone through more than half of its cycle by the time he found the first trail mark. Two straight sticks lashed together pointed him slightly south of the course he’d been taking
It was about time, too—He was starting to feel his Fire.
The Fire was one of the things that separated Given Men from others, and it was a secret that Vemik would have thought upon long and solemnly. It started slowly and gently as an intensity in his step and a fierceness in the way he would bully from branch to branch, shouldering the whipping twigs aside as if they had personally offended him.
Over the next two days, it got worse. When a particularly springy branch caught him in the face he gripped it with a snarl and tore it from the tree, spitting the most fearsome curses he knew until he caught himself and realized how stupid he was being, to get so angry at wood.
And the things he did to the poor stupid werne that blundered into the midst of the root-birds he was planning to eat and scattered them… At least there was enough left to eat after he was done with it. And the catharsis of indulging the anger simmering causelessly inside him temporarily dampened it and helped him think straight again.
Which was why he didn’t rip apart the younger man who attacked him.
It was a rainy day when they met, and he was angry about that. He was angry about the cold wetness slicking his crest to his back. He was angry about a treacherous patch of slippery moss that had nearly sent him plummeting from the tree. He was angry about being hungry and he was angry about being angry.
But, he wasn’t in a full rage yet. He was still Yan, who had been here a dozen times in his life and knew how to ride the anger and let it flow around and past him while leaving his essential Yan-ness untouched.
The newcomer was… not. He wasn’t young, Given Men never were. They only became Given Men after going through the Change, which came later in life if it came at all. But this man had clearly only just gone through his Change, and it was never pretty. The rage…
…Was always difficult. But it was far beyond being mere rage the first time. The first time, when a man was chosen by the gods to be Given, he became nothing but violence.
Yan found him laying into a wounded neyma. Neyma were more skittish than Werne, and much more fragile: they were hard to catch, but their legs broke easily. This one was bleating and whickering in pain and panic as the hunter advanced on it with his hand-axe. A good kill! Skillful.
Except that he heard Yan approaching, span, spat a curse and charged. He bounded across the leaf litter with his axe in hand, loping animalistically with his hackles up and his fangs bared.
Yan leapt backwards up a tree. He swung around the trunk by his tail as the axe knocked a hand-sized chunk of bark out of the wood where his head had been moments ago.
Scramble, dodge, jump, push. Had to get close to wrestle, or that axe would kill him. Couldn’t brave the axe to get close enough.
But, advantage: Thinking. Still had thoughts beyond just kill. Could remember not to kill, could remember how to do more than charge and destroy.
He scrambled higher up into the thinner limbs as the axe chok!-ed into the wood at his heels and found what he was looking for five man-heights above the ground—a branch strong enough to just hold one Given Man, but not two. He dashed out onto it and turned as if cornered.
His opponent snarled triumphantly and pursued. The branch shook, sagged, cracked, then snapped.
Yan hung by his tail and hands from the branch above him and watched as the raging younger man lost his footing, dropped his axe, scrabbled desperately at the broken branch. He arrested his fall but the jolt tore apart the last of the branch’s strength and he fell three man-lengths down to earth and landed heavily in the leaf mold where he lay writhing and winded.
Yan’s blood was singing with the urge to rip the upstart apart. He surged down the tree, snatched up the other man’s dropped axe and caught himself just as he raised it with murder in his eyes.
The two of them stared at each other in the tense, deadly moment and the younger man broke the spell by croaking out something.
“Please…. Sorry… Sorry…”
Yan snarled and took out his frustration on the hand-axe by flinging it viciously into the underbrush. He backed off and took several deep breaths to recover himself.
“I know… I know.” He grunted. He extended a hand and helped the younger man to his feet. “First time?”
“Yes…Tarek. Tarek Bark-Breaker.”
They hugged like old friends.
“I’m sorry,” Tarek repeated.
“I don’t blame you,” Yan replied. “You don’t have a Given Man to mentor you?”
“He went away. We don’t know what happened to him, he just…”
“Let me guess. You saw smoke from another village and he went to investigate?”
Tarek stiffened. “Yes! You too?”
“The young man we sent to look came back, burned but alive. Something destroyed the village… ours was east of here.”
“Mine is north.”
“*Godshit!*” Yan swore. “That means there’s more than one…”
“A beast, like a Skithral made of stone, twice as big as a yshek. It spits blue fire and sends birds with knives for wings to scout for it.”
Tarek blinked at him. “You SAW it?”
“Saw its corpse. Two men of my village found it asleep and tore its guts out.”
Tarek sighed and relaxed a little. “At least it had guts to tear out. What kind of beast spits fire?”
“I don’t understand it either…” Yan looked around, and saw the trail sign not far away between the trees. “We’re only two days from the lodge. I’ll stay with you, Tarek. Help you damp that Fire.”
“Thank you, Yan.” Tarek wiped sweat out of his ears and shook himself out. “It’s… been hard. I nearly killed my brother.”
Yan put a hand on his shoulder sympathetically. “…I know. But the Lodge will help you.”
Tarek shot an irritated glance at the Neyma, which was still making strangled agonized bleating noises. “We should shut that up.”
“Mm. Don’t let good meat go to waste. You’ll need it.” Yan retrieved his dropped spear and made a ’do you mind if I-?’ gesture to the wounded beast. Tarek twitched his head in assent, and moments later the wailing animal was mercifully and easily dead.
The two of them knelt and anointed themselves with its blood—a touch between the eyes, and two stripes under each eye—and set about butchering the carcass, which was quick work for two seasoned hunters.
The act of getting a square meal sorted out quickly killed any lingering animosity between them. Besides, Yan was familiar with the way that being around another Given Man at this time seemed to soothe, somehow. The Fire didn’t go away, but it burned lower just for knowing that somebody else nearby was suffering it as well.
Small though neyma were they yielded plenty of meat, far more than Yan and Tarek could eat in one sitting so they smoked and preserved what they didn’t eat as well as they could. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to keep the meat good for the remaining couple of days they had to go until they reached the Lodge.
They slept at a respectful distance from one another, though, and Yan let him nest on the lower, warmer branch and woke up stiff from the cold in the morning.
This close to the lodge, the trail sign was thick enough to trip over. They made good progress despite stopping every now and again to repair a sign that had been disrupted by the weather or an animal. With no need to hunt they were able to go on for most of the afternoon, and they finally set their camp at a spot Yan knew well, by the rapids of a stream that was far too small to contain any yshek and where the water was good to drink.
Tarek spoke to him for the first time all day as Yan unwrapped one of the neyma’s shanks and bit gratefully into the cold meat.
“How do you control it?”
Yan looked up chewing, and tried to let a stab of irrational irritation slide off him. “Hmm?”
“The Fire. It’s… everything is irritating me. How do you fight that?”
Yan bit down the urge to snap at what wasn’t a stupid question no matter what the Fire was telling him. “You don’t.”
Tarek growled and stood up. “*What.*”
Yan’s instincts sang about putting the silly little upstart in his place but he deflected the anger toward the Fire itself.
“I knock it aside. I remind myself to be angry at something harmless. And I try to stay busy and tired. Just until we get to the Lodge.”
“And we can deal with it there?”
Yan nodded. “There’s magic, and a vision, and food. You’ll see tomorrow.”
“It had better be soon. I just want to… break something.”
“Go ahead. So long as you don’t break anything of mine, please.”
Tarek blinked at him then surged to his feet and vanished into the brush. A minute or so later there came the sound of crashing and crackling as he released his Fire harmlessly. A startled trio of birds whirred desperately overhead and Yan watched them vanish between the trees, musing on Vemik’s special spear-thrower. He wondered if it might be possible to shoot one of those birds as it flew.
He was going to have to tell the others about that thing. Given Men traded knowledge like that at the lodge every year, and soon Vemik’s spear-thrower would be all over the forest. In a few years, they would be a normal part of life.
And the peace would be kept.
Date Point: First Contact Day, 12y AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
General Martin Tremblay
“Where in the hell did you get this?”
Gabriel Arés shrugged painfully, and he seemed to need a kind of mental run-up to launch into speech. The quiet precision was gone from his voice, replaced with a halting quality almost like he was drunk and dazed. “I, uh, don’t know… uh. My partner got home, sh-she said, uh, said it was in our mailbox, and…as soon as I, uh, figured out what it is, uh…”
He trailed off.
Tremblay gave the three vials on the desk a long, awed look. “You called us.”
Arés nodded. “Uh… I admit, uh I was, uh…tem-tempted to use a dose.”
Powell rubbed his jaw, then picked up a wall phone, and hit a button. “Technical sergeant Kovač to wardroom two, please. Cheers.”
He put the phone down and picked up one of the vials as the call went out on the base announcement system. “Real Cruezzir, by God.”
“The full-fat, unadulterated, genuine product,” Tremblay agreed.
“Without the built-in self destruct,” Knight finished. “This isn’t three vials, gentlemen, it’s an unlimited supply. All we need to do is synthesize it.”
“Bloody easy, if Saunders and Delaney are any guide,” Powell grunted.
Tremblay stroked his chin. “I thought the whole project was scrapped. Where did this come from, and is it still good?”
“That’s why I called for Kovač,” Powell explained. “Dunno about the where it came from bit, but she can tell us if it’s still good right quick.”
In a classic ’speak-of-the-devil’ moment, the woman herself chose that moment to knock and enter.
“Reporting as ordered, sirs.”
Powell handed her a vial. “Happy First Contact Day, sergeant.”
Kovač stared at it and promptly geeked out. “Omigod, is this-? It IS! Where-?”
Gabe Arés waved gently from his wheelchair. “Some, uh, good Samaritan left it in my mailbox.”
“Is it viable, sergeant?” Tremblay asked, urgently. Kovač paused, then held it up to the light.
“…Probably? I’d need to run it through the lab…”
“Right away, please,” Tremblay ordered.
She hugged it to her chest and backed toward the door. “Yes sir!”
“Sergeant…” Knight held up a hand to stop her and looked to Tremblay. “I think in light of the circumstances, our chief of colonial security deserves some recognition of his sacrifice, don’t you?”
Tremblay nodded and gave Gabe a thoughtful look. “I think you’re right. And we could solve a strategic inconvenience, too…”
Powell nodded. “Aye. …If you want it, Gabe?”
Arés hesitated. “I uh… what? Sorry, I got lost again…”
Knight nodded. “Sergeant, would you please prepare a course of Crue-D for Mister Arés and release it to Staff Sergeant Arés for him to monitor? Including all the appropriate SACRED STRANGER paperwork, the non-disclosure and so on.”
Kovač smiled. “At once, sir.”
Tremblay could see Arés struggling to wrestle his brain into gear as she left. “Crue-, uh, Crue-D? Full fat? General, is, uh…?”
Tremblay sighed and sat down opposite him. “Seven years ago, we negotiated a trade deal with the Corti. They had developed a, um, limited version of Cruezzir with most of the negative side effects removed, some long-term limits on its effectiveness and, most important, it couldn’t be synthesized by a human’s gut microbes,” he explained. “It’s the key to HEAT training.”
“Train fookin’ hard until yer droppin’ down from wrecked muscles, pop a Crude patch or a shot if your boy’s been pushin’ us hard… and then it’s all right as rain a couple of hours later, and stronger than before. It’s a fookin’ nasty way to get strong, but it fookin’ works,” Powell commented.
“…You’re on this stuff, Powell?”
“And Adam, of course.”
“…Since he was seventeen. Aye.”
Gabe gave him a long, cool stare that came with a sudden resurgence of his usual focus. “You gave a teenager an experimental alien medicine.”
Tremblay and Knight glanced at each other, but Powell grabbed a chair and sat down in front of him,. “…Offered,” he said, quietly. “And he accepted, freely and of his own volition.”
“He was just a boy!”
“No.” Powell shook his head seriously. “He wasn’t. I don’t think I ever knew your son as just a boy. Besides, you must’ve bloody known summat was up! He didn’t get that big on his own, right? You must’ve seen it. Suspected.”
“And now you’ve gone and confirmed those suspicions!” Gabe tried to stand, failed, and sat back cursing. “Madre de Dios, the Corti?!”
“Personally, I’d trust them as far as your son could throw them.” Tremblay said. “You just have to know how to pull their strings.”
Gabe grunted, touched his forehead and visibly pulled his thoughts together. “I… you’re right, I knew. I knew it had to be Cruezzir or something like it. I’m… sorry.”
“Don’t be. If my son tried to join HEAT I’d be…” Knight trailed off. “Well. I’m glad he never will.”
Gabe frowned at him. “…I didn’t even know you’re a father,” he confessed.
“Oh yes. A son and a daughter. Doctor Robert Knight is a paediatric orthopaedic surgeon at Great Ormond Street.”
“And your daughter?”
“Followed her old man’s footsteps, I fear. But we’re digressing.” Knight cleared his throat. “The point is, that same medicine would be ideal for helping you overcome your own difficulties. If you’ll have it…”
“It’s the least we can do,” Tremblay agreed.
“Powell?” Gabe asked.
“Gabe, mate, I promise you this: I’d never let your son or anybody else near the stuff if I wasn’t perfectly happy wi’ it myself. You’ve got a chance most blokes who suffered an injury like yours would fookin’ beg for, so for Chrissakes, bloody take it.”
“I… it feels like a cheap way out.”
Tremblay was surprised by Powell’s response: the reply seemed to momentarily give him pause and he looked away.
“…Aye. I can see why you’d think that,” he conceded at last. “An’ I’ve always bloody respected your commitment to doin’ things by the book or not at all. We’re givin’ you a way to avoid a long and bloody difficult recovery, assuming you recover at all. I can see how you’d feel that’s the simple way out. But…”
Gabe raised his head and listened intently. “Yeah?”
“…I dunno, mate. Do you turn down a fookin’ paracetamol when you get a headache? Or the anaesthetic when you go for an operation? This right here-” he picked up one of the Cruezzir vials. “—This right here is gonna be the by-the-book way to deal with injuries like yours in the not-too-distant future. This is the right way. This isn’t some fookin’ bribe, Gabe, or a cheap way out—this is your bloody medicine, mate. So stop bein’ fookin’ daft and take it, aye?”
“Hear, hear,” Knight commented.
It was to Tremblay that Gabe turned last. “I don’t…” he flapped his hands irritably until the word came to him. “trust anything this easy!” he said, almost pleading. “There’s always a… a catch!”
Tremblay considered him carefully. “Maybe…” he agreed. “Maybe. But from where I’m standing I’d weigh the potential catch against the known consequences of your injury… and discuss it with your son.”
Powell and Knight both nodded.
“What…what would Adam tell me?”
“That’d be between you and him,” Powell said. “But nobody alive knows the effects of Crue-D better than him.”
Tremblay picked up the remaining two Cruezzir vials. “I need to get these back to SCERF immediately,” he said. “Mr. Arés… thank you. You’ve done humanity an incredible service today.”
