Chapter 38: Paroxysm
Date Point: 13y 1m AV
Low orbit over Planet Aru, Elder Space
Lieutenant Anthony ‘Abbott’ Costello
“Why is this called a HELLNO jump?”
Costello considered the yawning sky below him and decided that his question demanded an expansion. “…Besides the obvious.”
To his left, Rebar chuckled darkly. “Pretty sure it’s just the obvious, sir. Burgess never did come up with a good backronym.”
“Yet,” Murray commented. That single word was a show of remarkable faith, coming from him.
“We’re pretty sure it ends in No Opening. An’ I like High Exit. It’s the double L that’s the tricky bit.” Rebar added.
Costello leaned out the back of their CS-200 Weaver again and tracked the capillary squiggle of a brilliant emerald river among the brown, arid soil far below. “Long Line?” he suggested. They were so far up that the Weaver was flying in the next best thing to a vacuum, and its speed across the ground was measured in kilometers per second. The imaginary line they would draw on the ground during the drop was damn near transcontinental.
“High Exit, Long Line, No Opening…” Rebar tasted the backronym thoughtfully. “I like it.”
“Happy to contribute, Master Sergeant.”
Costello glanced back at Rebar, and was pretty sure he saw the older man was grinning behind his pressure mask.
“I dunno, bruh,” Sikes interjected. “I still prefer High Elevation Launch, Landing Not Optional.”
“Landing is always not optional,” Murray pointed out.
Firth couldn’t hold his peace any longer. “Why the fuck’s it gotta have an acronym anyhow?” he complained.
Rebar shrugged. “Hey, Burgess named it and he said it’s gonna have an acronym.”
“He’s young and dumb and he’s been corrupted by ‘yer evil Army ways,” Firth grumbled darkly. “I’ll need to apply some remedial beatings, I see…”
“The beatings will continue until Firth’s morale improves,” Sikes quipped.
Murray scoffed. “We’re fucked, then.”
Firth cracked his knuckles through his gauntlets, and there was no way he wasn’t grinning ominously behind his visor. His gauntlets were new, custom made for him, and were better described as maces rather than gloves. Anything they hit was going to stay hit in the worst way.
Everyone’s suits were showing little signs of customization like that. Some were basically cosmetic, like the layer of green rubber on the soles of Butler’s boots. Others were more of a solution to a recurring problem: for example, Murray tended to leave knives in people so he was carrying more of them than was strictly standard.
Costello left them to talk, and checked his suit’s linkage to the battle system. Everything was coming in crisp and perfect, and God was it satisfying. The data mills up on HMS Caledonia were massaging every byte that his team could generate and feeding it down in ways that had been pure videogame ten years ago. When he leaned out the back and glanced over toward the other Weaver, the system helpfully interpreted what he was looking for and put a small and unobtrusive diamond over it on his HUD.
And those were just the two on Caledonia, nicknamed ALBION and CAMBRIA. Supposedly they got an order of magnitude smarter when they could link with their fellows on other ships, and especially with the Fleet Intelligence Center on HMS Myrmidon.
The other Weaver was carrying Bravo Team: Blaczynski, Akiyama, Parata and Newman, with Regaari for their team leader. The remaining Gaoians made up Charlie Team and were led by Faarek. They had already infiltrated covertly via Exo-Atmospheric drop twenty minutes previously, and were quickly scouting the target building. Thanks to them, Costello was already working with a partial schematic for the hospital that was growing by the second as ALBION and CAMBRIA crunched their suit sensor data.
An important number blinked top-right in his field of view, and presumably in the rest of the team’s too, because they immediately quit jawing and ran their final checks. Costello trusted Rebar to handle it—he was keeping the burly Master Sergeant at his side as a safety net against his own relative inexperience after all—and raised Regaari.
“DEXTER, ABBOTT. Our loadmaster says drop in four. Alpha team’s all ready. You?”
“Copy, ABBOTT. We await your signal.”
Regaari’s composure was something else. For the first time in military history human servicemen were about to drop into an LZ with an alien squad leader, but his voice was as cool, level and calm as a frozen lake.
Then again, so was Costello’s. Not for the first time, he reflected that Regaari had all the qualities of a damn fine officer, if only his loyalties to Clan and species didn’t prevent him from taking a commission. As it was, he was a damn fine NCO even by the superb standards of the SOR’s other enlisted men. Blaczynski had even remarked how it was ‘about damn time’ when the teams were announced, much to Regaari’s quiet, embarrassed and restrained delight.
But that was a thought for not now. Costello shut his eyes for a moment and took a single deep breath, paying special attention to the hiss of air past his ears under the helmet, the precise sensation and scent of suit air in his nose, the pressure of it as he held it in his chest, the taste of it in his mouth on the exhale.
When he opened his eyes, he was focused.
He watched the countdown end, and every system they had to let them know to jump—the HUD, the green light in the transport and the furious gesticulations of the Loadmaster in his vacuum suit—all conspired to send them charging out into the silent border between sky and space.
Sound ceased entirely. He wasn’t even getting the distant thrum of the transport through his boots any longer, just the hiss of air past his ears and the ice-calm reports of his men.
“Alpha Team in flight, Angels one-ninety.”
“Bravo Team in flight.”
The first stage of a jump from this height was to fall ass-first, curled up as small as possible so the suit’s emitters could keep the forcefield envelope nice and compact. It was a long way down, but terminal velocity in the tenuous stuff of Aru’s upper atmosphere was fast enough that Costello’s body would have been generating a bone-cracking sonic boom down in the troposphere. That speed was their weapon, but it also needed to be shed, and shed hard if they were going to land alive and fighting.
There wasn’t a white-knuckle ride like it anywhere else in the universe.
The second stage was where things got dicey. They weren’t high enough to generate a fireball—indeed, avoiding such an obvious signature was why they’d jumped below orbit in the first place—but the atmosphere’s density returned with a vengeance. Costello could feel the thrumming power of the air rushing past him even before the sound reasserted itself.
The EV-MASS helmet had smart hearing protection installed, and they needed it. There was no sense in the whole team making it to the ground with burst eardrums. The sonic cataclysm around him was having its intended effect, though: he could see his speed across the ground dropping off so sharply that the digits and tens were both a blur.
The job of reading out their altitude and speed as a backup to the HUD fell to Firth, who just couldn’t keep the swagger out of his voice, even though he was only reporting the hard numbers. “Angels Eighty. Two thousand knots.”
Eighty thousand feet. They were now ‘only’ fifteen miles up, doing ‘only’ mach three and plunging headlong through the kind of air pressures normally only achievable with high explosive.
On paper it sounded insane to perform acrobatics under those circumstances, but falling ass-first to the ground was no longer appropriate. Costello kicked his legs out, arched his back and twisted with his core and arms, flipping himself over and around in one endlessly-practiced stunt that left him falling in a more traditional skydiving posture.
At sixty thousand feet the flight fields lanced outwards, pinning him to the air. The sudden presence of lift in his life hit him like a linebacker—if he hadn’t tensed his diaphragm and braced for it, the impact might have winded him. The drop called for tensing his neck too, and the reason why became obvious when he hit Sikes’ shockwave and got bounced around. Those weighted wrestler’s bridges that Warhorse had them doing seven times a week were paying off today.
Without the suit, the air alone would have torn them all limb-from-limb: With it, they were merely enduring a full-body onslaught like being waled on by a whole baseball team while a pair of sumo wrestlers tried to bend them into bowties. Every one of them was already riding a dose of Crue-D just to handle the insertion.
That went for the Gaoians as well, though they had an easier time of it both due to their more advanced suits, but also their shorter limbs and longer torsos, which were well-suited to handle the stress. For them, it was more like dangerous swimming.
But it worked. The suits were good enough and the men wearing them were even better. After minutes of falling, from the opposite side of a continent and with a starting speed of Mach twenty, Alpha and Bravo teams didn’t just hit the right geography, not just the right city, they hit the correct building.
And they hit the ground running.
Alpha landed on the roof. There was no dicking around with breaching charges; Instead, Firth handled the roof access door by ignoring it. He plunged through it like it was a Japanese shōji and vanished into the hospital’s bowels with Murray an inch behind his elbow.
Rebar heaved the Wormhole Suppressor off Butler’s back and slammed it into place, and thank fuck one Protector had been on hand to carry the damn thing: Nobody wanted a repeat of San Diego. They were dealing with a potential Hierarchy safe house here, which meant that getting the wormhole suppressor in place while they still had the element of surprise was right at the top of the list.
Costello followed the two Aggressors down, keeping a weather-eye on the progress of Bravo and Charlie teams as they blitzed the building from two different ground-floor entrances. There was no danger of them blundering into each other or a blue-on-blue. Thanks to ALBION and CAMBRIA, everybody knew where everybody else was.
Just keeping up with the pair was a challenge. Of the entire HEAT, Murray and Firth were the most seasoned in close quarters and their combat experience in Egypt had left them perfectly in tune. It was almost a shame that there was nothing for them to kill. Room after room was secured and declared clear in a flash-flood of precision aggression, all laser-focused on the bunker in the basement.
Rebar and Snapfire caught up with Costello on the third storey, having left Butler to protect the Suppressor.
“Place ain’t been maintained in a long time,” Rebar commented immediately.
Costello nodded, noting the decrepit state of the concrete tiles and the film of condensation on the walls. If this had been Earth, the place would have been slick with black mold. “Any danger of a collapse?”
“Probably not,” Sikes shook his head. “Neglected steelwork buildings on Earth stand up for decades before they fall.”
“We’ll keep an eye on it,” Rebar promised, “But it looks solid enough.”
Costello nodded, keeping an eye on the other teams as they worked. “No signs of habitation,” he noted. “Lots of dust on the floor. If there’s anything here, I doubt it lives on the upper floo—”
There was a muffled rattle of distant gunfire from elsewhere in the building, and Costello immediately dropped to one knee behind the cover of a discarded OmoAru gurney of some kind to give the situation his full attention. Blaczynski’s icon was blinking.
“Some kinda drones with an optical cloak. Hit us from both sides at an intersection. Threat neutralized, no casualties.”
Blaczynski’s icon double-blinked by way of acknowledgement, and Costello took a second to make a tactical reassessment in light of the attack. He communicated a few minor changes to Charlie team, then hustled to catch up with his Aggressors.
The second clash with the drones happened two minutes later, on a stairwell. Firth and Murray were heading down, the drones were heading up. There was a flash and hiss of fusion blades igniting, a shouted warning from Murray, and a bullet hurricane. By the time Rebar and Costello burst through the door behind the Aggressors, the fight was already over. The walls were pockmarked and scored, and the steps were strewn with smashed drone.
“Musta been headin’ to the roof,” Sikes commented, kicking one of the larger remaining chunks.
“Guess the wormhole suppressor pissed them off…”
“Keep it defended, then. Rebar?”
The big NCO nodded at Sikes, who took off at speed back towards the suppressor.
Costello gestured down the stairs. “Let’s keep it going.”
The second storey was their first sign of any habitation: a dry room that had probably been a staff lounge at some point had been cleared out, the furniture just dumped in the corridor, and a basic bed had been set up inside. It was surrounded by a drift of foil packets that had once contained Dominion-made travel rations, the infamous tasteless gray food spheres.
They didn’t investigate any further than confirming the room was empty. They didn’t have time—the Suppressor was well defended, but one lucky hit might well result in instant antimatter-based obliteration for all of them and everybody knew it. The last of the building was swept and cleared in record time, and when the three teams linked up on the ground floor at the top of the ramp leading down into the basement levels, everyone was breathing heavily. The lights were out down there, and the suit LIDAR wasn’t showing a lot either. ALBION and CAMBRIA didn’t have enough to work with. They had only the informants’ rough sketch from memory to go on.
It would have to be enough, and Costello didn’t waste time. There was exactly one way to go, there were no alternative routes, and presumably there would be a hostile waiting for them. Finesse was not an option here.
On his word, they stormed into the dark.
Date Point: 13y 1m AV
South Andros Island, Bahamas, Caribbean, Earth
Nude beaches were the best, especially when they were private. Adam could just lie on the sand with a nice palm tree shading the sun out of his eyes, he could read, he could bake in the sun and relax…
It was a strange feeling. Just doing nothing had been…well, it had been a struggle for both of the Bros. Neither were completely lazing about, that just wasn’t their nature. Volleyball, beach wrestling and roughhousing in the surf helped them burn off some of their daily frenetic need to move and play. But in the late afternoon, with the perfect warmth of everything lulling him into rest, he could feel himself recharging in a way he couldn’t put into words. It was…
…He couldn’t put it into words.
Also, Marty was asleep on his chest, looking so totally peaceful that it made him ache.
He couldn’t help himself. He reached up and brushed the hair from her face, and the gentle gesture was enough to wake her. She blinked, smiled, murmured something incomprehensible and wriggled against him as though trying to burrow into him for a second before giving up and sitting up slightly.
“…I fell asleep.”
“Not long…You looked like you were dreaming.”
Marty nodded and sat up a little more. “…Yeah. I was dreaming about the Lads, and they were on a mission of some kind…” she shrugged. “Workaholic, I know.”
Adam chuckled. “Makes two of us…What do you think they’re doing right now?”
Marty smiled lazily. “Eh…eating, sleeping, training, shenanigans. What else?”
She snorted. “Incorrigible.”
“Oh please, who woke me up with a BJ this morning?”
“Sure as shit wasn’t John,” Marty grinned at him.
He rolled his eyes and echoed her. “Incorrigible.”
“That’s me!” Her grin got wider and she pushed herself upright and stood. “Speaking of John, where is he?”
“He’s got a girl on the other side of the beach. If we listen real close, I bet we can hear them…”
Adam grinned. “Now she gets shy.”
“Nuh-uh,” she shook her head vigorously. “I’ve just heard it before. Come on, the walls in the barracks aren’t exactly thick.” She grinned as Adam stood up. “Actually, you remember the first week after the Whitecrests arrived? They all showed up for breakfast looking half-dead from lack of sleep.”
“Eh, they got over it.”
“Amazing what you can adapt to.”
Adam knew the smile she was wearing. It said there was an innuendo buried somewhere in her comment, but she wasn’t about to make it obvious. Instead, he took her hand and they strolled along the beach, soaking up the sun, surf and general sensation of having nothing much to do except be together.
“…Seriously though. What d’you think they’re up to right now?” Adam asked.
She leaned her head against his arm.
“Whatever it is? I bet it’s not as much fun as being here.”
Date Point: 13y 1m AV
UmOraEw-Uatun, Planet Aru, Elder Space
Lieutenant Anthony ‘Abbott’ Costello
Firth was obviously having the time of his life. Costello didn’t know which frightened him more about the enormous Aggressor: The depth of naked revelry he was taking in his own endless savagery, or that he was otherwise so totally in control of himself.
Either way, right now he was smashing his way through a wave of Hierarchy drones in a blaze of motion that had all the trappings of a berserk rage except for precision: he didn’t waste a spare twitch. Even behind his mask and visor it was obvious that he was grinning like a madman.
With Blaczynski and Murray at his side and the Defenders at his back, the human contingent were driving a spearhead deep into the Hierarchy bunker practically without slowing.
Costello for his part was hanging back, keeping his wits about him, staying detached. He formed the rearguard along with two of the Gaoians so he could maintain perspective on the engagement without undue harassment. Let Rebar handle the command up at the speartip—nothing did that better than an experienced sergeant.
Firth’s disappointment when his wrecking derby came to an end was audible.
”ABBOTT, RIGHTEOUS. Run outta bad guys up here.”
Costello called up Firth’s helmet cam on his tablet, then Blaczynski’s. The speartip were advancing down a flight of stairs, tracking for the first hint of a hostile. As it was, there was nothing, not even the reported mummified OmoAru.
“Secure our position,” he ordered. “REBAR, what’s going on here?”
Without needing any details, the Aggressors and most of the Gaoians billowed outward to re-form their perimeter, while Sikes, Faarek and Akiyama reinforced their line of communication back to the roof. Regaari joined Rebar and Costello to ponder their situation, for which Costello admitted to some gratitude. When it came down to it, Regaari had more knowledge about nonhuman technologies and cultures than anybody else on the HEAT, his fellow Whitecrests included.
“No bodies,” the Gaoian commented. “They’ve been cleaned up. And some of these consoles look like they were taken apart recently…”
Costello followed his pointing paw and nodded. One of the consoles was open, its front panel leaning neatly against its side and four small screws were lined up neatly on top.
“There’s a bedroom of sorts upstairs,” Rebar noted. “At least one human biodrone, I reckon.”
“Right,” Costello agreed. “Where is—?”
The sound of nearby shots bashed off the metal walls, amplified and given strange buzzing harmonics in the dark.
Blaczynski got on the radio before anyone could speak. “Target secured. Need a medic.”
Costello prompted his Protector. “IRISH.”
Butler tapped his radio by way of acknowledging the command, and when Costello looked up through the ceiling he saw the Protector’s blue diamond break away from Sikes’ and make for the stairs.
The contact had happened three rooms over, and had involved the target popping up to try and ambush Blaczynski only to catch two rounds in the chest and another in the gut before he could even aim. He should have been writhing and choking on all the blood, but protocol when dealing with suspected Hierarchy was to slap a stick-n-sleep patch on them ASAP, and he was limp and unconscious.
Thurrsto was doing his damnedest to keep the target from expiring, at least for long enough to bundle him into a stasis box. Costello arrived just in time to watch the Gaoian drill an intraosseous cannula into him.
The calls were coming in: Clear all around. Costello’s only problem in evacuating the target was that the wormhole suppressor couldn’t come down until they were absolutely certain that deactivating it wouldn’t dump five kilos of antimatter in their lap.
That certainty wasn’t likely to come, either. Not until a team of specialists had swept the facility top to bottom. Their best option therefore was a hot evac via Weaver dropship, and that meant time and further risk. He had to make the call with incomplete information: drop the suppressor simultaneous to a wormhole jump and take the risk to the mission? Or call down their airlift, possibly endangering an aircrew and a high value asset?
Not a choice at all, really: The mission came first, always. And Costello was painfully aware that, all other things being equal, his Lads were a much more valuable asset than any air crew. So…
“STARFALL, call for CASEVAC.”
“Make a HOLE!”
Costello got out of the way as Butler came crashing through with his medical kit and joined Thurrsto in tending to the wounded biodrone.
That drone had a storied history already, he could tell. At some point, somebody had severed most of his arm, and the replacement was a shiny black composite prosthetic that looked the part, possibly even an improvement on the original.
“Dexter? Do we have a positive ID?”
“We do,” Regaari nodded. “This is Zane Reid.”
Costello sighed and looked down at their new capture.
Date Point: 13y2m AV
Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Vince was dying. It hadn’t been a great life. For a start, it had been far too short. Dying of a sophisticated lung cancer at the age of thirty-one despite never smoking a damn thing in his life just seemed…’unfair’ didn’t even start to do it justice. It seemed like a twisted cosmic prank, dreamt up by an omnipotent sadistic joker with the opposite of a sense of humor.
He’d shot through denial pretty quickly, got stuck on anger. No, not stuck: hooked. Vince was permanently high on rage these days. It felt like heat behind his eyes and lightning in his nerves, threatening to burst out of him as he looked around at the world he would shortly be leaving and realized that there were more injustices there than a single man could fix even if his lifetime wasn’t so cruelly truncated.
Poverty. War. Corruption. The obstinate viciousness of all the world’s bitter phobics, too full of their own stench to tolerate the smell of anybody different from their idea of a norm. The choking web of power and privilege that kept the poor tied down and the wealthy free to jerk off all over them.
It was quite obvious that humanity had no right to hold the power it in fact held. Homo Sapiens was officially and definitely the least qualified organism in the galaxy to handle the responsibility that nature had thrust upon it. Cimbrean was already a playground for rich old white men, and now…
Now one of the wealthiest men in the world was about to interfere with the development of a stone-age species, and the world was applauding. Like they couldn’t see that behind all of Moses Byron’s platitudes and niceties was just another oil baron, just another slave owner.
Thank God there were other people out there who saw the toxin for what it was. Who knew what needed to be done; Who’d given Vince a purpose. A purpose in the form of a cargo van full of ANFO. A van that had just turned the corner and was now aiming right down the straight stretch to the front gates of the Advanced Aerospace Assembly Facility, home of the starship Misfit.
Vincent’s life had been worthless. But as his knuckles whitened on the steering wheel and his foot pressed to the floor until his ankle ached, as the bullets punched through his windshield and his last defiant battle cry tore out of him, he knew without any doubt at all that his death was going to mean something.
Date Point: 13y2m AV
Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
“—And the director glares at him and says ’You idiot! They’re laughing because you forgot the rose!’”
Allison groaned and then broke into her filthiest laugh, and Xiù awarded herself a point. Her mission to put a real smile on Allison’s face at least once a day since Salt Lake City had sometimes been an arduous one, but it was working.
Besides, she’d been saving that joke for a rainy day ever since Dan Hurt had shared it with her. A party at Kevin’s place seemed about right. He had a nice sprawling rambler not even half a mile from the Byron Group’s Advanced Aircraft Assembly Facility, and had invited them all round for a barbecue, poker…mostly the men had vanished into the back yard where they were playing a vigorously physical game of Calvinball which seemed to consist mostly of Julian and Dane wrestling each other for control of the ball long enough to throw it for either Kevin or Dan to score a try-slam-touch-dunk-down or whatever.
For a woman with so much metal in her face and ears, Clara Brown took a second or two longer to get the joke, and when she did she just threw her head back and groaned.
“That’s…ugh.” She shook her head. “You disappoint me, Xiù.”
“That’s a surprisingly dirty joke, coming from you!” Allison observed.
“I’m as pure and innocent as a baby fawn,” Xiù retorted, hamming it up as she feigned dignity.
“Nuh-uh. I’m your girlfriend babe, I know exactly how innocent you aren’t.” Allison winked at her, and won whatever little game they were playing. Xiù immediately felt the tips of her ears warm up.
“And there’s the blush!” Clara had politely declined anything alcoholic and had shown off a small black X tattoo behind her ear, and its tiny twin on the fleshy part of her right palm below the thumb. She chimed a Coca-Cola against Allison’s beer bottle instead and joined in the affectionate laughing that always arose when Xiù tried to fight back a blush and only made it worse.
“No, okay, if it’s dirty jokes time then I know a one about a woman who—she’d been married ten times before but the new husband’s a lawyer. So she—”
Xiù and Allison both glanced out of the window in response to…something. Some anomalous movement that screamed for attention out of the corner of the eye rather than being consciously seen. Clara yelped in surprise then shrieked in terror when, running on pure survival instinct, they both grabbed her and yanked her forward off the couch couch trailing cushions for protection in the instant before the window blew in and filled Kevin’s front room with a blizzard of glass shards and the indescribable gut-punch of an explosive shock wave.
A detached and manic part of Xiù’s mind really needed to get its priorities straight because it was fretting over the stupid details. There should have been echoes in the shocked aftermath, she thought. Instead there were car alarms, screams, shouting…and the pop, pop…pop of somebody shooting.
Also her ears were ringing. It’d be nice if that could stop, please. Xièxiè.
She dared to peek over the couch. A huge column of smoke and dust was boiling violently up into the air over the AAAF where Misfit was parked, towering high above the trees that ran around the Group compound’s perimeter to disguise the walls. She’d seen smaller high-rise buildings.
“…Amen,” Allison agreed. “You okay, Clara?”
Clara was curled up in a trembling ball with her hands over her head, but she unwound and looked up at them with an ashen expression that said she wasn’t going to say anything coherent just yet.
“Wh—-?” she managed, in a panicky squeak. Allison shook her head and waved her down.
They were still surveying the apocalyptic view when Julian charged into the room with Dane, Kevin and Daniel in his wake. He skidded to a halt on the carpet of broken glass and breathed a sigh of relief at finding them essentially unharmed.
“Are you okay?” Xiù asked him.
“I’m fine but you’re bleeding, bǎobèi.” He indicated her leg.
Xiù glanced down. She’d elected to wear denim shorts for her day off, and the result was a shallow crescent slice in her outer thigh that she’d been too high on adrenaline and surprise to notice. That same manic part of her jabbered angrily about how if she’d just worn her cut-proof working clothes she’d have been fine.
She directed the thought to worry about more important stuff, like Clara, and forgave herself. It wasn’t like they’d expected a bomb to go off.
“Huh.” She pressed on the wound and asked Julian for help with her expression. ”Saya man i….” She paused, realizing she’d lapsed into Gaori. “Um…Sorry. Could you get me a bandage or a towel or something?”
“I’ll get it,” Daniel promised, but didn’t make it four steps before Kevin cut him off by putting a hand in front of his chest. He was on his phone, listening intently.
“Guys. My tornado shelter in the backyard,” he said. “Williams says there’s an active shooter at the Facility.”
Dane picked his wife up and Clara’s habitual huge New Rocks crunched in the glass. Allison had gone barefoot, so Julian hoisted her up in a fireman’s carry, and Xiù limped along with her hand pressed to the cut on her leg.
“Dane…Honey, my dad’s up there…” Clara protested.
“He’ll want you safe,” Dane replied.
“We’re gonna stay in the shelter until we get an all clear,” Kevin replied firmly, ushering them through his kitchen and out into the back yard.
His tornado shelter was surprisingly roomy, well-lit and dry with a clean concrete floor and plenty of storage space. He obviously kept his lawnmower and other bulky items down there as well, and the “other items” included a couple of folding camp beds, which he retrieved after closing and bolting the steel doors behind them.
Julian looked around appreciatively. “Hey. Nice!”
Kevin was digging through a box of LED storm lamps. “Deathworld,” he grunted by way of an explanation.
Clara parked herself nervously on one of the camp beds. “How long are we gonna be here?”
“Williams said get somewhere safe and stay put until Hammond shows up to fetch us in person.”
“But my dad—!” Clara began again. That seemed to be all she could say on the subject.
Kevin squatted down in front of her and put a hand on her shoulder. “Clara. I’m scared for him too, but ain’t nothin’ we can do right now.”
Dane sat down next to her and put an arm around her, and Clara curled miserably into his chest and went quiet.
Allison was picking a sliver of glass out of her foot. “Fuckin’…ahh…fuck! An actual fuckin’ bomb though? Had to be a fuckin’ cargo van from the size of that blast, too…”
“Yeah…” Kevin grimaced and leaned against a wall. “I maybe insulated y’all from some of the full details about just how strong some folks feel about this whole business with the People.”
“I don’t fucking—ow—get it,” Allison commented, setting her foot down gingerly. “I can understand Alex being mad at me personally, kinda. But we’re literally trying to save their lives and…shit, people are gonna be dead over there.”
Kevin nodded solemnly.
“Well, you have to look at it through their lens,” Daniel chimed in. “I’ve read some of the death threats and messages. What they see here is a powerful species conquering a weak one. Imperialism, colonialism, maybe slavery…”
“But that’s not what we’re doing!” Julian complained.
“Doesn’t matter,” Xiù sighed. “That’s what they think we’re doing, so that’s what we’re doing.”
“Right.” Daniel nodded emphatically. “Everybody in the world works by building a simulation, a model of what the people around them are thinking and doing. Reality is something that happens inside your head.”
“An’ for a lot of people, it doesn’t have shit to do with what’s goin’ on in the actual universe,” Kevin finished.
There was a long pause, punctuated only by the sound of Dane rubbing Clara’s back, and Clara fighting to hold herself together.
Eventually, Xiù ventured to inspect her leg. The cut was only a shallow one, far less than some of the wounds she’d suffered in her life. It might leave a small white line, maybe.
She was growing blasé about scars and wounds, she noticed. But after shoving a nervejam grenade down a Hunter’s throat and practically flensing her arm on its horrible lamprey teeth, what was a bomb going off half a mile away and a little scratch?
Oddly enough, it was that thought that toppled her off the calm and focused place she’d been occupying. The full reality that an actual bomb had just gone off nearby and that people were dead caught up with her.
Very, very slowly she sank down to the floor next to Julian and willed herself not to shake or fall apart. It wasn’t very effective—her brain wanted to run off in a thousand different directions and dwell on every possible worst-case scenario.
Fortunately, Julian either had a flawless instinct for these situations, or he needed exactly what she did right now. He wrapped her up in a close hug and if there was even such a thing as ’safe’ anywhere in the universe, then just for that moment she had found it.
She sighed, concentrated on breathing slowly and deliberately, and watched the growing feeling of pressure in the back of her mind as it eased off and dissipated.
And she waited.
Date Point: 13y2m AV
Byron Group Advanced Aerospace Assembly Facility, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
Doctor Michael Ericson
People were here to kill them, and in the aftermath of the bomb that tore open the AAAF’s security checkpoint, a second van had swept in. Men in balaclavas with rifles and sticks of dynamite were swaggering across the concrete apron in front of the hangar, pausing to shoot the wounded.
Panic was everywhere, and it was death. Michael saw one man—Carter, maybe—who had possibly been safely hidden where he was until he lost his nerve and stood up to run. He made it ten paces before he died coughing on blood as a couple of accurate shots tore into his back.
Michael ducked his head back through the door and thought furiously. The gunmen were coming their way.
“…Into *MIsfit*” he urged. “Hurry!”
“But—!” That was June Liddle, the accounts manager who’d been inspecting the upgrade and maintenance work to budget it. She was clutching her tablet and her purse and trembling. “It’s a spaceship, is it safe?”
“It’s armored,” Ericson took her hand and dragged her. They were eight in total—engineers, technicians, a custodian, himself and June. None of them knew how to fight back even if any of them had been armed. The only safe place available was inside *Misfit*’s skin, which was layered in ablative panels that could handle space debris strikes.
Getting the message, they ran for *Misfit*’s ladder, June unsteady and slow on her office high heels until Michael snarled at her to take them off. She leaned heavily on his shoulder as she desperately pawed and kicked at them, wasting time and whimpering as she tried to force them off without undoing the buckle strap.
Michael stooped and undid them for her. Freed of the ungainly footwear she ran the rest of the way to the ladder like an olympic sprinter, and the technicians helped her up it.
Michael was the last to the bottom, limping and cursing his aging bones. The door at the far end of the hangar opened just as he reached the top, and there were shouts. A rifle round made June yelp as it sparked off the airlock’s inner surface. Another struck Singh in the thigh as he tried to hit the lock’s emergency override.
Michael scrambled inside as they all ducked. They were sitting ducks, fish in a barrel, stuck in a cage with no way to escape their murderers.
He turned and stood full and exposed in the airlock—it was the only way to reach the close handle above the outer doors.
Something happened to him. It wasn’t actually painful, he felt—more like being punched. Shock moved the fact that he’d just been shot, and shot again into the background, held the pain at bay. He blinked, stared at the man who’d shot him, and yanked down on the handle.
*Misfit’*s outer doors and the protective armored shutter closed, sealing them inside. He heard rounds slam fruitlessly into the old girl’s hull like nothing worse than heavy rain, and the shock wore off.
Things were going monochrome, around the edges of his vision. Their clothes, the blood, the lights and panels on the airlock’s walls…the color was bleaching out of it all. The pain was fading too.
“…Where’s Clara?” he asked. There wasn’t anything he could do about the fact that he was dying, he knew…but he had to know that his daughter was safe, before he went.
Barnes took his hand. “She’s with the crew. At a barbecue. Her day off….God, Mike, I—”
“…That’s okay then…”
Michael Ericson shut his eyes, took the deepest breath he could, and let go.
He dreamed of the sea, and was gone.
Date Point: 13y2m AV
Trans-Canada Highway 1, Little Shuswap Lake, British Columbia, Canada, Earth.
“Trending Watch now, and drivers near Scotch Creek are tweeting pictures of…”
“…Two stupid motherfuckers carrying a busted-ass truck along the freeway,” ‘Base finished, with an irritated grunt.
Adam shrugged. Privately, he was glad of the exercise even if it wasn’t up to his full standard. They’d carried heavier and more difficult stuff over the years than hoisting up the back end of a truck and carrying it down nice flat pavement, but the axle had busted two miles from the next off-ramp, and they didn’t want to pay for a tow truck.
They didn’t have any Crude with them but a little overexertion wasn’t all that big of a deal, so they took turns holding the rear of the truck off the ground and jogging with the weight of it on their arms like the world’s heaviest wheelbarrow. They’d chugged one of Adam’s “juggernog” energy drinks, roughed up their hands and dug their fingers into the frame, and set to it with Marty in the driving seat.
It was wonderfully exhausting, but even the Beef Bros had their limits, so it was a profound relief when Marty finally sang out the words they’d been waiting for. “Off ramp!”
They said it simultaneously, then shared a wry grin.
The truck’s live axles precluded simply pushing it up the slope since the rear one had snapped somehow when Marty of all people had jumped into the cargo bed to fetch a snack after pulling over.
She’d spent ten minutes scowling red-faced in the front seat and promising unlimited pain for whichever man was foolish enough to tease her about it before finally agreeing that there was a funny side. Adam knew he should probably stop giggling about it at some point, but that was easier said than done, especially when she glared at him and blushed all over again.
That broken axle was a particularly interesting challenge. It meant the rear couldn’t bear its own weight in any productive way, which meant that one of the Bros had to lift it. Nor could they just lift and push it from behind. That was perfectly doable on flat ground, but not up a hill. Sure, both of them were so heavy they needed a pallet scale to weigh themselves, but even that didn’t stack up against the truck. Its mass could simply tip them over and roll over the top.
And of course the off-ramp was a steep hill with a hairpin bend at the bottom. And long, too. The only thing they could do was pick up the truck and carry it as best they could, with Adam in the front because he was stronger and heavier and could pull the whole weight of it backwards, and John in the rear because he was taller and had longer limbs.
Marty hopped out and packed on as many of their bags as she could carry, which wasn’t half bad. She wasn’t big, but she’d been fit and strong even before going on the Warhorse Fitness Plan. Still, her contribution didn’t make a huge difference but Adam wasn’t about to tell her that. She probably needed to feel like part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
It took them about ten minutes to carry it up the ramp and the rest of the way to the Race Trac gas station—a mile away, naturally—and by the time they were finished, they were both gasping for air and wobbly on their feet, utterly drenched in sweat, and bleeding slightly from their hands.
The truck’s front axle gave out the second Adam put it down.
Marty was last up, red-faced and exhausted under a slightly-too-heavy pile of luggage that she tipped gratefully into the truck’s bed before leaning heavily on the tailgate and gulping for air.
“Good…good training,” she managed.
Adam huffed in reply with a weary grin, and slid down to sit on his ass against the truck’s wheel.
After a brief rest, Marty took it on herself to go into the station and arrange things while the Bros recovered. No point in them stinking up the place and knocking stuff over.
It was kinda peaceful outside. Sure, there was the susurrus of traffic from the freeway but in the age of widespread electric drive trains that was way quieter. The occasional old diesel big-rig that came storming through was almost a literal dinosaur from the roar of its engine. Adam shared a fist-bump with John and rested his head back to listen and drink it in while energy seeped back into their muscles.
The radio in the truck was still on the hour-long news roundup which he ignored right up until the presenter’s calm and professional tones changed, quite suddenly.
“Uh…we have, uh, breaking news right now. Breaking news coming from, uh, Omaha where we’re getting a confirmed report of a large explosion, a bomb of some kind gone off. Emergency services are responding to a possible terrorist incident at the Byron Group Advanced Aerospace Assembly Facility…Don’t have a lot more detail than that right now, but it looks like there may be an active shooter situation there…”
“What’s in Omaha?” Base asked.
“The Triple-A-F? That’s where Misfit is. Shit, I hope they’re okay…”
Marty returned with beef jerky and Gatorade, and called Farmer Joe while they made short work of it.
“He’s got a pickup that can handle you two,” she reasoned, putting her phone away. “And a flatbed so we can haul this wreck back.”
“He’s cool with it?”
“I think he’ll take any chance to eyeball you two doin’ your thing, if I’m honest…” She teased, and gave Adam her best filthy grin. Usually it never failed to work. This time however It faltered when she saw his troubled expression. “Somethin’ the matter?”
“News on the radio. Terrorist attack in Omaha. Sounds like it was targeting Misfit…”
“Oh, hell,” she deflated instantly. “Well, they’ve got good security…”
She squatted down next to him. “You can’t be there, big guy. Ain’t no sense driving yourself crazy over it.”
“I know.” He tried to keep the sullen, angry quality out of his voice and knew he was failing. He counted the Misfit trio as friends. He just couldn’t pull three people out of an escape pod and hang out with them as kind of a multi-date thing and not think of them that way.
Friends in danger and not being able to do anything about it was Adam’s private definition of hell. It took him right back to all the futility and loss he’d felt watching the news from San Diego, or watching Powell and his men swoop in just seconds too late to save Sara. It was the very scenario he’d devoted his life to never, ever allowing again.
Marty caught the look in his eye and ran a thumb on his cheek. “Hey. You okay?”
He got a concerned knock on the arm from ‘Base, too, and between them they helped him shrug it off. “…Yeah.”
Both of them were instantly dragged into an enormous Adam crush-hug which ended seconds later when Marty desperately tapped out on his arm.
”Air!” she complained.
“Agh, shit.” He let her go and grimaced apologetically. “Sorry.”
“Just ‘cause we’re in Canada doesn’t mean you have to apologize about everything,” she smirked.
Adam chuckled ruefully, and Marty used that opportunity to get everyone on task. She was good like that. “We should get cleaned up a little before Joe shows up. The clerk said there’s a hose in the back, and we can learn more when we get back to Cimbrean, okay?”
“…Right.” Adam heaved himself upright. “Jesus, who in the fuck would bomb those guys?”
Date Point: 13y2m AV
Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth
“They call themselves the Alien Protection Army.”
Moses tried not to be an angry person. He worked off his stress with a couple rounds of golf every week, he watched his diet, he eschewed alcohol…
Today was testing those principles to their limit. If Mister Williams wasn’t such a stabilizing influence, he might well have finally broken his own rule and reached for a bottle.
“Alien pro—?” He waved his hand vaguely skyward. “Last time I checked, we’re the ones imprisoned with the Hunters threatening to eat every blessed one of us! What in the Sam Hill do they think the ETs need protecting from us for?!”
Williams indicated his ignorance without resorting to anything so crass as a shrug. They weren’t at the company headquarters—that had been evacuated for the time being—but rather were meeting in Williams’ apartment, a spacious studio that gave no sign of having ever been lived in. Even the man’s collection of old blurays was sorted by genre and in alphabetical order.
The only sign that the place was inhabited by a human being at all was the socks. Williams had been ironing them and folding them into neat square parcels when the bomb had gone off, and he’d cleared them away upon welcoming Moses to his home with an embarrassed apology about ’the mess.’
“They were on your radar?” Moses asked him, investigating WIlliams’ notes on the terrorist group.
“They were, yes. They’re blamed for a shooting on Cimbrean. Somebody tried to plant a bomb at the spaceport construction site and shot a fourteen-year-old girl when she got in the way. Pretty much everybody blames that on APA, but they deny it.” Williams shrugged. “Me, I don’t see why they’d deny it.”
Moses grunted. “Bad press?”
“Worse than packing a cargo van with ANFO, blowing up the gate of a research facility and then shooting up the place?” Williams shook his head. “Groups like this don’t care about bad press or good press, they just want press. To them, killing seventeen people is how you get the world to pay attention.”
“And it works,” Moses sighed.
“Oh yes. Their manifesto’s trending on all the social media. They’ve successfully spread their message to millions.”
“And it only cost us seventeen friends and colleagues…” Moses commented, bitterly. “Any news on Ericsson?”
Williams consulted his phone “Still in surgery, as of the last update.”
“Kevin’s with her. He says she’s a wreck.”
“Well, her dad is a damn hero,” Moses said. “Whether he pulls through or not, she can be proud of him…the crew?”
“Hammond evacuated them to Chicago, and they’re taking the next scheduled jump to Cimbrean.”
Moses raised his eyebrows, genuinely surprised. “Didn’t they object? Can’t imagine them wanting to leave Clara at a time like this…”
“Oh, they objected alright. I told them to shut up and get on the damn helicopter, pardon my French.”
“Well done…And thank the Lord they weren’t on-site at the time.”
WIlliams nodded and swiped through a few things on his tablet before handing it to Moses. “The good news is, Misfit came through it practically unscathed.”
“I thought your first report said they shot her up?”