“Uh… uh, sure.” Gabe managed. “*De nada.*”
Tremblay shot Powell a look that said ’take care of him’ in absolutely certain terms, which made the major stand up straight before Tremblay let himself out of the room and strode purposefully toward the relay link to Scotch Creek. Men and women from every branch of the militaries of three nations got out of his way as well as they could in the narrow corridors, sensing that if there was ever such a thing as a good time to impede the Supreme Allied Commander, this definitely wasn’t it.
The Cimbrean end of the military Array was manned by two Royal Navy technicians, who straightened sharply as he entered as did the marine guarding it.
“One for Scotch Creek, sir?” the senior of them asked.
“Yes please. How soon until it’s charged?”
“It’s ready to send a lone man already, sir. Three hours until it’s ready for a full-capacity send, scheduled jump’s in five hours.”
Tremblay considered. The sensible thing, probably, would be to wait for the scheduled jump and not use power that wasn’t going to be used anyway.
But in the immortal words of a historical peer of his: Nuts. They had Cruezzir, and he wasn’t going to breathe easily until it was safely in as many labs on as many planets as he could manage. Some things were just so precious that the idea of dallying…
“Right away, please.”
“Yes sir.” The techs jumped to and Tremblay parked himself firmly in the green square at the center of the Array and waited carefully. He could have stuck out the hours until the scheduled jump, but the very idea just filled his head with awful visions of tripping and smashing the vials he was carrying, or…
Something like that. There was a snap and a sudden moment of lurching gravity as he was translocated back to Earth, and he made immediately for Ted Bartlett’s office.
Some things were just too important to wait on.
Date Point: 12y1w4d AV
Starship Racing Thunder, Interstellar Space, Confederacy Territory
Shipfather Yefrig duck-nodded by way of replying in the affirmative, though the set of his ears was… not embarrassed, but certainly less than completely happy.
“The consultants from the Royal Navy had much to say,” he explained. “Most of their observations are not the kind of thing we can implement without a full overhaul at a shipyard, but some are simple programming changes to the shields.”
“Things like radiating the ship’s energy output in a coherent beam away from anything that might see it,” Regaari guessed. It was the first trick he’d learned that human warships had up their sleeves, having witnessed it in action aboard HMS Caledonia in the aftermath of the battles at Capitol Station and the planet Garden.
“Yes, that’s right,” Yefrig agreed. “We’ll never be as stealthy as a human destroyer, not without that special surface material they use, but that trick alone has made us much quieter, and it’s just one of several we…” he cleared his throat “’learned’ from them.”
Regaari knew where the hesitation came from. Pride was one of the great traits of the One-Fangs, and Gaoians were a naturally proud people anyway. The unspoken subtext to the word ’learned’ there had been ’we could have thought it up, of course, but we were doing things differently’.
He couldn’t quite resist the way his ears wanted to flick, just for a second and by millimeters, into a Gaori ’I-told-you-so’. Fortunately, Yefrig either failed to notice or else showed impressive restraint and elected not to react. Whichever it might be, Regaari mentally chastised himself—while antagonizing the *Racing Thunder*’s shipfather was not completely out of the question if there was something to be gained from it, right now there was not. To the contrary, he needed to be in Yefrig’s good graces.
He could sympathize with Yefrig’s mild chagrin, however. Humans had been figuring out steam power at around about the time that Gaoians had perfected quantum computing, and it was natural to feel off-balance when a species with a technology-lag like that turned out to know your own business better than you did. It was almost like seeing a Father receive a lecture from a precocious initiate who was completely and demonstrably in the right: There was no course of action the Father could take that didn’t leave at least a few hairs rubbed the wrong way, and a lingering feeling of having lost face.
Besides, mostly their advantages came from… tricks. From using things in previously unconsidered or unorthodox ways. There was nothing special about the idea of coherent emission as opposed to omnidirectional radiation—indeed, it was actually the less effective way to get rid of waste heat—but the idea to use it to minimize detection in combat should have been obvious.
Human tricks were like that: Irritatingly obvious, in hindsight.
Still. Sometimes, the Gaoians got to flex their muscles and the Whitecrest answer to an EV-MASS was one of those occasions.
Just like the EV-MASS, the Suit was an unpowered spacesuit that provided pressure for the wearer mechanically rather than through an internal atmosphere. And like the Humans’ suit, the wearer needed to be exceptionally tough, well-conditioned, and strong. The design rationales were sound and there was no reason to reinvent the wheel, as Great Mother Nitae would have said, so Whitecrest decided to target the design for high-quality recruits who had completed a military Clan’s most intensive training: recruits like Regaari and his Brothers, who easily met the requirements.
As did Daar in fact, but he wasn’t going to be a full-time member of HEAT. Stainless had other plans for the massive brute and Regaari was not yet privy to them. A shame, really. With Daar’s incredible body and with advanced Gaoian technology…
But…no. Daar was far too big and noticeable to fill the same role as the Whitecrest Brothers. He would be much more like the Human Defenders in function—in fact, that role was what he was being trained for, and what aligned with his existing skills—but a Gaoian was not a Human and not even a singular specimen like Daar perfectly compared. He was strong and fast and tough as an old Keeda tale, but the Humans of HEAT were tougher still and had better endurance, amongst other advantages. What Daar’s role would be, Stainless wasn’t telling, but Daar was actually excited by the prospects and that was enough for Regaari.
That meant the Suits were designed more with Regaari and his Brothers in mind. They represented something much closer to the Gaoian mean and that made the suit good for lean and small operatives as well as Stoneback brutes. And since Human males tended to be hugely robust and heavily muscled compared to Gaoians (Brothers like Daar aside), a copycat design of the EV-MASS was untenable, so Whitecrest and One-Fang kept the premise of the suits themselves but reworked every other aspect of the design. The result was significantly lighter, a result driven by different priorities (speed over safety, because speed is safety) and vastly more advanced materials. The Suit was barely heavier than an ordinary security or military shield harness, in fact, but the improvements it packed in were impressive.
First, they had borrowed some armor concepts from the Humans and developed a reactive material that hardened into a rigid shell when struck, thereby dispersing the energy of a kinetic pulse hit across the whole body. They had tested the Suit by having Righteous hit it as hard as he could with a softball bat, and the testing dummy had recorded no significant injury despite being smashed across the room by a blow that had bent and broken the alloy bat.
Then the Human Brothers got competitive and had started to really abuse the dummy, attempting to inflict maximum damage. They tried weapons, combative techniques, tossing it off the water tower, all sorts of things. Righteous looked like he was going to win the impromptu competition but a full-strength, loudly thudding straight punch from Warhorse had definitively knocked him into second place.
Righteous had given his friend a complex look, then crossed the room to examine the way that the dummy had actually become wedged in the drywall. “…You’ve been holding back on me, bro. Damn.”
Warhorse’s face had gone crimson and he had grumbled incoherently for a bit, but whether he’d been holding back or not turned out to be irrelevant: The dummy had survived it all with nothing worse than perhaps a simulated cracked rib.
With kinetic pulse weaponry taken care of, the shields had been re-tuned to deal with high-velocity projectiles like bullets and shrapnel. Rather than put up a single strong shield which tried to stop the hit outright or burn out in the attempt, the Suits instead put up a nested quadruple layer of weaker shields that robbed incoming projectiles of their momentum and deflected them rather than stopping them outright.
It wasn’t perfect. .50 cal punched right through the shields, as did the longer-barreled marksman version of the GR-1d used by Murray and Blaczynski. But as Rebar had pointed out, there was no such thing as a perfect defense and even the HEAT Operators obeyed the general rule that the best armor was not getting shot in the first place. The Gaoian Suits were providing a lot of protection for a fraction of the weight of an EV-MASS, and that was the important part.
Besides: when it came to not getting shot in the first place, the Gaoian Suit arguably had EV-MASS beat. The lightweight construction left the wearer free to benefit from his natural agility and nimble speed, but even better was the camouflage. Gaoian technology had permitted them to coat the entire Suit in a layer of context-mimicking pigment nanites that could closely imitate the pattern of their surroundings. This was supplemented by a metamaterial sheath that bent and blurred light through the edges of the Suit, fading and breaking up its silhouette. The system took a second or so to perfectly adjust to its surroundings, but a motionless Whitecrest could stand next to a wall and reasonably expect to go unnoticed.
They were absolutely perfect for the infiltration, scouting and spotting that were the Gaoians’ roles on a HEAT unit, and a fully functioning spacesuit capable of the same exo-atmospheric drops and EVA as an EV-MASS.
Different species called for different approaches. A lot of work had gone into making those approaches complement and synergize with one another.
And then, intriguingly, their first real mission wasn’t going to involve the human side of the team at all. This had prompted Regaari to quote one of his favorite human movies: ’Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.’
He ran an eye over the information that Shipfather Yefrig was surveying. It was less arcane and impenetrable than he’d feared—the One-Fang Father was almost certainly getting more out of it than Regaari would be, but clarity and brevity of communication was essential on any warship and he knew enough about piloting and navigation to read the basics of what Yefrig was seeing.
“We’re doing well,” he observed.
“We’ll continue to do well,” Yefrig replied. He indicated the formation of Guvnurag ships up ahead of them. “We’re using their ALV drive wake to hide ours. Our emissions are all being aimed away from them, and at a distance of a tenth of a light-year they would need to stop and take some very careful measurements indeed to spot our albedo.”
“I wasn’t expecting that ship to have such a heavy guard…” Regaari mused. Three Guvnurag Ganwundurag-class escorts was quite a lot of firepower, but Yefrig didn’t seem to be concerned.
“This ship could tear all three of them to pieces in the first strike,” he promised. “Disabling them Human-style should be no more difficult.”
“Good. Admiral Knight was quite clear on the subject of casualties.”
Yefrig duck-nodded solemnly. The One-Fangs were under pressure to prove themselves just as much as the Whitecrests on this operation, if not more so. And while neither Clan was inclined toward needlessly violencing civilians, the Humans were absolutely dead-set against it and had been very clear indeed on what consequences would descend in the event of a needless slaughter.
The laws they imposed on what was and was not permitted spoke of alarming paranoia on their part…paranoia of the equally alarming darkness that Regaari had seen lurking in their history. They were scared of themselves, and that should not have been a comforting thought.
Then there was electronic warfare. Human warships were laden with “weapons” that existed to disable and blind an enemy ship rather than damage it, and it was hard sometimes to tell which rationale lay behind that doctrine—the desire to avoid unnecessary enemy casualties, or the desire to ensure that the foe could not meaningfully fight back and could be dismembered without risk.
Both, hopefully. Depending on contextual ethical considerations too situational, protean and intuitive to be easily defined from a Gaoian perspective. Regaari made a mental note to request an anthropological study on human moral codes. Personal experience was one thing, but the Gao needed to understand the issue more broadly if the two species were to have the kind of special relationship he was trying to engineer.
“I should get my Brothers ready,” he declared. Yefrig duck-nodded by way of agreement and the two of them grasped each other’s’ paws briefly in a mutual gesture that said ‘good luck’ and Regaari ducked through the hatchway out of the bridge.
That was another modification the Brothers of the *Racing Thunder*’s crew had installed after discussing things with the Royal Navy: Regularly-spaced pressure doors in addition to the containment fields already laid across bulkhead passages, built from the same titanium alloy that was enhancing the construction of Armstrong Station. It wasn’t perfect—it couldn’t be, not without a refit. Nor was it without consequence, as the doors slowed well-trained crew movements and the extra mass added to energy requirements, which lowered available power, which increased heat…
It was definitely a tradeoff of safety and survivability versus raw performance of both crew and ship, but the Humans had shown how much that safety could matter. In any case, perhaps it wasn’t truly a concern. The Racing Thunder was easily the fastest and most powerful warship of its kind and was the envy of all the Galactic fleets, Humans included. She was designed with speed and range first and foremost and all other factors secondary. But even with that slight dulling of her edge she was still the keenest blade. The Humans’ ideas enabled new capability and the ability to survive long and brutal fights, so why not?
The crew had rapidly adapted to the new doors and associated damage control procedures, which did much to satisfy Yefrig’s concerns. And besides, if the USS San Diego was any example, with its hugely over-rated reactors and its emphasis on power above all else, the Humans were learning from the Gaoians, too.
Enough. Regaari—Dexter—had a mission to worry about, and more importantly, he had a Suit to don. It was always the Suit and went by no other name. They had no acronym for it because acronyms were a Human enjoyment that Gaoians in general and Regaari in particular did not share. Here, he would allow the Humans no claim. The Suit may have been Human inspired but it was Gaoian designed, Gaoian made, and Gaoian worn. It was theirs.
But the best part was how it was worn. Their system had only two layers versus the Humans’ three. Instead of clunky docking collars the Suit’s armor and environmental layer split and joined seamlessly down the back and legs. Regaari arrived at his station and simply stepped into the Suit’s back after having dropped his clothing and equipment.
Well. He did need to slick his fur down in key places to avoid chafing and sadly, Gaoian anatomy did not allow for certain…*conveniences*…granted to his Human teammates. That meant he had to insert an exquisitely uncomfortable catheter instead of rely on a custom-made receptacle, but he’d discreetly handled that bit before his meeting with Yefrig. Fortunately, neither of the waste tubes remained bothersome for long.
Standing alongside for educational purposes was Petty Officer Dean Hargreaves, one of Warhorse’s suit techs. He watched the much quicker and far less onerous donning process, and could only shake his head enviously at the relative ease compared to EV-MASS.
“That looks nice and easy, ‘Dex.”
[“I am certainly not complaining!”] Regaari preened a bit in Gaori for his tech’s benefit, since implants were forbidden and they didn’t have a translator handy. [“Even if I could wear an] EV-MASS [I’d prefer something like this. The human suit is too much of a blunt instrument, Gaoians are built to hit fast, hit hard—”]
[“Hit once,”] Hargreaves finished with a chuckle. He’d come along on this educational jaunt in part because he was the most fluent in Gaori among the SOR’s technicians, even if he did have the unique Human “accent”. The tech chittered along as he reached between Regaari’s legs to connect the waste tubes and nestle things comfortably into place.
[“And if you can, avoid detection as—!”]
Regaari completed the thought just as his tech cinched the tubes into their positions, which caused Regaari to hold his breath and wince, cringing at the cold petroleum jelly and desperately remembering to trust his tech. Alas, that was the nature of it and not all indignities could be avoided. Full-service environment suits of any kind were like that the Galaxy over.
Hargreaves caught the tech’s eyes and they shared a resigned moment of common misery.
[“Did you ever think you’d be fondling another male’s] bollocks [for a living?”] Hargreaves asked sympathetically. The tech chittered resignedly while Regaari shot Hargreaves an annoyed look.
[“Do not belittle him. Maintaining these Suits is important and worthy work!”] As uncomfortable as such things were for Warhorse and Regaari, their techs weren’t exactly reveling in the experience, either.
[“Oh, I know! Come on, I have to juggle Warhorse! If he wasn’t about the nicest bloke alive I’d swear it was a cruel cosmic joke. Also,”] Hargreaves leaned against the wall and folded his arms with a cheeky grin, [“who are you to talk? Don’t you sleep in his bed when you’re on-call? You do know the story of how he got his nickname, yes?”]
Regaari combined a sigh with a chitter as his tech cinched a flat cooling tube around his waist. [“Better than you do I wager. But it’s not been a problem. Close contact doesn’t bother us, we prefer it anyway. We’re not as hung up about that as your kind apparently are. And in any case, space is limited until the fourth floor is complete, you know this. Which, I’ll note, hasn’t begun construction. It makes me wonder what games your bureaucrats are playing…”]
[“It’s called] ’Silly buggers’, mate.”
It had taken Regaari some time to unravel the essential cultural differences between the Americans and the British, and there were still a few knots in there where they thought alike but used quite different terminology to describe the same concept. For example: “buggered” as opposed to “fucked in the ass”. Either way, the imagery was truthful enough to make Regaari chitter.
[“Please don’t give Warhorse any ideas, I’d prefer to survive his mornings intact!”]
Hargreaves laughed while the tech swiveled his ears in a scandalized manner, but he said nothing; interspecies humor was always tricky. Instead he tucked Regaari’s tail between his legs and up towards the front, greased things liberally, stood up and then ran his paw down Regaari’s spine and legs to slick down the fur with the last of the petroleum jelly.
Petroleum jelly. The humans had discovered it accidentally while drilling for oil and over many years the heavy, greasy byproduct had accumulated a litany of odd and unexpected uses. It clung powerfully to fur and wouldn’t wash out easily, but it also didn’t bind or clump and nothing seemed to work as well. It was hypoallergenic, too. After all, It wouldn’t do to have Regaari’s fur trapped in the Suit’s seal, itching and inflaming everything. One last inspection and the tech pronounced the suit ready for sealing.
He stood back, Regaari held himself in the neutral position with arms up and feet planted wide, and the Button was pressed. The undersuit zipped itself up at the nanoscopic level, joining and weaving itself into a single molecularly perfect garment. There were absolutely no visible seams anywhere to be found because in a practical sense there were none.
Once the suit was sealed the expanding innermost layer activated and firmly squeezed down. The cooling system powered up, and those same motile nanites which sealed the suit performed minute self-adjustments across Regaari’s lean, muscular torso. This part was especially welcome given the HEAT’s arduous training and the gradual and continuous improvements across his body. It lessened tech time for adjustments, too. An EV-MASS technician was constantly fine-tuning the dimensions of their operator’s suit by millimeters, whereas Regaari’s Suit could handle those adjustments itself.
Within a few seconds the Suit was essentially a part of him. It felt less like he was wearing it than like his fur had grown thicker and heavier.
None of that was lost on Hargreaves. “Wish we had some of this tech. That nanoseal up the back of the suit would make things a lot easier…” he mused in English.
Regaari sighed as he tugged on his footwear and gloves. [“We can’t share that kind of technology,] Hargreaves, [you know that.”]
He fiddled a bit to seat them comfortably while Hargreaves watched; the rapid-response metamaterial at the clawtips was still a little fiddly, but it did mean that any of the Gaoian HEAT operators could effectively extend their claws through the suit without compromising the seal. The suit automatically coated the claws in an almost molecule-thin barrier and formed a very tight seal just above the quick, and could respond so quickly that it was no worse than extending claws through work gloves.
Regaari got his gloves seated, gave the claws a quick test, then moved onto his footwear while the motile seal closed. Hargreaves looked on wistfully.
“I know, I know… You can’t exactly blame me, though, can you?” Hargreaves trailed off as Regaari’s tech ran final checks and reached for the oversuit. This was much like the EV-MASS in design and execution, though it was also more advanced in material and camouflage. Hargreaves lent a hand and in just a short moment, Regaari was encased in his Suit: just over twenty kilograms of the most advanced combat and hazardous environment protection anywhere in either the Dominion or the Alliance. Many Clans participated in its design and execution, along with some especially eager and envious Human input. The Suit…
…It was a marvel.
Like the Humans, the Whitecrest opted for role-specific tactical loadouts, and that meant Regaari had the lightest and least bulky suit. Given that he was also one of their fittest specimens, that made him (maybe next to Daar) about the deadliest Gaoian alive.
Heady stuff, but mundane matters demanded Dexter’s attention. He helped the rest of his team into their suits as best as he could, and taking a healthy sniff of Human-style paranoia, checked, re-checked, re-rechecked, and had Hargreaves help verify all was ready and proper.
Thurrsto was the last to shoulder his heavy medical pack. He really was impressively big for a Gaoian and could almost be mistaken for a strong Ironclaw laborer, were it not for his huge crest and superior fur. He was their medic and a close friend with Baseball…which lead to his callsign.
[“Ready,] Carebear?” The rest of the team chittered amusedly.
Thurrsto grumbled, [“I hate that callsign…”]
[“I am named after a psychotic serial killer so you will understand if my sympathies are short.”]
Thurrsto grumbled but held his peace. Regaari flicked his ears in mild sympathy and touched noses to reassure his medic, which helped instantly. Gaoians weren’t exactly like Humans; leadership needed to show affection and that was something Regaari was keenly aware of. He went to each of his claw-mates in turn, exchanged little confidences…and they were ready. As one they padded towards their staging area while Regaari placed a radio call.
[“SHIPFATHER, DEXTER. We are ready and at your pleasure.”]
[“Thank you, DEXTER. We go shortly.”]
Regaari made a satisfied duck-nod and settled back to wait as the techs and Hargreaves cleared the deck.
Something told him he wouldn’t be waiting long.
Date Point: 12y1w4d AV
HMS Caledonia, Interstellar Space, Confederacy Territory
The worstest part was the waiting. And the scheming. And the politics of both.
Daar had many skills and very deep training in the combat arts, even if he hadn’t had too much operational practice in their use. The Whitecrest Brothers had much more experience, ‘cuz most situations nowadays needed a quiet, subtle touch. Sure, a Stoneback Claw (or even a full Fang!) could be sneaky and stuff…but that’s kinda silly and a waste of ability.
The result wasn’t good for the future; the Fangs weren’t getting much combat experience, and maintaining a heavyweight response option for the Gao was becoming harder to justify. And what’s worse, Daar had the sniff of the situation. He knew things were gonna change and change for the worse, ‘cuz the Humans had obviously found themselves a great big Keeda of an enemy out there. One they’d been very quiet about, and one they hadn’t revealed to him.
And one that would turn its eyes on the Gao, eventually. If it hadn’t already. The arrival of the Humans set the Galaxy on edge and caused much yipping and drama, but secretly, the Champions were relieved. Before the Humans showed up the Galaxy was afraid of the big, bad Gaoians, the only sapient predators known to the Dominion besides the Hunters. The response to the Humans gave the Gao much breathing room, and they took advantage.
Not that it was all sweet-herb and mating. With the Human’s arrival the Gaoians panicked a bit too, and much paranoid ear-swivelling had happened both in public and behind closed doors. But then something strange happened: the Humans loved his kind, automatically and unreservedly. The reasons were tricky and something Regaari could prol’ly talk about for days but Daar wasn’t gonna complain. He was even finding himself returning the affection, a little at first, and now unreservedly as well. Humans were strong, friendly, super smart, clever…
And they were reminding the Gaoians that they were all of those things as well. But the rest of the Galaxy was starting to remember too, and once again the politics grew ugly. That left the Champions in a tricky place; how did they tighten their growing friendship with the Humans without panicking the herd-thinkers of the Dominion? Without incurring the ire of the Alliance?
Tricky stuff, all of which Daar really should have been dealing with back home with his Clan.
Regaari and Genshi hinted that the ‘Revelation’ would be worth his time. Hinted it in almost begging tones, in fact, and there were times when you just had to trust your Cousins.
He’d looked up this word ‘Revelation’, and had accidentally got halfway through a book by that name squinting in bewilderment the whole time before finally it clicked. If Regaari’s hints were good (and they prol’ly were!) and they had anything to do with this really scary book (and they prol’ly did) then what exactly had the Humans dug up?
The end of the world, most likely. So of course he needed to know, and the politics could go fuck themselves (the first Human phrase he’d learned!). That just left the teeny little question of how he could stay in Stainless’ good graces.
Stainless practised leadership in a manner completely different to the Gaoian mode. Where a Gaoian leader was the first one to get covered in mud, the one to wrestle the biggest Naxas, and the first one to buy the Talamay when they got back to the workhouse, Stainless was…
He was an Officer. Aloof. Calculating. Clearly fond of his men and happy to unwind around them sometimes, but not often and even then only just enough. He was a political creature in a direct, forthright sort of way and he posed a potential solution to something that had been itching at Daar’s hackles for a while.
So, obviously, he should just gut the problem and lay it out to share with Stainless. And it was something to do while they waited. Stainless was pacing the *Caledonia*’s deck at just as much of a loose end as Daar himself, wearing the fundaments of an EV-MASS without the mission load. Daar had his Suit on too. He wasn’t fully conditioned to it yet which was part of why he was only on ‘second string’ today, but the other part…Heh. Time to show balls.
“We should talk about my assault Fangs, Stainless. I kinda suspect you’re gonna need ‘em.”
Stainless paused mid-pace, which put an end to the heavy vibrations in the deck.
Stainless had an infuriating habit of doing that—he would have heard the first time, he just wanted Daar to double down. Oh well.
“SOR is very small. Clan Stoneback has nearly a thousand Brothers trained to my level. You’re preparing for something big and that’s really obvious. How are you gonna fight it?”
Stainless gave him that trademarked long, cool blue stare. “To your level, you say? An’ here I thought you were fookin’ unique.”
‘I’m the most biggest and strongest and all that but that don’t always mean I’m the best. Brother Tyal’s got more deployed combat experience than me. We’ve got a really young up-comer who’ll prol’ly be a better fighter than me, too. Eventually, heh.”
“Why the sudden attack of modesty, Tigger?”
“It ain’t modesty, it’s honesty.” Daar paused. “Stainless, what do you think a Champion is for?”
“About the same thing a champion was for back in the day on Earth. They stood for and represented their faction.”
Daar stood up and duck-nodded. “That’s pretty close. My purpose is to advance the interests of Stoneback, and that generally means advancing the interests of the Gao. And now? I think it also means advancing Human interests, too. You’ve got a pretty big manpower gap here and I think we can solve a problem for both of us.”
Stainless gave it some thought. “…Actually, aye. Something I’ve been meaning to raise when the chance came up.” He strolled over and tugged a tablet from his belt.
The data tablet was one of those universal, durable pieces of technology like the wheel, blast furnaces and electricity‚ refined upon, expanded, improved, but somehow every attempt to do something different with them such as high-tech scrolls with flexible flimsy-screens, or volumetric gesture-based holographic GUIs had failed.
When it came down to it, something rigid that could be held in one hand and worked on with the other was too practical to be replaced. Just like a wheel without spokes or a purely mechanical computer were possible but never more than a gimmick.
In the twelve years since First Contact however, human computing technology had continued to broadly obey something they called ‘Moore’s Law’. Their computers were advancing very, very quickly, so quickly that the “techie” Clans were already forming strong relationships with Human technology companies.
“This is Warhorse’s latest evaluation of you,” he said bluntly. “An’ typical bloody ‘Horse he’s bein’ all nice and stuff… but.”
He handed it over. Daar’s ears began to droop inside the first three lines, and he was downright crestfallen by the end of the fourth paragraph.
As Stainless had said the report was…nice. More than fair, ‘specially about Daar’s speed and strength! But it was also unflinchingly accurate. In particular, Warhorse spared no words when he talked about Daar’s mediocre performance on the assault course or while playing Gravball. Neither were bad by any objective standard—quite good, from what everyone said—but even considering his late start with HEAT and the resulting training gap, his freespace agility just wasn’t up to snuff. It came down to mobility and Daar’s sheer speedy bigness combined with his non-Human kinesthetics, well. He had a lot of catching up to do.
Daar already knew all of that and he’d been training ‘Back-hard to improve. But seeing his weaknesses laid bare, in writing from a Friend…though he could see some dark humor in it and chittered ruefully, “So basically, I’m too big and strong for HEAT?”
He awarded himself several points when Stainless actually half-laughed, an upward tic to every part of his face that surprisingly didn’t result in it breaking down the middle, and a nasal exhalation that Regaari knew to be one of the subtler ways that humans showed amusement.
“Aye, that’s about the shape of it,” he agreed with a twinkle in his eye. “After a fashion. Zero-G mobility in’t really your forte.”
Embarrassing flashbacks of doggy-paddling awkwardly in the middle of the gravball arena and getting so turned around in zero-G that he could only twist and flail made Daar wince.
‘In my defense, me and my kind are meant for the open ground. Also Rebar’s definitely bigger and stronger than me. So is the Beef Trio, by a lot. They all do fine…”
“Aye, but they’re monkeys.” Powell observed. “All that size and strength and there’s still a lot left that Evolution intended for muckin’ around up trees. You tend to slam into things. Now to be fair so do the Whitecrest Brothers, and you’ve been improving, but they’ve set a high bar and you’re running out of time. And they ain’t big enough to crash right through a wall.”
Daar sigh-chittered. “They can bounce off stuff and keep moving, yeah. An’ they’re light enough that Rebar and the Trio can just toss ‘em wherever.”
“Right. So, you know where I’m goin’ with this.”
“Aye. And that’s got me thinkin’, why are we havin this discussion again?”
Daar paused and gathered his thoughts. “Well…I got four Fangs, two hundred ‘Backs each. All of ‘em are good. Really good. But what they aren’t is used that much. Most problems the Gao deal with, they’re little things these days. Subtle things. It ain’t often ‘ya gotta raid a Clan, disembowel every Brother inside, steal the cubs and return ‘em to the Females.”
Other Humans might have looked shocked at that, but Stainless just nodded thoughtfully. “So. You need to find a new role.”
“Sorta? We need to keep relevant, but it ain’t just ‘bout my Clan, boss. I’m pretty sure we both need what my Fangs can do. I gotta preserve that if I can, ‘cuz there are rumblings from Grandfather Garl’s staff about cutting our Fangs down to two! Can you believe that?”
“All too fookin’ easily,” Powell muttered darkly.
“Right? Anyhoo, there ain’t any other Clan positioned to do what we do so we can’t draw down the Fangs. The thing is? I think we can train ‘em up and give both our peoples a real spaceborne option with mass, one that ain’t gonna get a bunch o’ Brothers killed, y’know? Something that could bowl a Hunter swarm over and kill it! Or, y’know, whatever else.”
Stainless put on his best thinky-look. “That’s why you insisted on the HEAT training.”
Daar nodded. “Yup.”
“And the Suit.”
Daar grumbled happily.
“I take it your plan is to train your Fangs, then?”
“Well…” Daar fidgeted, “It was at first. But nowadays the Females don’t much like a Clan if they see that Clan as warmongers. Not even us, and you know how far back Stoneback and the Females go. I gotta worry ‘bout what it’ll look like if I take the Fangs out for maneuver.”
“I thought protecting the Females was Stoneback.”
“And providing for them, too. They like that part a whole lot more, ‘cuz things are easy and people forget the bad times, y’know?”
“Hmm.” Powell turned and paced away a few steps with his fingers on his chin, staring thoughtfully at the deck a few inches in front of him. “…you need a PR campaign.”