“They did,” Williams said. “But space debris hits at speeds anywhere up to twenty times as fast as a rifle bullet, and Misfit is designed to handle several such strikes per mission.”
“…Give the team their due, they built a great ship,” Moses commented. “What can we do to avoid a repeat?”
“Training,” Williams replied promptly. “The checkpoint had appropriate equipment in place to protect against an attack like this, but the guards didn’t trigger the pop-up roadblock when the van refused to stop. I’m already drafting my letter to the security team leaders. We can’t afford to be nice, if a vehicle crosses the red line then it needs to be stopped then and there. And if the driver tries to sue us, Exhibit A will be the big warning signs, and we won’t need an Exhibit B.”
“Right…” Moses sighed, put the tablet down and rubbed his face. “Seventeen, though. Seventeen of our people. Eighteen, if Ericsson doesn’t pull through. That’s seventeen families I have to visit, look them in the eye, tell them I’m sorry for their loss. Isn’t there more we can do than remind our gate guards to actually do what they’re trained for?”
“You’re asking the wrong man, Mister Byron. I can plan for bombs, active shooters, corporate espionage…I can’t change minds.”
“In the short term, then?”
Williams tugged on his jacket to tidy it up as he considered the question for a moment. “I would suggest relocating Misfit,” he said. “Cimbrean, maybe. Just like its crew. Perhaps we could rent a hangar on Armstrong Station?”
“That could work,” Moses mused. “Spin it to Hephaestus as a chance to earn some good publicity.”
“Also, potentially, an opportunity for them to get a good look at Misfit and copy our proprietary technology,” Williams reminded him. “There’s also Chiune Station. It shouldn’t be too hard to have a hangar facility built there. A Jump Array too, if you want. In the long run that would be cheaper and less risky than renting from Hephaestus.”
“Or it could make us look insular and hamper the public visibility of the exploration program.”
“That would be outside my purview, Mister Byron.”
“…No way we can do both? Eat our cake and still have it?”
Williams again managed his neat trick of conveying everything a shrug would have without actually shrugging. “Purely from the point of view of security, our own facility at Chiune Station is by far the superior choice,” he said. “You’d have to ask Kevin for an opinion on the politics.”
“Kevin’s not here, and we need a decision now…Chiune it is,” Moses declared.
“I’ll make the arrangements. It’s probably best if you stay here until we have an all-clear, Mister Byron. You’re welcome to make yourself at home.”
“I’ll try to leave it as I found it,” Moses promised, wondering if he’d promised more than he could deliver, there. He wouldn’t be surprised if Williams’ coffee cups were identical and all faced the same way inside their cupboard. “Oh, and…?”
“Yes, Mister Byron?”
“I recall that Senator Bailey was very grateful after that business with the Iranians last year. Ask Rachael to see how much he can do for us about these APA people.” Moses smiled, slimly. “Could be that support for shutting them down would go all the way to the top.”
“I’ll pass that along.”
“And keep me informed on how our misfit trio are doing. I can’t imagine they feel very welcome on Cimbrean right now…”
Date Point: 13y2m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Holy crap.” Hammond stopped short and blinked at the mountain of human muscle who was lurking in the arrivals area wearing a huge pair of mirrored aviators and a nuclear green Hawaiian shirt so sinfully ugly it should have been illegal. “They build that guy in a fuckin’ dry dock?”
Julian found his grin again. “Fuck yeah they did,” he commented, and waved enthusiastically. “Hey! Righteous!”
Xiù had forgotten just how immense Righteous really was, and how scary. When he straightened himself out from his slouch, the crowd did a faithful re-enactment of Moses and the Red Sea.
“You know that guy?” Hammond asked.
“Know him? He could probably teach even you a thing or two about personal protection,” Julian told him candidly. “He’s HEAT.”
The truly alarming thing about Firth, though, was how he could move so quietly and quickly when he wanted to. Xiù had studied ballet and gymnastics in her youth and for all his titanic mass, Firth had all the poise and self-control of even the most thistle-down light ballerina.
And the ears of a cat. “I like teachin’ too,” he grinned. “Howyadoin’ buddeh!?” He scooped the three right off their feet and into an enormous hug. It was like a bear playing with his stuffed toys. The aviators somehow came off during the maneuver and, as always, once they were gone his fearsome demeanor softened considerably.
“Been better, been worse,” Allison managed to tell him despite the crushing mass of his arms. He put them down carefully and listened intently.
“No shit. Heard about the bomb. Figgered I’d help y’all with the press.” He shot a particularly murderous scowl towards a latina woman with a dog at her side who was standing by the doors. Astonishingly, the reporter stood her ground with her hands planted firmly on her hips, and Firth issued a grunt that might even have been grudging respect.
“Woah, hold on. I’m not s’posed to let you three out of my sight,” Hammond pointed out.
“Well then introductions are in order,” Xiù declared. “Jason Hammond, this is Firth.”
“Howdy.” Firth favored him with a cool but respectful nod.
“Hammond’s our firearms and tactics instructor,” Allison elaborated. “Former SWAT.”
“Ah, that’s good.” Firth proffered his gigantic mitt and wrapped it almost completely around Hammond’s own like a vice, though as ever he was unfailingly polite. “Nicetameetcha. Lookin’ after them, are ya? I’ve been ordered ‘ta escort all y’all to somewhere secure. Literally just a few minutes ago, in fact. We’ve got a nice safe space we can stash ‘ya in until y’all get shit figgered out…”
Hammond caught Julian’s eye, then relented at his confident nod. “…My thanks.”
“Ordered?” Xiù asked.
“Yuh. FTLcomm runs on a ten minute cycle so that message beat ‘ya by about fifteen. Anyway, ‘yer welcome to inspect the buildin’ when we get there, and all that. We built it like a bomb shelter and it’s got three egress paths even from the top floor.”
“Who the hell do we know who can order the SOR around?” Allison mused, hoisting her bag and following.
Firth shrugged expansively. “Hey man, I don’t do politics. That’s an occifer thing,” he said with a sly grin. “But I ‘spose there’s people lookin’ after you three. That can’t be bad, right? Ava, get that shit outta my face.”
“Wasn’t even aiming it at you, big guy,” ’Ava’ told him, while Hammond put himself between her camera and the three of them.
“Fuckin’…whatever. Ain’t’cha got someone else to torment? Why not Daar? He’s pretty.”
“I go where the news is.” She shot the trio an almost-apologetic smile. “I know now’s a bad time. But you’ll need to make a statement at some point so I’ve got my card here if—”
Firth rolled his eyes, picked her up, spun her a perfunctory one-eighty and put her down again with a firm shove in the back to get her out of the way. “Run along now.” He nodded down respectfully at the dog, who’d rushed to defend her master with a growl. “Good dog, too. Now git.”
Hammond quite smartly bundled the trio out of sight and towards…
How he knew where to go was a mystery, but before long they were in a comically large white pickup with another gigantic man at the wheel, the luggage was loaded as if out of nowhere, and Firth piled in the front seat.
Xiù’s head was reeling from the rapidity of it all, and it didn’t help that even Hammond seemed to be surfing on the edge of being overwhelmed. Right before they took off, the biggest Gaoian she had ever seen threw the last and largest piece of luggage on-board, then hopped into the pickup’s bed and crouched defensively over their pile, his ears and nose twitching in all directions at once.
“Y’all didn’t meet Titan last time, didja?” Firth asked, indicating the other human, a handsome Japanese man built to a scale that only Firth could make look small.
“Titan,” Xiù managed. “Good name. Suits you.”
“Thanks. Exhibit C there is Daar. Say hello, Daar.”
The immense Gaoian in the back chittered way down in the deep bass, and spoke in accented but fluent English. “Hello, Daar!” His voice was so deep it was almost infrasonic, but he shifted to Gaori as soon as the truck was moving. [“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Sister Shoo.”]
Xiu didn’t have time to react properly before Hammond decided the time had come to reassert some control of the situation. “Where are we going?” he asked, prompting all three of the enormous detail to nod approvingly.
“Headin’ to the barracks, just for now.” That was Daar in the back, speaking through the open rear window.
“Why a gaoian?”
“Because he’s a mean sumbitch and he’s got a great nose. Also, he happened to be handy,” Firth answered.
“And the barracks?”
“Safest place on Cimbrean,” Titan replied. “Well away from any roads, it’s sheltered by hills, the base itself is controlled access, and the rest of HEAT are living there right now, mostly.”
“We’re supposed to relocate to Chiune Station, the Byron group’s facility out—” Hammond began.
“We know it. We’ll sort it out. Need to secure the line of communication out there first. The Marines are doing that as we speak. Um…”
“Can I?” That was Daar.
“Well…let’s just say you three are really important to a buncha people, Human and Gao. It was, uh, made very clear to me that if you weren’t the most safest possible humans until you’re gone, I’d never mate with anyone ever again. So, y’know. I’m a good boy.”
“A dire threat.” Allison snarked.
“No really. The direst,” Xiù told her.
Daar seemed to be in on the joke and chittered along with them. [“Yeah, well. Cousin Regaari can fill you in on the rest.”]
Xiù twisted to face him. [“Cousin Regaari? Wait, you’re not the Daar? The Champion?”]
Titan and Righteous rolled their eyes while Daar preened the biggest preen. “Yeah!”
There were moments in Xiù’s life when she felt like she’d just gone plunging off the end of a pier or something, when the sheer weirdness of everything that had happened to her smacked her full in the face. First human given technical status as a member of a whole different sapient species. First human to negotiate an interstellar treaty. First human to set foot on the planet Mars.
Mostly that was just her life. She took it in stride. But sometimes, when she realized that she was being bodyguarded by literal supersoldiers and the closest thing Gaoians had to royalty…that was when the full impact landed on her.
Thank God for Julian and Allison and their sixth sense for when she needed grounding again. Allison’s hand snuck into hers. Daar noticed and keened softly, like every male did when a female was upset. The way he keened, though…
“Are you related to Myun?” Xiù asked him, “Do you know her?”
“Yeah! She’s one of my cubs, isn’t she awesome!?”
“That explains everything,” Julian muttered under his breath.
“Don’t it?” Daar agreed, radiating ’proud dad.’ “She even taught me a thing or two…that she learned from you, she says,” he added, indicating Xiù.
The sensation of being overwhelmed wasn’t unfamiliar, but this time it was actually kind of…pleasant. Xiù treated him to a weary smile, and Daar chittered the Gaoian equivalent of a chuckle before turning away to let her be.
“…You okay, bǎobèi?” Julian asked.
“Fuckin’ tell me about it,” Allison agreed.
It was a short trip to the base, and yet more enormous men were waiting at the gate to wave them through. A quick flicker in the corner of Xiù’s eye turned out unmistakably to be a Whitecrest of all things, ducking behind a discreet feature of the urban terrain right behind them; they’d had overwatch from the moment they’d arrived, apparently. The security presence grew much more obvious when they arrived at the barracks, and from there the four of them were quickly bustled upstairs through the gym and right into the common room.
Hammond never let them out of his sight, and he gave the room a thorough sweep before unwinding by a hair. “Jeez. I knew this program was getting support from folks in high places, but this is somethin’ else entirely,” he managed.
There was the gentle sound of lots of enormous men coming to a respectful posture as a new man, still huge by any reasonable standard but smaller than the rest by far, wandered comfortably into the room with his hands behind his back.
He treated them to a crisp expression that was almost warm and welcoming, even though his face had an essentially indelible stoniness to it. He looked like a man who probably would have smiled a lot but knew that his face wasn’t built for it.
“You have no fookin’ idea how high,” he said. “Welcome to HMS Sharman. Think it’s about time you’re owed an explanation.”
Date Point: 13y2m AV
Commune of Females, Wi Kao City, Gao
“But Sister Shoo is unharmed?”
“My Brothers on Cimbrean say that she and her romantic partners are under tight guard there.” Champion Genshi allowed a rare moment of small expressiveness to show through—honest relief. To Ayma’s knowledge the Whitecrest champion had never met Shoo, but her almost revered status among the Females was a cause for concern in every Clan.
Besides, Ayma privately suspected that Genshi had an eye on Regaari to potentially succeed him. And Regaari, ’bless’ him, would have taken it hard indeed if any harm had come to Shoo. He had never quite forgiven himself for letting her slip away unnoticed all those years ago.
“Thank you, Champion,” she favored Genshi with a warm pricking-up of her ears. “I know the Mother-Supreme will be relieved.”
Genshi’s image on her communicator duck-nodded respectfully. “And, I suspect, so are you. Hmm?” He observed, showing off his roguish streak. “We remain at your disposal.”
He was good, Ayma reflected. He’d hit exactly the right note between reaffirming his Clan’s continuing fealty to the Females without straying into obsequiousness. But then again, all Champions were good at playing that particular game.
“We appreciate it,” she told him. “I should give Yulna the good news.”
“Please pass on my regards to Sister Myun.”
Ayma chittered, waved and closed the call.
She fluffed up her fur as she stood up. It was winter in Wi Kao, and she was wearing it thicker than normal. Looking sleek and streamlined was for the summer: Nobody could pull off shivering.
Yulna was seated by the ornamental fountains, holding forth on some political matter with a delegation of Mothers and more senior Sisters from the commune at Kan Wo. The role of Mother-Supreme suited her, in a reluctant way: She didn’t want the job, so she was doing it as well as she possibly could and always with that uncompromising Yulna forthrightness.
“…So let them become Clanless,” she was replying as Ayma got close enough to hear. “I admire your compassion for them, but there comes a point where Mothers must step aside and let young males take control of their own lives for better or worse. Our role is to raise them as cubs, not to direct their lives as adults.”
“It’s just…frustrating to see them waste their potential,” one of the visiting Mothers commented.
“It’s theirs to waste,” Yulna told her. “The most you can do is give them a good start in life. If they choose to squander that…” she gestured expressively. “…Or they may surprise you. Sometimes a Mother’s fears are unfounded.”
Ayma sensed an appropriate moment to interject. “Mother-Supreme.”
Yulna glanced up, duck-nodded, and stood. “I’m sorry. I wish I could give you more of my time.”
“The voice of experience,” Ayma teased her as they walked away.
“My own cub grew up to become Myun,” Yulna pointed out, aiming a sly look at her bodyguard. “The ’hopeless xenophile,’ as I recall you describing her.”
“That wasn’t fair of me,” Ayma grumbled. Yulna chittered softly and groomed the fur of her neck, casting aside decorum for a second to treat her like an old friend.
“What news?” she asked, becoming more serious.
“A terrorist attack on Earth. Targeted at Sister Shoo and her…” Ayma picked the right word with care. “…circle.”
“Her lovers,” Yulna corrected in characteristically unflinching fashion.
“Not just them. This Byron Group she works for. Her colleagues.”
“Ah…” Yulna duck-nodded, and glanced backwards to be sure that Myun wasn’t within earshot. “She’s unharmed?”
“Would I be so composed if she wasn’t?” Ayma asked. Yulna chittered again and unwound a fraction.
“No, you would go sprinting back to Earth again I’m sure. On four paws, no doubt.”
“Once was enough,” Ayma shuddered. “It’s a beautiful world, but I had a retroactive histology test some time later. It’s lucky for me that I didn’t drop my field to take in the view like Regaari did.”
“You would have suffered?”
“…Briefly, yes.” Ayma shook out her fur uncomfortably. “Apparently some Gaoians can have particularly severe reactions…and I’m in the most allergic group. Especially to the grass pollens and something called ’Ragweed’.”
“That really was uncharacteristically foolish of you, Ayma.”
Ayma duck-nodded, chastened. “I don’t think I appreciated how foolish until the humans assigned two dedicated medics to us. No, I won’t return to Earth. Fortunately, I don’t need to: Shoo has been moved to Cimbrean.”
“And she is continuing with this plan to uplift a stone-age species?” Yulna asked, stopping.
“She seems to feel there is no alternative.”
“…Then I am going to Cimbrean.”
Ayma stood up completely straight from pure surprise. “Yulna, is that—?”
“She’s a Sister, Ayma. My Sister, and she is doing something that will require guidance,” Yulna asserted fiercely, and then softened. “Besides. I miss her.”
Ayma scrutinized her old friend’s expression for a second. “…There’s something you’re not telling me,” she decided.
“Many things,” Yulna agreed. “Most of which are only, hm, dark suspicions. Shall we just say that I had already been considering a visit to Cimbrean for some time? Now that Shoo is there, I think the time has come to…what was the phrase? ’Strike while the Iron is hot,’ yes?”
“We use too many human phrases,” grumbled Ayma. “What happened to ‘pounce when the moment is right?’”
“It’s still there. But the world changes, Ayma. We change with it, or we get left behind…” Yulna chittered again. “Besides, I quite like the imagery.”
“Yes. Your first mating contract was with a foundry worker as I recall.”
Yulna didn’t even look remotely contrite. “He smelled strong and hard-working,” she said. “An impression he lived up to for that whole week, too.”
“And he left you with a permanent passion for metal?”
“Strength. And healthy, strong-willed cubs.”
Ayma glanced back at Myun again, who noticed and tilted her head slightly. “You have those in abundance…But Yulna, why? Why you personally, I mean? Can’t you send a delegation?”
“I told you. I miss my Sister.”
“That can’t be your only reason.”
“No,” Yulna conceded. “It isn’t. But Stoneback and Whitecrest are progressively leaving us more and more in the dark about their doings, and that I cannot accept. Especially not from Stoneback. I think it’s time that Champion Daar needs to be reminded of our old contract.”
Ayma duck-nodded. “That’s why you’re taking Myun along, then.”
“Not his and mine,” Yulna corrected her. “The old contract.”
“…You think the Stonebacks are shirking their duties? That’s…” Ayma glanced around to be absolutely sure nobody was listening. “…That’s quite an accusation.”
“It isn’t an accusation,” Yulna said. “Not yet. But when I mention my concerns to Champion Daar, I want to be able to smell him.”
“Stonebacks don’t lie.”
“And Stonebacks protect the Females,” Yulna retorted. “I wonder…if those duties ever were to come into conflict, which would they put first?”
She turned and swept regally toward the commune, dragging Ayma and Myun in her wake like fresh snow behind a car. “I intend to find out.”
Date Point: 13y2m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
The tumult of the day had taken a while to work its way through, beginning with the way the walking beefslabs of the SOR and their Whitecrest counterparts had made room by double- and triple-bunking with a bottomless fraternal cheer that said wonderful things about the relationship between humans and Gaoians.
Xiù, for her part, had practically burst into tears on being reunited with Regaari, and was now cuddled up with her old friend on the huge, reinforced steel-framed couch, and apparently feeling much better for it. Julian was finding it harder to cool down. He’d just about come to terms with the idea of his grampa’s place having been firebombed by a gang of rogue kids. That part he could have handled.
Finding out that those “rogue kids” actually had ties to a domestic terrorist group that had been on the FBI’s watchlist even before their escape pod had been cracked open? One that could put together a truck bomb and assault their other home? That was…
Well, that part he maybe could have handled as well. It was the fact that their whole schtick was supposed to be alien protection that he just couldn’t work past.
“I mean, fuck! What’re we supposed to do, just let Big Hotel wipe ‘em out? How much more protect-y do you wanna fuckin’ get?” he asked, rhetorically.
Most of the Lads, as they were apparently termed, had made themselves scarce in the early evening. The could still be heard in the sandy yard outside, playing a strange take on catch and beach volleyball. The humans did the throwing, the gaoians did the catching, and both tried to keep the ball moving over the line, somehow. The rules weren’t clear but it sure sounded like fun, and Julian might even have wanted to join in, in other circumstances.
Regaari seemed to be the voice of calm rationality and dignity, even if he was curled up on Xiù’s lap and letting her stroke that prominent white mohawk of his.
“Violence is a fact of major upheaval,” he observed. “It’s happened in every species, even the Vzk’tk, the Guvnurag…even the Corti, apparently. And while it’s abhorrent and Uncivilized—” that bit he said with naked contempt, which seemed to elicit a snort of approval from the Daar-beast in the corner, “—Maybe we should, ah, ‘count our blessings’ I believe?”
Daar harrumphed, “We have that exact same phrase, Cousin. Why emphasize it?”
“Our mythology is long dead, Daar. It doesn’t hold the same meaning anymore.”
Daar gave some gesture that maybe Xiù understood, and Regaari held his peace.