“Yeah, I need both of that at once. That’s why the JETS mission seems so good! I also gotta learn how to to be a ‘spaceman’ so I can get the Fangs ready. But, well…I can’t do all o’ that at once.”
“Then how can your Clan?” Powell asked. “Aren’t you supposed to embody it?”
“That don’t mean I can be in two places at once, boss.” He chittered low then flicked his ears, “I bet even you can’t do that.”
“Not easily,” Powell deadpanned. “But that’s my point. Maybe you’re trying to play with two balls at once here, and thus not really playing with either.”
“I always managed before…” Daar waggled his ears, which earned him an annoyed look from Stainless. “But I think I have a solution! I just, uh, need you to agree? Yeah.”
“Agree to what, exactly?”
“So I’m gonna go play in the dirt with your JETS Brothers, yeah? That sounds fun, and it’d be useful for me and the Clan, too. That’s why I agreed! Meanwhile I got an up-and-coming young ‘Back who’s prol’ly Brother material and Tyal’s really smart and skilled, too. I guess, if I can’t be a cool space fighter, maybe…”
“And what would stop ‘im from strugglin’ in the same way you have?”
“Well, the young ‘Back? He’s…imagine if, like, me and Regaari could mate and have a cub.”
Powell blinked and inclined his head as he processed that mental image. “…I presume you mean he’s got the best qualities of both?”
“Yeah! He’s strong like any good ‘Back and he’s rangy and quick like Regaari. He ain’t hulky and muscular like me but like you said, that ain’t necessarily helpin’ in this case.”
“We’re always lookin’ for good men. But that’s just one Brother. How does he solve your bigger problem?”
“A lotta my ‘Backs are closer to him than they are to me, body-wise. We’re not all the same, we breed for strength and work capacity an’ that don’t always mean males like me.” Daar tilted his head for a moment, “Well, actually, both of ‘em would be good. You may not have much use for big ‘Backs like me or Tyal, but Gao does. We need an independent spaceborne operator corps and we’ll need heavyweights there just like you have with the Trio, just…Gaoian style. More focus on speed, yeah? We need something by Gaoians and for Gaoians, ‘else we’ll be useless to you. That’s what I’m trying to do, and I’m asking for help.”
“Hmm.” Powell considered some more, then turned around with an apologetic look on his usually inscrutable face. “Hard fact is, you’re askin’ for summat I can’t give: I don’t have the authority. I can bring your Brothers in, give ‘em HEAT or JETS training, give ‘em a tour—an’ fook knows it’ll be easier for ‘em to get out after than for the Lads—but if you’re askin’ for any more than that, then you’re askin’ for resources that’re just too precious to spare. For now.”
Daar nodded vigorously. “Yup. I ain’t tryin’ to make ‘em into SOR, I can’t do that yet anyway. All I’m trying to do is, uh, sell the idea? Yeah. I need a couple o ‘Backs to see how it works so they can go back to their Fangs and think about it. What happens after that…we’ll see.”
Powell did a Human thing, then. He understood. “That’s the entire reason you stayed on. You wanted to set an example and direction for your Fangs, and to do that you needed a little Human endorsement to really make it stick.”
Daar betrayed no hint of shame. “Yup.”
Powell’s impressive shoulders heaved up as he produced an amused huff. “Well played.”
Daar “grinned” nonchalantly. “Hey, we both made out good! You’ve got a broader alliance, I’ve got ideas, direction, and prob’ly a better mating pedigree, we’re both gonna be better against whatever it is you won’t tell me about! Plus, I get a badass Suit out of the deal. Winner.”
The intercom chirped and Shipfather Yefrig was patched through from the Racing Thunder. “We’re in position and ready, Stainless. Dexter reports he is in position.”
Powell reached up and keyed the headset he was wearing. “Understood, SHIPFATHER. The SNOWTOPS are clear to go at their discretion.”
Yefrig could be heard chittering loudly over the intercom. “I like that! We shall maneuver and proceed. SHIPFATHER OUT.”
That put a halt on their conversation for now—both Daar and Stainless stood to get their mission loads fitted, just in case things went badly south.
It was a good learning opportunity for the “Cherries” too. Abbot, Irish, Spider and Postal had taken the opportunity to learn shipboard firefighting duty, which was mandatory for any military personnel with any role whatsoever aboard HMS Caledonia, even if the role in question was effectively that of cargo.
Now they were gathered around a rack of monitors at the end of the deployment bay, watching the Whitecrest helmet cams and conversing quietly with one another.
Daar felt like he should have been among them. He was easily the newest person on the team, but the term didn’t actually mean “newcomer” as far as he could tell. It was more a reference to the fact that Costello, Butler, Parata and Newman weren’t yet suit-certified, and hadn’t gone on a real mission yet. Hadn’t ’popped their cherry’ as Firth had put it. Daar was certain it was a euphemism.
They were close: Daar had seen the “before” picture each one of them kept in his room and all four of them were vastly larger than the day they had arrived on Cimbrean. He’d seen them bully through training runs and gravball games in full EV-MASS, and just last week they’d done their first HELLNO jump.
That had rattled Daar’s normally supreme self-confidence; it had taken him decades to grow into his capabilities, years and years of effort, and now here were the humans, already nearly a match for him and it had taken them hardly any time at all. Sure they had Crude, which was clever and sneaky, but even still…
Why was he on standby for this mission? Sometimes Powell’s motives were just impossible to fathom. Either he wasn’t on the team for this one, in which case why was he Suited up and ready to jump in claws-first, or he was in which case why wasn’t he over on the Racing Thunder with Regaari and the Whitecrests? Was he on the HEAT or not?
But…Powell was the Boss, and he’d shown plenty of times that he was Boss for a reason. So the only thing to do was to trust him, sit back, and wait.
Date Point: 12y1w4d AV
Warundug-class light transport ship ’Orverendeg’, Interstellar Space, Confederacy Territory
The boarding launch. Like a shuttle without the shuttle, really: just a warp engine, plenty of power cells. And handholds. And eerie silence.
Nothing quite drove home the sheer scale of space quite like seeing a whole hundred-meter starship dwindle behind them into invisibility and leave them utterly alone with nothing to see, not even one another. Their suits were almost too effective at camouflage in that regard: when Regaari looked at his own paw, he felt a disconcerting sense of disembodiment.
Piloting the launch fell to Deygun, and from what Regaari knew of the task it was engineered simplicity. The launch was flinging itself across light-days of distorted spacetime in the carefully shaped sheath of its own warp field, angled so as to be undetectable from in front. To hit any target at such distances was a feat of precision navigation far beyond any living creature.
So, the simple “point and click” interface on the Launch’s nose was the grossly oversimplified front-end for a starship-grade navigation computer so accurate that it could hit a moving two-hundred-meter target from a distance of billions of kilometers.
The warp hop itself betrayed no sign of anything happening. No flare of light, no sense of lurching motion. The Racing Thunder simply vanished astern and Regaari was left to count his own breaths. He was counting the twenty-third when their quarry popped into existence up ahead.
To give the Guvnurag their due, the formation was a sensible one. The three light escorts were closing off the angles of approach quite well considering that three ships could only have a two-dimensional formation rather than a three-dimensional one. But, that formation was centered squarely on the transport ship.
They weren’t counting on a Starfire-class strike ship, though. They especially weren’t counting on the Racing Thunder, which could do things that other *Starfire*s could not.
The second it had telemetry from the Launch to guide it, the Racing Thunder was able to land with pin-point accuracy, and Regaari knew that the human-made technology installed along her flanks and belly would already be strobing fiercely across the escort ships. There was nothing to see—the radiations involved were all in the wrong spectra for Gaoian eyes—but the consequences were immediately obvious. All three ships listed and began to drift out of alignment as their navigation sensors failed. Seconds later they vanished as the automatic failsafes shut down their warp drives and they fell out of the shared bubble of weird space. It was doubtful whether they would even have had time to register what had attacked them.
The Launch rocked gently as its field edge merged with the *Orverendeg*’s, then shut down. They were now inside the transport ship’s warp field and even if the ship dropped back to sublight speeds they would stay with it.
The last pounce to her hull was trivial. The forcefield “tractor beam” generator on the Launch’s butt stuck it securely to the hull, and the Brothers made short work of effecting an ingress with fusion blades and a containment field emitter, just as the humans had done on Capitol Station.
They’d kept their Whitecrest combat cant for this, sort of. It had been expanded with some of the human vocabulary and terminology. “SPLINTER, on point.”
Shim wriggled in through the hole, and his report was terse yet revealing and welcome.
”Mother’s not looking.”
Regaari followed him in. ”Cubs hide away, play Seek and Sniff.”
He paired off with Thurrsto, activated the sticky-grippy motile nanites on his Suit’s hands and feet and sprang first up the wall then along the ceiling, sticking to the surface with ease. It was the work of seconds to open up the ventilation system and let Shim and Ergaan squirm inside.
Move fast and along different vectors, that was the key. Deygun and Faarek took the under-floor maintenance conduits, wriggling like rats into a space that Guvnurag would have looked on as unusably tiny.
Regaari and Thurrsto took the actual open deck. They had to—Thurrsto’s pack was too bulky for wriggling through tight spaces, and Regaari needed to be able to move in any direction at a moment’s notice.
They scampered four-pawed down the central access corridor, then glanced knowingly at each other at the sound of heavy gallumphing feet coming their way. Thurrsto crouched down in a nook at hip-height on a Gaoian, and Regaari sprang up the wall to hide among the conduits in the ceiling. A motionless second later and Regaari could barely tell that Thurrsto was there, despite knowing exactly where to look for him.
The footfalls turned out to be four Guvnurag marines.
Guvnurag could be deceptive. They weren’t a naturally violent species by anybody’s reckoning, and their shy—even skittish—nature went a long way to denaturing their sheer size. As did their surprising fragility. A human could literally kill them with a single well-aimed punch, and a determined Gaoian wouldn’t have had a much more difficult time of it. It was easy to think of them as harmless shambling mounds of fur and caution.
But they were arguably the most technologically advanced species in the galaxy, and painstakingly thoughtful. They knew their own weaknesses and had had plenty of time to get used to the existence of both humans and Gaoians, and even longer to think about the Hunters.
Which meant that a Guvnurag outfitted for violence made full use of the prodigious real estate available on his massive frame. They were absolutely layered in redundant forcefields, a fighting vehicle’s worth, and the battle yokes high on their shoulders behind those silly, droopy-eared be-tentacled heads of theirs were turreted with twin heavy pulse guns that would give even an ordinary human or a Red Hunter pause for thought.
Those guns tracked the corridor cautiously, wired to track their operator’s eye movements and shoot whatever they looked at, but Regaari and Thurrsto both had concealment and camouflage working for them: the Guvnurag marines plainly saw nothing alarming and the four of them bustled efficiently toward the hull breach.
Another advantage of Gaoian tech—privacy field generators in the mask. When Regaari muttered an order, he did so in absolute certainty that the only people who would hear it were his Brothers.
“Mother says Cubs play nice…”
Thurrsto was utterly still, even as one of the Guvnurag paused right next to him. “…Yes, Mother…”
Regaari even held his breath. Guvnurag had sensitive eyes, especially when it came to small changes in hue and shade. The last thing he needed now was to be given away by some tiny shift in the pattern of his active camo.
He wasn’t. The search team passed below him and past Thurrsto without slowing or giving any sign of alarm, and both Whitecrests flowed from their hiding places and deeper into the belly of the ship.
Date Point: 12y1w4d AV
HMS Caledonia, Interstellar Space, Confederacy Territory
Lieutenant Anthony Costello
Newman was the first to speak. “…Fuck a duck.”
Costello realized he was actually sweating, and mopped it from his brow. “Those suits work just fine,” he commented, projecting rather more composure than he felt. DEXTER and CAREBEAR must both have had absolute ice water flowing in their veins to stay still and calm through that near-miss.
“Aye.” Powell had been watching in too, and drummed his fingers thoughtfully against his folded arm. “Bloody good work by Dexter, too.”
Costello nodded. They’d all been able to see Thurrsto’s pulse climbing up as the response party neared him. Regaari’s five short words had slowed it right down again. It was an inspiring demonstration of strong leadership in action. Thurrsto was good, but even good men could break and Regaari had shored his Brother up. Maybe unnecessarily, maybe not, but the point was he hadn’t left Thurrsto alone in a tight spot.
He just wished there was some wood available to knock on. The Gaoians weren’t done yet.
Date Point: 12y1w4d AV
Warundug-class light transport ship ’Orverendeg’, Interstellar Space, Confederacy Territory
”Found the FOOTBALL. It’s guarded.”
Regaari paused and checked the area for Guvnurag before replying. “Acknowledged. Get ready to play Pounce.”
They didn’t have an evasive, cunning little tricksy option this time. The Confederacy troopers guarding the football wouldn’t be leaving it to check on any silly distraction they might set up. They could turn out the lights, fuck with the gravity, it wouldn’t matter: Those marines just had to go down hard.
Fortunately, they’d picked up a few things from the humans there.
They quickly got sorted out on where the coveted cargo was being held, and within a minute every one of his Brothers had called in to report that they were in position and set. Two in the vents above the cargo bay, two crawling under its floors…
…And Regaari and Thurrsto, hanging their tails out in the open to get shot. Oh well.
He glanced at Thurrsto, the two of them duck-nodded together, and Regaari gave the word.
“Cubs play Pounce.”
Momentum. Strike first, strike hard, strike once. Several things happened at once.
The first was that Ergaan dropped a flashbang out of the ventilation duct.
Flashbangs were definitely a human invention, and like all human inventions they blended low technology with unquestionable effect. The Guvnurag troopers had already turned their eyes up and begun to turn to face the squeaking threat in the ceiling when the cylindrical device landed among them.
Even if they’d known how to deal with it, it was far too late for them.
From Regaari’s perspective, even with the combined protection of the Suit and a wall the explosion and flash of light were both almost overpowering, and Guvnurag had very sensitive eyes.
There were pained bass shrieks from inside the cargo bay and all six Brothers burst from their hiding places at once, flitting into the sparse cover offered by the few spare parts and supplies the ship was carrying.
They had stick-n-sleep patches, but those were no use at all so long as the Guvnurag marines had their shields up and when it came to bringing down shields nothing was a match for rapid-fire.
Faarek got unlucky—one of the Guvnurag was flailing and firing wildly in his blinded way, but a lucky hit caught the unlucky Whitecrest full in the chest.
In any other situation, that would have been curtains for him. Heavy kinetic pulse was enough to badly maul an unprotected human and would have broken an unprotected Faarek in half, no trouble. Instead his Suit went rigid and he went tumbling across the bay before standing back up, groggy and shaking his head but very much alive.
Regaari snarled and took down the offending Guvnurag hard, raking his shields with a hail of the special shieldbreaker flechette rounds that they’d developed to work with the human weapons—each one exploded into metal dust on hitting a forcefield, forcing the shield generator to handle not a concentrated impact but a diffuse one. The energy delivered was identical, but it added appreciably to the heat load thus generated, thus overwhelming the emitter sooner. The powdery puff was much less dangerous to the person under the shield, but in this case that suited their needs perfectly.