“I just expect better of people, you know?” Julian sighed, and leaned on the back of the couch behind Xiù, who raised a hand and held his over her shoulder.
Daar nodded amiably. “Yeah. I mean, we’ve had some pretty ugly things happen in our history. Look at me, I’m proof of it. But y’know what? It worked out in the end. The bad guys lose, the Civilized guys, they win in the end. You’ll see.”
“I never told you about Great Mother Tiritya, did I?” Xiù asked. Allison shook her head.
“She was…kind of a freedom fighter,” Xiù recalled. “There are a lot of history books just about her and her sisters. She basically founded the Clan of Females.”
“And Great Father Fyu, don’t forget,” Daar reminded her.
“Well, yes, but… the Females focus more on Tiritya,” Xiù told him with an apologetic expression. “And… well, the old male clans killed her in an ugly way.”
“They gave her the hundred-cut death,” said Daar. “That’s where they skin someone alive and then let them die of exposure in the cold. It can take days, sometimes.”
“Can?” Allison skewered him with the word.
“We have criminals, thugs and terrorists too,” Regaari opined. “Particularly heinous crimes get heinous sentences. Murdering a Female gets a one-day. Murdering a cub gets two. Harming any pregnant Mother in any way at all, even accidentally? Depends on the circumstances, most times it’s just an apology and a little embarrassment. But if the Judge-Father is appalled enough at the crime, the perpetrator could get the full three-day with his Clan disbanded, its Champion torn to pieces and his line destroyed, its Fathers executed, its Officers publicly castrated, and the rest of its Brotherhood ritually scar-marked and facing the ire of Stoneback.”
“Unless the Champion takes the punishment on himself,” added Daar. “He can take the ordeal along with the perp and spare his line and the rest of his Clan.”
“But sometimes they don’t.”
“Cowards.” Daar practically spat the word out. “Taking a quicker way out instead of saving their Clan! Leaves us a big mess to sort out.”
“…Us?” Julian asked warily.
“Yup, my Clan. Stoneback enforces Clan sentences when Straightshield asks us to,” grumbled Daar. “It’s one of our ancient duties and we take it very seriously.”
“…You guys really aren’t cuddly, are ya?” Allison commented, giving the Gaoians a look of newfound wariness. Julian couldn’t blame her.
“We can be, but…” Daar gave her an apologetic look. “Well, we don’t waste our affection where it ain’t appreciated, maybe.”
“I remember what happened to the Corti who abducted Ayma and her sisters,“ Xiù recalled. “And me.”
Allison frowned at her. “…I’m afraid to ask. What happened?”
“They let his victims get their revenge personally.” Xiù sniffed, uncomfortably. “And Mothers have sharp claws.”
“No offense, fellas, but I don’t like the sound of that,” Julian said. He’d always been opposed to the death penalty, and right now that was sounding downright humane next to what the Gaoians were describing.
“We are what we are, you are what you are,” Regaari made the odd ducking motion that was basically a Gaoian shrug, though he didn’t elaborate further.
There was a long, mutually awkward silence that was only broken by a sudden harsh ping from Allison’s pocket.
“FTLComm sync,” Regaari guessed. “It could be news from Earth.”
Allison couldn’t fish out her phone quickly enough. She tapped the fingerprint pad, read the update eagerly, and deflated badly as if somebody had skewered her.
“…Babe?” Julian asked.
“It’s from Clara,” she said, and sat up to read it. “Dad passed away at 21:30. Not doing great, but coping. Will see you on Cimbrean, soon. Stay safe.”
“God damn it.” Julian sagged, and Xiù gripped some of Regaari’s fur a little tighter for a moment.
“Yeah,” Allison agreed. She tossed her phone miserably onto the coffee table. “RIP, doc.”
Daar muttered something very low under his breath and made a sign with his paw. Regaari flicked his ear at him but said nothing and instead merely ducked his head in observance.
There was a minute of silence.
In fact, it was rather more than three melancholy minutes, and it was broken only by the heavy sounds of three enormous people coming up the stairs.
Three actually turned out to be four: Firth, Warhorse, Burgess and Kovač. It was genuinely good to see the new arrivals again, and from the looks of things they’d caught plenty of sun recently. Kovač had gone nicely bronzed, Arés was a deep roasted-chestnut brown, and Burgess had gone from Americano to Espresso. All three were practically radiating good health.
The rest of the HEAT followed shortly afterward and before Julian knew what was happening, the room was suddenly full to bursting with operators, all tangled up with each other across the couch and the floor into a huge, brotherly knot of affection. They even brought Hammond back in, which was a sign that the time for conversing about major secrets was over, for now.
The Gaoians in particular were visibly restraining themselves from fawning over Xiù, especially after Regaari aimed a Brotherly flex of his claws at them.
“Figured we’d watch a movie,” Firth explained, grabbing Julian like he was a teddy bear and dragging him into the pile. Julian decided against struggling or complaining—it would have been futile anyway, and it was oddly comforting to get some unfiltered male friendship for a change, even if it did make the girls aim mischievous grins at each other. “Anyone got any requests or whatever?”
“Planet Earth III?” Daar suggested, perking up.
“Dude, you always wanna see nature documentaries. Can we change it up?”
“I can’t help it, that Attenborough man has a soothing voice!”
“No arguing that, but I think our guests should pick,” Burgess told him.
Daar duck-nodded agreeably.
“We’re huge Disney nerds,” Allison revealed, and Julian knew that sparkle of mischief in her eyes. She wanted to see what a room full of gargantuan special operators sounded like, singing along.
“Fuck yeah you are!” Sikes stood in the corner with a reedier-looking Whitecrest and crossed his arms with a happy grin. “Ain’t nobody don’t like a good cheesy musical, I reckon!”
“I don’t gotta sing, do I?” Daar grumbled.
“Oh, you better sing, furball. We all hafta sing. Happiness is mandatory.”
“Best if we give Daar an exemption,” Regaari recommended. “If he tries howling along we’ll never hear the movie.”
“Hey! Many Sisters and Mothers have praised my vocal skills!”
Regaari gave him a sly flick of his ears. “Praised your silver tongue, maybe. Not your singing voice.”
The Gaoians all chittered in a higher pitch, which must have been a jeer judging by the humans’ reaction. Daar didn’t seem to mind either way but his ear did flick once when even Xiù joined in the laughter and raised her voice. “No, he has to sing. I know the perfect movie. The Jungle Book! He can be Baloo!”
Kovač clapped and whooped. “Fuck yeah! Kipling!”
Daar’s singing voice was, in fact, just as terrible as promised. It was precisely like Xìqǔ opera in all the worst ways, without any of the obvious talent or skill. It was fun, though, and everyone seemed to enjoy a boisterous evening of loud singalong.
Eventually though it was time for bed—HEAT apparently was a proponent of ‘early to bed, early to rise’—leaving Hammond and Firth alone with Julian, Allison, and Xiù.
“We’ve got a cot if ‘ya want,” Firth nodded at Hammond. “The CQ down the way has full visibility on every way in or out of the barracks, and it’s got security cameras, too.”
“I’d appreciate that,” he said gratefully. “I suppose…”
“Shower’s down the hall, kitchen downstairs. Get ‘yerself squared away, I’ll watch ‘em if you want.”
Another thankful nod, and now they were alone with Righteous.
“Aren’t you going to bed?” Allison asked.
“Nope.” Firth made himself comfortable. “Me and Blac got first watch, he’s just outside the door. Yer havin’ a guard twenty-four seven until orders come in sayin’ otherwise.”
“Thought you said this is the safest place we could be right now?”
“Yup. ‘Cuz we’re watching you.” Firth rolled his huge neck. “‘Sides. You three have a lot on yer minds, I can tell.”
“You got that right…” Julian muttered.
“How are ya holdin’ up? Fer real, now.”
“Like I’ve had my ass kicked five days in a row,” Julian confessed, candidly. “They burned down my house, man.”
“And now they bombed and shot up our spaceship, killed…” Allison trailed off and sighed heavily. “Killed people. Doesn’t really fucking matter how many.”
”One is too many,” Xiù agreed.
“And for what? Alien protection? When that’s literally what we’re trying to do?” Allison shook her head. “I just…I’m done. I’m fucking done with Earth. Every time I go back there I’m reminded why I didn’t want to go back.”
Julian nodded emphatically at that.
“Come on, haven’t’cha had any good experiences on Earth?” Firth asked. “No good memories at all?”
There was an awkward silence, and when Julian glanced at Xiù he found she was watching him intently.
“…okay, Yosemite was nice,” Allison admitted.
“You spent the whole time reading in the tent!” Xiù said.
“Sure. Nice and cosy. And then you two came back and we snuggled up and listened to the rain and had s’mores and cocoa. And that’s kinda the point. All my best memories of Earth involve either being alone or being with you.” Allison shrugged helplessly. “And I met both of you out there.” She waved her hand skyward.
Allison thought about it. “Minnesota. And…hell, when I was abducted I was out riding my bike on Route 3A out of Quincy. Used to do that all the time for fun.”
“Monument Valley,” Julian recalled. “Grampa took me down there when I was a kid.”
Xiù sighed. “Stanley Park in the fall…”
“So the problem ain’t Earth, really,” Firth pointed out. “It’s the people. Sounds like you guys have taken a beating to yer faith in humanity, right?”
“I’ve tried not to,” Xiù said. “I try to think the best of everyone, but…”
“But your friend’s dad is dead, and that makes it hard to keep level about it.”
“…He was a good man,” Julian said quietly, as Xiù nodded. “He had vision, talent…kindness.”
Allison nodded “And if he thought we were doing something monstrous with the things he made, he’d have told us straight up.”
“Yeah,” Xiù agreed. “It’s hard to keep level about it.”
“Sounds familiar.” Firth turned sideways on the couch and put his hands on his knees. “Wanna hear my take on it?”
“Lay it on us,” Allison told him.
“Well…look, I ain’t gonna rehash the whole awful story, but me? I ain’t a nice guy, I just play one on TV. Guys like me, it’s awful fuckin’ easy ‘ta take the easy way an’ just, like, punch your problems away, or whatever. Seems ‘ta me like right now, nobody’d blame y’all fer bein’ pissed at literally fuckin’ everything. But that’s the thing. It’s the easy way, and it’s wrong. And you three, ‘yer better’n that. Does easy sound good to you? Or does easy sound like some fat fuck with a dead-end job eatin’ like shit an’ veggin’ out in front of TV every night?”
Julian glanced at the girls, who glanced at each other. He had a point: it wasn’t like the three of them had shied away from challenge over the last couple of years. It was a harsh way to put things, but then again Allison had had similar thoughts after their trip to San Francisco.
“Thing is? Way too many people take it easy their whole lives. It ain’t many of us who are willing to put in the hard work to do it the right way, every time. People who do crime? Terrorists? Crooked politicians and all that? Why are they doin’ that shit? It’s ‘cuz they feel hopeless and helpless, or they feel like they have to do something but don’t know how to do it right. But that’s the thing. You three sure as fuck ain’t any of those things. You can dictate the time and place of your battles, man. That’s rare, because that’s gotta be earned. And, hell: why earn it the hard way when you can shortcut with a bomb?”
“You’re saying, what?” Allison asked. “That the assholes have good reasons under it all?”
“Nah. I’m saying they’re fuckin’ assholes.” Firth shook his head. “They’re lazy, they’re useless, they’re fuckin’ losers. That’s why they do what they do, ‘cuz they’re too fuckin’ weak to do things the right way. But in the end they don’t matter ‘cuz they always lose. Always.”
“How d’you figure?”
“Your expedition’s gettin’ funded, ain’t it?”
Allison already had her mouth open to retort before what he was saying filtered through. She paused, blinked, then settled back in her chair with a thoughtful frown.
“They always lose,” Firth repeated with a slightly smug nod. “They lose ‘cuz the world’s full of good people, too. People who get through life the hard way ‘cuz it’s the right way. It’s just…sometimes, they’re hard to notice. But they’re there. And there’s a literal army of ‘em around you right now, here an’ on Earth, all helpin’ to get this mission off the ground an’ save the Tengy-wek.”
Xiù flinched at his mispronunciation, but she nodded.
“So, y’know…” Firth finished off with a shrug. “Don’t bum out. Y’all wouldn’t even be in this room right now if there weren’t an assload of good people on Earth who want y’all to succeed. We all do, even mean ‘ol shits like me.”
There was a hammering on the door. Firth sighed and bounced up to meet what turned out to be Warhorse, buried under a stack of bedding, a huge meal for Firth and a pile of what looked like coursework. He grumbled about homework, built himself a nest, and set to it.
“Anyway…y’all got the whole HEAT all cozied up in here t’keep ‘ya safe, even Daar for the next day or two ‘fore we both go back to Earth. Try an’ relax if ‘ya can.”
“Daar’s going to Earth?”
“He’s been back and forth, yeah. He’s doing some pretty advanced training and we wanted to get it done in the winter before pollen and stuff, just in case he’s allergic.”
Xiù raised her hand. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“It could be, yeah. We’re not taking any chances, specially ‘cuz…well, ask him if you want. He’s got next shift with ‘Horse. Anyhoo, I’m goin’ on leave finally, gonna get me some bow huntin’ on the special season they’ve got right now. Daar’s prob’ly gonna come along, too. Hills are straight lousy with deer and there ain’t enough predators…also, I ain’t wrassled my bros or my ‘pa since I started this whole thing, gotta re-assert my dominance, heh.”
Julian couldn’t resist cracking a smile. He had to admit, he enjoyed hanging out with the HEAT members, and especially Firth. It took him back to his circle of friends at school, before his abduction. Amir and Lewis had both been too…cerebral. Firth was somehow the complete opposite of that, despite that he was thumbing back to his bookmark halfway through a heavy-looking textbook on…something. He was spinning a highlighter pen idly around the thumb of one giant mitt and he stuck his tongue out slightly as he settled in to take his notes.
“Anyway. Imma just fart around in this book for the next couple hours, you guys get some sleep. And…maybe give people a chance? They’re why I do what I do.”
Julian shared a glance with his girlfriends and nodded. “It’s…been a long day,” he said. “Maybe we’ll feel better for getting some rest.”
The girls nodded and untangled themselves from each other to help him set up a nest of bedding in the corner, just like they’d slept in for most of their time in the Box back in Omaha. Firth turned the light off for them and read by the light of a finger torch instead while the three made themselves comfortable.
Julian found himself in the middle, with each of his shoulders being used for a pillow. It was the girls’ go-to when they were both feeling insecure.
Honestly, it worked for him too.
He would have expected to lie awake and think for a while, especially seeing as he was sleeping on a strange floor in a strange room under guard, in the aftermath of a bombing. He kind of felt like his mind should have raced. Reality was different. Something in his head had obviously been starved for peace and quiet for some time, and the moment it descended, he fell asleep.
He dreamed about his camp on Nightmare.
Date Point: 13y2m1w AV
Camp Tebbutt Biodrone Internment facility, Alaska, USA, Earth
Champion Meereo of Clan Longear
The humans had answered the problem of how to contain the potentially severe threat of biodroned individuals through uncompromising means—by surrounding them with ice and bears. Miles upon miles upon miles of both.
Camp Tebbutt was actually quite a pleasant place to live, all told. Each interned individual had a spacious and well insulated barracks hut all to themselves and an effectively unlimited budget for creature comforts, communications notwithstanding. The scenery was something to behold as well—muscular mountains, garlanded with thick forests and threaded by water so pure and so cold that even the distant note of it on the wind was enough to sting the nose.
Those were the pleasant scents. It also carried all the olfactory markers of death, certain and unpleasant, for any biodrone who worked up both the suicidal audacity and the luck to somehow make it past three layers of concertina wire, seven sniper towers and the patrols on dog sleds.
If any ever did somehow skip through those obstacles, the manhunt would inevitably end in finding their gnawed and frozen corpse somewhere among the trees. Meereo could smell that story, waiting on the wind.
Sensibly, none of the biodrones had ever made the attempt. Some had even declined to live in the camp entirely and had instead opted to be stored in stasis, anticipating the day when strategy and medicine would combine to allow their rehabilitation.
Nobody anticipated that day would come soon. The forty people living in the camp were getting by as well as they could considering they came from a breathtaking variety of walks of life. A couple of Americans, the poor German guy whose demon had shot the girl on Cimbrean, a Japanese Hephaestus worker who’d taken on a memory augmentation implant that human medicine couldn’t safely remove.
Their unofficial leader and representative was the camp’s first internee, Hugh Johnson, and Meereo was finding that the role seemed to suit him. Johnson was open about his emotions and experiences, freely admitted to his nightmares, and seemed to have a knack for knowing exactly what might talk one of his fellows around to a more calm mood.
In private, he admitted that helping the others was the only thing that kept him sane. The Hierarchy had even stolen his face, replacing his original features with something nondescript and forgettable. His perspective was an interesting personal insight that juxtaposed usefully with the more official and detached observations of the camp staff and guards.
“Another poor bastard,” he noted, distracting Meereo from his olfactory exploration of the landscape.
Meereo’s ears swivelled before he turned his head, and as they did so he caught the first roar of a helicopter on the cool air.
“How do you know?” he asked. He himself had arrived on a helicopter, with his huge and sensitive ears plugged by orange foam rubber as protection against the primitive vehicle’s howling engines. His presence on Earth, let alone at Camp Tebbutt, was a well-guarded secret—The humans were very interested indeed in the possibilities created by his “ghost trap.”
It had taken him some search-work on Google to figure out why they had nicknamed him “Egon.” After that he’d started shooting back that on this planet, the spores, molds and fungi could kill him, so he stayed well away. This had gone down very well indeed.
“There isn’t a scheduled delivery today and that’s a blackhawk, not a chinook,” Johnson explained, and sighed. “War’s still going on I guess.”
“I can’t comment,” Meereo told him, apologetically. Even here, under the umbrella of a wormhole suppression field, the biodrones were compartmentalized as much as possible against the possibility that a ghost might use them for a listening post. They gossipped, of course, but they never got a scrap of official information except in the occasional rare and heavily sanitized pamphlet.
“I know, I know…” Johnson sighed. He pulled his coat tighter around him, just before the helicopter growled overhead and blasted them both with freezing air as it turned, dipped and alighted delicately onto the detention center’s rooftop landing pad all in one easy motion. Human pilots could make machinery dance when they wanted to.
Four silhouettes dismounted in an efficient bustle, carrying what was obviously a stasis coffin, and the phone in Meereo’s pocket buzzed urgently just as they vanished into the elevator.
“Guess they want you to see how they welcome the newbie, huh?”
“Something like that,” Meereo agreed. His actual job was to capture the ghost as it tried to escape. “I’ll see you later at the poker game.”
“Wear a hat or glue those ears down this time, buddy. You’re an open book with those paddles doing semaphore on your roof.”
Suddenly self-conscious, Meereo felt his ears swivel backwards and flatten down in embarrassment, and duck-nodded. “Thank you.”
The guards at Tebbutt were incomparable professionals, and well briefed on the seriousness of their duties. Every important door had at least two, and anybody returning from spending any time in the biodrone compound got their head checked for implants. No exceptions, no favoritism, just the curious joke ’It’s-a me, Meereo! once they thought he was out of earshot, which again had taken some research to decrypt.
They were entertaining games, he had to admit.
The new arrival was being put through an X-ray CT to determine the exact nature and location of all his implants. He’d already been declared clear of any kind of a wormhole beacon or else he never would have been brought inside either of the system forcefields, but a thorough assessment of his implants was necessary for his long-term prognosis.
As Meereo entered, he could already see that this one was here for the long term. He’d had the full biodrone treatment: total lobotomy, implantation and reinstallation. That on top of an existing translator implant and the control interface for a confiscated cybernetic arm.
Like always, ’Cowboy’ was there to watch the newcomer through the process. He was Camp Tebbutt’s director, and took the charge personally. He glanced sideways at Meereo as he entered, and gave a welcoming nod.
“Zane Reid,” he said, by way of introducing the new internee.
“He’s had a rough time,” Meereo noted, making some mental notes about the sturdy metal socket where the patient’s arm ended abruptly mid-humerus. It was obviously a custom design, and the damn thing looked more like it was meant for industrial robotics than a medical prosthesis.
“Yeah. Poor bastard was struggling with chronic mental health problems even before the Corti grabbed him. Callous and unemotional traits, narcissistic personality disorder, bipolar disorder…What a mess. Without his meds and a counsellor he musta gone completely off the rails. And then some asshole cut his arm off. And then somehow Big Hotel caught up with him.” Cowboy sighed and rubbed his nose. “And now I gotta lock him up. How much can life dump on one guy, huh?”
“Ghost status?” Meereo asked, taking refuge in professionalism.
“Pretty sure he’s still hosting. HEAT team slapped a stick-n-sleep on him and he’s been sedated or in stasis ever since. The surgical team is scrubbing up.”
Meereo nodded while his ears flattened sideways. He wasn’t looking forward to seeing human brain surgery in action—the briefing alone had been grim enough. But unless the implants were all properly sabotaged then as soon as they were able to communicate with each other again via Reid’s neural pathways, the ghost within them could just initiate a self-destruct and kill him instantly with a massive cerebral haemorrhage.
It had come as a shock to learn that humanity had the medical technology necessary for such involved surgery, in a roundabout way. They couldn’t properly dissect and repair cerebral tissue, but they could insert a catheter into a peripheral artery and thread the probe through the copious blood vessels supplying a human’s huge, oxygen-hungry brain. It was delicate, alarmingly crude, viscerally disturbing, and one hundred percent successful so far.
Once complete, they could hopefully wake the Reid-biodrone, open the “honey trap” escape route and with luck the Igraen ghost would bolt straight into Meereo’s claws. And Reid himself would get a shot at rehabilitation and eventual reintegration.
… In theory.
In reality, a million things could go wrong, but the opportunity to dissect Igraen ghosts in a digital environment and figure out how they worked had already promised to yield a quantum surge forward in Gaoian programming, and the humans were even more excited. The stony road to true artificial intelligence was potentially opening in front of them, not to mention the potential wealth of strategic intelligence.
“Will his arm be returned?”
“As soon as we’ve removed the fusion blade, yeah. He had one hidden inside it.”
Out through the glass, the surgical team finished taking their notes and removed the patient to be prepped for surgery. Cowboy rolled his shoulders and neck, producing a satisfying series of clicks. “Time to get your magic box ready,” he suggested.
“It’s been waiting all week.”
Cowboy nodded again, and stopped looking tired for a second. He stood a little straighter, adjust his jacket, somehow seemed to lose a few wrinkles just by the change in his body language.
“…Good,” he said. “Let’s get that fucking thing out of him.”
Date Point: 13y2m1w AV
Nofl’s lab, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Chief! What a delight!” Nofl bowed with a flourish, inviting Gabe to enter his lab. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“You know why I’m here, Nofl,” Gabe grunted. “We had a deal. I’m here to honor it.”
Ridiculously, the skinny little gray bounced on the spot and clapped his hands gleefully. It had to be an affectation; nothing about the gesture looked native to Corti body language, which was subtle to the point of nonexistence.
“Darling, it’s not even Christmas!” he exclaimed.
Gabe sighed. “Could you please drop the act just once?”
“Oh, Chief. Aren’t I allowed to have any fun?” Corti mouths weren’t made for pouting, but Nofl was clearly enjoying himself and tried anyway. It looked more like he was trying to suck a pine nut through a straw.
“You tell me. Thought fun was verboten in Corti circles.”
“Racist, dear.” Nofl turned and trotted smartly up the stairs. “But accurate. But, you know me. I think the Directorate can go suck a dick.”
Gabe rolled his eyes and took hold of the handrail to haul himself up the stairs behind him. “You’re determined to be extra scandalous today, huh?”
“It’s only scandalous because I’m not human. Come on, come on, I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for months.”
“Why so eager?” Gabe asked, grunting as he hauled his injured leg up another step.
“Oh, just a lifetime of aiming metaphorical middle fingers at Directorate dogma. And it’s about to bear fruit! A steel-banner nobody, about to surpass every silver darling they have in one procedure. Can you blame me?”
“If it works.”
“O ye of so very little faith! Come on, dear.”
Nofl vanished through the door at the top and Gabe heard him rattling around and performing some tone-deaf approximation of humming to himself as he got things ready. He took the opportunity to lean on the rail and wince. The Crue-D therapy for his head injury had done something to stabilize the leg, but had achieved nothing with regards the nerve dysfunction. Mostly, half his ass and the top of his leg was just permanently numb, except when it suddenly sent a red-hot nail spiking up his back.
Nofl’s lab was the equivalent of a studio apartment above a shop. The Locayl downstairs had moved to Cimbrean as an augmentation surgeon with a sideline in nanotattoos. Nowadays he was primarily a tattoo artist thanks to an insatiable human thirst for novelty. People were taking vacations on Cimbrean specifically to get ink done by an alien.
Including his own son, which Gabe wasn’t particularly happy about. But…what could he do besides grouse? When it came down to it, a nanotattoo wasn’t quite as stupid a decision as the old-fashioned ink variety. They could be turned off, at least.
“No dawdling, dear!” Nofl called, spurring Gabe to sigh and heave himself up the last few steps to the top.
Nofl was standing on a stool to finish loading an injector. He flapped his hand vaguely in the direction of the massage table against the wall by the door.
“Lie down, face down. No need to undress, just expose the site of the injury,” he instructed, sounding blessedly businesslike now that he was busy. Feeling vaguely that he must be absolutely insane to have agreed to this, Gabe obeyed and made himself comfortable.
Nofl hopped off his stool and his feet made a gentle pat-pat noise as he minced to Gabe’s side and got up on a different stool. There was a hum, and a sensation of warmth around Gabe’s kidneys.
“Just scanning the damage. Oh my, this was an ugly one, wasn’t it? Tsk tsk.” The tut was pronounced rather than properly tutted. The warm sensation turned cool.
“Rifle round to the lower back. Glanced off my spine and exited out my side. Miracle I didn’t lose a kidney,” Gabe recalled.
“And they rebuilt you with screws and titanium, oh dear. Well, when your medical technology is so far behind the curve I suppose this is as good as you can expect.”
Nettled, Gabe resisted the urge to defend human medicine. “Nofl, when the hell are you going to start?”
“Start?” The humming and cold sensation stopped. “Darling, I just finished.”
“Pull the other one, at least I’ll feel it!”
“No, really! Stand up, darling.”
Gabe turned to give him an incredulous stare, but Nofl returned his gaze with a well-rehearsed expression of earnest sincerity and stepped down off the stool.
“Look, you can brag about how great Corti medicine is all you like,” Gabe began, sitting up, “but no way did you alread—¡Madre mía!”
“Language, dear!” Nofl chastised him, and for once Gabe forgave him the smugness. With a bewildered frown plastered across his eyebrows he stood up tentatively and found that the leg responded perfectly, with a strength and control he’d forgotten he ever had. Experimentally he hopped from foot to foot. He kicked it out, re-familiarizing himself with the feeling of…well, feeling. He stood on tip-toe, bounced on his feet, did a little one-legged twirl. Walked backwards for the first time in years. Tentatively, he jumped. Then he jumped again. Then a third time, leaping high and tucking his knees to his chest for a second. Once grounded again he squatted down and bounced on his toes.
Nofl nodded approvingly. “Much better! This is as a human should be, don’t you think?”
“How—?” Gabe asked.
“Darling, you are a clever man but the explanation would be so far beyond you. If you were to make a serious study of regenerative medicine, then—”
“No, never mind. I just…” Gabe shook his head at himself. ”He sido un baboso. I should have done this earlier!”
“Deathworld skepticism. A useful survival mechanism! Also, annoying.” Nofl returned his used equipment to its proper place. “But, you got here in the end. All fixed! Unless you want—”
”No.” Gabe said, then cleared his throat and softened. “No. Thank you. This is…More than enough.”
“Oh, suit yourself dear,” Nofl indulged him, flapping his hand dismissively over his shoulder.
Gabe jogged on the spot for a few seconds more to marvel at his regained mobility, then calmed himself down with a deep breath and a shake of his head. “Anyway, a deal is a deal. Have you made your appointment with the surgeon downstairs?”
Nofl finished packing his tools and turned around, carefully sanitizing his hands. Even with the biofilter fields and frontline implants, that was generally a good idea for ETs who laid hands on a human. “That I have, darling. It’s been a heavy burden, I must say…”
“Good. Then be here tomorrow at noon. Lieutenant-Colonel Powell and Admiral Knight will be here to visit.”
“Because you just earned your way into something that’ll make fixing my busted ass look like a high school science project.”
“Cryptic. What exactly is in it for me?”
Gabe grinned his biggest, toothiest grin and was pleased when he saw Nofl reflexively flinch. He knew he was wearing the one smile to which aliens never quite adapted.
“How would you like to heal the entire Corti race?” he asked.
Date Point: 13y3m AV
Starship Racing Thunder, Patrolling near Cimbrean system, the Far Reaches
On the day that the *Racing Thunder*’s exile had been announced, Yefrig had privately ranted and clawed the walls whenever the younger Brothers of his crew weren’t around to see it.
Hindsight, as the humans had it, was perfect vision. In retrospect his ship, its crew and their talents had been wasted as a minor system picket in a busy high-traffic trading system. They had loitered near Perfection’s most-used parking orbits and flexed their metaphorical claws, doing their best to cow thousands of freighters into law-abiding behaviour.
The occasional stop-and-search, the occasional arrest…and Yefrig’s knowledge and experience as a shipfather had been stretched to their limits in keeping his crew’s morale up and their conduct in line.
Near-system superluminal patrol was a vastly better role. They interacted with every ship coming and going from Cimbrean, learned their names, became familiar with their masters. There weren’t so very many yet, but the humans had big plans to turn Cimbrean into a major exporter. They didn’t have anything to offer the galaxy in the way of technology, but their foodstuffs were something else entirely.
Every ship that brought immigrants and alien materials and technology to Cimbrean left with a cargo hold full of “Rice,” “Soybeans” and “Cornflour” that were already revolutionizing the manufacture of ration balls. Most also carried a delicacy that was rapidly gaining in popularity among Vzk’tk—crunchy, sweet “Carrots.”
The Gaoians, whose territory was only one week away, were getting the best exports of all—deathworld meat. Chicken, beef, pork, lamb, turkey and salmon. Delicious, rich and absolutely full of protein. And that wasn’t even to mention cheese!
If the humans devoted their worlds to exporting nothing but food, they would soon have the market cornered. Deathworld crop species produced far more calories per square kilometer, and the humans apparently already had some pretty cunning proprietary genetics technology that prevented their customers from just planting the crops themselves.
As things were going, Cimbrean had achieved financial self-sufficiency much sooner than had originally been predicted. In fact it was on track to finish paying off its debts entirely within twenty years.
That success naturally attracted interest. Not so long ago, the colony had been under a permanent Hunter blockade. The blockade might be gone, but nobody had forgotten it, which was why the *Racing Thunder*’s first and primary responsibility was to range far out from the system’s borders and keep a nose to the wind in case of incoming large fleets.
And that, in turn, was why Yefrig had been roused from his sleep and was bounding onto the bridge with a definite sense of trepidation. The night watch had picked up just such a fleet, and had diverted the ship as per protocol to get close enough for a positive ID.
A couple of junior Brothers got smartly out of Yefrig’s way as he threw himself at his command seat. “Report,” he ordered, buckling himself in.
The senior of the two sensor operators, a Rite-Brother by the name of Duri, waved a claw at his console. “Gaoian ships, Father. A whole flotilla.”
That was a relief, at least, but it opened a whole series of other questions. “Clan?”
“Not ours, Shipfather.”
“Accelerate to intercept, peaceful overtures. Message buoy back to Cimbrean.”
There were obedient yips from all over the bridge, and Yefrig settled into his seat to watch his map. The display was ludicrously not to scale, of course—how could it be? It encompassed a radius of twenty lightyears—but the objects within it at least gave him a sense of relative position and speed.
The Racing Thunder was aptly named; when they really opened up the engines she could outrun anything. Not even a Human V-Class could match her acceleration or peak FTL velocity, and the helm had laid in an expert trajectory that should see them flash across the incoming fleet’s nose, close enough to identify them but with enough breathing room to get away if things had gone entirely insane and their own people turned out to be hostile.
“Time until we can verify their IFF?”
“Less than [two minutes], shipfather…” Duri informed him
“Keep our claws in.”
Yefrig scratched his own claws nervously across the coarse fabric of his chair and ran through possibilities in his mind; There were very few reasons why a Gaoian flotilla of that size might be cruising toward Cimbrean, and he wasn’t sure if he was more worried by the most positive or the most negative of those reasons.
“I have a clear reading on their IFF…Shipfather, the fleet is escorting the Playful Breeze.”
So. The terrifying best-case scenario it was. Yefrig stood and combed down his fur, took his place where the camera could get the best look at him, and straightened up.
He ducked respectfully to his counterpart when she appeared on his screen. “Shipmother Ataya,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”
Ataya was as scarred as the most battle-battered male, and flicked the stub of her left ear. The legend of how she had lost that ear and gained those scars grew with the telling, and Yefrig was one of the privileged few who knew the truth: that spaceships of any generation or technological level had their hazards, and Ataya had simply fallen afoul of one of them—A massive steam explosion while touring a starship as a cub. She had been lucky: Two Sisters, a Mother, and the shipfather had perished. Lucky for him, because if he had survived then his reputation and mating prospects would have completely evaporated.
Other people might have understandably never set foot on a ship ever again, but Ataya had paradoxically made them her passion and her career. She was Gao’s only Shipmother, and naturally she commanded the personal transport of the Mother-Supreme.
Nobody doubted her credentials for a second. That ship had only survived the Hunter assault on Capitol Station thanks to her quick thinking.
“Yefrig! No new scars? I’m disappointed,” she told him.
“The humans have strict rules about honor fights,” Yefrig sighed. “Naturally, I must set an example for my crew and obey them.”
She chirruped an ironic noise of mock irritation. “Too bad. The Mother-Supreme is on board, Yefrig. She desired a surprise visit.”
“I had inferred as much. The humans, sadly, also have rules about inspection and they absolutely will not yield on them. The Mother-Supreme must come over on a shuttle or the Playful Breeze will be searched tip to tail, and her databanks ransacked.”
“Obviously I can’t allow that,” Ataya shook her head.
“Then a shuttle it is. I will inform Cimbrean Border Force to expect a diplomatic entourage. I imagine the humans will be well pleased to learn of this.”
“You know me. I always did enjoy a little mayhem.”
“Does the Mother-Supreme?”
To Yefrig’s surprise, Ataya chittered sharply and her ear-and-a-half flattened sideways into an expression of profound amusement.
“Oh yes,” she said, and leaned on her console. “Very much so.”
There was nothing to say to that, so Yefrig cleared his throat and straightened again. “Well. Shipmother Ataya, the Playful Breeze and its escort have permission to approach the Cimbrean system and enter orbit of the fifth planet.”
“On behalf of the Mother-Supreme, I extend the gratitude of the Clan of Females. Sail well, Shipfather Yefrig.”
Yefrig relaxed outwardly as the channel closed, but internally he was cringing; he would need to place a call to Governor Sandy.
And something told him the humans weren’t going to like this.
Date Point: 13y2m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Master Sergeant Harry “Rebar” Vandenberg
Morning PT hadn’t slacked off in Warhorse’s absence, but anybody would think it had from the way he charged around the training field correcting everybody on small errors in their form with terrifyingly renewed vigor, to the point where Rebar made a note that their young NCO in charge of physical training was to be gently encouraged to save up his leave until reaching his ’use it or lose it’ threshold.
If soaking up the sun in the Bahamas could energize him so, then the less often he took the opportunity to luxuriate the better. HEAT men were no stranger to agonizing pain and a river of sweat cascading off their noses, but the little changes made a big difference. Warhorse had an almost supernatural understanding of the body and its kinesthetics, and the torture he could inflict with simple movements and using just his victim’s own body weight against them—and in low gravity, to boot—was truly something that had to be experienced to be believed.
Heaven help whoever ‘Horse decided needed deep tissue massage after that.
And of course, there was the cold water. Hoeff had introduced that one to Arés’ arsenal by talking at length about the therapeutic benefits of vasoconstriction and the methodical madness behind SEAL training’s love of cold water. Naturally, Arés had immediately done his research and had worked their cold water swimming pool into their regime as the last step. One last indignity on top of the exhaustion and pain—being half-drowned and then hauled out by the scruff of the neck. HEAT operators were about as graceful in the water as a sack of bricks. The pool was only five feet deep…but that was five feet too many if your natural swimming stroke was the “Titanic.”
Arés claimed it was all beneficial, anyway. Rebar wasn’t sure he completely believed it—Mostly it just felt like one last kick in the dick to really round off the training session.
After that bit of mandatory fun he had no option but to lie groaning in the soft sand with the others and bask in the euphoria of letting his muscles actually rest.
Arés came around with the ultra-performance recovery shakes, each one perfectly customized to its intended drinker’s specific needs, and a Crue-D patch, gave some words of beaming encouragement, made sure they were all okay, and then went haring off to see to his own regime. All that and he was still in the process of winding back up through the gears into full Warhorse mode. What he would be like in two weeks when he entered his first heavy cycle was…
Rebar quite liked the quiet moments after a subjective eternity of suffering when he could lie back and feel his body putting itself back together. It was a weird sensation, the sense of his own distressed tissues knitting themselves under the crue-D’s influence. He could actually lie there and feel the gravity become less relevant again.
This part of the routine was strictly “in your own time.” Rebar liked to get up and moving as soon as he could, trusting movement to massage the Crue-D into his aching muscles and get them working again sooner.
The cold plunge at least spared him the need to go shower, so after clambering to his feet he waded through the sand into the barracks, dried off, got changed and checked his emails.
Ten minutes later he was fully dressed, sharp and alert and knocking on Lieutenant-Colonel Powell’s office door.
He heard Powell shift in his seat inside. “Come in,” he called.
Rebar turned the handle and very nearly tripped up as the door didn’t open as expected. Rather than swinging to the side, it tried to open upwards like a cat flap. He lifted it out of the way on his way in—somebody had dismounted the hinges, reinstalled them at the top and hung the door from them.
He used the time as he carefully lowered and closed the door behind him to put his best professional deadpan in place.
Powell was on the phone. He gave Rebar a nod and a quick gesture with his fingers, requesting patience.
“Aye…Aye, that sounds right…No, Commander McDaniel already tried that last year. …Like a chocolate bloody teapot, that’s how. Aye, that’d be good. Yeah. Yeah, cheers Wilde. You too.”
He put the phone down and offered Rebar a tight but not unwelcoming little smile. “Good afternoon, Master Sergeant.”
“Good afternoon, sir,” Rebar replied.
“Please, sit. Won’t keep you long,” Powell offered and promised. Rebar was getting good at reading his moods these days, and while anybody else would have thought Powell was being inscrutable, Rebar could tell that he was in good humour and inclined to indulge in a little harmless fun.
“Thanks,” he replied, sitting. “How was Earth?” Powell had been away the day before and that morning for the monthly situation briefing.
“Fookin’ warm. Scotch Creek in the summer’s not half bad. Lads behaved themselves?”
“I didn’t notice any misbehaviour, sir,” Rebar answered truthfully.
“Aye, they’re good about knowing when to be on their best, aren’t they? Helpful too. You know, I had Colour Sergeant Murray in here just day before yesterday to go over our notes on the low-profile insertion to Aru. The Gaoians did well there, I reckon.”
“Very well, I thought,” Rebar agreed.
“Mm. Aye. Anyway, he commented when he came in that my door was a bit sticky. I agreed. Been meaning to have a word with building maintenance about it.”
“Probably just needs planing down,” Rebar opined. “That’s happened to a few doors around here.”
“No need now,” Powell informed him, breezily. “Because in my absence it seems somebody took it on themselves to do me a favour and fix it.”
“That was nice of them.”
“Aye, but it’s left me a mite puzzled, you see,” Powell replied, sitting back easily with a relaxed air and his hands behind his head. “There’s summat about the repair that doesn’t seem quite right…but, I’m aware I’m no kind of a construction engineer or owt like that. An’ it’s a basic principle that you should seek out the opinions of those more knowledgable than yourself in these matters…”
“True,” Rebar agreed.
“So I thought I’d get you to run yer expert eye over the fix, if that’s no bother.” Powell stood, ambled over to the door and hinged it upwards. “What do you think? Does that seem right to you?”