Yet another advantage projectile-based weapons had over kinetic pulse: they were so versatile!
The Guvnurag’s shield dropped and Deygun was there in a flash, daring to slide under the spinning, blinded alien and slap two stick-n-sleep patch on, one with each hand.
In seconds, all five of the alien soldiers had been stripped of their shields, slapped with the sedative patches and the Gaoians had spun away into the shadows to hold very, very still. They needn’t have bothered—the patches were very well-designed, and the last of the Guvnurag folded to the deck with his chromatophores wavering an uncertain medley of blues and greens.
Faarek sagged as well, cursing softly in English which was frankly a far better language for cursing than Gaori. “Fuck all the… [That won’t even scar], dammit!”
“Shield that door.” Regaari ordered, as Thurrsto pounced across the room to check on their hurt Brother.
Shieldsticks were still being iterated upon, and the current generation had been given the ability to combine their strength and erect a barrier that was both larger and sturdier than the default. Six of them together was a hefty fortification by anybody’s standards and it was set up not a moment too soon, as a whole herd of Guvnurag came to the response. They were forced into cover by a disciplined volley of suppressing fire while Ergaan and Deygun unpacked the jump array off Thurrsto’s back.
Here, gratifyingly, the Gaoians had succeeded in making the humans slap their foreheads for a change. The first-generation human Array was designed to send, and that involved huge amounts of power. But of course the receiving end of a wormhole needed far less juice… so why not just carry enough to be a receiver, and send over the necessary power cells from the support ship?
The Defenders had looked about ready to go drown themselves after Ergaan had asked that one.
In the end, they’d concluded that because the humans could carry the weight to start sending straight away, they’d keep doing it but the idea had led to the creation of an Array lightweight enough to be carried by a Gaoian who wasn’t Daar.
It was much faster to set up, too. Deygun just had to undo two catches and throw it into a clear space in the middle of the room, and it snapped out into a two-meter sided cube in mid-air. Didn’t even matter which way up it landed.
The Guvnurag made a push on the barricaded doorway and were repulsed by a storm of accurate rapid-fire and another flashbang just as the Array fired and delivered a stack of charged power boxes ready for the send. Thurrsto put his back into unloading them alongside Deygun, who snapped their power leads into the magnetic sockets that were waiting for them. It was the work of seconds to have the Array charged and ready to send. Ergaan loaded the target into it and…
Regaari checked around him. “SOUTHPAW, SPLINTER, through the array.”
That was the injured Faarek, and Shim who hadn’t quite prepared for the flashbang well enough and was suffering from its effects himself. Both fell neatly back inside the array cage and were gone in a flash.
Mission accomplished, target extracted. Now came the tricky part—getting everybody else out.
The Array was good for a second send, but that involved abandoning the door. That meant not only falling back on enfilade, but also a vulnerable pause while standing in the array itself where they couldn’t even lay down suppressing fire or else they’d risk filling the inside of their own support ship with bullets when they arrived.
For such circumstances, every remotely military-minded species in the galaxy had developed the same tool: the smoke grenade.
Here, the Whitecrests had butted heads with the humans to a degree. The SOR favored their own M18, whereas Regaari had stuck by a Whitecrest-designed pellet bomb. There were advantages to both: the human grenade produced a far larger and longer-lasting cloud, but the Gaoian one was opaque across a much broader swathe of the EM band thanks to some cunning (and classified) inert nanoparticles in the smoke.
Daar had delivered the solution with his usual swagger: why not both? Stoneback had something similar to the Whitecrest pellet bomb in their inventory anyway, except bigger. Its smoke had similar (also classified) capabilities, and would also also linger and cling irritatingly to fur and eyes.
Which of course wasn’t a problem inside the Suit. Regaari produced it, weighed it thoughtfully, then pulled the safety out and bowled it through the shieldstick wall. One sharp detonation later and probably there were crew at the other end of the ship who were now coughing and groping blindly in the haze.
He gave the command to withdraw with considerable pleasure, not to mention pride.
Date Point: 12y1w4d AV
Major Owen Powell
Powell had to wave aside the two cubic meters of smoke that came back with the rest of the Gaoians, and he suppressed a cough as it tickled the back of his throat.
All present and correct. He had to admit, he was actually impressed—things had gone damn near without a hitch.
“An’ here we are, all dressed up and you give us nowt to do,” he grunted as the four of them vacated the Array. Behind them, the end they’d left behind on the target ship would be busily burning itself out with a few judiciously placed packs of thermite paste, just in case deleting and rotating the connection codes wasn’t paranoid enough.
“Sorry to disappoint, Stainless.” It was hard to tell in those eye-bending suits but that was undoubtedly Regaari. He’d mastered the art of snarking like a human.
“I should fookin’ hope so. Right. De-Suit, grab juice and turn in your weapons, and we’ll have a bit of a chat.”
He checked on Irish as he got out of their way. Their newest Protector had been waiting for Faarek to come through, and was deliberately laying on the Blarney and Begorrah as thick as he could as he chattered the whining Gaoian through the process of tending to a minor broken bone. He happily slid into supporting Thurrsto instead when the Gaoian medic rushed to his injured Brother’s side, and Powell made a mental note to gently commend him later. Preferably once he could be sure that Costello had done so.
A minor broken bone, though. After a heavy pulse hit that would have put Warhorse down, unprotected. Those Suits were the real deal, no doubt.
He hit the wall intercom. “CIC, STAINLESS. The SNOWTOPS are all aboard and accounted for, package in tow.”
”Thanks, STAINLESS. SHIPFATHER says we have no pursuit.”
Powell rocked back on his heels and let that sink in. Things going pretty much exactly as planned? That was almost a new one on him.
“Fook me sideways…” he muttered, then permitted himself a small laugh and turned back to the Gaoians.
By now they were all at least halfway out of their suits and looking justifiably pleased with themselves, even if there was plenty of concern for Faarek. They were drinking the Gaoian recipe of the SOR’s energy drink concoction, heartily bolstered with anchovies and cod liver oil and blended into a fine fishy emulsion.
Blaczynski had tried some once, on a dare. He’d almost kept it down, too.
Eventually Irish got up and backed away, and Powell nodded inwardly as he noted Costello immediately pat him on the shoulder and say something encouraging. Faarek’s arm was strapped up and he’d had a Crue-D shot, and the general set of the ears over among the Gaoians was relaxed. Time for a quick AAR.
“Arright. Fall in, easy.”
They did so promptly and attentively. The correct “stand easy” position wasn’t actually easy for Gaoians at all—they had to contort quite unnaturally to rest their hands behind their backs, so they were instead permitted to rest their hands in front. It still looked smart enough.
“Not half bad,” he praised curtly. He suppressed the urge to make a mild joke at Shim’s expense about his grenade-throwing skills. It would have gone down great with a human, but might very well have genuinely hurt the Gaoian’s feelings. “Shim, ears stopped ringing yet?”
“A little more care with your throw next time, lad. You’ll be fine. Anyway, bloody good teamwork on those sticky patch takedowns. Regaari, Thurrsto, you kept your heads well when that response squad was almost on top o’ you. Hmm… Ergaan. Could have saved a few seconds when you reported you’d found the objective. ’FOOTBALL, port cargo bay, five guards.’ See?”
“Champion Daar,” Powell turned to the lone Stoneback on deck. “Anything to add?”
Daar hesitated, and chose his words very carefully. “Nothin’ merits mentioning here, sir.”
“I would appreciate your advice, Cousin,” Regaari gently insisted.
“…Well, it’d take a simulator to show ‘ya, but you could have saved some motion with the patch takedowns. Honestly y’all did really good. It was worthy of First Fang!”
“Our Warehouse will be at your disposal,” Powell promised, noting how well the compliment went down. Stoneback’s First Fang must have had quite a reputation. “Anything else?”
Daar wobbled his head slightly. “No sir. We’ll see what we can do with the sim.”
“Bloody lovely. I have nothing more either, so you go let your techs do their jobs, get settled in for the ride home. AAR’ll come after you’ve got some food in yer. Dismissed.”
Daar remained close to him as the other Gaoians left, and spoke softly once they were out of earshot.
“Boss, I gotta ask ‘ya. What exactly was the point of us suiting up? I mean, besides backup.”
“To lead by example.”
Daar’s ears quirked. “Well, sure. But what example?”
“Several at once. It was meant to be a learning opportunity. You’re trained to lead combat units, yeah? I wanted to see you observing their mission, see what you could share, how you offered criticism, all of that. You’re a leader of Gaoians and I wanted to learn by observation.”
Daar duck-nodded respectfully. “Fair ‘nuff, though I ain’t been First Fang Leader for years. And why test me and not Abbot, there? I’m not in charge of the Whitecrest Brothers.”
Powell ran a thumb along his jaw and reflected that he needed to shave again. “No, but they do look up to you. Regaari especially, he quite plainly admires you.”
Daar shrunk in on himself in embarrassment and grumbled. “Not as much as I do him…”
Powell gave a quiet, amused chuckle. “Perhaps. Anyhow, don’t worry about Costello, he’ll have his day. As for you and the Whitecrests, I’m keeping my options open—that Suit turned out better than I would have imagined and that changes things, especially my assumptions.”
“Not really sure I follow you, Boss,” Daar admitted.
“I’m playin’ the long game,” Powell said. “Sometimes we do things that won’t ever amount to much, because they could amount to a lot if things turned out one way over t’other. See?”
Daar gave him a shrewd look. “You’re convinced the HEAT doesn’t need me.”
“Daar, you’re wearing that Suit right now because you’ve bloody well earned it. I just think that your talents…well…fook it. Lemme tell you some o’ the reasons behind the mission we’ve got planned for JETS…”
Date Point: 12y2w AV
Starship ’Negotiable Curiosity’, Perfection System, The Core Worlds
”Bedu? How-? …This channel is supposed to be inaccessible to anybody without the encryption key I gave to your implants.”
“Yes.” Bedu suppressed a yawn. His metabolism was proving to be much harder to regulate without cybernetic assistance than he had suspected. “Imagine my dismay when I realized I needed to have the implants removed.”
”How are you accessing it without them?”
Apparently the long interval since their last conversation had done nothing to dull Vakno’s temper. Bedu forced himself to sit up straighter. “I learned an apt saying. A humanism. ’Necessity is the mother of invention’. Glib, isn’t it?”
Vakno’s image finally stopped showing the jagging and artefacts of packet loss as she turned off the evolving encryption that his equipment had been half-successfully keeping up with, and she gave him the kind of long, calculating look that only the most successful Corti in the galaxy ever mastered.
“…Why in Origin’s name did you have them removed?” she asked. “And… is that battle damage in your ship?”
“Oh, it’s an enthralling tale,” Bedu promised. “I was very brave. Why, I even courageously killed my own mechanic. You know, I was actually quite fond of Hkzzvk…”
Vakno did something characteristic: She interrupted him. “Where were you?!”
“I was on,” Bedu said, “the planet Ikbrzk…”
Date Point: 12y3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Technical Sergeant [select] Adam “Warhorse” Arés
Gabe had signed the full SACRED STRANGER paperwork on the condition that Adam show and tell everything about the Crue-D. There were to be no secrets between father and son now that the law wasn’t a hindrance, and normally Adam would be ecstatic about sharing something so important with the first man on his list of people he loved the most.
But to do that, Adam was gonna need to do the mother of all heavy days and that was kind of a problem.
Even as a young kid, training hard more out of friendship with the adults at the gym and his own enjoyment than anything, his body had responded well. Then he’d decided to enlist and under Legsy’s guidance in the last few months before he signed up, he’d made the transition from a merely exceptionally fit and strong teenager to something truly special.
He’d started his military career as an elite specimen but hadn’t properly realized how much that was true until Basic. And he’d re-appraised himself again during the Pararescue pipeline.
And then he’d started on the Crude.
Which was where the problem came in with putting on a heavy day for demonstration purposes: He was gonna need to thoroughly destroy his best friends, and Adam’s idea of a heavy day bordered on being any reasonable man’s idea of self-harm.
Bullshit: It was self-harm. Very carefully controlled, constructive, worrying self-harm designed to heal up stronger than before. That was the whole point. And it had worked, too…But Adam couldn’t quite shake the fear that no matter how easily he could bench press cars or pulp enemies with his bare hands, or Protect anyone, anywhere, anyhow they needed it…would he ever be strong enough for what was coming? Smart enough? Good enough?
Thoughts like that were among the many reasons why he visited the psychologist so often.
“Hey, ‘Base.” His words came out as a semi-distracted grunt.
They were packing up at the end of a tough week. The Gaoians had excelled themselves on Operation GOLD BREES, and it had been a good field trip for the second string and the cherries, too. Not quite an all-hands-on-deck, but enough that the SOR was back in recovery mode for a day or two. That meant, among other things, unpacking, checking, and repacking all their gear.
Baseball, who had been repacking his travel medkit, knew his best friend’s tones well and put the work aside for a second. “Sup, bro?”
“Dad signed the paperwork.”
‘Base’s face lit up. “Bro, that’s fuckin’ sweet! When does he start?”
“Tonight I give him his first injection, and he’s gotta start on those cog-rehab games, too.”
“Man,” enthused ‘Base, “This shit’s awesome! Your dad’ll be back to normal in, what, a couple of days?”
“Uh, ‘prolly a week ‘cuz of the nerve damage. But yeah.”
Righteous was servicing the gauss rifles, and chimed in with a smile of his own. “That’s fuckin’ awesome.”
“…Bro, what’s wrong?” Nothing could get past Baseball.
“Uh, Dad made me promise to show him what the Crude does. ‘No secrets anymore’ he said.”
“And? What’s the big—oh.” Baseball suddenly looked crestfallen. “I’m gonna be hurtin’ ain’t I.”
Adam gave him a complicated look.
Firth as always had the right words. “Eh, so what? Kick my ass too, bro. That’s just good training, right?”
“Heh.” Adam sobered up a little bit, though he still had to put on a rueful grin. “Are you sure? I could probably think of some other way to show him, y’know?”
“Nah, said ‘Base. “You’re a fighter, ’No secrets any more’ means you gotta show him that. I mean, you owe him, y’know?”
“…Yeah.” Honestly, that cut right to the heart of Adam’s doubts. “I just worry…what’s he gonna think of me?”
“Figure that’s for you to talk over with him,” Righteous shrugged. “Don’t worry ‘bout us none. We’re big boys an’ were happy to help. I can handle a little bruised ego, as long as it’s you kickin’ my ass.”
‘Base nodded. “Exactly. When we doin’ this, man?”
Adam calculated for a moment. “Uh… Next week, I guess,” he said. “After he’s healed up and, uh, he’s all ‘there’ in his head again.”
He went back to checking the expiry dates on all the drugs in his field pack but he must have been looking badly unhappy because it wasn’t more than five seconds before Righteous grabbed him, spun him around and he got the full crushing three-way bro hug treatment.
“Bro. You’ll be *fine.*”
Adam sighed, and nodded slowly, forehead-to-forehead with literally the only two men in the whole galaxy who might really have a handle on what he was feeling right now.
“…Thanks, guys. I fuckin’ love you two.”
There was a long, fraternal pause before Baseball pulled away. “You good?”
Adam nodded. “Yuh. I just gotta go for a quick run I think. Clear my head.”
“Should we come?”
“…I’d like that.”
They quickly squared away the last of their work, checked in with Regaari (who had ‘CQ’ that evening), then set out for a brisk barefoot run. All three of them were naturally hot and sweaty thanks to their size and the cold Cimbrean night rain was always welcome to them, especially when exercising. A nice, easy run around town and through the woods was pretty much the perfect way to meditate, by Adam’s reckoning.
He ran and he thought of the upcoming demonstration. He was generally quite shy about his actual strength; people had a hard enough time believing he was real just standing there talking to them. That he was in fact much stronger and heavier than he looked wasn’t something most people were prepared to accept, so he mostly kept the details to himself.
But now, he needed to make his Dad understand exactly who and what his own son had become. Nobody could keep up with Adam in the gym and that all by itself was gonna thrash his buddies. The combatives were gonna make it much worse for them, too.
They thumped across the furthest pedestrian bridge over the river, intentionally breaking the rhythm of their footfalls so as not to shake it apart, and Adam felt a twinge of remorse over how totally he was going to break his buddies next week, all for a stupid show.
The guilt doubled down when he realized how much he was going to enjoy himself doing it.
Date Point: 12y1m AV
Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada, Earth
Colonel Ted Bartlett
Doctors Taylor and Cote had been with SCERF right from the start. Hell, Ted had first met them on the bloody ice at Rogers Arena. They were inseparable best friends, to the point where Betty-Anne Cote had been Rufus Taylor’s Best “Man” four years earlier.
Their field—Biology—had sadly turned out to be a minor footnote of extraterrestrial research. By and large, all the interesting compounds came from deathworlds, and Earth was as deathworld as they came. They had done some interesting work in support of the Cimbrean Reclamation Project, had surreptitiously done their best to break whatever curious biochemical encryption the Corti had managed to work into Crue-D, had helped adapt alien prosthetics for the human body but by and large their work had been…
Valued, yes. Respected, certainly. But they had always been the two civilians working in the shadow of the military physicists, chemists and engineers.
Today, though, they were rockstars in woollen sweaters. Researchers had been dropping in to congratulate them all day.
Doctor Taylor, always the louder of the two, was absolutely not afraid to milk it either. “-I mean, the mutation mechanism itself is just incredible! There’s enough material in the way the cultures picked it up and began synthesizing to make CRISPR look like a footnote!”
Ted looked around the lab, which was a study in white cleanliness compared to the physics department he’d headed up. Physicists in their offices surrounded themselves with books, whiteboards, laptops and coffee. And tennis balls, in SCERF’s unique case.
Sure, the actual labs were just as clean and tidy, but Taylor and Cote even kept their offices to that same level of cleanliness.
Though, it seemed strange to use the word “clean” to describe a room full of hundreds of conical flasks filled with turbid E. Coli cultures.
Every single one of which was busily producing a steady supply of Cruezzir. “Not just the immediate benefit of having the medicine itself, then.”
Doctor Cote was happily pipetting samples of the invaluable bacteria into vials to be frozen and sent to companion labs around the world, but she shared a rare few words for Ted.
“Rufus is right, if we can adapt the mutation process to other compounds then it might be revolutionary,” she said.
“More than revolutionary. Imagine, any compound you could possibly want, and the only obstacle to getting an unlimited supply of it would be lab time and raw materials,” Taylor beamed. “On-demand mass production of any molecule, within the week.”
“Assuming you can adapt the mechanism,” Ted pointed out.
“Well, yes… but there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to…” Taylor agreed reluctantly.
“We can,” Cote asserted, with rather more calm.
“I’ll have to take your word on it. We’re well outside of my field,” Ted conceded.
“All that’s for the future though,” Taylor grinned. “For today? Cruezzir!”
Ted laughed, and raised an imaginary toast. “Cruezzir!”
“And to a bright future for human medicine!” Taylor added.
Cote raised a flask. “Cheers!”
Ted grinned. “Cheers!”
Date Point: 12y1m AV The Dog House gym, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Gabe’s outer speechlessness belied the cyclone of thoughts he was trying to process internally.
First among them was Adam. Adam who was almost naked in his skimpy shorts, pumped up and terrifying like a complete savage with his chest quietly heaving. Adam, whose friends were strewn around him on the ground in visible pain, utterly defeated.
They’d invited Gabe to watch their gym session, and it had gone on for longer than Gabe would have thought feasible. He’d watched Adam, John and Christian do absolutely impossible things and watched his son go much further. The weights and gravity were too puny so he made up on intensity and the other two just couldn’t keep up.
Then they fought, after a quick break and lots of the “juice” they were all drinking. Given the context of three hyper-men on space-magic alien performance drugs, that wasn’t a particularly reassuring name for what Adam insisted was just a very concentrated sports drink.
The sparring was even more darkly illuminating. Adam…thrashed them. Mercilessly, and repeatedly. Firth quite obviously was the more skilled and experienced fighter and that did help some, but in the end Adam’s sheer physical superiority overwhelmed him.
Gabe chewed thoughtfully on the inside of his lip as he considered that. His son. Toying with the most impressive soldiers and men he’d ever seen. Men he had previously thought were the bigger, stronger friends of his little boy.
And Adam took them apart while wearing an expression of alarming savagery that said he was enjoying himself.
It didn’t match. It didn’t fit. Happy, goofy Adam, his son, had a mean streak a mile wide? Where had that come from? Had it always been there? What did it mean?
Somehow, Gabe managed to keep those thoughts off his face as he sat in place, watched, and said nothing.
Adam nodded sheepishly at Gabe’s non-reaction, then thumped over to take care of his friends. There, Adam’s better side—his caring side—shone through. Gabe listened as his boy muttered apologies and small praises to both, made them comfortable while they rested on the padded floor. He turned down the gravity and doted on them quietly. They nuzzled, all seemingly forgiven, and Gabe was almost ready to write off all the things he’d seen that day…
Until Adam produced the distinctive blue Crue-D syringes from his medical pack and injected Burgess, then Firth. Gabe’s doubts and worries returned in full force then grew even worse, as within just a couple of minutes both men seemed to be well on their way to being fully recovered.
Gabe’s own recovery had been no less miraculous: In less than a week he’d gone from being barely able to string together two coherent thoughts to feeling just as sharp as he ever had, if not sharper. He felt almost certain that he was recalling important facts even more easily than he had ever.
Sadly the nerve injury in his lower back was too old for the Crue-D to work on. He’d regained no mobility in his leg, nor any reduction in the chronic pain… but his physiotherapy regime seemed to be working a little better for the moment.
By the time Adam helped his buddies to their feet it was almost as if the brutality they’d just undergone had been merely a convincing act. He hugged them both around the shoulders then twitched his head in Gabe’s direction.
“Guys, can I have a moment with dad?”
Burgess nodded, “Sure thing hoss. We’ll be upstairs, ‘kay?”
“Okay. There’s steaks in the fridge, Firth. I bought exactly what you told me.”
Firth gave him a cracking friendly blow on the shoulder, a gesture that contained no trace of ill will. “Good boy! I’ll go make ‘em right now.”
“Okay! See you two in a bit.” They thumped off towards the stairs. They did that in private, Gabe noticed—out in public, around people who weren’t ’in’ on their situation, they were cat-footed and light. Cautious, even. Here and now, though, they relaxed and let themselves thud and stomp like the weighty creatures they really were.
Adam turned his attention back to Gabe, and every fatherly instinct Gabe had instantly fired up. Adam looked…vulnerable. Like he’d not seen the boy in years. Not even the breakup had hurt him like what he was seeing right now.
Gabe heaved himself up out of his chair and hobbled across the room as fast as he dared, slammed into Adam and hugged. It was much like trying to reassure a hot, sweaty wall. Adam paused, then wrapped those huge arms around and squeezed with almost dangerous force. It was a big, powerful, desperate hug, and Gabe sensed his son needed it. So he hugged back, as best he could.
Something blindingly obvious dawned on him. “You’re taller than me. I never really noticed.”
Adam laughed something that sounded like it had a sob waiting on the edge. “I’ve been taller than you for a while now!”
“How tall are you?”
“¡Órale! You’re six inches taller than me! When did that happen?”
Adam chuckled and squeezed a little tighter, which made it hard to breathe but it felt good anyway. Gabe rested his head against Adam’s chest, and they nuzzled like they were just a father and his little boy, alone in the world and content.
Gabe pulled back and looked up at the broad, heavy-jawed, handsome face of his son. Where did he get those looks? It was a very different face to his own, which was narrower and more refined, but still…Adam was there, hiding behind the exaggerated features.
“And you’re still you.”
Adam grinned and relaxed a little. “I’ve always been me, dad.”
Gabe nodded, then gestured back toward his wheelchair, and leaned on Adam’s arm for support as he returned to it. “Don’t blame me for worrying.”
“Never. You’d be a crappy dad if you didn’t. But we’re here to talk about your worries anyway, so…”
“Right. And I have a big one.” Gabe grimaced as he sat back down in his wheelchair. “…You enjoyed that.”
Adam straightened up, considered him for a second, then spun across the room, grabbed a bench, lifted it casually into place opposite him and sat down. “…Yeah.”
“That’s… different. I mean, you got into a few fights after we moved here, but I figured that was just ‘cause of… y’know, losing your mom, your friends, San Diego… You weren’t ever really a violent kid.”
“Yeah.” Adam agreed. He wiped thoughtfully at a bloodstain on his knuckle.
“Is that the Crue-D?”
“…I’m… pretty sure it ain’t,” Adam said at last. “I think it’s just me being so big now. My testosterone levels are permanently fuckin’ sky-high ‘cuz of the Crude, and doing what I do…and, well, we kinda like beating on each other ‘cuz we’re the only people we CAN beat on like that. Nobody else could take it, right?”
He gestured to the totality of himself. “Crude doesn’t give you anything for free, it just unlocks doors. You still gotta push yourself through those doors, right? You still needed to do those cognitive rehab exercises, right? There’s nothing about me that’s because of the Crue-D, I did all of this to myself, and the Crude was just a… hell, it’s like the weights! Havin’ them’s not enough, I still have to lift! See?”
Gabe gave Adam an appraising look. “I don’t buy it. You make it sound like this stuff has no side-effects at all.”
Adam stood up and sighed. “It doesn’t, and that’s the problem.”
“…Run that by me again.”
“…Okay. So what you saw today?” Adam gestured toward the stairs. “Both my bros are in a hell of a lotta pain right now, right?”
“And they won’t be by the time we go upstairs, right?”
“…I don’t follow—”
“What we did today shoulda put them in the hospital. Hell, as hard as I was lifting, that could honestly do things like kidney failure and lifetime injury. But for us…” He sat down again. “…that’s just Wednesday.”
“Just Wednesday.” Gabe shook his head disbelievingly as he echoed the words. “But it doesn’t just stop with the muscles, does it? Otherwise you wouldn’t be dosing me up with it for cognitive rehab.”
“Nope!” Adam beamed. “And it’s working, ain’t it?”
“…I feel sharper than I’ve been in years,” Gabe confessed.
“Works on literally anything. If it’s a skill, if you can practice or train it? Crude’ll help. Read some challenging books, hit your rehab really hard…So long as you’re on it, there are no consequences for you to going balls-to-the-wall. The only thing that happens, no matter WHAT you do, is you get better. Now…Tell me that ain’t a problem.”
“…Yeah. That’s a hell of a problem,” Gabe agreed. “I can just see some… some punk gangbanger getting their hands on this shit and not having your restraint.”
“Yeah. I don’t know how we made SOR work, maybe it’s a happy accident…but it works for us.”
“So definitely no side effects at all? ‘Cuz I’m gonna want grandkids someday and I know bodybuilders can get-”
Adam threw back his head and groaned. “Dad…! No! No. Definitely no problems there.” He paused, then waggled his eyebrows like an especially cartoonish Groucho Marx. “Like I said, no matter WHAT you do, you get better.”
Gabe snorted. “…Well, now I’m sold on this stuff.”
“Ooh? Am I gonna get a little half-sibling?”
It was Gabe’s turn to groan. “You too? As if Jess dropping hints wasn’t enough…”
“That’s a yes, then?”
Adam punched the air with an explosive thud and hugged him. “I love you, dad.”
Gabe nodded, and did the best he could to return the hug. “…Love you too, amigo. Thanks for showing me this.”
“I understand better now.”
That, he reflected, was really all he could ask for.
Date Point: 12y1m1d AV
BGEV-11 ’Misfit’, Uncharted System, Near 3Kpc Arm
“Jesus.” Allison gave the dirty brown ball they were orbiting a depressed glare. Here and there she could see the startling turquoise patches of tiny, slimy oceans absolutely choked with cyanobacteria and the first glimmerings of aerobic life. “We came all this way for a planet that’s not even finished yet?”
“Hey, the scientists are going to love this thing!” Julian defended it. “I mean, this is probably our most important find yet!”
“From a purely scientific point of view,” Allison pre-empted him.
“From a- …yes. I mean. Pure science is good, right?”
She sighed and kissed him. “I swear, you turn into a bigger geek with every planet we find.
“You’re the one who gave up on Star Trek because the science is wrong.”
“They kept inventing bullshit made-up kinds of radiation!”
He snorted. “See? You’re the geek.”
Xiù was redecorating the cupboards for entertainment, having spent weeks carefully sketching out some semi-abstract designs that evoked the Lucent glimmermotes, flowed around the edges and highlighting the corners. She was looking freaking adorable with an accidental splotch of blue on her cheek, too, especially when she paused and looked back at them to weigh in. “Let’s face it, we’re all geeks…”
“Okay, fine.” Allison mock-grumbled. She sighed at the planet below them again. “I was just really looking forward to having something to walk around on…”
“Yeah, I know… me too.” Xiù sighed, and returned to her painting.
“Well… yeah, me three,” Julian acknowledged. “…but this is still really cool!”
“It is!” Allison agreed. “You’re right, the scientists are gonna love us for finding this thing. But the next place on the list had damn well better have hot springs.”
“Well, the next one’s the strongest positive we have…” Julian said, calling it up.
Allison glanced at it, saw a happy ninety-seven percent at the top of the page and nodded, mollified. “Hot springs?”
“I should be able to find us some from orbit if it has them…” Julian hazarded.
“Sold!” Xiù called.
“You’re the pilot,” Julian pointed out.
“You can set course,” she retorted. “You only need me to land this thing, remember?”
“We need you for a lot more than that, bǎobèi…” Julian disagreed.
“Sweet,” Allison grinned, but Xiù was blushing under that paint blotch, so she decided to double down. “But true.”
“Well…you still don’t need me to run the navigation software!”
“But I’m comfortable!” Allison complained, snuggling into a Julian a little more.
“And I’m busy!”