“No sir, I reckon that should be opening sideways,” Rebar deadpanned.
“Mm.” Powell nodded. Both men’s faces remained perfectly serious. “Easy mistake to make, maybe?”
“Not for a professional, sir.”
“Ahh. Rookie error, then.” Powell nodded and sniffed.
“…Perhaps I should, uh, stress to the Lads how important it is to leave this kind of work to the custodians?” Rebar suggested.
“Aye, that’s probably for the best. I appreciate the gesture of course but we don’t want the fix to be worse than the problem, do we?”
“As you say, sir.”
Powell returned to his desk, nodding comfortably as if they’d discussed a minor imperfection of no consequence. “What else was there…?” he asked himself as he sorted through a short stack of papers and letters on his desk. “Oh aye, our MTOE. Tremblay’s of the notion it’s a bit on the empty side.”
“Because it is.”
“Aye. We don’t even have a full team, let alone the six we wanted to start with.”
“Three Protectors, six Defenders, and nine Aggressors each, as I recall. We’re half that for the Defenders and we still need three more Aggressors…to have one full working team.”
“Hence the big questions comin’ from some quarters about the future of HEAT,” Powell informed him.
“We need those six teams, sir, if we’re going to sustain any kind of continuous opstempo. As it stands now, every time a mission happens—even little ones like we seem to get a lot more of these days—we gotta stand down, rest, evaluate, and reset. That means every time more than one or two of us puts the suit on for any reason at all, we lose the HEAT for a week. At least. If it’s a big mission, it could be a couple of months.”
“Right. Honest assessment then, and no bloody ‘can-do attitude,’” Powell said. “Can it be done?”
Rebar shifted in place, attempting to escape the answer he knew he needed to give. Finally, he sighed and answered plainly, “No.”
In response Rebar rolled up his sleeve and flexed a bicep the size of a bowling ball. “This is why. It takes a special kind of idiot to sign up for this, and besides all that which we’ve groused about for literally years now, the training standards preclude it. EV-MASS is just too demanding. Of our four new members, Newman and Parata were last-minute replacements because the original selectees backed out once they saw us in person. We had another two guys suffer broken ribs and washout within the first fifteen minutes of initial suit fitting. Hell, the last group we ran in Alabama? Not a single one of them qualified. If we want to recruit more people, we gotta lower standards, and to do that we need something more like the Gaoian suit. Which, y’know. We’re not gonna get. Sir.”
“If I take that assessment back to AEC, then HEAT has a lifespan measured in weeks.”
“Which puts us in a bad spot because we need the capability, which is another reason we can’t lower standards. My men can do things nobody else can do, and it’s exactly because we’re all freaks of nature that we can do all that in the first place. I don’t know how the hell we lucked out the first time with the people we have, sir, but a HEAT operator is a rare fucking specimen. All of us are, especially the Trio. No fancy spacemagic suit is gonna fix that.”
“Preaching to the choir,” Powell agreed, though his expression darkened. “And I will not let the Lads have done all this for nowt.”
“Then maybe we need to consider the HEAT more like the CIA considers their, uh, more operational side of the house. Very small, very special-purpose units…maybe what we really need is a more realistic reset of expectations, sir? We’re assuming we need to sustain operations indefinitely, but, frankly? Why? I mean, hell,” Rebar stood and paced as he gathered steam, “Let’s be realistic. What kind of combat are we in if we need HEAT teams continuously deployed? We don’t have the navy to back that scenario in the first place.”
“Never will, unless we build more Caledonia-class. They’re the space navy answer to a carrier.”
“And we won’t. System shields are just better and everyone with half a brain knows it. Our space military is never going to be all that big. Which, I mean…isn’t that a good thing?”
“We’ll always need force projection.”
“How much, though? I mean, again, I know it’s an overused example but look at us and tell me we really need or even want a bunch of me, or ‘Base, or—God forbid—‘Horse and Firth running around. Honestly the more I think about it, I think we need to be a small unit. It’s a Goddamned miracle we’ve got what we got right now. What we really need is JETS.”
Powell nodded slowly and at length, thoughtfully.
“Wish I could be more positive, sir.”
“You’re just echoing what I told Tremblay,” Powell reassured him in a regretful grumble. He stood up abruptly and retrieved some writing paper and his good pen from a neat stack on top of his filing cabinet. It was a foible of Powell’s that he preferred to write things down the old-fashioned way, on important occasions.
“Can we achieve one full team, d’you think?” he asked.
“Yes,” Rebar had no qualms at all about answering that one definitively. “If we couldn’t even do that, we wouldn’t have what we already do. Over time I think we can get two teams, maybe three. But six? I’m skeptical.”
Powell put his hands together and steepled his fingers. “What do you think our recruiting priority should be, then? What will be the hardest for us to fill?
“Well,” Rebar considered, “I figure combat arms are full of the kinda guys who want to try to meet the HEAT Aggressor standard. A few will even be good enough. Protectors, well…we already know their superman button, but they’re so fucking dependent on good genes and raw physical talent that we can’t really do anything but encourage and wait for them to come to us.”
“And the Defenders?”
Rebar nodded. “They might be the toughest niche to fill. On the one hand, we don’t need to be hyperactive murderbunnies or big damn heroes and that means we don’t need to be perfect genetic lottery winners like the rest of you fellas. I bet there’s a pretty good pool out there of really big, tough, ornery combat armsman that can wear the Mass and train up to size. But on the other hand, the engineering mindset is rare and that’s the problem. The structures that’re in place to detect suitable candidates are channeling them toward other units.”
“Like the three of you and Delta Force.”
“Exactly. And we only fit the combat engineer role in a kinda-sorta-maybe way. Which is a shame, ‘cuz every 18C guy who tried out for HEAT so far didn’t make the cut.”
“There owt we can do about that?”
Rebar thought about it. “Brute force recruiting effort. Scale down our expectations for how big HEAT can be but hold ourselves to being the ultimate weapon where needed. JETS needs to expand, and we need the allied services to sacrifice some of their best and brightest to make it happen. They, uh…won’t like that.”
“Oh, fook no,” Powell agreed as his forehead wrinkled into a wry expression. “But they’ll bloody well have to relax and spread wide, won’t they?”
Rebar grinned out the side of his mouth. “We’ll loosen ‘em up with a little sweet talk, sir.”
“Aye. I’ve half a mind to—hang on.”
Desk phones were going to be around forever, in Rebar’s estimation. The modern generation could seamlessly tell if their intended user was at his desk or not and divert incoming calls as appropriate, but when it came down to it that was a minor reason to have a big black chunk of plastic on the desk.
More importantly, when that chunk of plastic made a piercing ringing sound, Powell had the handset snatched up and held against his ear inside a second. Rebar, meanwhile, had lost count of the number of cellphone calls he personally had missed from trying to fumble the damn thing out of his pocket.
“Powell. …Oh aye? …Bloody hellfire. Alright, recall the Lads and especially the Gaoians. No, he’s on Earth. Take it to Caruthers instead. Aye, cheers.”
Rebar let him consider the handset and slowly replace it in the cradle. “…Sir?”
Powell looked up and gave him the brittle, unamused smile of a man who was in no way amused or happy.
“We’re having a surprise visit,” he said. “From the Mother-Supreme.”
Date Point: 13y2m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“The one who ambushed us at the jump array? Are you sure?”
“Kevin said she wrote an article on me,” Xiù revealed. “A couple of years ago. ’Hometown Hero’ or…something like that.”
Julian and Allison traded a surprised glance. “That one? That was her?” Allison asked.
“You’ve read it?”
“We both did,” Julian revealed.
“Why are you reading news articles about me?”
Allison gave her a patient look. “Because they’re about you, dummy.”
Xiù lapsed into happy blushing silence, and Julian sipped his coffee. Two weeks on from the attack in Omaha they’d finally persuaded their assorted guardian angels to let them have some freedom back, and had returned to the microbrewery and cafe where they’d had a memorable evening the last time they were on Cimbrean. Undoubtedly they were under careful protective surveillance but at least it was invisible surveillance, rather than hundreds of pounds of muscle wrapped in a horrific crime-against-humanity Hawaiian shirt.
Well, not totally invisible. Murray was damn good at making himself a background detail, but Julian knew what to watch for. He caught the taciturn Scotsman’s eye but didn’t give him away by winking or acknowledge him. Just making eye contact was enough.
“Okay, but what about Byron’s own pet news agencies?” Allison asked.
“We already talked with them,” Xiù pointed out.
“Aren’t we, like, under some kind of contract thing to only speak with them?”
“Not according to Kevin.” Xiù shrugged. “He said to consider giving ESNN an interview too. Something about Moses wants the Group to appear open and transparent.”
“You think he does?” Julian asked.
“Probably.” Xiù shrugged again.
“Okay, but come on. The woman who ambushed us at the jump array? Why her?”
“And why do we even need to talk with her?” Allison added.
“Because the more we do the more it helps the People?” Xiù suggested.
“Does it? We already got backing that goes right to the top. Do we really need to win more hearts and minds?”
“Can it hurt?”
“It can hurt us,” Julian said. “I love you, but we can’t be on the job every day. I want some us time.”
“Especially now,” Allison agreed.
Xiù nodded and deflated a little. “So…that’s a no to the interview.”
“Baby, have you actually relaxed at all since we got here?” Allison asked. “You’re gonna worry yourself to death.”
“When have we had the chance?” Xiù asked.
“We’re being watched all the time, we’re recognized everywhere we go…” Xiù shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “We don’t have the space to relax. And I want to be doing something, everything’s going so slowly! I thought we’d have gone back by now.”
“Or at least that Dan and Clara would be over here by now,” Julian agreed. “She’s got a point, Al.”
“Well, yeah,” Allison agreed. “But talking to a reporter is just…it’s make-work. I wanna do something productive, you know?”
“Relaxing is productive?”
“If it stops us from going completely fucking gaga? Hell yeah it’s productive!” Allison took a sip of her cappuccino. “What is there to do in this town, anyway?”
“Uh…” Xiù retrieved her purse from under her seat and pulled out the tourism brochure. “Many parks and public recreation facilities…Organized hiking tours to see the native flora and fauna…Theatres, bars, pubs…Oh! Spa day?”
“Sounds nice,” Julian agreed, and caught Allison’s faintly incredulous expression. “What?”
“…Nothing. Just…When did you ever have a spa day? I’m used to you cutting down trees and trapping beavers. I didn’t think they’ld be your style.”
“Uh, never,” Julian conceded. “But they must be nice or people wouldn’t do them.”
“Haven’t you ever had a facial?” Xiù asked her.
“Only when Julian didn’t warn me in time that time on—”
”Allison!” Xiù objected, while Julian tried not to laugh.
“I’m teasing, shǎguā,” Allison told her affectionately. “And nope, never. Let’s do it!”
“Let’s see what our shadow thinks…” Julian muttered, indicating Murray with a tilt of his head. Murray had answered his phone, and made eye contact again, giving off a clear ’something just came up’ vibe.
“Oh, God,” Allison groaned. “What now?
“It had better be good,” Xiù agreed. “I’m not giving up on that spa day for anything less than—”
She trailed off as Murray stood and weaved delicately between the tables. He stopped right in front of them and gave Xiù a shrug of his broad shoulders.
“…Mother-Supreme Yulna’s here to see you,” he said.
Xiù blinked at him.
“…Huh,” she said.
“…Well,” she added.
She turned to Allison and Julian and shrugged helplessly.
“…I guess the spa day’s on hold,” she finished.
Date Point: 13y2m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
It would have been nice to see Folctha from the air. Something about Jump Arrays seemed wrong—arriving on another world should be an event, in Ayma’s view. It should involve fire, and clouds, and a first glimpse of the scenery rolling away below.
The jump from the heavily modified trade station ”Armstrong” took all the drama out of it. They had gone seamlessly from the inside of the ship, to the inside of a shuttle, to the inside of the station, to the inside of a customs and immigration center, to the inside of a jump array, to the inside of another, almost identical jump array.
Yulna had been afforded slightly more dignity. While her entourage had been brusquely interrogated and searched for whatever-it-was the Humans didn’t want imported, Yulna had enjoyed the personal attention of somebody called an ”Aide-de-camp”
It all didn’t feel like traveling, it felt like waiting.
There was no missing the moment they actually arrived on Cimbrean, however. For their safety and comfort they were seated, but the gravity still landed on them like a thick overnight snowfall. Ayma had felt it before and in some ways even welcomed it, and Myun looked positively delighted to be back in the embrace of Folctha’s municipal gravity field generators.
Most of the entourage made soft exclamations of surprise and discomfort, but Yulna herself knew better. The most concern she showed to her enhanced weight was to stand up carefully and be sure of her footing before she moved—otherwise, she stood as tall and as proud as she could muster. She’d learned the art of looking regal quite well.
There was quite the welcome party waiting for them, all doing their best not to look harried if Ayma’s memory for human expressions and body language was still intact. A tall male in a black uniform that managed to be both austere and heavily decorated at the same time, whose head and face were covered in sleek silver fur. There was a much shorter man with a darker skin tone who was holding a walking cane apparently more out of habit than actual necessity and who looked thoroughly out of place to Ayma’s eyes.
Both were standing firmly in the background of a slim and slight-featured balding man whose minimalist navy-blue suit was paired strangely with a bright scarlet sash, a number of medals, and a wide ornamental chain that had to be gold-plated. Not even a human could look comfortable wearing that much pure gold, could they?
Actually, they probably could.
Whatever role he served, the ornamented human was the first to step forward, leading with an extended hand.
“Welcome, Mother-Supreme. I am Governor-General Sir Jeremy Sandy, I have the honour of serving as His Majesty King George’s official representative on the planet Cimbrean. On his behalf, welcome to our world with the well-wishes of all.”
“A historic occasion, Governor-General,” Yulna replied, shaking the human’s hand. “And I apologize that it was not properly arranged.”
“Not at all,” Sandy managed the neat trick of smiling warmly without baring his teeth—clearly he was well used to interacting with nonhumans. “But yes, a historic occasion, as you say: the first official state visit by a nonhuman dignitary to a human world. One for the books.”
“May the future be full of them,” Yulna replied. Ayma watched the exchange while fighting to keep the amusement from showing in her ears—she’d noticed a few Gaoians in the crowd, one of whom was even among the journalists who had rushed forward to gather as many still pictures of the pair as sapiently possible.
There were some more formalities and niceties, another series of photo opportunities as Sandy escorted Yulna and her followers outside to point out some of the prettier details of Folctha city.
It was a pretty city, Ayma realized.
And now she definitely wished she could have seen it from above.
Date Point: 13y2m2w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Does she have implants?”
Regaari could be relied upon to know those things, and he shook his head. “No she doesn’t, Cousin. Just a prosthetic eye. A good one.”
Daar relaxed slightly, although something in the smell of this meeting was making him nervous. He could feel that it wasn’t going to go well. “Well…that gives us options, then,” He said. “Wish me luck.”
Being summoned by the Mother-Supreme—who had travelled unannounced all the way from Gao specifically to summon him, no less—was more than just a big deal. Clans hung in the balance on moments like this, and even the old contract between Stoneback and the Females had its limits.
If he hadn’t known that already, he would have had to be as dense as a lead souffle not to get the hint from the cold appraisal on Yulna’s face when she turned around as he entered the room.
There was a time for pride, and there was a time for caution. This was one of the latter, but never without dignity. Not ever.
And this was not a time for beating about the bush.
“You’ve come a long way, Mother-Supreme. What troubles you?”
Yulna flicked an ear and strolled around the large table that the humans had provided for them. Her claws made a soft sound as she trailed them across the varnished wood, and she approached to only just out of arm’s reach before stopping.
“…I must get your scent properly, Daar,” she told him.
There was no good reaction to that. Yulna was demanding to smell him close enough to tell if he was lying. She was questioning his integrity and by extension that of Clan Stoneback, and she knew it. That was…unheard-of, and it was a grievous insult—If a male had made such a demand, Daar would already be ripping out his throat.
Stonebacks never lied. But…Yulna was the Mother-Supreme. For her he would make an allowance, if for no other reason than to see where the chase led.
“…Very well. I will remember this in the spirit it was requested.” He put his arms behind his back and knelt, holding himself vulnerable for her examination. “Now…what troubles you?”
To her credit, Yulna had never been one to prevaricate. “You have left us in the dark, Daar. You’re keeping secrets from us. More so than usual. You and Whitecrest, you’re conspiring.”
“Why? We expect the Whitecrests to be opaque, but Stoneback? What have the Females done that you won’t trust us or come to us for guidance?”
That was…disappointing on a number of levels, but the biggest had to be the presumption inherent in such a statement. That would require addressing but not now; the Clan always came first, so Daar clamped down on his growing anger and kept a neutral tone.
“We keep our own counsel, Mother-Supreme, as is our right and duty. But my trust wasn’t the issue. Nor was intent. We are keeping a very grave secret for very grave reasons, and it is one you must never discuss with anyone, in any capacity, ever. Even admitting to this secret comes too close to violating an oath.” He paused, and emphasized his words to convey the gravity of the situation. “I trust you will consider that, and the position you have put me in.”
“Mother-Supreme, it is so grave that I am not willing to risk it no matter what you may threaten.”
“The Humans are involved?”
“It is so grave I can give you not the barest hint of what the secret might be, Mother-Supreme. I refuse to answer.” He paused, and sighed. “If I could, I would have told you long ago.”
“Do you know who could tell me?”
“I cannot say.”
“If you did, would you speak to them on my behalf, at least?”
Daar paused, and considered. He could speak many shades of truth and keep his integrity, but Daar took his oaths very seriously. Stonebacks never lied, not even in part.
The moment of very hard truths had come to them. He could only hope she was strong enough to hear them. Daar clamped down on his roiling feelings, looked her dead in the eye, and spoke with as neutral and formal a tone as he could manage.
“In part that could betray the secret. But now I would question the wisdom of sharing such a thing with you, Mother-Supreme.”
“…You mean you question my wisdom.”
Yulna sniffed at him, then slowly and thoughtfully she duck-nodded and backed away. Her ears didn’t wilt by so much as a hair, but the sense of…loss, perhaps, was palpable. Even her scent was saddened.
“…Perhaps, then, once whatever this danger is has passed, our successors will be able to rebuild the old contract,” she said. “I…regret that it will need rebuilding.”
Daar sighed again, rose to his paws and left her presence as a Stoneback should, properly on all fours. “The Contract remains, it is what we are. You used to know that, Yulna.” He stopped at the door and looked back. “…Keep Myun close to you.”
“…Thank you, Champion Daar.”
He nodded, and left.
Date Point: 13y2m2w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
For once, Melissa was speechless. That went for everybody in the room, in fact.
Bugging foreign dignitaries was a standard move in the Great Game. Russian premiers, Arab kings, African presidents, they’d all had somebody listening in on them. Adding the Mother-Supreme and a Champion to that long list was absolutely business as usual.
Allies spied on allies; It kept alliances strong. It helped lubricate the wheels of diplomacy to know which were the touchy subjects, and it strengthened the united front to know where a partner’s strength was showing cracks.
Seeing a gigantic catastrophe of a crack rip open right in front of them was a new one, though.
The US Ambassador to Cimbrean, Arnold P. Rockefeller, was fidgeting thoughtfully with a pen and scowling. “…What does this mean?”
Melissa really didn’t envy him. She didn’t envy the army of analysts who’d be descending on that conversation to sift it down for every last datum, either. She certainly didn’t envy herself right now.
“I think,” she said carefully, “That the Hierarchy just scored itself a victory.”
Date Point: 13y2m2w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Daar was not as impulsive as his critics liked to believe. There was an iron will under his boisterous hide, married to a shrewd actor and an astute political mind.
But even he had his limits. Whatever had transpired during his meeting with the Mother Supreme had put Daar in the darkest mood Regaari had ever seen on him. He’d been silent all the way back to the base, and only once they were safely behind the privacy of its fences and buildings did he unwind.
He surged around to the driver’s side of the Whitecrest runabout van and clawed Regaari out of the way to hup up behind the wheel.
The Champion slammed the door and rolled down the window. “Imma be gone for a bit. Do we need any naxas meat?”
“Well, we’re gettin’ some anyway. I’ll call you later.”
The tyres squeeled, and Regaari backed out of the cloud of dust thus raised as the Champion did a sharp one-eighty and headed back out of the gates.
There was a shocked sound from Thurrsto, who’d wisely got the hell away from Daar the instant he smelled trouble. “Is…is everything all right?”
Regaari sniffed at the air. His nose wasn’t nearly as good as Daar’s—almost nobody matched him—but there was absolutely no mistaking the rage billowing on the wind, mingling with the scent of airborne dirt and slightly toasted rubber. It was strong enough to sting the nostrils, even though its source was gone.
“I don’t think so, Brother. But…for the moment, we keep this to ourselves. As a SOR matter.”
Thurrsto shifted uncomfortably. “We don’t keep secrets from our Fathers, Regaari.”
“Yes we do. Our entire purpose here is only one such secret.”
Thurrsto duck-nodded, understanding. “You think they’re related.”
Regaari gave him a complicated look. “Brother, I truly hope not….We’d better find Rebar.”
Date Point: 13y2m2w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Yulna was keening. Not the happy keen of a Mother reuniting with a long-lost Sister, either: this was the sound Gaoians made when they were completely trapped by anguish.
It should have been a happy reunion. Instead, ’Sister Shoo’ was doing what she did best—standing where nobody else stood, across the strange gap between species and in the halls of Gaoian power where she absolutely had no right to be. It was on her word after all that Gao had committed to the Dominion Security Council all those years ago.
That made two Mother-Supremes now who’d turned to her for guidance.
“These are awful times, Shoo.”
What could anyone say to that? Xiù’s only option was to snuggle deeper into Yulna’s neck fur and try not to squeeze too hard.
“You’re going to have to explain this Old Contract to me,” she prompted, gently.
“The Females…” Yulna’s keening softened and she pulled back a bit to have room to think and speak. “You know the history? Of Tiritya and the harems?”
“I didn’t really understand it all at the time,” Xiù confessed. “I was still learning Gaori. The Females were…” She frowned, thinking. “…I can’t remember the word for *’slaves.’*”
“Yes. Slaves. And the Clan of Females only exists because of Stoneback. So we have the Old Contract: They protect and provide, and we reward them.”
“More than cubs. With trust.” Yulna growled at herself. “And now a Mother-Supreme has doubted them. Doubted their Champion. He no longer trusts me and he’s right not to.”
Not honestly having the faintest idea what the right or wrong thing to say might be, Xiù elected to go with the first question that sprang to mind.
“Well…did you have a reason to?”
“I…” Yulna went very still, almost to the point where she stopped breathing. Her ears twisted hypnotically as she processed what must have been a torrent of conflicting thoughts and emotions, before finally wilting down to the unhappy flat posture of total defeat. “…I hope that I did. No. I hope that I didn’t, I…. I don’t know. I would hate to think I could doubt him without cause…but I regret doubting him at all.”
She keened softly again, then some of that Yulna sharpness came back for a moment. “You’ll keep this between us? Promise me. The Sisters and Mothers can’t know this happened. Not even Ayma.”
“I…Just between us?”
“You can promise me that, can’t you?”
Slowly and reluctantly, Xiù shook her head. “It’s…a promise I made. To Allison and Julian. No secrets,” she said. “Not between us. But it’ll never get back to any other Gaoian, that I can promise you.”
Yulna curled up miserably. “So alien,” she moaned. “You’re my Sister, but you’re so alien. To commit for so long, to another female, to have no cubs…”
“Yulna, I’ll always be a little bit Gaoian I think,” Xiù told her. “But I’m not a Gaoian. Would you be telling me these things if I was?”
Yulna shook her head no and rested her chin on Xiù’s knee.
“…If it’s any consolation, our triad thing isn’t exactly normal among humans.”
For the first time, Yulna chittered and uncurled again. “Ah, Shoo…you wouldn’t be Shoo if you weren’t a little strange,” she said affectionately.
“I think I’m allowed to be strange,” Xiù retorted. “Do you have any idea how weird my life is? I feel like I’m just being…like I’m a fish with a hook in its mouth and I’m being dragged toward something. And every time I try and fight it or wriggle free it just hurts a lot and tires me out.”
“Would you escape if you could?”
“Neither would I.” Yulna sighed and stood up. “These are difficult times. I can see why so many are scared of your species. Things have become…unstable since you arrived.”
“Is that our fault?” Xiù asked.
“No. No, I don’t think it is. I think you just gave us the push we needed for a corrupt system to begin falling apart.” Yulna turned around and combed down the fur on her arm nervously. “But I think it is going to hurt you the most. Humans.”
“I hope it’s worth it in the end.”
Yulna shook herself out and walked over to the window. “…I can smell disaster on the wind, Shoo. Nothing less could have caused this, this…rift. And now I will have to lie to my Sisters and pretend nothing is wrong, and they will smell my lies.”
She turned and chittered bitterly. “I almost long for the days when I was just a Corti’s test subject, having my eye plucked out. At least they were simpler.”
“At least you know it’s coming,” Xiù told her.
“…There is that, yes.” Yulna sighed, returned across the room and threw herself onto the couch next to Xiù again. “…Yes. There is that. I think I know what I must do, now.”
“…Do you know what the third most important planet is to the Clans of Gao, Sister?”
Xiù tilted her head. “After Gao and Gorai? …No, don’t tell me. It’s Cimbrean, isn’t it?”
“No. It’s Gorai. Cimbrean has an enclave of Females and is home to a male Clan. Politically alone, that makes it more important than Gorai. Then there are the Whitecrests and Daar’s relationship with the SOR, the trade, and the fact that the Gaoian diaspora here is double the population of the colony on Guen Ha.” Yulna indicated the window with her paw. “Cimbrean, a human colony, is of greater significance to Gao than either of our own colony worlds. Culturally, militarily, politically and economically.”
“So what must you do?” Xiù pressed.
“I must commit to it. If there is a disaster coming, it’s obvious that both our peoples are already swept up in it. I don’t need to know the details to know what I can do to give us both the best hope of coming through it. And if we make it to the far side, then any bridges we must burn on the way…”
“Were the price,” Xiù finished.
“…And that is why Mother-Supremes have confided in you, Sister.” Yulna sighed one last time, and seemed to regenerate her composure. “…Enough. I was looking forward to seeing you, not burdening you with my problems. I want to hear your stories. Tell me about your lovers. How did you meet?”
Xiù couldn’t help a small giggle, and she half-turned on the couch to get into storytelling mode. If Yulna needed a positive distraction, then a positive distraction she would have.
“Well, it started off with me brandishing a knife at them…” she began.
Date Point: 13y3m AV
Werecoba Heights, Columbus, Georgia, USA, Earth
Sergeant Daar (Tigger) of Clan SOR
Daar was used to having a clear idea of his daily life and what challenges he might face next, which meant the recent turmoil of the last long while had been…well, a little disorientating. Life as a Champion had been good to him and the long peace of the Gao had maybe lulled him into a feeling of false security, or something like that. It was hard to describe, but since learning of the Hierarchy those feelings were no longer a luxury he could or would afford himself.
Especially not in light of Yulna. Now more than ever, he needed a clear mind, and right now his mind was trying to drag him in too many different directions all at once. Anger, yes. Betrayal. Sadness. Even guilt and doubt.
Feelings he could never permit himself to indulge. A Champion must embody the essence of his Clan, and the emotional core of Stoneback was optimism: That there was no problem that could not be worked through, no obstacle that could not be built over, and no foe that could not be fought.
He’d retreated to Earth, and had so far declined to leave even after two weeks. His Clan needed him at his best: Better to not be there at all than to be there at his worst.
On Earth, his problems were simple, controllable. Mostly they revolved around careful hygiene and the perceptiveness it required, and around his studies. Things he could control, that weren’t subject to the fickle whims of other people.
And of course, there were no Gaoians present who might guess what was eating at him so much. Not even Ayma and Regaari had remained on Earth for so long or roamed so freely as Daar could.
Of course, Regaari was no doubt taking advantage of Daar’s absence and that wasn’t something he took lightly for a lot of important reasons: Cousins of a Champion gained a lot of prestige by the association and that was a power that a smart ‘Back like Daar wouldn’t trust with just anyone.
Regaari, though, was worth it. He didn’t abuse the power—at least not too much—and that put him in a good place for Daar to feed the occasional tidbit of information to Whitecrest. He’d fed their Clan a lot of information over the years, all part of a campaign to lubricate their relations and build trust. Clans were alway mistrustful of what they didn’t understand, but Daar understood Whitecrest pretty well…probably better than Genshi would have been comfortable with. Regardless, both Daar and his predecessor Thurl had felt that, given first contact and the sudden exposure to the galactic stage, it would be essential for Gao’s best security and intelligence Clan to have a deeper understanding of what Stoneback’s purpose actually was.
Now that he knew about the Hierarchy and all that entailed, Daar had to admire Thurl’s prescience. It was too bad about the brain injury; when Daar Challenged and claimed the Championship, he had so utterly defeated Thurl that the former Champion had needed immediate medical care after the fight and had never again been quite right in the head. He had been a good Champion too, one admired and respected by everyone—including Daar. But compared to his young, gangly and still-growing challenger, Thurl had been smaller, weaker, slower, and stood absolutely no chance. Less intelligent, too, if Daar was honest. It hadn’t been his most difficult fight.
That was a Champion’s fate, though, or at least it was for the Champion of Stoneback. One day Daar would probably get too old and weak or weak-minded for the job, and a younger, more vigorous ‘Back would knock him down from the office, and if he survived that Challenge Daar would go into retirement. But that wasn’t likely to happen any time soon. He was in the peak of his prime, stronger and keener than he had ever been before, and he was showing no signs of slowing down or growing soft anytime soon.
Let them try. They’d either wind up broken like Thurl, or else Stoneback would have a Champion who outshone even Daar. Either way, the Clan won.
Daar wondered if Regaari would ever Challenge Genshi for the Championship. These days he was impressive for a silverfur, a far cry from those years together back in the crèche when he begged some personal training off Daar in exchange for math tutoring. Regaari had been determined to join Whitecrest and had eventually made it in on sheer force of willpower and education, despite being slightly underweight. Nowadays he was one of their larger and stronger males, thanks to the humans. Not as big as Thurrsto or Genshi but still impressively fit, and his brain had only improved with age.
Over the last year or so, Regaari had spoken often and at length about the Human concept of ‘meditation,’ after spending time consulting with the Starminds. Daar had listened, but never put it into practice himself. He was purebred Stoneback, something about sitting motionless just didn’t work for him. He needed to move.
That was something he had in common with humans. Moving and thinking were so intertwined for them that they did it reflexively; they’d pace a room, flail their hands, gesture wildly…
Just like Daar was doing now. There was an awful lot of responsibility resting heavily on his broad shoulders, and the load was becoming increasingly harder to handle. If a final straw could break the ‘Back’s back, then Yulna had slung on a whole bale.
“What’chu thinkin’ about, sergeant Daar?”
The question cut right through Daar’s brooding and reminded him that he was supposed to be restoring himself to a positive mood. It had been asked by Technical Sergeant Wilde, Daar’s shadow, guide and medic and thus his other bestest human friend who seemed to have a knack for spotting a dark mood descending.
They were out to see the sights, get to know the town. It was a warm spring day, a number of flowers were in bloom and while Daar knew enough to stay the hell away from the pollinating insects and their stings, he had to admit that the sheer thrumming richness of life on Earth, even here in a built-up area, made it hard to stay in a bad mood.
Especially not when there was a bewitching smell of roasting meat rolling softly down the street to beguile the nose and make the stomach feel empty…
Daar sniffed at the air appreciatively. “I’m thinkin’ about food, now,” he replied.
Wilde chuckled, “Mhmm. Smells like a damn good B-B-Q they got goin’ on. Wanna check it out?”
Daar looked down at him and tilted his head quizzically. “Wouldn’t that be rude?”
“Nah, I live nearby and I’ve got a good pot of beans I can grab. So…you wanna go?”
Wilde chuckled again and jogged off towards home to fetch his beans, while Daar followed his nose towards the food. There was definitely pork, and chicken. There might have been beef too but there was a lot of that general note in the air right now, so he wasn’t quite sure just yet.
Only one way to find out.
The town had been warned that Daar would be out and about and not to freak out or anything, so the sight of a massive, bear-like sapient loping down the road on fourpaw and in a high visibility vest didn’t generate too much alarm, thank the Fathers. He even had the words “I don’t bite!” written across the back. It seemed to work pretty well.
The smell was making him drool, and as he licked at his chops to clean himself up he turned round a corner and found its source. There was a hand-scrawled sign staked into the earth that said “YARD SALE” and an arrow pointing up a narrow driveway to a small brick house. Two little American flags were on top of the sign, along with another bit that said “free BBQ for customers.”
Well. Daar checked his satchel, found his little stash of paper money the Americans used, and ambled up the driveway. What he found were two elderly humans, clearly a mated pair, neither of whom seemed like they were expecting a Stoneback to pad up their driveway on a fine Saturday evening. Even in his old age the male was a burly and impressive example of a human and moved like he was used to long, hard work. Good! He rose to put himself between Daar and the female, which he respected immensely: age hadn’t dimmed his instincts. Better!
But Daar just wanted to be friends, so he rose to his hind legs and yipped cheerily, “Hello!” The man eyed Daar warily, who kept a respectful distance. “I was gonna look at what ‘yer selling…”
Both of the older humans looked at each other, did that weird telepathic thing humans swore they didn’t have, and decided to wave him in. They both kept a wary distance though, which Daar really didn’t mind. Maybe it was a cultural thing but he was always nice to old people.
There was a lot to pick over. They had several tables laden with random housewares and odd appliances that seemed to be for various cooking tasks, as well as three racks of clothing on the hook. That kind of weird human thing always amused Daar and he sniffed at the racks curiously. And promptly sneezed. He could tell with a sniff the man had been a heavy smoker some years back and had been quite sick at some point, too.
He sniffed towards the man who no longer smelled of either of those things. “I’m glad you gave up smoking!”
“Had to, it was killing me.” He eyed the big gaoian warily, “You can still smell that?”
Daar duck-nodded vigorously. “Uh-huh. I can smell the cancer, too. Especially on this,” he picked out what looked like a uniform of some kind. “I think maybe ‘cuz you had to wear this a lot?”
“Ayup. Was the local fire chief. Look, no offense, mister…”
“Champion and Stud-Prime Daar, of Clan Stoneback!”
“…Mister Daar, right. Look, I don’t mean to be rude, seeing as I have an alien in my garage picking through my old junk, but firstly, being a cancer survivor is kinda personal—”
Daar keened an immediate apology. “I’m sorry. I was just happy you’re healthy now, I didn’t mean—”
“Oh, it’s okay dear.” The old woman walked over and laid a hand on Daar’s huge forearm, who tilted his ears in mild confusion and placed a paw atop hers. “I know you didn’t mean bad, don’t mind him.”
The old man grumbled in reply but pressed on. “Fine fine. But secondly, without meaning to be inhospitable, why are you here?”
“Oh, I’m here for the BBQ! But I don’t have food to share. My buddy Wilde’s got some beans but he ain’t here yet so I thought maybe I could buy something! I like collecting things…” Daar noticed a pile of equipment and zeroed in on it. “Like that maybe? What is it?”
He dropped unthinkingly to all fours, padded over and sniffed at the device. It had a pronounced scent of old rubber that had rotted out—a scent he’d learned from Sikes while he repaired his drones—but Daar could also smell something a little like high voltage electronics maybe. Far and away the strongest scent on the object was the male who had once owned it: The couple’s cub, from the smell of it.
…Son. Humans didn’t have ’cubs’ they had ’children,’ and Daar had learned the hard way that while most people found that slip-up endearing, a few were downright insulted.
“Your son was a strong boy!” That much was obvious, given the uniquely potent musk of an active human male. “He got a lot of exercise.”
“He’s a strong man, too. Christ, you’re just like a dog! Er, um…” the old man suddenly went all blushed and awkward like humans did when they managed to shove their paws down their throat. It was Daar’s most favoritest emote they had!
Humans weren’t immune from ‘faux pas’ either.
“Nah, it’s okay ‘cuz it’s kinda true. Also I hear I’m better with my words than a dog.”
He threw in his best pant-grin, which humans seemed to understand without any training. The man laughed and shook his head and that seemed like a good thing to Daar.
“Never thought I’d see the day… can you smell everything about us?”
“I can smell lots, yeah. He had a favorite cologne, too. Old Spice?”
“Yup. Used way too much.”
Daar chittered to himself. “One of the guys I work with uses way too much Axe. Every time I get a nose-full of that I sneeze for half an hour!”
They shared a laugh, or a chitter in Daar’s case, and he extended his paw to shake hands. “Anyway, what’s your name?”
“I’m Bill, this here’s Margaret. Daar, you said?”
“Yeah, nice to meet you both!” Handshaking was an art, Daar was learning, and Bill’s grip squeezed hard enough that a lesser gaoian might well have been left with a broken paw. It was funny how much strength old humans could retain. Daar squeezed right back, and was rewarded with an approving smile.
Margaret settled for a daintier, much more civilized squeeze. Daar could do civilized, too.
“Well!” Margaret seemed happy that everyone was friendly. “You look around, Daar, and I’ll fix you up a plate. Don’t go nowhere, y’hear?”
“Sarry, it’s a gaoian thing. It’s a term of respect we use.”
“Oh, okay!” She smiled and bustled off into the house. “Be right back, dear.”
Daar, meanwhile, was fascinated by the pile. “Why did your son leave this behind?”
“Oh, Nick went hitchhiking across Europe way back when before he went off to college, never bothered to pick it up. I kept nagging at him and we’re at the age where we want to declutter.”
Daar duck-nodded. “So this is a music player?”
“Sorta. This is an amplifier, a tube amp too, very old design but I guess everyone wants it. The speakers, the record player, an eight-track deck…pretty nice system for its time, really.”
Daar was fascinated and made no effort to hide it. “I’ve read about this! Records have the music physically pressed into it, right?”
“Ayup. They’re a bit fussy but they do sound good. You interested?”
Deal-making time. “Absolutely. What are you asking?”
“Well…how ‘bout three hundred for all of it along with the recordings? I’ll even throw in some extra ribs on that plate Margaret’s fixin, but only if you haul all of it off today.”
“I’ll need to ask Wilde—hi! There he is. Wilde! Can I borrow your truck?”
Wilde had jogged up with a pot filled with something really tasty smelling, and he didn’t seem the least bit fazed by his errand, nor by Daar’s request. “Sure! What’d you get?”
“This!” Daar gestured to the pile.
“Huh, never figgered you for a music lover, Tigger.”
“Hey, I like music! Also I like old tech. Something about simpler machines, no computers…”
Bill grunted in agreement.
“So yeah! Three hundred, if Wilde will…”
“Sure thing, bro.”
Right on cue, Margaret returned with a plate of heavenly smelling food, and it was all Daar could do to get his cash, close the deal, and dig in without making a mess.
They ended up talking into the late evening, sharing stories about life and adventure, but eventually Daar’s alarm beeped; he had to return for decontamination.
“Are you sure you must go?”
“Yeah…it’d probably be fine but I really can’t take the risk. We can still email and stuff, right?”
Pleasantries exchanged, Daar bid the couple farewell, and he headed back to base with Wilde, where a decon field and possibly a hated bath awaited him. Oh well, it was worth it. Sometimes, Daar was finding, the pressure to Protect and Provide could be overwhelming. Yulna had driven that fact home in a deeply personal way.
With what he knew, and what he knew was coming, it was nice to step back, just for a moment, and remember why he was Champion, and why he was on the mission.
Daar had to Protect his people from the Hierarchy. And if he could, maybe he could help keep people like Bill and Margaret safe, too.
And he would. No matter what it took.
Date Point: 13y3m AV
Southbound Highway 1, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“…Okay, I like this one. What is this?”
Julian and Xiù both loved their music loud, whereas Allison had always thought of music as something that happened in the background. It wasn’t that she minded when they wanted to get loud, but it tended to distract.
But sometimes, they maybe had a point. It sure made long drives go quicker, and after being forced to leave Clara behind at the worst time and hide on another planet, the three of them were fighting back against Williams and Hammond as much as they could. Getting to drive their own car on the way out to Chiune Station was their defense, their way of having something that was theirs when their time otherwise belonged either to the Group or to the public. It was precious, even if they were in a convoy with two black Byron Group security SUVs. So, she was letting them headbang in the front while she read on the back seat with her noise-cancelling earplugs in. It was the kind of little accommodation that made their triad work.