“Well, let’s make the scientists happy and gather some more sensor data for a while…” Julian proposed.
“Yeah, you know what? That sounds good…”
There was a comfortable silence for several minutes.
“…Whose turn is it to cook tonight?”
Date Point: 12y1m2d AV
CIA offices, Chicago, Illinois, USA, Earth
“Hey. Want some good news?”
Darcy was nursing a migraine, which was an occupational hazard that she’d been enduring for most of her career. Today’s was a bad one, though. A forehead-pincher. A “make the light shut up”-er. A “there’s not enough green tea in the world”, please-make-it-stop, honest-to-God ice-pick-in-her-temple migraine.
She rolled her head to one side and grimaced up at Jake from the relative cool comfort of her desktop. “You brought that guillotine I asked for?”
Jake put a cup of tea down next to her. “Gabriel Arés is going to stay on as chief of CCS.”
Darcy managed to sit up. “What, he just… suddenly got better from a massive concussion?”
“General Tremblay authorized the SOR to give him a course of Crue-D.”
That actually made Darcy laugh, and the pain in her head subsided just a little. “Well… well done, General… well done.”
“…D’you think I could get in on that action?”
Jake chuckled softly and returned to his desk. “I’ll put that candidate shortlist you had Nick draw up on file. I’m sure we’re gonna need it someday…”
“Sure.” Darcy lowered her head to the desk again. “…Thanks.”
She fancied that her head was feeling a little better.
Date Point: 12y 2m AV
Given Man Lodge, Uncharted Class 12 deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm
Yan should have been feeling better.
They were into the third moon of the lodge. He and his fellow Given Men had put in good hard work and repaired the huts after a year of neglect, which had done a lot to burn out some of the simmering omnipresent hatred of everything that was their annual curse.
And then they had filled the lodge hut with heat, steam, sweat, the scent of roasting meat…and the magic smoke.
There had been initiations. Tarek and two others had undergone the rites (the secrets of which were among those things that Yan fervently hoped his great-niece’s young father would never learn) and had their adult names taken from them. There had been feasting, hunting, playful fighting, serious fighting.
…And the Magic Smoke.
They had traded stories, traded news, traded knowledge. Yan had shared Sky-Thinker’s innovative new weapon and they had tried their hands at building some. With those new bird-spears they had brought home a real prize, a great stamping Manak.
Manak-hunting was usually far too dangerous. The beasts could knock a man flying with a swipe of their great tusked heads, or crush him underfoot. This time the Given Men had crashed and hooted through the trees above a solitary male and maddened it with bird-spears. It had charged at their trees and been left frustrated as they evaded its reach, then grown panicked as more and more sharpened shafts had pierced its back, until finally they had given it an opening to escape.
It had charged desperately in that direction…and off a low cliff. With its legs and back broken, the honor of striking the blow that killed it had fallen to Yan.
Its meat was now roasting over the fire, its hide was tanning on the rack, and shreds of its jerky were curing high in the rafters among those beautiful…
…of Magic Smoke.
Yan sighed and relaxed as he took another deep breath from over the fire pit where the medicine roots were twisting and crackling as they writhed and smoked off among the coals.
The smoke was the Given Men’s secret. He suspected that the root was probably the same one that the women used to make the magic powder, but if it was he had no idea how they made it… and no desire to know. That was a woman’s magic, the magic of giving and life. Men were killers and takers, there was no room for either side to use the other’s magic. That was the way of things.
Heh. Although, men could give good and hard too, in the right circumstances.
He became aware that he was trilling a soft laugh to himself. Even though they didn’t know the thought that had tickled him so, some of the others joined in and a lazy wave of merriment swept around the lodge.
“‘S good smoke…” Tarek managed. He leaned forward and waved his tongue through the thickest part of it then sat back with a sigh. “Makes me feel… soft…”
“Makes the anger go away…” somebody else said.
“Good smoke,” Yan echoed, nodding sagely.
He should have been feeling better. He was feeling better. But he should have been feeling betterer. More better. Whichever. There were nagging worries in the back of his head.
A lot of the Given Men had simply never shown up.
A few failed to show up every year, of course. Everybody died eventually after all, and if a sickness or bad fall didn’t get you then a yshek or a particularly wiley or lucky Werne might. But this time there were more men missing than not. That, combined with Tarek’s account of other tribes being hit, a long way from Yan’s own…
Yan finally identified the feeling that was itching away in the back of his head: It was the feeling of being hunted.
And having realized that, he knew that it was time for his Vision.
He stood up a little unsteadily and coughed as he inhaled some of the denser smoke that was coiling around the lodge’s low roof. “It’s… time,” he managed.
The Given Men looked at one another solemnly, then stood up and joined him.
The Vision was the most important part of a Given Man’s retreat, a repeat on male terms of the Rite Of Manhood he had undergone years ago.
He had killed. He had feasted. He had taken his fill of the pleasures of the world… and now he would See.
A Vision always began slowly. Each man grabbed a stout stick from where they rested against the lodge wall and formed a ring around the fire. They looked to Yan to start the dance and calculate whether they should move left or right first, and then began to ram the sticks slowly, heavily and steadily into the packed earth underfoot, until they settled into a strong shared beat.
Then came the song, a steady deep drone from all of their throats that wavered and clashed and changed until they were all holding the same note, or a pleasing harmonic of it… and then they started to move.
Step forward, slam, step back, slam, turn to one side and raise the stick to crack! sharply against first one neighbor’s, then the other’s.
It was a simple rhythm, underpinned by a simple wordless song that each man changed and contributed to as he saw fit… but it was exhausting. That was the point. Within a minute their hands were stinging. Not long thereafter their arms were growing sore as the dance got faster and more physical, testing their endurance.. In the sweltering humidity of the lodge there was nowhere for the sweat to go so it ran off them and soaked their fur to their backs.
The heady blend of motion, heat, magic smoke and exertion was exactly what they were after. It quickly burned the conscious thought out of them and left only themselves with no barriers up, no walls between themselves and their experience until even the detached watchful places in their minds dissolved away into nothing….
Yan needed no prompting—he knew when the time was right. There was a skin by the fire full of Ketta sap and the juice of medicine root. It was bitter, astringent and foul but he drank it like it was water then stepped back and let the universe overtake him.
And he Watched.
Date Point: 12y2m2w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space
Lt. Col. Claude Nadeau
Nadeau had found common ground with Vedregnenug over a shared interest in art, and the two of them had held some fascinating conversations over the last few months. Guvnurag color theory in particular differed wildly from that of humans, but that was probably inevitable when dealing with a species that had pentachromatic vision.
It was rarer that they got to discuss military matters. It wasn’t a field in which Vedreg was knowledgeable, and he found violence distasteful. On this occasion, however, his interest was piqued.
“And nobody was hurt?”
“As I understand it, the worst any of them would have suffered would be irritated eyes, a cough and perhaps some bruising. Maybe some light scratches from the shieldbreaker rounds.” Nadeau shrugged. “Major Powell seemed impressed, and what little I know of his service record says that if he’s impressed then the Gaoians pulled off something special.”
“Major Powell was pleasant to me, but he always managed to make me feel afraid…” Vedreg rumbled. Nadeau decided that the motes of light racing down his flanks were signalling a mixture of respect and intimidation coupled with a genuine but futile desire to like the man.
It was amazing just how much information those chromatophores could convey even when one couldn’t see all the subtleties they had to offer.
“He’s an intense man. That’s normal for combat arms.”
“Every human I have ever met has been ’intense’,” Vedreg replied.
“I guess we would be, yeah…” Nadeau acknowledged. “But, we got the football blueprint. Lewis and Lee are playing around with it now, working it into the coltainer design. How’s the shell company?”
“Bankrupt. The fines for permitting the theft of such a valuable technology…” Vedreg pulsed smug satisfaction. “When they come to arrest the founder and president they will discover that he never really existed, but of course that is all much too late. The trail will never lead back to me, nor to my herd.”
“What will you do now? Do you have anything more to contribute to the project?”
“Not to this one, no,” Vedreg’s flanks rippled through an uncertain rainbow. “But I have something else to begin thinking on now.”
“My species is riddled with implants, Lieutenant-Colonel. “They have become as ubiquitous in our society as clothing is in yours… I think the time has now come to think about how I might resolve that problem.”
Date Point: 12y2m3w AV
Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Nofl’s everyday work, alas, did not involve his magnum opus. Mostly it was honest work funded by a grant from the Folctha Ministry of Housing and Immigration, tracking cross-species disease vectors and possible human contamination of the Alien Quarter.
Which meant unlimited access to human tissue samples, which was fascinating of course, but it was no Cruezzir.
Cruezzir had made him and destroyed him, and equally quickly in both cases. He’d gone from being the researcher who developed an effectively perfect regenerative medicine to being indirectly responsible for unleashing the so-called “Human Disaster” on the galaxy in only two short years, and nobody’s reputation survived a history like that.
Hence why he was counting antibodies in a tiny and frankly primitive lab on a backwater in the Far Reaches, rather than holding his rightful place as Professor of Regenerative Medicine at the Grand Central Origin University.
He really ought to have been more bitter, but Corti weren’t supposed to do bitter. They weren’t supposed to do anything, emotionally speaking and yet ego, bitterness and ambition were rife.
Nofl’s concerns that this indicated the possibility that official Directorate thinking on the subject might not be completely supported by the empirical evidence would have probably cost him all the prestige that Cruezzir earned him in the long run anyway. But at least he’d have been in a position to exert some influence about those concerns, for a while.
His train of thought was interrupted by his doorbell chime, and he buzzed the visitor in with a simple command through his implants.
“…Goodness gracious me! Chief Arés! This is an unexpected pleasure!”
Arés was a small man by human standards, with shrewd dark eyes that fidgeted under his brow like iridescent black beetles as he limped into the room on his cane. He was looking good, Nofl congratulated himself. You couldn’t tell he’d suffered a near-fatal brain injury at all.
“And what brings you to my lab today? Ooh! Have you finally caved? Want me to take a look at that nerve at long last?”
Arés half-laughed in that breathy, nasal way that humans did when genuinely amused but not to any great degree. He prowled the lab looking with uncomprehending interest at Nofl’s projects, tapping his cane thoughtfully on the floor.
“Let’s say I might be more open to the idea today than I was a few weeks back,” he offered. “But that’s not why I’m here right now. I had an interesting delivery recently.”
“Cruezzir, Nofl. The real thing. Which was very welcome considering my condition…”
“You know, you are looking well…” Nofl complimented him, calculating furiously. Arés manner was light and friendly, but he had the strangest feeling that he was watching some kind of predatory beast stalk him and the pounce was coming any second.
“I had wondered if maybe you had synthesized some here in your lab, perhaps…” Arés looked around. “But you don’t seem to have any equipment like that.”
“So I find myself in a difficult situation. You see, I spoke with Myun.”
Arés gestured to the door and two CCS officers joined them.
“Nofl. You’re under arrest on suspicion of smuggling,” he said. “Sorry. Do yourself a favor and don’t say a damn thing until your attorney’s present.”
Nofl sighed, and put down his tablet. “That’s more than fair. …Thank you, Chief.”
“Well, you did do me a favor.”
Nofl took the advice and didn’t say anything.
Date Point: 12y3m AV
BGEV-11 ’Misfit’, Deep Space, 3Kpc Arm
“This is new! What’s the occasion?”
Allison wasn’t one to mince words, especially when it came to food. Her query was an enthusiastic one though, and she slipped an arm around Xiù’s waist to lean over her shoulder and check the contents of the frying pan, smelling faintly but not unpleasantly of maintenance and hard work.
“Uh… your birthday?” Xiù asked.
Xiù smiled sideways at her as Allison mulled over the news that she was a year older, then shrugged and kissed her cheek before throwing herself on the couch. “Well… cool! So what are we having?”
“Jamaican jerk chicken with rice and peas. I broke out that can of coconut milk and a lot of Thyme…” she opened the oven and showed off that the pan was full of two fat brown chicken breasts, glistening and covered in spices. “One whole breast for you.”
Allison sighed at the sight of it. Meat was something they had to ration quite carefully as it took up proportionately a lot of space in their stores, which were really starting to run low. The chicken situation was especially dire, and getting a whole breast to herself was a queenly treat. “God. You really do love me.”
“Yup!” Xiù beamed at her. “Wake Julian up?”
Allison nodded, kicked up to her feet and hit the touchscreen in the wall to bring up the hab controls and shut the field down.
This alone was enough to wake Julian, who shifted and looked up just from the sudden intrusion of cooking sounds into his quiet space. He gave her a stupid look with his hair sticking out at a crazy angle before he blinked and got his thoughts together. “…Hey.”
“Hey. Food’s ready.”
“Uh…? Oh. Yeah. Happy birthday.”
Allison kissed him. “I’d forgotten,” she admitted.
“I didn’t get you anything,” he joked, hauling himself out of the bunk. “Just couldn’t find the time to go shopping.”
This earned him a laugh, and Allison tidied his hair up for him. “Dummy.”
He grinned and gave Xiù a good-morning kiss as well before going for his shower.
The chicken was exactly as good as Xiù had hoped, though she and Julian were left to watch in suppressed envy as Allison took her time enjoying having a whole breast to herself, which was of course accompanied by a hint of enjoying herself at their expense.
“So… we got anything to do today?” he asked eventually, as she put the fork down on a clean plate.
Xiù looked pleased with herself. “Land.”
Allison blinked at her. “…That’s today too?”
“Wow. Best girlfriend ever.”
Xiù blushed, but waved her down. “I can’t take credit for this one. Just good luck.”
Julian leaned over and unstuck his tablet from where he’d velcroed it to the wall. “Lemme see…”
Xiù shuffled over and watched as he brought up the sensor data and scrutinized the information on their destination planet. It would have been nice if the information came to them in the form of some kind of flashy animated GUI, but in fact what Julian was studying was a spreadsheet.
Still the right-hand column, which was programmed to change color depending on where the planet sat inside a range of values, was a friendly mix of greens and blue which meant that in many ways the world they were approaching was a close or near-identical match for Earth. The only amber in the whole list was the gravity, which was a still-not-unreasonable 1.2G.
“Looks good,” she commented.
“That gravity won’t be a problem?” Julian checked.
“No.” Xiù shook her head. “Not for modern ship propulsion and not for us. We’ll probably be a bit tired for a week or two, though.”
“Good exercise,” Allison said.
They got up and cleared their meal away, musing on what they might find on this new planet, then spent an hour checking over their equipment in the excursion room.
The suits had undergone some overhauls after Lucent. The white and high-vis yellow that had been deemed so appropriate for Mars was gone, replaced with an (allegedly) universal camouflage pattern that Julian had some vocal doubts about even with human eyes, let alone potential alien eyes for whom the scheme might be bright grurple or whatever
“Grurple” was his name for hues the human eye couldn’t see, and had made its way into their private lexicon alongside “Happyxhausted”, “Snudying” (studying while snuggling), “Compornsion” (like compersion, but for sex) and a few Gaori and Mandarin loan words.