“Hmm?” Julian turned it down.
“I said, who is this? She’s got a good voice.”
“Lacuna Coil. ‘Downfall.’ You like it?”
“I liked the guitar solo,” Allison shrugged. “But the lyrics are kinda depressing, aren’t they?”
“…I don’t really pay attention to the lyrics,” Julian shrugged. “It’s the tune, the beat and the bass. Right?”
“Guess that explains why all the songs you listen to are so emo.”
“You just have to throw yourself into it,” Xiù told her, agreeing with Julian who was rolling his eyes.
“And I guess that explains how you can like this and that sugary Cantopop stuff.”
“Different moods, different energy.” Xiù shrugged.
“This stuff is cathartic,” Julian nodded.
“Right! And other songs are for getting pumped up, or for being romantic, or for relaxing, or…”
“You must be getting something out of them that I don’t,” Allison admitted. “…You need a lot of catharsis?”
“Don’t you?” Julian looked at her in the rear-view mirror.
“…Turn that shit up.”
Somehow, the miles just seemed to vanish when he did. Maybe they were onto something, because once she actually started listening Allison forgot about her book entirely and was genuinely disappointed when the road twisted around a bend in the river valley and she got her first look at Chiune Station.
Chiune was the Group’s private demesne on Cimbrean, a place where Moses Byron wasn’t just a CEO and President, but a duke. He had moved every one of the Group’s projects there that didn’t actually require constant access to logistics, the Internet and Earth’s sprawling population. The only reason Misfit had been built in Omaha had been proximity to the rail yards and roads that kept the AAAF fed and fat. The compound was a hive of experimental R&D, a vault full of the very bleeding edge of human technology all sequestered away from the prying eyes of Byron’s competitors. Only Hephaestus had anything more secure, in the form of Ceres Base.
There was no way that Ceres was half so pretty, though. Chiune Station had won awards for the way the designers had played with concrete and sent it swooping elegantly through the air in Cimbrean’s low gravity. A delegation of Locayl architects had supposedly wept happy tears at the sight of it.
Julian slowed them as the forward car in their little convoy reached the security checkpoint, then all three were waved through.
Daniel Hurt was waiting for them on the far side, accompanied by Mister Williams and a pudgy vision of fabulous fashion in a spotted silk shirt that Allison recognized from description as Chiune Station’s director, Levaughn Thomas.
“Took your time,” Dan teased them as they climbed out of the car and one of Williams’ people took it off Julian’s hands to park.
“Publicity, interviews, some old friends to catch up with,” Julian explained. “You know how it is.”
“Lucky for me, not having you three around to distract me gave me the time to put the finishing touches on our plan.” Hurt winked charmingly, then politely made the introductions. “Xiù Chang, Allison Buehler, Julian Etsicitty, this is Levaughn Thomas.”
“So good to finally meet you!” Thomas gushed, instantly confirming Allison’s suspicion that he was completely invested in his silk shirt and fancy haircuts. The man even smelled of perfume, and he shook Julian’s hand with a slightly-too-earnest vigor that left Julian unconsciously wiping his palm on his jeans. “The Group’s great success story!”
“Thanks!” Xiù as always stepped up to handle the pleasantries and let Julian and Allison step into the background where they preferred to be.
Allison took the chance to get a good look at the place. Moses had a habit of bragging up his achievements, but on this occasion he’d maybe been modest. The compound looked like it was fresh off the cover of a utopian scifi novel, minus the flying cars.
It took her a second to recognize the petite, booted figure sitting by one of the reflecting pools and hugging her knees as she idly tore up the grass and threw it to the breeze.
Levaughn Thomas got out of her way with an offended look as Allison barged past him and accelerated to a dead run.
Doctor Clara Brown looked up, smiled weakly and stood to accept and return the crushing hug that Allison lavished on her.
“Clara, shit!” Allison squeezed her hard. “God I’m so sorry we couldn’t be there, I—”
“It’s okay.” Clara returned the hug, sounding small and quiet and a far cry from her usual chirpy, mischievous self. “It actually helped, knowing you three were safe…”
Julian and Xiù arrived a moment later to shower her in affection and commiserations, and Clara seemed to recover some of her sunshine. She showed off a new nanotattoo design of a catamaran ploughing dynamically through a spray of foam.
“It’s a memory,” she explained.
“You moved out here now?” Allison asked.
“The whole exploration program has,” Clara revealed. “I’m…glad of it, really. I couldn’t face going back to the AAAF.”
“I bet,” Julian nodded. “Where’s Dane?”
“Indoors. He’s taken over looking after the fitness of all the staff here. Cimbrean has some pretty crazy tax incentives about staying in shape, and they’re even harsher for corporations.”
Somebody cleared their throat behind them, and when they turned Levaughn Thomas gave them a crisp smile. “I’m afraid there was a little problem with finding somewhere for you to live…” he began. “We’re trying to find room for you, but—”
“We jumped Misfit over last night,” Clara interrupted him, causing him to scowl.
“Problem solved, then,” Allison dusted her hands together. “I guess we’d better get to work, huh?”
“Well, there is the small question of your office space—” Levaughn tried again, only for Daniel to interject breezily.
“My office is big enough for six,” he said.
“The tour—” Levaughn tried.
“—I’m really sorry, Mister Thomas,” Xiù gently cut him off. “We’ll happily take the tour later.”
“I tell you, the change of scenery has been a godsend,” Hurt said, ignoring him entirely and striking out toward one of the peripheral buildings. “I think I’ve got our working strategy for cultural preservation.”
“You have?” Julian asked, falling in alongside him, while Allison invited Clara to come with them by the simple expedient of taking her by the hand and dragging.
“Well, most of it’s what you were doing before, but it’s good to spell it out. I had to tear up half the anthropology rulebook”
“I woulda thought this was anthropology,” Allison commented.
“It’s almost the polar opposite of anthropology. Anthropology is a science, the point is to observe and learn so you know more about yourself afterwards. Anthropological studies are experiments, and the People just wouldn’t survive being used as lab rats.”
“Won’t we learn by doing this anyway?” Xiù asked, turning back to offer the scandalized Levaughn Thomas a smile and a shrug as they walked away.
“A heck of a lot, yeah,” Daniel nodded. “But we learned a heck of a lot about physics by setting off a buncha nukes in the Pacific, and look where that got the islanders.”
“Way to inspire confidence, Dan,” Allison snarked.
“I don’t want to inspire confidence, I want to inspire pants-wetting terror.” Dan slowed and turned, walking backwards. “We’re writing the rulebook on first contact ethics here. Mistakes aren’t acceptable.”
“We know,” Julian told him.
“Right there with you,” Allison agreed.
Xiù nodded. “Yup.”
Dan started walking the right way again. “…Outstanding.”
True to his word, his office was huge, and the door had a lock on it. Dan leaned against it the second it was closed. “God, that man kisses ass like Byron pays him a grand every time he puckers up.”
“Doesn’t seem like Moses’ usual style, hiring a guy like that…” Julian mused.
“Levaughn’s great at what he does,” Clara supplied. “He got this job on merit, believe it or not.”
“Hell yeah,” Dan pushed himself away from the door. “He’s a heck of an administrator. And also, a heck of a peacock.”
There were relaxed smiles all round, and Dan headed to his desk to call up his work.
“Seriously though…are you holding up okay?” Xiù asked. Clara sighed, and shrugged.
“I’m taking it one day at a time,” she said. “It…helps that he saved people. It hurts, but…”
“But you’re proud of him,” Julian finished.
“Yeah.” Clara rubbed her arm then wiped her eyes dry and straightened up. “Can we focus on work?”
“Okay…but you know we’re here for you,” Allison told her. When Xiù and Julian nodded emphatically, Clara smiled and teared up simultaneously, gave them all hugs and then unslung her satchel and pulled out her own tablet.
“Dan and I put our heads together,” she said, “and we figured it’d probably be a good idea if you guys had somewhere to sleep that wasn’t the, uh, ’steel sky-hut.’ Somewhere that’s a bit more grounded in their experience, right?”
“Tent?” Julian asked.
“Better. Hut. Those sketches and photos of what those huts of theirs look like inside gave me some ideas…”
She called up a schematic and put the tablet down so that it could project the model in 3D above Dan’s desk. Allison immediately recognized a People-style hut: They had a distinctive kite shape built around four sturdy poles, with two skinnier poles for a triangular door frame at the “top” of the kite, the peak of which was the hut’s highest point. A small fire pit in the middle kept it warm inside, and rather than needing a chimney the smoke naturally travelled up the tilt of the ceiling and escaped via the door. A knee-high mud wall provided an ample windbreak, and the rain was kept off with a thatch of Tarak-tree fronds. It was simple, easy, and a team of five could build two in a day.
Clara had taken that basic design and worked it into a twenty-first century piece of survival equipment. Insulating composite panels instead of a mud wall, photovoltaic fabric with a mylar inner lining in place of the thatch, and springy carbon-fibre rods instead of the wooden poles. The whole thing weighed in at fifteen kilograms and disassembled into something backpack-sized.
“I signed off on it,” Dan said. “There’s a balancing act to be done here between what they’re familiar with and showing them what ’sky-thinking’ will achieve in ways they can recognize.”
“I figured, it’s probably a good idea if we don’t shy away from letting them see our technology in action,” Clara added.
“They already saw Misfit fly,” Allison pointed out.
“Exactly. Stepping back from that won’t help. We need them to see the magic rocks that make light and music, and watch steel fly through the air. Make it something they’re used to seeing and show them the road to how they’ll one day have things like this that they made by their own hand.”
“By their own hand.” Dan stressed. “That’s the thrust of this whole plan. By far and away the most important message we need to drill into them is that we can’t just hand out these gifts.”
“We?” Xiù asked.
“I’m coming with you. I’ll be your sky-thinker.”
“Don’t you have commitments here on Earth?” Clara asked him.
“CImbrean,” Allison pointed out.
“Whatever. Wherever. Here.”
Dan sat down and leaned back, resting one ankle on the other leg’s knee. “This is quite possibly the most important thing humanity will ever do,” he said evenly. “We’re taking a whole other sapient species under our wing. The last time we did that was with the Neanderthals, and I don’t see any Neanderthals around here, do you?”
“Still on Cimbrean,” Allison reminded him.
“Yeah, and we got it wrong on Cimbrean, too. One castaway took a dump in the woods and doomed the whole biosphere.” Dan didn’t sit forward, but he did fold his arms. “We’re choosing the legacy of our species, here. We can be the destroyers, or we can be the saviors. Fuck my commitments. My publishers can have the penalty for not turning in those three books I’m contracted for. We’re all gonna have to make much bigger sacrifices for the People.”
“Okay…” Julian said, slowly, “…why are you doing this? Like, personally? You’ve never met them.”
“You only get one shot in life,” Dan replied instantly. “You have to do it right first time. You have to do something big first time, something…something that matters. Something that maybe only you could do….and maybe I’m being egotistical here, but I honestly think I’m the only person who could do this. I can’t not step up.”
He paused, and admitted a bashful smile. “Also, if I’m honest? Hubris. Personal ambition. The novelty of it.” He shrugged apologetically. “Nobody’s perfectly noble, after all.”
Clara had picked up one of Dan’s paperweights. She put it down guiltily, then shrugged. “I…think it’s a shame that you three won’t do more exploring,” she said. “That’s what we trained you and built Misfit for. But…”
Xiù touched her arm a second after she trailed off, prompting her to finish the thought.
“…I guess we have to finish what we start,” she said. “If we find a mess when we’re exploring, I guess maybe we have to clean it up because…I mean, if not us then who?”
“One of the hazards of exploring is being responsible with whatever we find,” Dan nodded. “And it will take…it’s probably the work of several lifetimes. We cannot make them our vassals or our slaves, they have to make their own informed decisions. And to do that, we need to establish a network of trust. There’s no “one weird trick” here.”
“Okay.” Allison nodded. “So where do we start?”
Dan smiled, nodded, and called up his own notes.
“We start,” he said, “By recording *everything*…”
Date Point: 13y4m AV
East of the mountains, Akyawentuo, Near 3Kpc Arm
“Does it ever stop raining here?”
Everything about the east side of the mountains seemed to irritate Yan. He didn’t like the shape of the mountains, or the soggy green grass that grew short on the swooping, wind-stripped slopes. He didn’t like the shaggy-haired Werne that grazed on those slopes, or the skinny-snouted pack predators that would pick off a weak or wounded one before the People could.
He especially didn’t like the rain.
It wasn’t like it was bad rain, Vemik thought. It almost wasn’t rain at all. It was more as if the sky was more in love with the ground on this side of the mountains, and liked to cuddle up to it of an evening. The clouds clung affectionately to the hills and kissed them with a soft, fine dampness. It didn’t drum on a leather cloak or beat on a man’s back, it just…made everything wet.
And it made the trees slippery.
….Actually, fuck the rain.
It did stop raining though. In fact despite Yan’s complaining the weather was dry and clear more often than not so far. They just seemed to have a knack for choosing to go hunting on the dampest days, because while Yan was seemingly irritated by almost everything on this side of the mountains, he still loved the Hunt.
Vemik personally would have preferred to be back in his nice warm dry forge, beating steel. There was magic in steel, no matter what Jooyun said. Magic to do things nobody had done before, like dig up the ground or break up big rocks. A steel axe could coppice and cut just as well or better than a stone one, and if it became blunt then all it needed was sharpening. And if it broke? Take the metal ‘scrap’ and re-forge it!
Magic, technology, it didn’t matter. Steel was already changing everything, and Vemik could see the future.
It was a future without dead daughters.
But the future wouldn’t come easy. The men needed to be strong to get there, and they needed to work, and to eat. Day in and day out. Hunting built the future too. If that meant leaving the forge and showing Yan and the others how to use his bird-spear-thrower—his ‘bow’—then the forge could do without him for a while. It didn’t take long to get it hot enough again, anyway.
Vemik was on his third bow now. The one he’d taken on his manhood hunt had just snapped one day, but he’d been noticing for some time even before then that it was feeling weak and easy in his hands. At first it had been so hard to draw the string that his other arm had wobbled desperately from the strain.
So he’d made a new one, from a thicker sapling; One that was difficult to draw again. That new one had sent the arrows forward with a solid physical thump he could feel in his chest and had driven them deep into the prey…until it too had begun to feel flimsy in his hands.
He’d handed it off to one of the other young men rather than let it break, and had made a new bow.
He’d been proud of this one. With the advantage of his steel knife, he had carved it perfectly and each arrow flew like a lightning strike and hit like one of Yan’s thrown spears…So Yan had asked for a bow. One that wasn’t weak in his hands.
Ketta saplings just didn’t work. Neither did Bathrak saplings, and a limb from a Forestfather had turned out to be just too stiff unless he made it too thin, the wrong shape to string properly. In desperation he’d turned to a technology that Jooyun had once mentioned in passing and had attempted ‘waminating’ several woods together, and after some trial and the odd embarrassingly sticky error with Ketta pitch he’d finally managed to assemble something that held together and shot, even in the rain.
Vemik could just about draw the string halfway, with gritted teeth and his eyes screwed shut from the effort. Yan had drawn it properly the first time and grunted.
“Make it stronger,” he’d said with a nod of approval.
The bigger bow wasn’t ready just yet. The string kept snapping and Vemik hadn’t found a good replacement. He had ideas, but they were just sky-thoughts for now and so Yan was using a “weak” bow that irritated him.
There was nothing wrong with it that Vemik could see.
They needed new ‘tactics’ for the bigger prey. No People had hunted these Werne and kept their adults in check, which made it impossible to get to the easy, tender young. In spear hunting, adults were much, much harder to kill; a big bull could be bigger than a hand of Yans, and they were wary of anything that came too close.
“At least there’s no wind today,” Vemet murmured.
“True.” Yan rolled his vast shoulders. “Sky-Thinker, you’re still small and quiet. Get around there and wait for Stone-Tapper’s stone call. Show the children how this is done.”
Yan was being a little cruel; by children, he meant the young adults who had traded themselves from the other villages to learn the ways of steel and bows. They hadn’t been on a Yan-hunt yet. If they were lucky today, they would go back to their huts aching and hobbled…
And burdened under more meat than they could carry.
Vemik just nodded and swarmed up the trunk until he was as high in the canopy as he dared go; he couldn’t venture much higher than the full-grown men. He’d nearly fallen only a week before, when a branch he would once have trusted to hold his weight had instead sagged and cracked alarmingly, and only his blunt claws rammed into the Ketta’s bark had kept him from falling.
The leaves slapped damply at him as he circled around the herd until he judged that he was in the right place, and descended again until he was sure that the bull would see him if it looked up. He put the Ketta’s trunk between himself and the Werne, and knocked twice on the bark with his shouting-stone.
There was an answering knock, and then silence broken only by the rain’s almost silent breath among the leaves and the odd wet pat…pat when the thicker droplets came tumbling down.
He heard the eerie thrum of his father’s shouting-stone, grinned savagely and dropped off his branch right where the herd could see him. The cows and calves hooted in alarm and shied away but the huge bull turned to face him and tossed its head angrily, ready to charge the interloper and crush him.
There was a resounding thump and the bull crashed to the ground dead. Its harem and herd scattered and stampeded away from Vemik and off among the trees.
It hadn’t suffered at all: a respectful death. The gods would be pleased. The same couldn’t be said for the rest, who were dropped on by Yan and the bigger men as they passed under their branches. Steel knives and stone hand-axes flashed in the rain, and five more of the biggest Werne kicked and croaked their last among the leaf litter.
Yan swaggered up to the bull, put his steel blade to its throat and carved the enormous head off with a triumphant trill to the skies, raising the head high so that the blood would rain down on his face.
“…That’s it?” One of the younger men seemed incredulous. “I thought this hunt would challenge my strength!”
Yan grinned an evil grin. “Six full-sized adults. We need to carry them all back to camp.” He knuckled over to the doubter, picked up one of the cows and threw it over the younger man’s shoulders, which made him grunt in pain under the weight. “This one’s yours.”
The younger man, undaunted, wobbled up to his feet, grit his teeth, and set to it. The others did the same and Vemik did too, which earned an approving snarl-grin from the big Given-Man. They were hunting far from their villages to keep the herds healthy, and that meant they had a hand of days ahead of them spent bullying through the forest brush, each burdened under a huge Werne and their camp supplies. Their crests would droop under the weight of their sweat and their muscles would burn like fire, and by the end of it they would be too tired to do much of anything besides sleep.
None of them doubted they could do it, though. The People were strong.
It was a gift the Gods had given them to keep the forest healthy. Their prey wasn’t nearly as tough, the other forest hunters not so nimble or strong. Yan proved it by picking up the bull by himself and draping it over his shoulders like it was nothing. It was as big as three of the cows put together and he seemed tiny under its bulk. It was so heavy his big feet sank almost ankle-deep into the earth, which spread wide as it tried to flee the burden of Yan and his prize. But despite that he was cheerful, and even under the trial of that much weight there was a playfully light bounce to his step.
“…Where did my arrow go?” he asked.
That question went unanswered for the rest of the day, until they broke the bull apart back at the camp for easier carrying. The arrow was fully inside its carcass having smashed through two ribs, ripped open a lung, skewered the heart, pierced the other lung and lodged itself in one final broken rib on the far side.
That seemed to be the way of the hunts on this side of the mountain. They were harder, longer, and the prey was bigger. And ornery. All good reasons to be annoyed but the meat was good and there was a lot of it. Hauling the kills home was always tiring work, but an average bull or a great, stomping cow could feed an entire village for at least a day or two. One big hunt like this could fill everyone’s bellies to bursting for two hands of days, or more.
And the gods rewarded their hard work. Everybody was bigger. Everybody was stronger and healthier. And Vemik could see that he was filling out nicely, and that the hair on his tail had deepened and brightened in hue to almost the same shade of orange as the coals in his forge. The women seemed to like that.
Which was…nice. But he still bedded down every night in the village with the Singer. They had another child on the way, and this one…
This one would grow up well fed and healthy, in the world of steel.
++END CHAPTER 38++
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