Grurple or not, the hydrophobic and acid-resistant coating was going to be welcome if they needed to hit the red decon button again. Then there were the GR-1d rifles. These were the latest version too, after the two they’d had before had been ruined by the decon shower. Allegedly the updated version corrected some of the original’s design flaws and offered improved performance.
Things were maybe a little sharper, a little leaner. That seemed to be how the Byron Group operated, really—learn by doing—but it had Allison happy. She’d geeked out hard over some detail of the updated weapons, and had left Xiù nodding and smiling uncomprehendingly as she waxed enthusiastic about something arcane involving…a bus scope on the piccadilly rail? Something like that.
The upshot of it was that the gun had a camera on it, she’d followed that much and had consoled herself with knowing that Allison got similarly unfocused whenever Xiù broke out the movie trivia, linguistics jargon or Gung Fu terminology.
Which was fine. They didn’t need to really understand one another’s interests after all. Xiù didn’t get what it was that got Allison so fired up over guns, Allison somehow found wire-fu boring, and neither of them had any idea what Julian found so interesting about rocks.
They suited up ahead of the actual landing, having all had it hammered into them throughout their training that Misfit was at her most vulnerable during takeoff and landing—that was when things were most likely to go wrong and also the moment where, if they did go wrong, the consequences would land on them soonest. The excursion suits might not achieve anything but they couldn’t hurt, and they might just be the difference between life and death.
Still, Xiù preferred flying in just her sportswear. The suit was stuffy and restricting and made her hands clumsy as she ran them over *Misfit*’s controls and her seat slotted properly into place.
“Ready?” she asked.
”Ready!” Allison chirped.
Julian sounded in equally good cheer. ”Take it away, bǎobèi.”
“Alright. Dropping our bugout beacon…” the hull rang as a dose of compressed air drove a beacon microsat out of them to linger harmlessly among the uncharted star’s comet halo.
That done, she angled them in-system.
She had a good feeling about this one…
Date Point: 12y3m AV
The High Forest Village, Uncharted Class 12 planet, Near 3Kpc Arm
“Yan’s back! Yan’s back!!”
The whole village flocked down the hill in a rush, summoned by both the shrill cry of the sentry boy and the slow thrum of his roaring-stone, the single strong beat that said “returning hunter”.
Yan was looking his usual self—burly, strong and swaggering, with the hair running down his back back to its usual bright scarlet blaze rather than the sickly pale orange he’d been sporting by the end of the winter. Vemik didn’t know what secrets the Given Men had that made their crests so red or made them grow so big and strong, and Yan had refused to share in his usual gruff, cryptic way.
He scooped up two of the children as he ambled up the slope, grinning as they hung from his shoulders. As he got closer though, Vemik detected a slightly forced quality to his good cheer. Whatever the Given Men got up to, it had left Yan worried.
Vemet saw it too. “He’s troubled…”
“Badly troubled,” Vemik agreed. “Things must be bad out there…”
Father and son shot each other a glance, then reached a mutual unspoken resolution to let Yan relax for a while before they broached the subject. He was usually so full of good cheer when coming back from his annual journey that to see him looking so tense was… worrying. And definitely a matter for the respected men of the tribe to discuss in private, when the opportunity presented itself.
As always there was a feast and playing, with the added joy this time of Yan being reunited with his great-niece, who couldn’t seem to resist grabbing his new-and-improved hair crest.
The baby was a whole series of mysteries that Vemik was trying his best to grapple with, only for one of the women to swoop in and rescue the infant from her father before he could…
Well, he wasn’t sure what they were so scared of. By and large it seemed to be a magic thing: Men Didn’t Look After Babies.
This was a shame in Vemik’s view, because he and the little one seemed to get along just fine. He carefully held her the same way the women did, rocked and made soft reassuring noises to her, and she rewarded him by turning those wide, barely-focused eyes on his face and trying to grab his crest, his ears or his finger. She had remarkably strong little fingers.
Sometimes, she’d even smile. And then a jealous woman would descend, muttering about ’sky-thinking strangeness’ or whatever other ache it was had rotted her belly. Quite why his interest as the child’s father was less acceptable than Yan’s interest as her great-uncle was another one of those mysteries that seemed infuriatingly unlikely to be solved.
Thank the Gods for the Singer, who was more than happy to indulge him some alone time with his daughter in the spice-tasting privacy of her hut.
Yan relaxed as the afternoon wore on, and his usual bluff smile returned. Pretty soon he was playing with the children, joking with the men, flirting with the women and playfully wrestled Yafek to the ground in a jovial show of just how prodigiously strong a Given Man should be.
Vemik never got the chance to ask him what had so badly affected his mood, however. The relaxed day was winding down and couples were sidling away toward huts in discrete pairs and they were definitely approaching the time when grabbing the Given Man and getting some answers would have been appropriate when a noise quite unlike any they had ever heard before shook the whole village.
Two loud slams, like a rock face collapsing or a stretched skin on the tanning rack being beaten with a stick, or maybe like thunder… but not exactly like any of those things. Just two deep, sharp bangs that echoed strangely off the rock walls around the High Forest.
They were still looking around and trying to decide what had made such an extraordinary noise when there was a shriek unlike anything Vemik had ever heard and something impossible caught the light of the setting sun down below them, out over the forest where the dead destroyer rested.
Vemik put a hand to his brow and squinted at it. It was… it could only be as big as a large hut. Bigger, even. But it hung in the air in a way that not even the most agile birds could have imitated, less like it was flying and more like it simply didn’t care for mundane things like the ground. It sat in the air in the same way that a rock might, if rocks weren’t confined to the surface of the world.
The whole village stood up to watch it as it hung where it couldn’t, then dipped and vanished from sight among the trees.
There was a long, shocked silence before Yafek finally spoke.
Vemik tried not to wilt. Now was not a time to look weak or cowardly in front of the other men.
Vemik could only shake his head. “Not… I’ve never even dreamed of anything like-”
“What Sky-Thinker means,” Vemet interrupted, putting a kindly hand on his youngest son’s shoulders, “Is that we need to know more.”
Yan stood up. “Then let’s go,” he grunted, hefting his spear. “All of us.”
“So this is an Abrogator…”
Allison kicked its leg and swore violently. “Fucking…fuck! All this way and we find Big Hotel ripping some poor locals apart. God dammit!”
”Keep your guard up, baby,” Xiù advised. Ever since Lucent, the policy had been for her to remain in place at *Misfit*’s helm, where the ship’s sensors could maybe give them an early warning if anything hostile was heading their way.
“Right.” Allison turned around and scanned the tree line while Julian continued to pick over the gutted Abrogator.
“Weird…” he commented after a few seconds.
Xiù was watching over his helmet cam. ”Yeah.”
Allison didn’t stop watching the forest for trouble. “What?”
“The locals didn’t crack this bitch open the violent way, they opened the maintenance hatch. But then it looks like they hacked the inside apart with knives rather than undoing the connectors.”
He grabbed a severed and shredded length of hydraulic tubing, pinched the connector at its end, twisted it and took it apart to dangle the pathetic length of oily rubber in front of his helmet cam.
Allison glanced at it. “Shit, Misfit has components that look more high-tech than that. Is this really Hierarchy tech?”
“Guess hydraulics don’t change much even with millions of years of progress…” Julian mused. He dug a little higher in the Abrogator’s guts and came across something that looked much more promising. “Here we go. This could be its computer core, maybe. What do you think, Al?”
Allison handed him her rifle and took his place in the genocide machine’s innards. “…Maybe?” she agreed. “But I think it’s probably just the control unit for the hydraulics. Lemme see…”
There were several quiet minutes as she dug further into it before she emitted a low whistle.
Julian quirked his head. “Al?”
“Well, this is either something important or Big Hotel love to put swanky flashy lights on stuff for no good reason…” There was a sharp click and Allison emerged from the Abrogator’s innards with oily substances running unheeded off her suit’s omniphobic surface, and triumphantly holding up a black cube about the size of her fist.
“So the question is-” Julian began.
He was interrupted by Xiù, who had a thoroughly apprehensive note in her voice. ”Uh, guys? Misfit says there are heat signatures approaching…”
That got Allison on her feet instantly, drawing her gauss pistol. “Back to the ship?” She asked.
Julian nodded. “Yeah. Think you’re right.”
They’d barely gone three paces before Julian caught a flash of bright red moving low in a nearby tree, though he almost missed it in the gloom. He hissed sharply and Allison was at his side with her weapon raised.
“I can’t hardly see shit…” she grumbled.
“Turn your light on. If it’s the locals, maybe we’ll scare ‘em off…” Julian suggested.
“So much for the Prime Directive…”
A second later, Allison’s tactical flashlight banished the darkness entirely, and all around them a tribe of the biggest, strongest-looking monkeys Julian had ever thought of flinched backwards and brandished spears at them.
The biggest of them, with a crest as red as a Coke can and muscled like a silverback, tumbled down the tree and snarled at them, and Julian was suddenly acutely aware that the stab-proof material of their excursion suits was going to be no use at all in this case. That big one looked strong enough to just twist his head off.
“…Back to the ship,” Allison repeated slowly and softly. “Nice and slow.”
Magic to make stone fly and to shoot blue fire. Magic to make blades walk and to poison the land. And now, magic to banish the darkness as if the sun had come up. Vemik turned away and scrubbed at his eyes to banish the floating purple-green blob in the middle of his field of vision.
Beside him, Yan crashed down the tree and bared his teeth at the strangers.
There had never been strangers so… strange, either. They looked almost like People, but their legs were too long and too straight, their bearing too tall and upright.
And their tools, their clothing, the odd objects in their hands, all had too much in common with the nearby corpse of the destroyer. Right down to the clear ice or quartz substance over their faces and the peculiar sheen of the axe on the taller one’s hip.
Yan had clearly arrived at the same conclusions and like a true Given Man he was angry. He looked about ready to tear their heads off in fact, and the strangers were so slender that he might just manage it. They certainly seemed to be scared of him, because they backed away slowly, speaking to each other in worried tones and words Vemik either couldn’t hear properly, or couldn’t understand.
They were about to get vengeance for all the dead villages, all of Vemik’s dead sisters and cousins.
Vemik paused for no longer than the time between his own heartbeats, and would later struggle to explain the full convoluted river of insights that caused him to spring down the tree and throw himself in front of the enraged Given Man before he could lead the charge. He was not an instant too late—rather than being bowled over by Yan’s charge, he instead brought him up short.
Yan was in no mood to be stopped. “Get behind me, Sky-Thinker!”
“Yan, if they were the enemy we’d be dead already!” Vemik snapped.
Possibly nobody else could have used that tone of voice with Yan. Possibly the logic of what he was saying wouldn’t have penetrated coming from anybody else. But for whatever reason, Yan listened. He took a long hard look at the two strangers and at the strange tools they were holding, pointed levelly and unwaveringly in his direction, and Vemik saw him follow, rather more slowly, the same line of thought that had hit him between the ears.
“It came to me. What happens if you take an idea like my spear-thrower and add a lot of sky-thinking?” Vemik prompted.
Yan nodded slowly. “Those are weapons.”
“Yes. Maybe weapons that can spit blue fire? But the death-birds tried to kill me straight away, and these two are…”
Yan looked at the two strangers. They had stopped backing away, but they were poised with their weight to the rear, ready to keep retreating. They stood and moved in strange, foreign ways but the stance clearly spoke of a desire for peace.
Vemik took a slow step forward then, slowly and deliberately, he pulled his spear-thrower from his back, stooped, and placed it carefully on the ground.
The two strangers looked at each other, said nothing… and then slowly aimed their weapons elsewhere. The taller one tugged the hatchet from his belt and laid it on the ground as well.
“How do we know this isn’t a trick?” Yan demanded. Vemik turned back toward him.
“Please… trust me.”
“If you get us all killed…” the Given Man growled.
“Look, Yan. That one took something out of the destroyer. I think they’re its enemies too.”
“And if you’re wrong?” Yan demanded.
Vemik rounded on him. “They can make rock fly, Yan! They can make light without fire! We already saw they can do the impossible! If they’re our enemies then there is nothing we can do to stop them, but if they’re our friends-!”
Yan gaped at what was unquestionably a challenge to his authority. He bristled with outrage, then paused, shot another look at the strange axe that the newcomer had laid in the grass, and with a visible effort of will he settled down. He gave the two strangers a long suspicious glare and then finally, with a disgusted snort, threw his spear to the ground at his feet.
“…This isn’t what my Vision foretold at all,” he cautioned. “But… very well. We do things the Sky-Thinker’s way.”
The tribe relaxed, lowered their spears, and muttered among themselves. Vemik, knowing that Yan would be reasserting his authority hard later on, turned back to the strangers, and stepped forward.
“…Hello,” he said.
Date Point: 12y3m AV
Guvendruduvundraguvnegrugnuvenderelgureg-nugdurnuveg system, Capitol system of the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy
Sorud’s career had taught her a lot about controlling her instinct to emote colorfully. Her chromatophores were generally a serene magnolia, there to inspire and reassure her underlings.
The Hunters had a bad way of disrupting that. She knew that her magnolia was a little on the worried orange side right now. Something was badly, badly wrong.
The Hunters tried their luck with the Confederacy systems every so often. Usually it never amounted to anything—the Grand Herd Fleet of the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun was as solid and as dependable as the loyal bodies who crewed its ships.
Maybe a small raid might catch a solitary unlucky freighter, at worst. Usually not even that, and the systems themselves were utterly protected, the containment shields able to come up in an instant to provide impenetrable blanket protection against even all conceivable firepower.
But the Swarm of Swarms-!
Yes. Sorud’s chromatophores were definitely more than a little orange.
She double-checked the status of the system shields for her own peace of mind. All three of them were up, a level of redundancy that bordered on the ridiculous even to her cautious and conservative thinking. One such shield had kept the Hunters from flooding Sol and bringing the force of their Swarm to bear on the Humans.
She should have felt absolutely secure. But there were more than a million ships out there, and they were showing no sign of losing interest or leaving.
The projections on the number of Hunters crewing those ships…
“How quickly can the Dominion second fleet be here?” she asked.
The comm operator’s own chromatophores were a sickly yellow with fear. “At best speed, they will arrive in two four-days, fleetmaster.”
Sorud willed her flanks to radiate reassuring neutral tones again. “They cannot get in. Two four-days is no time at all if the enemy cannot-”
She was interrupted by an alarm, and frantic calls from the sensors officers.
“Hostile contacts inside the shield boundary!”
“Twenty swarmships! They’re-”
“How?!” Sorud demanded.
“They must have… I think they must have coasted into the system at sublight several four-days ago, fleetmaster.”
The innermost of the system shields stopped reporting in. Some seconds later, the closest of the system’s sensor buoys sent back over FTL comms that it had recorded a detonation of several megatons, slapping the emitter out of existence.
Suddenly, three shields felt like far, far too few.
It was too few. The Hunters had surprise and planning on their side and every Guvnurag on the bridge contributed the same shade of horrified magenta glow to the general ambience, noticeably changing the lighting hue of the command deck as the second, then third shields went offline almost too quickly to record.
The Swarm-of-Swarms surged in.
++END CHAPTER 34++